Five Easy Steps to Making Perfect Curves on Your Model Railroad Using HO Scale Flex-Track

I don’t know anything more frustrating than having a beautiful model railroad but not being able to keep train cars on the track long enough to enjoy it. Face it, you can have glorious scenery with incredible detail down to the smallest blade of grass. Your livestock looks like it could stampede at any moment. Your factory workers almost move by themselves, in fact, you had to look twice because you were sure one of them just stepped outside for a breath of fresh air! Your signals are all up and running. Crossing gates work flawlessly. Your street and building lights add a glow to night operations that leave you speechless. Your grades are a perfect two percent and your locomotives have no problem, when they stay on the track, that is.

Nothing is more important on your HO scale model railroad than perfect curves. If you can’t move trains through your curves over and over again without any problems, you are going to spend a lot of angry moments just staring. There are ways to lay flex-track, and then there are fool-proof ways to lay flex-track for perfect curves.

If you are one of those ultra-serious model railroaders who use tie strips (or individual basswood ties – ultra-ultra-serious), and bundles of rails you fasten with scale spikes, I salute you, you are worthy of much honor for maintaining the foundations of model railroading. I can’t imagine going through that, I’m too impatient, and I would be even more concerned about inconsistencies leading to derailments. On the other hand are those who use pre-fab track sections with the plastic ballast. While pre-packaged track sections are great for quick set-up on the floor or under the Christmas tree, I wouldn’t recommend it for a permanent layout. No disrespect intended, honest. (If you used this kind of track on your layout, I would love to hear about it!)

I am a life-long flex-track user. The Atlas Company has made it super easy to lay beautiful track sections three feet at a time. If you are unfamiliar, the track sections are exactly what the name implies. If you pick up a three-foot piece you will immediately understand. It’s like holding one of those plastic snakes from the county fair that wiggle all over, but that is the key to its effectiveness. Looking on the backside, you will see one side of the tie strip is secure the entire length of the piece. The other side is secured two ties at a time. That’s where the flexibility comes from. It also makes laying perfect curves a sure thing, if you know how to do it.

STEP ONE. Obviously, you’re going to need a completed track plan before you start laying flex-track. My twenty-one foot layout has two long loops for continuous two-train operation. My outside line contains a 2% grade from base level to four inches, which requires sixteen feet of track. The line continues over Three Tower Bridge at Maple Valley, across the river at Maple Valley Trestle, then begins the downward grade at 2%, finally reaching the east side of the layout. The two lines wind around, the inner loop crossing under the upper loop through two mountain tunnels.

STEP TWO. Make sure your curve radius is consistent throughout the curve. When my track plan was completed and 1 1/2 inch extruded foam secure, I used foam board to make curve templates that were the exact radius I needed. I cut the foam pieces the exact width of the HO scale cork roadbed. I then lay the foam board piece, (the outer loop is a 26-inch radius), marked along the edges with a Sharpie pen, then moved the foam board to the next section and continued marking until the entire curve was complete. I always start by marking all the curves first, then it’s easy to mark the rest of the layout.

STEP THREE. Glue your cork roadbed in place. I follow the two marks I made in STEP TWO, “paint” white glue inside the lines on the foam base, then pin the cork roadbed in place and weight it down.

STEP FOUR. Repeat this after me: “Kinks are my enemy. Kinks are my enemy. Kinks are my enemy” If you do not imprint that phrase on your brain and cling to it during your entire track-laying process, you are going to have problems that will be tough to fix once your track is in place. Rail ends must meet perfectly on curves (and everywhere else for that matter!) If you start feeling frustrated, stop! If you’re tired, stop! Don’t risk smooth operation later by hurrying now!

This is important, so follow carefully. Make sure the flex-track moveable rail remains consistent throughout. (The moveable rail is the one with the broken tie-connection on the back. Just pull on the rail, you’ll see it moves easily. Make sure that rail is on the outside of your curves throughout your layout. Lay a new piece of flex-track on your curve and mark the beginning and end of the piece with a Sharpie. Remove the track and paint the cork with white glue. Replace the flex-track, pin, and weight. If you keep the moveable rail on the outside of the curve, you notice it is now shorter than the non-moving inside rail. That’s perfect! STOP! It’s important that your first piece of flex-track is solid and the glue has dried. Then you will be ready to move on and finish your curve.

