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Track Laying

As indicated under track selection, the NNE Scenic uses entirely commercially available track, particularly Peco.  We each have our preferences for how we wish to spend our hobby time, and for me that does not include the time to hand-lay track.  However, that still leaves many steps involved to get the appearance and reliability desired in n scale.

Preparing the Roadbed

Before putting down any track on a section of the layout, I need to ensure that the surface for the track is at the desired elevation and is free of undesired debris, bumps, or undulations that would create future reliability problems. For areas that reused prior benchwork, this may involve sanding off protrusions from previously removed scenery or trackwork or filling holes or depressions with joint compound and ensuring it is dry and sanded smooth.

I start from my layout design in XTrackCAD. When I am ready to start putting down track for a section of the layout, I print out at full size the track arrangement on standard size paper and scotch tape the sheets together to create a full size template of the expected track positions.  The template is then placed on the benchwork and I cut the paper along one side of the track and use it to trace out on the benchwork the positions of the track.

Generally for the lowest level, the issue of height desired does not come into play much, because of the fact that the track will not have any elevation changes on that level.  However, I managed to complicate the task unnecessarily based on a concern that was likely misplaced.  I had read anecdotes of the 2″ extruded foam insolating boards that my older modules use potentially shrinking over time, causing problems for trackwork glued to those panels.  So I decided to devise a unique way to put down the track such that minor shrinkage of the base would not translate to the track above.

When I put up the benchwork, I positioned newer benchwork that does not have the extruded foam 1/4″ higher than the top of the older foam topped benchwork.  Then, under the area for the track, I add two 1/8″ layers.  The first layer, cut wider than the next, is 1/8″ cork underlayment that has a plastic backing.  This layer is placed with the plastic side down over the foam topped benchwork and is never fastened down other than some temporary push pins while working on laying the track.  While the underlayment will not slip around on its own once the track is laid, by not affixing it to the foam, any slight shrinkage of the foam can occur without forcing everything above to move.  On top of the cork underlayment, I cut a narrower stretch of 1/8″ hardboard as the final subroadbed for the track and glue the hardboard to the underlayment with yellow carpenter’s glue.

One side benefit of this technique is that it adds a little elevation from the surroundings, which can reduce the need to carve into the foam and was especially convenient for the salt marsh areas in Seabrook and Hampton Falls where the layout work started. Below you can see where the total height of this approach matches the height of the plywood benchwork in the areas that did not have the extruded foam.

The next step, whether with the above layering over foam or over bare plywood is to put down the roadbed.  My choice was to buy commercial split cork roadbed which I put down in the exact desired track positions and glue to the subroadbed with yellow carpenter’s glue. Push pins are used to help hold the roadbed position while it dries.

Either before or after laying the track, I will use joint compound to smooth the terrain transition from the hardborad down to the benchwork and paint it the same background brown base color as the benchwork.

The final step before putting dpwn the track is to lightly sand the cork roadbed to ensure it is flat and smooth for the track.

Putting down the Track

As mentioned in the section on electrical work, my choice for powering the track is to attach feeders to the rails of every single piece of track put down, whether that is an up to 3′ long piece of flex track or a single turnout.  Because this us n scale and my soldering skills are not very good, I choose to solder the feeders to the underside of the rails prior to final placement of the track.  With V1 of the layoutm I used the more typical method of soldering the feeders to the side of the rail after placement and had a lot of very unsightly blobs of solder all along the track.

In order to place the track, I have a multi-step process I follow at which I have become quite proficient. The first step is to simply position the next length of track on the layout, attaching it with rail joiners to any adjacent track to ensure fit.  For curved sections this includes matching the curvature of the center of the cork roadbed. One placement and fit are established, I identify where along the track I will solder the feeders so that they will not be directly above cross members of the benchwork below, preferably as close as feasible to where the terminal strips are located to which those feeders will be connected.  I then take the track to my soldering station and solder the feeder wires to the bottom of the rails in the desired location, taking care to solder the red and white feeders to the correct rails so that all feeders on one side of the trackwork are red and the other side are all white.  Occasionally I will mistakenly get the feeder colors reversed.  In those cases I may leave them but mark those feeders specially under the layout to identify the reversal.  Because of my poor soldering skills, this always involves removing one tie to clear enough space under the rails to do my soldering without risking melting any ties and deforming the track. The removed tie will be replaced later with a sleeper tie much as would be used under rail joiners.

Once the feeders have been soldered to the track, I take the track to the layout position and again fit it in place with the feeders bent to the side to allow the track to sit flush on the roadbed.  I use a pencil or pen to mark the exact feeder location on the subroadbed.  Then after again removing the track, I use a 6″ long 1/8″ drill to drill a jole through the roadbed and benchwork for the feeders.

Finally, I place the track again, this time with the feeders bent downward, threading the wires through the holes as I do so.  With the track in place joined to the adjacent track(s) and the feeders cleanly through the benchwork, the feeders also serve as a means of holding the track position as I move on to the next section.

In the case of powered turnouts which also have a third frog feeder wire, the technique is the same but I have three hole positions to mark and three wires to thread through the holes upon final placement.

This process does add an extra minute or two to the laying of each track section, but I find the convenience of soldering at a work area and the way the wires then help hold the position of each track as I proceed to be well worth that extra minute or two.

Painting and Ballast

Painting and ballasting of the track come at two separate later stages of my layout construction activities.  Track painting occurs before I begin groundcover or other scenery work around the area of track to be painted.  I use Rustoleum camoulflage brown in a spray can to paint the track.  I simply put down or hold paper behind the track to block overspray from getting on the backdrop and spray the entire length of track being painted.  I immediately then use blocks of a soft wood to wipe off the paint from the top of the rails before it dries.  If any small specks are missed, they can come off later in normal track cleaning, but it is best to remove as much as possible while wet so that later removal does not pull it off the sides of the rails as well.  For turnouts, the area around the throwbar is masked with painter’s tape so that the paint will not dry in the movable area and prevent the throwbar from moving easily.

Ballasting waits until I have completed most of the ground cover around the rails, so that just as in the prototype, the ballast is going down over the ground layer.  There are many techniques individuals use for putting down ballast, with material used often affecting the technique.  I exclusively use fine ballast from Arizone Rock & Mineral.  This ballast is real crushed rock, which is heavier than some brands of ballast that use lighter materials like walnut shells as one example.  My approach is to use a teaspoon to put down a ridge of ballast down the center of the track.  I then use a semi-stiff 3/4″ paint brush to spread the ballast.  I use enough downward pressure on the brush that it not only moves the ballat off the ties between the rails, but it also pushes it over and off the ties and creates a profile on either side of the rails over the roadbed.  Some tamping down or additional tweaking is needed, but I have gotten reasonably proficient at the process.  I then spray the ballast with “wet water” (water with a little dawn dishwashing liquid in it) and drizzle with diluted white glue.  Some individuals use denatured isopropol alcohol rather than dishwashing liquid to make the wet water.  I prefer not to use isopropyl alcohol around the rails because of the chemical characteristics that can later affect frequency of track cleaning.   “Wet water” helps prevent the diluted glue mixture from beading up so that it instead penetrates the ballast and spreads evenly.  The weight of the real crushed stone makes the spraying with wet water and the glue step less prone to causing the ballast to move or float out of position.

The final step after it has dried is to use a tiny screwdriver or a dental pick to remove stray grains of ballast from the tops of the ties or along the inside of the rails to avoid interference with the wheels.

In the case of turnouts, ballasting is done extremely lightly, avoiding glue in areas that need to move such as the throw bar and point rails.