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.

Strong Model Railroad Benchwork – More Helpful Details

Photos and Blog by Dale Parsons

In this post I’m adding some additional details and photos that will be helpful to those who read the original post, “How to Build Strong Model Railroad Benchwork.”

This is a close-up of the braces I made for my first shelf-style layout. These are the same braces but I had to adapt them a little bit for my current layout which is quite a bit larger than my first shelf.

The leg and arm brace are both 2×2 pine. The gusset size depends on how long your arm brace is going to be. I like things flush (OCD), so the bottom of the arm is flush with the bottom angle of the gusset. There are three #8 x 1 inch screws on one side, and two screws on the opposite side of the gusset holding the arm brace. There are three screws on either side of the leg into the gusset. The bottom of the leg rests on the floor.

You can’t see them in this photo, but there are two concrete screws anchoring the leg to the wall. One is just below the gusset, and one about half way between the top of the brace and the gusset.

The concrete screws anchoring the leg to the wall are visible in this photo. Just two screws hold the leg firmly. It’s not going anywhere!

Bosch 3/16 inch concrete impact drill bits are necessary for making screw holes in the wall. I used 1/4 x 3-1/4 inch concrete anchor screws. With these screws it is NOT necessary to put anchors in the wall before placing the screws. These are fantastic for a quick, rock-solid hold on the brace leg.

I have one brace on each of the outside walls. The braces are about 50 inches from the back wall and are perpendicular to the remaining braces. I left 4 inches of overhang across the entire front of the layout. In this photo it’s clear that I used two 1×3 inch joists on either side of the arm brace. My first shelf layout was only 24 inches deep in the middle, 48 inches on the ends. To use these braces again I had to add additional pieces of 1×3.

As I said in my previous post, this layout is 54 inches deep on the ends, 36 inches across the middle. I wouldn’t recommend building a shelf layout this wide, but I’m tall so reaching across won’t be that difficult. Using a step stool to work on scenery at the ends will work fine.

My train room is 21 feet long. My layout braces are approximately 32 inches apart. The last braces on either end are just 12 inches from the outside wall. I measured the distance between each of the braces, then cut a 2×2 inch piece to length and fastened it to the wall using the same concrete screws I used on the legs. With the braces 32 inches apart, I was concerned there might be some “give” in the surface of the layout between the braces. I used 3/8 inch plywood for the bench surface, which is not super sturdy. My bracing makes up for it.

In this photo, the original 24 inch joist pieces are visible, plus the additional 1×3 pieces I added to extend the length of the joists to hold my 36 inch bench. The horizontal 2×2 pieces I attached to the wall are also visible.

After I was satisfied with the placement of the braces, I added facia across the front of the braces to make a solid foundation for the edge of the plywood surface. I will probably attach a piece of thin material across plywood edge for a finished look.

**Mistake alert! Be sure to use a square to assure a 90 degree angle at each of the braces before attaching the facia! This is experience speaking. It’s never fun to have to re-do something.

When I added the 3/8 inch plywood deck, I measured from the center of the brace to the next brace center, and cut the plywood accordingly. By doing that, the edges of the plywood came together in the middle of the joists, creating a solid connection.

When all of the plywood surface pieces were firmly in place, it was time to begin laying down the extruded foam. I almost decided against using foam. It was actually my wife who talked me into it because of the versatility it provides with scenery and track placement. I had also decided not to use elevated track, which meant no mountain areas, no trestles, no inclines and declines. Again, my wife helped me see the light.

I decided to use 1 1/2 inch foam rather than 2 inch. It was a minor cost savings, and I didn’t think the extra 1/2 inch would make that much difference. I measured and cut the foam to fit and made sure I was happy before I started applying glue. I used Liquid Nails to apply the foam, then, as you can see, I weighted the foam and left it overnight. It worked great. I’m very satisfied with my progress so far.