STEP FIVE. This is the most important step, and the one easiest to get wrong. I know from experience! Turn a new piece of flex-track over. Carefully remove eight ties by cutting the plastic holding the ties in place. DO NOT CUT THE RAILS! LEAVING THEM EXTENDING PAST THE TIES. On your flex-track already glued in place, your moveable rail is shorter than the inner rail. Using a Dremel tool with a sanding disk attached, carefully cut the inner stationary rail so that there are about five ties separating the ends of the inner and outer rail. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, very carefully, and while holding the ties in place, pull the small piece of stationary rail out the end. Now lay your new piece of track over the glued piece and note where the ends meet. You will remove one “spike” (the small plastic flange holding the rail in place on the tie) on either side of the rail ends. If you use the Dremel tool this is a very easy job. (I used to use an X-Acto knife and it was a pain!)

STEP SIX. Place a nickel-silver rail joiner on the end of a small piece of rail. Now slide the rail joiner onto the end of the rail on the glued flex-track. Repeat for the other rail. Now, very carefully, thread the rails of the new track through the plastic spikes on the glued track until the rail ends meet in the rail joiners. Pin the new piece of flex-track in place, using the center of the cork roadbed pieces as a guide. Now, using (and this is NEW! I just started using this!) Beacon 3-in-1 Advanced Craft Glue, lay a bead of glue along every-other tie between the rails. Now place weights on the track, and let it dry thoroughly.

I discovered the Beacon 3-in-1 Glue when I was trying to think of a way to keep from removing the new flex-track curve piece to glue and then replace it. Every time you move or remove a piece of track it’s another opportunity for something to go wrong. Beacon 3-in-1 Glue has a needle-nose tip so it’s perfect for gluing track in place, and it dries fast!

There you have it, model railroading friends! This is a sure-fire way to lay perfect curves using Atlas flex-track on your HO scale model railroad. You’ll be so glad you did it right the first time. You don’t want your railroading operations in front of spectators interrupted by derailments! It’s so embarrassing! Happy railroading everyone!

Christmas Is: Trains!

What would Christmas be without trains? Many kids dream about waking on Christmas morning and finding a Lionel model train running under the tree.

Almost everyone loves the story “The Polar Express”, and for good reason. The movie contains everything of childhood dreams, especially discovering Santa is real! What could be better than riding an old-fashioned steam passenger train to the North Pole?

Trains have been a part of Christmas since the beginning of rail travel. My favorite part in the movie “White Christmas” is the scene on the Santa Fe train heading from Florida to Pine Tree, Vermont. Some day we would like to take a cross-country trip by train and enjoy sleeping and eating on board. We have taken a few train trips that were several hours but never overnight.

I have been working hard on the Maple Valley Short Line. I wanted to have at least a line running when Christmas came, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen. One of my major challenges is the depth of the two ends of the layout. It’s a bench design with a depth of thirty-six inches in the middle areas but the ends are forty-eight inches. That means I’ve made it impossible to reach all the way across the layout to lay the track. So, here I am, on top of the layout, laying track on the outside curves. I’m kneeling on 3/4” plywood, supported underneath by thinner plywood placed between the cork roadbed on the branch lines.

A big step of progress was securing my two scratch-built bridges. The trestle over the river is rock solid and I can’t wait to see trains running over it.

I’m using 36 inch flex track for the entire layout. I have a lot left over from my two previous layouts but I discovered not much of it is usable. I fasten the track using white glue, then pins through the ties as provided in the flex track. I then use jars of coins to weigh the track down until the glue is dried. It works great. (I’m the reason the government is running short on coins.)

Every HO modeler knows the challenge of curves when you’re using flex track. How do you join the rails in such a way that there is no kink at the joint? Here’s what I do. I’m sure it’s no secret, and nothing many others don’t do as well.

Rather than squaring off the rails, I leave the ends distant from each other as shown in the picture. For the joining piece of flex track, I cut the number of ties off necessary to make the extending rails reach the rails of the glued section. I then carefully trim off the plastic “spikes”, one on each side of the rail ends. I slide a rail joiner onto the rails of the glued section. I thread the new rails through the empty plastic spikes until the rails slide into the rail joiners.

After making sure the fit is tight, I put white glue on the cork roadbed for the new flex track. I pin the track and add the jar weights. On to the next! The pins in the ties are a perfect distance so the jars of coins fit between them.

This photo shows the completed joint without any noticeable kink between the rail ends. Smooth operation without the cars wobbling every time they cross a rail joint is important. My strategy works pretty well.

Another challenge I’m anticipating is pouring epoxy on the riverbed. I’m excited about doing it, but I’m concerned about the odor from mixing the epoxy. I should probably mix a little bit in the garage so I can see how strong the smell is before I do it in the basement.

I actually have a few cars on the rails now so I can check for smooth rolling. I love the sounds of metal wheels clicking over the rail joints.

It is time now to begin wiring the layout and making block separations. I may have to pick up a few new turnouts because, for some reason, most of the ones I have are right-hand, and my layout has many more left turnouts than previous plans.

After I am finished laying all the track and completing the wiring, I will begin working on ballast. At this point, my plan is to pour it by hand and spread it with a paint brush. I will then spray it with some white glue solution to set it permanently.

I’m looking forward to working more on scenery. I have lots of trees I made from floral wire to finish with latex, paint, and foliage.

Christmas is trains. Whether it is Lionel O gauge, N gauge, S gauge as in the old American Flyer line, or, my favorite, HO, every train looks better in the glow of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree.

Where’s my eggnog?

Plaster of Paris Progress on My Model Railroad

Using Plaster of Paris in model railroading is a messy process, but the outcome can be amazing. In my last post I wrote about using cardboard for the underlayment around my risers. So far it has worked very well and I am pleased with the progress.

I use small squares of paper towel covered in wet plaster, then lay them on the cardboard right up to the edge of the cork roadbed.

I made the mistake of not covering the roadbed with tape so I have a little bit of clean-up to do, but that won’t be a problem. It’s all going to be covered in ballast material anyway.

I am using Woodland Scenics rock molds for the first time in my model railroading life. I am really happy with the results! The detail is fantastic. The difficult part will be placing them in such a way that there isn’t a predictable pattern. A few of them broke when I removed the mold, so there is definitely a learning curve in making rocks.

I first purchased dry Plaster of Paris in a one pound container which I quickly used up. I then purchased two more of the same size which didn’t last much longer than the first. A two pound bucket would certainly keep me going for quite a while. Wrong. Pouring rock molds takes a lot of plaster.

Plaster of Paris is mixed at a ratio of 2:1, two parts powder, one part water. It doesn’t matter what kind of scoop is used but it is important that the measurements of powder to water be exactly two to one.

I find that one cup of powder to a half-cup of water is the perfect amount to use before it begins to set and gets away from me. I work as quickly as I can, dipping the squares of paper towel in the plaster and laying them in place. I leave the pieces bunched rather than smoothing them.

I was really concerned about how my scratch-built risers stretching across the middle of the layout would look. With the “ground” reaching from the roadbed on a slant to the layout surface, I think I’m on the right track. (No pun intended, but it’s a good one!). I’m getting anxious to complete the plastering and start painting.

My rock production line requires a lot of patience. I have four molds and I pour them all at one time. I first rinse the molds and lay them out with support under the edges so they lie flat. I mix the plaster and pour. The most difficult part is waiting for the plaster to cure. I wait twenty-four hours before I do anything. I then carefully peal the molds away from the new rocks. Voila! Beautiful! It takes a couple more days for the green rocks to turn white.

Model railroading is a wonderful hobby. I’m not a master modeler at all. It’s not my plan to try to be one of the best. The point is, if I’m happy with what I create on my model railroad, then it is the best.

Choosing not to compare my model railroad, my writing, my piano playing, myself with anyone else has been a tough lesson to learn. I’m still working on it. If I do begin to compare myself with others, I tend to come up short. If I decide what I’ve done is better than anyone else, I’m wrong again. It’s enough to be satisfied with what I’ve done and choose to be happy with the results.

When I work on my model railroad, I always have music playing, either Earl Klugh radio on Pandora, or country music on FM. With a cup of coffee close by, I’m happy.

Good luck with your model railroading

Model Railroading Beats Covid Stress

Model railroading is a terrific way to lose yourself in details that have absolutely nothing to do with the media, bad news, worse news, health scares, or Covid.

It’s been almost four months since I worked on my model railroading project, The Maple Valley Short Line.

Part of model railroading, at least for me, has been anticipating but not being upset by the feeling of hitting a wall. My motivation to build disappeared. Today I reactivated and found it.

Even as I stood in front of my layout, it wasn’t until I actually started measuring, cutting, and gluing that I began to feel motivated.

I discovered installing scratch-built bridges is difficult. Making sure the bridge deck is the same level as the cork roadbed which means boring holes in plaster and foam takes time. When it’s done, it will be fantastic.

Plaster is a necessity in model railroading if you’re seeking for realism in your scenery. It takes time and is messy, but well worth the effort.

I have been challenged by the need to cover my styrofoam risers and blend them into the scenery in a way that looks realistic. I’ve thought about covering crumpled paper with plaster, but wondered about mold forming on the paper from the moisture.

I thought about using cardboard strips with plaster, but with one to four inches across thirty-two feet of riser, that is a lot of cardboard to cut and cover. I’m still working on it. I think I’ll use a combination of paper towel and pieces of foam dipped in plaster.