While I am working on my layout I always have music playing and a hot cup of coffee close by. There should be a coffee flavor called HO Railroad. Hey, wait a minute! That’s a good idea!

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

An Exercise in Patience

Are you tired of waiting for patience?

Model railroading is a great exercise in stretching your ability to wait for something good to happen. My current layout project began, literally, on the floor. The room I am using was a storage place for all the overflow stuff. I had to move, package, stack, sort, discard, retrieve from the discard bin, and re-stack, so that I could actually begin building a model railroad.

I’m trying things I’ve never done before. This is definitely the most pain-staking, detailed layout I have ever attempted. The bench-work is very sturdy. In fact, I have been ON TOP of the bench several times, working on the styrofoam risers, also something I have never used before.

I purchased the risers from Rider’s Hobby Shop in Flint, MI. I’ve had layouts with mountains for the trains to climb through, but the inclines were too steep, so the engines could only pull a few cars. Not this time! I’m using 2% inclines, which require 16 feet of space to lift the train four inches. Since my layout space is 21 feet long, I have plenty of room for a 2%, four inch lift! Voila!

I have two total loops, so I can continuously run two trains. The town of Maple Valley is going to be an attraction for those who climb aboard the old-fashioned passenger cars, pulled by a vintage steam engine. Beautiful!

Back to patience. It has already taken me over a year to get to this point. I still have not placed a single section of track. The bench work is incredible. The 1 1/2 inch foam underlayment is terrific. The 2% risers are all in place. The scratch-built bridges are really cool. They still have to be painted. Mountains are beginning to take shape. I have built a huge number of houses and buildings. I am scratch-building floral wire trees. Also something I’ve never done before.

If my plan was to run trains as quickly as possible, I would have quit a long time ago. Here’s the point. The process is the fun! But, the process is also the patience growth time. The secret is to be pleased, or at least “okay”, with where I am right now. If I do my best with each step of the process, then I can leave the layout at any time along the way and be satisfied.

I am not yet where I’m going. The goal line is not placing the last tree and bit of model grass. The process is the goal line. It isn’t stationary. The goal line is constantly evolving. The beautiful thing about model railroading is I can change my mind at any time, just because I decided to do something different.

Life is not fixed. It’s a process. Constantly evolving. Patience is a project of effort, trust, and satisfaction.

Coffee please.

HO Scale Layout Progress

Are you working on your HO scale train layout? Are you anxious to see trains moving through your scenery? So am I!

This new layout I’m working on has taken a very long time, but I am taking serious steps to move forward. I have never used extruded foam as a base before, so I’m excited about seeing the results. I never thought I would use printed buildings, but I have. The bank building at the left is printed on card-stock and then cut and glued together. I’m happy with the results.

Something else I’ve never done before is scratch build bridges. I have three completed, and I think they look great. I still have to paint them, but I’m working on height alignment with the adjoining roadbed so I don’t have any bumps. The bridge on the right is actually two identical sections that will hold the track. The supports are three separate bases that are the same height. I used basswood and balsa.

The tunnel portal on the left was hand-carved by my uncle who is an artist and master model railroader. I had just tunneled through four inches of foam, on an angle, and then thought about the portal. It’s a perfect fit. Now I have to make a few more portals for other tunnels.

I don’t normally use Illinois Central. The engine below just happened to be within arm’s reach, so I placed it on the bridge over what will be the Maple Valley River, just to see how it looks.

That’s it for now. More to come. If you’re building a layout, just keep making progress. You don’t have to work on it every day. No deadlines, no schedule. Do what you want, when you want. Enjoy it.

It’s time for coffee.

Anxiety and Model Railroading

I love model railroading. It’s been my hobby since I was fifteen, and I loved trains long before that. I’ve been working on my newest layout, which, at the present time is still quite a way from rolling stock moving along the rails, for about sixteen months.