Gluing cork roadbed is time consuming but so rewarding! Covid stress floats away like a crumpled leaf in the wind. Cork roadbed is a model railroading task that you start and finish even though the layout still has a very long way to go.

The river I decided to dig across the middle of my layout added a tremendous amount of work, but I’m excited about how it’s going to look. This will be my first time using the epoxy mix that becomes “water”. I’ll paint the plaster first then pour the magic liquid.

Model railroading is a lot of fun. It provides a great opportunity to see what can be done. Everything is changeable, there really is no such thing as a mistake.

I can’t wait to see my steam locomotive rumble across this bridge. The extra work setting and leveling this scratch-built model is more than worth the time.

I can start placing my nickel-silver flex-track any time. That’s when the layout really starts looking like a railroad. I’ve been working on my model railroad for a long time already. Every step has its own rewards.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can start setting all the houses and buildings I spent last winter creating. Trees, grass, weeds, junk, sticks, fences, rocks, stones, lights, signals, backdrops, ballast, and more junk. Love it.

All this makes me want more coffee. Model railroading and coffee. Inseparable partners.

Foam Risers or Not? Cork Roadbed or Not?

Photos and Blog by Dale Parsons


My first layout was a learning experience, as I guess they all are. There was a lot of “what not to do.” I planned carefully, and even had trains running on sub-roadbed and track that was tacked temporarily. It was not until after the track was permanent that I realized some important mistakes.

The most costly mistake I made on my first layout was that my inclines were too steep. I created them by estimating the space I had and how quickly I wanted the train to return to ground level. That’s fine if you have a ton of space, but it will mean steep inclines, as it did for me, if your space is limited. My layout was a “L” shaped reverse dog bone design. I like watching trains going over and under each other. My steep inclines meant my engines could only pull a small handful of cars.

That layout was never completed because we moved. I completely dismantled it. The only parts I kept were the track, buildings, and trees.

My second layout was single-level. No climbing or descending. No hills or tunnels. No inclines to worry about. It was basically a switching layout with a full loop so I could run trains constantly, which I prefer.

When I dismantled that layout because we were moving again, it was a much easier task. Virtually everything was salvageable. Even though I glued and nailed the track down, it came up very easily. I kept all of the pieces.

The track has been through the mill. When I took the first layout apart, we moved to a house where there was no room for any railroading. All of my track was in a box in our barn. After a few years, I took it out. Most of it was covered with everything mice leave behind. I considered tossing it, but then I thought about how much nickel-silver track costs. I bought a couple of track cleaning blocks and started scrubbing. I’m still using that same track with no problems.

We moved to the house where we presently live. Hopefully, the last time we will move. My new layout is basic, no clever design schemes, just two mainlines for simultaneous train operation and some sidings. There is a long branch line that runs from one end of the layout to the other. The destination is Maple Valley. The train running the line will be a vintage model engine like “The General” and a few cars. Passengers will board the train at “Little Town” on the opposite end of the layout for the ride to Maple Valley.

My first big decision was whether or not to use Woodland Scenics risers. As you can see, I did, and I am so happy I chose to use the 2% incline/decline. A 2% incline means I need 16 feet of space for the track to be lifted four inches. In the middle of the photo, you can see where the incline and decline comes together with about two feet to spare. It’s just enough room for turnouts from both directions so I can choose to move trains to or from the longer outside mainline.

My next question was how to attach the styrofoam risers to the extruded foam base. I chose undiluted white glue which I bought in a gallon jug. I pinned the riser where I wanted it and drew a line on either side of the riser with a black marker. I removed the pins and the riser. I brushed white glue on the foam base the length of the first riser. I then replaced the riser, pinned it in place, and weighted it down with anything I could find. I left it overnight to dry.

I have seen some videos where modelers put masking tape over the riser before installing the final roadbed. I started to do the same but removed it because I was afraid if the tape came loose the roadbed would be loose as well.

The next question was whether or not to use cork roadbed, and as you can see I chose the cork. I didn’t use it on my last shelf layout. I ballasted the track without cork and it turned out alright. I’m glad I chose to use cork this time as it looks more realistic to me.

I used undiluted white glue to attach the roadbed, using the same method I used with the foam risers. I first drew my track plan directly on the pink foam using exact radius templates for the curves, and a yard-stick for the mostly-straight areas. I lined the inside of the cork against the track line mark and made another mark on the outside of the cork, and also marked the end of the cork piece. I removed the cork and applied glue to the foam. I pinned the cork down with 1-1/2 inch “T-pins” on the bevel. Once I had both sides in place, I weighted the cork. I laid as much cork at one time as I had weights for. I then left it overnight.

I didn’t buy turnout foam, instead choosing to cut the cork to fit the turnouts. I might regret that, we’ll see.

My next task was making a curvy 4 inch riser to meet the ends of the two 2% inclines on either end of the layout. I chose to make my own rather than buy an additional package of risers from the hobby shop. It was a lot of work but I’m confident it will work fine. Since I took this photo, I have cut two tunnels through my homemade riser.

The riser is two pieces of 1-1/2 inch foam plus a 1 inch piece between. I drew the design on a large piece of paper, cut it out 2 inches wide. I placed my paper template on the foam and cut it with a razor utility knife. I then glued the three pieces of foam together with white glue, weighting them heavily.

When I was happy with the way the risers turned out, I glued them to the foam surface and pinned them in place. I weighted them and left it for a couple of days.

I have about ten or fifteen more feet of cork to apply, then I will be ready to start laying track. I have to decide where my blocks are going to be and plan my wiring lines accordingly.

Model railroading is a fantastic hobby. It is especially fun to take photos and videos as steps are taken so it’s easy to see how much progress is being made. I’m learning that slow and steady is best. Now that I’m retired, slow has taken on a whole new meaning.

I need more coffee.

How to Build Strong Model Railroad Benchwork

Blog and Photos by Dale Parsons

Your dream of a beautiful model railroad will ultimately be no better than the benchwork holding it in place. Any model railroad worth building is worth the time and effort it takes to build unshakable benchwork.

My first permanent HO layout was built on open-grid, I-girder and truss benchwork. I followed Lynn Wescott’s old book detailing how to build, step-by-step, open grid benchwork. His drawings, lists of materials, measurements, and photos made the work easy. I have to admit, however, I was disappointed with the way my benchwork turned out. I found the open grid design made scenery building far more difficult.

How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork, by Lynn Westcott, who was a master in model railroading and everything that goes with it, is a terrific manual for building a great layout.

Since my plywood sub-roadbed was only about a 1/4 inch wider on either side of my cork roadbed, it didn’t leave enough room for attaching the strips of cardboard for the foundation of my ground and rock scenery. I made it work, but I wished I had built it differently. I have not used open grid since then.

In my opinion, no model railroad is ever finished. At least not for me. There is always something more to do. I find that scenery and detail is just as fun as running trains. On this my third layout, I plan to use more detail than I ever have before.

Model railroading is a great learning experience. I have already made several mistakes on my third layout, but I’m not starting over. The most important mistake I made is the narrowest part of my benchwork is 36 inches. The ends are 54 inches. My original braces weren’t long enough so I had to attach additional 1×3 pieces to both sides so the brace arms to extend them to the edge of the bench. Leveling everything was a challenge. The two sides of the arm had to be level, and the brace itself had to be level with the next brace arm, and so on.

My new train room is twenty-one feet long, and I’m using every inch of it for my layout. The room has the same shape as the train room in our last house, which is kind of cool. This room is longer, but more narrow. The opposite side of the room is lined with shelves with mostly stuff we don’t need. Just as long as I have room to get from one end of the layout to the other, it’s fine with me. One great thing about shelf layouts is the room it creates underneath. Lots more storage area.

Attaching the braces to the cement block wall was tough. But they’re not going anywhere. I used an impact driver and 1/4 inch cement screws that are 3 1/2 inches long. I went through several drill bits. I drilled through the 2×2 inch leg brace with a wood bit that made a mark on the white cement block. I then used the cement drill bit to make the hole. The impact driver fastened the legs to the wall very easily.

To accommodate my choice of 26 inch radius curves on each end of the layout, the benchwork is 54 inches deep. I am pleased with my progress so far, but the benchwork really is too deep. Reaching across to work on scenery is going to be difficult, but I will manage.

When I was satisfied with the benchwork framing, it was time to put on the plywood sub-roadbed. I had some plywood pieces from my previous layout so I used them, plus some additional new 3/8 inch plywood. I measured and cut the plywood so the ends come together between the two sides of the 1×3 inch brace arms. I then drew lines on the plywood indicating the brace arms. After drilling counter-sink pilot holes I used 1 1/2 inch screws to fasten the plywood to the brace arms.

These are photos from my first shelf layout. It was only 24 inches wide in the middle, and just wide enough on the ends to hold a 22 inch radius curve. I run parallel mainlines so I can operate two trains simultaneously.

My next post will include details about applying sheets of foam to the plywood.

Thanks for reading.

Dale