I’ve seen posts of modelers who appear to be living the dream, spending tremendous amounts of time working on their railroad as a result of this unbelievable struggle with Corona Virus. This is NOT a criticism! I applaud their dedication to the hobby, and the pictures I’ve seen are amazing. We can all learn from each other. I also know that most of these modelers are working on their layout because they are not allowed to go to work. So it’s a battle to survive. No, my problem is me. Because of anxiety I struggle with almost constantly, it is very difficult for me to stay in my train room long enough to get a lot done. Oh, I know that’s okay. It’s not a project that has to be completed on a schedule. It’s mine, for me, by my plan, schedule, design, likes, dislikes, frustrations, disappointments, delights. I don’t need approval for completed projects, but I do crave it.

I’m retired, so you would think my days might look like morning coffee, a glance at the morning news, drinking more coffee, then heading to the layout, then coming back upstairs to get more coffee. Nope. I have this constant nag that I should be productive, I should be doing something. And model railroading, for some reason in my mind, doesn’t fall into the category of productivity. Sure, it’s productive as far as my layout is concerned, but not productive in the overall scheme of needs. There is always something that should be done.

Actually, even writing this blog is part of that nagging. need to be productive. It’s something that is considered, started, re-started, edited, almost published, re-written, edited again, and then published. After which it is taken down and edited again. And yet, even with that, it’s not really productive because it’s not necessary to life. Neither is model railroading. But, on the other hand, model railroading is absolutely necessary because it can definitely contribute to a sense of accomplishment. I did it! That looks great! And it only has to look good to me.

So, the daily struggle continues. Some days are better than others, I just have to keep working at it. In the process, I will find time to work on the Maple Valley Short Line and feel good about it. Eventually, there will be trains moving. The scenery will begin to take shape. With this layout, I am determined to be incredibly detailed down to the smallest weed by the side of a shack. The win over anxiety is in the details. Little by little.

Adventures in Model Railroading

My first HO scale train was a Tyco blue and yellow Santa Fe F-7 with a few freight cars, and an 18 inch radius circle of track I received for Christmas when I was fifteen.  My love of trains, however, began on Christmas morning in 1956 when my brother received an American Flyer S scale train set.  My fascination with trains has been life long.

Sadly, my new F-7 didn’t work right.  It ran backwards pretty well, but wouldn’t go forward. The small town we lived in had a model railroader’s paradise, a hobby shop where I spent a lot of time.  The shop was a small garage but it was loaded with HO treasure.  The owner loved trains as much as I did and was always willing to help.  I traded my Santa Fe engine for an old metal 2-6-0 switcher that squeeked, but it ran.  I also purchased two small boxes of track so my layout became a larger oval instead of a circle.

For those unfamiliar with model trains, HO actually stands for “Half-O.”  O gauge is the size of the familiar Lionel-type, three-rail trains.  HO trains are half that size.  I have always preferred HO.  The two-rail track and detail is more realistic.

The little hobby shop quickly became my favorite place, and the owner taught me everything he could about model railroading.  He also sold me Pere Marquette Berkshire 2-8-4 and Southern Pacific 4-8-8-2 Cab Forward steam locomotives for $10 with a trade and $25, respectively.  Unbelievable!  Those engines now are twenty times that much! The only thing I still own from the little hobby shop is a twenty-five foot fiber tie strip for hand laying and spiking rails.  I’ve never tried that.

The photos above are of my first full layout I built thirty years ago.  As you can see, it had open-grid benchwork and it was also my first experience with cork roadbed and ballast. I learned a great deal about what not to do with future layouts.  The biggest mistake I made was not planning for taking it apart.  When we moved I had to chose the best spots to cut it apart and it was not easy putting it back together.

The unpainted wood stand with the white tank structure was scratch-built forty-two years ago.  At one point it was crushed by a basketball, but since has been rebuilt and painted.

In upcoming posts I will include details about benchwork, scenery, and model railroading in general.  I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful.