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Thread: Builder's Railroad Project: in the Beginning...

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    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    Builder's Railroad Project: in the Beginning...

    Well... dear readers,

    As agreed, I'm starting a new thread on the building of my model railroad. Since I have more than five pictures, I'll make this a multi-post thread for today's session. These initial posts are lengthy ones since I'm laying the groundwork for the story that follows so please bear with me.

    This railroad has a history. I was into trains as a kid (like many of you) and had a collection of Lionel trains and equipment. My dad built the platform with me and then it was up to me to go on from there. Here's the layout circa 1958. I made the mountain out of screen wire and paper maché and it stunk the house up for a week. My mom was a good sport and liked that I was doing creative stuff and staying out of trouble.

    I bought all my stuff used or at after-holiday closeouts. I made some of the buildings from scratch. The trestle in the back was the start of a second level, but it never got finished. It was fun to build though.

    The kid at the controls was not me... it was a cousin. As usual, upon turning 16 and getting my drivers license, my Fender guitar, and then girls (in that order), the trains took a back seat and we're dismantled prior to my going off to college.

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    They stayed in boxes through my kids' childhood since we lived in a townhouse without a basement and a one-car garage. I built lots of models in that garage, but the trains stayed in their boxes. My son was into Legos and computing big time and didn't show the interest that I had at his age. My grandkids are a completely different story and are very excited about rebuilding the trains.

    In 1992, I sold all the trains to a local train store feeling that "I would never get back into trains!" Famous last words... that's like my daughter writing in her diary (we didn't read it...she told us about it) that she would "never get into a serious relationship again with a man" the day before she met the man she's been married to for 12 years.

    In 1995, I cleared out the basement in our single home in Newtown, PA and found there was enough room to build trains, and my son and I had started an n-gauge train layout just before he was off to college. We built the L-girders and legs and designed the track plan, and then he was gone and the frame sat there for 6 years gathering spiders. So, I foolishly thought that I would get n-gauge trains, only to find out that I really couldn't see them. The day my son was taking his M-Cat tests, I decided to go to a large train store in Broomall, PA while waiting for him to finish. I was thinking about going into HO, but then I saw them... "Them" being what happened to O'gauge trains in the intervening years from 1958 to 1995.

    Computers had come to trains. Model O'gauge locomotives have the equivalent of an Intel x-86 series computer in them and reproduce sounds and actions that are amazing. And, I can see them! O'gauge engines have heft, they're not too fragile, and the kids like them too. So I started all over again.

    I convinced my wife to let me have a budget so I didn't need to hold a justification hearing for every purchase. That worked well!

    I bought several locomotives and cars, plus a couple pieces of track and had them sitting on shelves as I was designing the railroad of my dreams, and then I was asked by my company to move to Germany. These were my first two engines, a Pennsy GG1 electric and the very large and strong, Pennsy J1-a. From the get go, I was pushing myself to a design with the largest curves I could swing. Most of the engines I buy are large ones.

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    That was it for the trains, or so I thought. But the house in Germany had a nice, bright, heated basement with a room that was 13 X 29 feet. I asked and got approval about moving the trains back to the USA if I were to build a layout there. I had the floor plan of the Newtown basement. Did I mention that I was allowed to keep my US house vacant during my German stay. So I designed the German layout to fit in both places.

    Once in Germany, I started buying American train stuff and getting it to Germany. I bought one locomotive and had it shipped, but the duty was 30%. I wasn't going to resell any of it and in a little over three years was bringing it all back, so why was I paying duty? I became a smuggler, sneaking in contraband train stuff in dufflebags full of the stuff. I could do this because of how Germany handled customs for international flights. We would fly through Munich, and then take a local Deutsche BA flight to Düsseldorf. They didn't make you take you bags off the international flight for customs before getting on the connecting flight, like we do in the USA. Instead, it would be loaded onto the local flight without passing through customs. And once it arrived in D'dorf, as a local flight, there was no customs officials waiting for it. As a result, I brought in tons of track and cars.

    The layout was 21 X 13 feet. I designed it to be disassembled and re-built. All joints between Ply subroadbed panels were doweled as well as screwed so they would realign perfectly. Wire joints between panels were all of quick disconnect, European-style terminal strips.

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    The shippers wrapped and crated everything, including some raw plywood pieces. These guys would even pack trashcans with the trash still in it!

    When I reassembled in Pennsy, I had more room, especially if I turned the layout on an angle (thinking outside the box). Therefore, I added 6 feet of length to it making it 27 X 13 feet. In this picture you can see all of the layout parts wrapped in bubblewrap. And you can see the Lally columns in the middle of the room. The room was about 25 feet square, but there was a lot of stuff in it.

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    As planned it dropped right into the spot missing the two Lally columns. This is a panoramic picture so please ignore the distortion. I had just completed putting on the fascia boards around the perimeter when I got laid off and we had to consider moving.

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    I papered the ceiling with Tyvek. The reverse side has no DuPont printing on it and it helped keep the dust off and brightened up the space. It's a "poor man's dropped ceiling". I'm not sure I'm going to do it in the new space.

    When we decided to move to Louisville, KY, I knew that the new house was going to have a much bigger and better space with no columns. I also knew that I was going to be able to enlarge and change the layout to both grow into the space AND to eliminate some trouble spots in its design.

    As a result, I decided to scrap the subroadbed ply and the foam rubber roadbed under the track. It was glued with Liquid Nails and removing it was a pain in the butt. It also saved some moving money at $50 per 100 pounds. But I also knew that it was going to cost $$$ to rebuild in the new space and got agreement from my wife that I was going to incur this cost.

    So today, the lumber arrived and I moved all the dimensional material into the basement. I will start another thread for this part.
    Gun Grape, Doktor and USSWisconsin like this.

  2. #2
    Senior Contributor Doktor's Avatar
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    Woot, woot... happy times ahead.
    No such thing as a good tax - Churchill

    To make mistakes is human. To blame someone else for your mistake, is strategic.

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    Rickshaw Professional Senior Contributor Pedicabby's Avatar
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    This is gonna be cool!

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    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    In the Beginning....

    Well... I hope I disappoint any of you guys. My previous thread sort of set the bar kinda high...

    So to quote Scriptures and I hope I don't offend anyone, "In the beginning there was heaven and Earth and then light, etc.

    So here's the "void" Please note, this is another panoramic shot and my basement walls are not actually bent...

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    So look at that gorgeous space. Forty five feet and not a pole in sight. All my life I wanted a house with a basement like this. And what's even a better, the rest of the house is pretty cool too.

    And here's what we have now.

    A pile of lumber in the garage:

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    A bigger pile of wood in the basement: Some of this, the dimensional lumber, appeared in the garage pic.

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    And in a few months, this will turn into a 39 X 15, living, breathing, model railroad that will allow the operation of O'gauge trains with at least 20 cars behind a big engine.

    I'm using a process called L-girder. It was developed specifically for model railroad construction by Lynn Westwood about 40 years ago. It's advantages are:

    • Little lumber use vs. strength
    • Long spans between legs making it easier to get underneath to do stuff
    • Easy to change design and/or elevation after framing is complete
    • Use lower quantity of fasteners for a given size
    • Lightweight, can be moved if desired. It employs smaller cross-section lumber which does the work of heavier. For example, 2 X 2 for the legs instead of larger. This size can take large loads straight down as long as it's braced deeply.


    The L-girder is a 1 X 4 web with a 1 X 2 glued on top with 1 inch hanging over. This accomplishes two things: it makes the 1 X 4 much stronger, actually a structural member, and it provides a convenient flange to attach the joists with lie across the tops of the girders.

    Here's a drawing I made to show how the pieces go together.

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    And lastly, he's another drawing I concocted showing how I'm going to mount the girders to the entire back wall. Instead of the leg assemblies shown above, it uses a cantilevered bracket. The brackets are held to the wall with Tapcon concrete screws, and I've include a sway brace for at least the pieces at the ends. With the legs, there are long diagonals going width and long ways that make the assembly very stiff, like an aircraft structure rather than furniture. On the wall brackets, the live load will be well covered, but it could be push sideways. The sway brace will protect this until the plywood roadbed is in place. The span for the 1 X 4 L-girder will be 8 feet. It could actually be longer.

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    The joists are held to the girders with one 2.5" screw at each end. If you have to move them, you can even when the ply wood is one top of them. Sometimes you need to reposition the joists to make room for some modification. Another feature, is that all screws are inserted from underneath. Even when covered in scenery you can still reach all the screws. That's also why you glue the flange to the web instead of screwing it. Invariably, you will try to fasten something and run into a buried screw. With glue that can't happen. You put the glue on the edge of the 1 X 4 and place the 1 X 2 on top. Clamp it temporarily, and use screws every foot or so to hold it all nice and tight. When the glue dries, remove the screws. They're not needed any more. The whole assembly is quite strong and can hold me, a full-grown, maybe a little overly-grown, person.

    Next post, I'll talk about the design and how I'm making the ply roadbed panels.

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    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    In the Beginning Part 3

    Let's take a look at the design. This diagram shows all the components making up the framework. The lower right corner will be the entry point to the inside of layout which will be kept open as much as possible. One of the tenets of model RR design is don't put track further away than you can reach. For n-gauge you can put a lot of track in a two-foot wide space. For O'gauge two feet is nothing. Very quickly the width of working area exceeds my arm's length. Also, the layout mean height is 42" above the floor. For little kids this is over their heads, so for them you provide stools and steps to stand on. But for us older folks it makes it possible to get underneath and work, and the trains look better and better the closer they get to eye level. The rear track in the back goes up 5 inches higher.

    Here's the track plan:

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    And here's the structural plan.

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    This is what it could look like. I've been toying with the idea of having the town on a higher level than the track and have the train station underground like it is in many cities. While this opens it up for some neat modeling ideas... like building the underground platforms, lighting, etc., it make for some operating difficulties since there would be many switches hidden from view.

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    And here's all the ply pieces laid out on 4 X 8 patterns. It took some time to get them fit.

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    As you can see, each of these ply pieces is unique and fits to each other like a puzzle.

    Here's one set enlarged.

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    The way I did this in Germany was to develop a set of X-Y coordinate locations from one corner of the sheet for every intersection, arc, etc., and then lay them out on the wood by hand. Then I cut them out with a saber saw. I was alone in Germany at the time, and couldn't handle a 4X8 sheet down the cellar steps, so I did all this is the large foyer in the house. My wife was back in the States at the time. If she were there, I'm sure I would have been doing this outside... it was Winter.

    This time, I wanted to try a more high-tech solution. I have a computer projector and my artist nephew suggested projecting the images full-size directly on the ply, tracing the edges, and then cutting it out. This seemed like a genius idea! That is until we tried it tonight.

    Between the sheet of Oriented Strand Board (OSB) being bowed, and the projected image not being square, the distortion looked too much to make an accurate representation. I am unable to haul the sheets into the basement since we have 90º bend in an enclosed stairway so this work has to take place in the garage.

    My friend helped me move the wood around and suggested that I project on large sheets of paper taped on the basement wall, making sure that all was flat and square, trace the image, and then paste the paper on the ply to use as a template. I'm going to look into this method. If that doesn't work, I can always go to plan C which is create all those X-Y coordinates on the computer and lay it all out by hand. Needless to say, this was a bit disappointing.

    So we were able to stack all the sheets up against the garage wall with enough room for my wife can get her car in and open the doors.

    I need to find a place to get wide sheets of paper, cheap.





    Attachment 29058

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    Plan C

    I decided that going with Plan C (laying out each piece the old fashioned way) would be the most practical way to proceed and it would incur no more additional expense. I'm going to do the layout and cutting off the garage floor on sawhorses. Here's what the fully dimensioned part looks like.

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    Even though there are three or more pieces to be cut out of each 4 X 8 panel, for the purposes of the drawing, I've isolate each piece. All pieces are laid out in x-y coordinates with the origin in the bottom left corner.

    I began to worry about the curve centers that fell off the edge of the sheet since it would mean that I'd need to lay another piece of ply next to the one being laid out in order to have a place to put the center of the Rototape. So I got material to build a second set of sawhorses. Then I realized that some of the distances would be too far to reach so I'd have to crawl on top of the wood which got me back to doing the whole thing on the garage floor.

    Then last night I got another idea. Since all my curves are either parts of 80", 88" or 104" circles resulting from using 88" and 96" track circle diameters, all I need to do is cut out some circle arc templates to use for all the curves and wouldn't have to worry about the off-sheet center points. Since I'm marking the X-Y coordinates for the start and end of each arc, I just have to rest the arc between those to points and scribe it. In this way I won't need another sheet on the second set of sawhorses, or have to crawl around on top of the sheets.

    I'll let you know how this works out.

    I also bought the Tapcon screws to fasten the angle brackets to the basement wall. I will start construction in the back, and get those platform pieces in place. They will serve as a construction bench for the parts that follow.

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    Prep Work

    Since it was suggested to paint the walls a nice sky blue before putting a railroad in front of them, I decided to prepare the basement walls. There were lots... and I mean lots of holes in the poured concrete. I bought concrete patch and went to town. It took two work sessions to do them all and two tubs of patch. I only patched as far down as I plan to paint, and I only am going to paint as far down as the layout is going to be. It will be 47" high at the back wall. This saves labor and paint. No one will care what it looks like below the layout. The whole thing is an illusion anyway.

    Next step will be to prime it with concrete primer, then Home Depot Behr concrete paint including primer.

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    The patches are actually in relief of the surface so instead of holes, I now have lumps. But the lumps will be easier to paint.

    I marked the floor for the tripod so I'll be taking a series of construction pictures that could become a nice time-lapse series.

  8. #8
    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    Nothing much to report today other than using concrete primer on the above walls. On Friday I'll put on the sky blue. I trying to find cloud painting templates. I know they exist since another RR acquaintance used them on his layout. I also am finishing the design of the swing-out section for inner-layout access. This is an alternative to a lift-up panel. I will be cheaper to build (I think... less hardware, more wood). I'll post the new design after I finish it tonight.

  9. #9
    Resident Curmudgeon Military Professional Gun Grape's Avatar
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    Really like your well thought out plywood cut plan. Min waste, max value for the buck.

    I don't like tapcon screws for holding anything. They pull out pretty easily and will loosen due to weather changes. Wedge anchors are my choice of fasteners. They are a bit more expensive. But a few years from now you won't go to the basement and find the layout on the floor.
    Its called Tourist Season. So why can't we shoot them?

  10. #10
    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    Hmmm... I haven't used them and can return them to Home Depot. Do they sell the "wedge anchors"? I have a serious hammer drill so I'll be able to put anything in. I really don't want the layout on the floor, ever... or at least until I'm dead and my widow is selling it all off or selling the house. I'll look into it.

    As to the ply design... thanks! It's not easy to do but it's a lot easier to do than cutting the ply wrong. It's all dependent on managing the scale settings on the imaging programs. It starts will RR Track layout software. I save the layout as a bitmap, which then needs to be cropped in Corel Photopaint. When I bring the image into CorelDraw I know exactly the size of the layout image and stretch it on the page to be that exact size in scale. I can then draw the ply pieces with the layout directly underneath. I limit the size of each piece to the 8 foot sheet width, and then play around with the best fit. The problem comes when I want to make a change. For example, in one of the iterations I added a second switch on the top siding and caused a significant change in a big piece which now changed what other pieces could be fit on that sheet. This caused a cascade that involved adding an 11th sheet and changing five other ones. Domino effect in action.

  11. #11
    Battleship Enthusiast Defense Professional USSWisconsin's Avatar
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    a couple ideas/questions

    Rolls of paper might solve your large sheet needs - I used to get rolls from a local web printer with a small amount left on them - from when they changed rolls. They have rolls of paper for other purposes too, like masking and wrapping. A large print shop is also a good resource for small quantities of large high quality sheets - they often have a little left over, that isn't enough to use for their purposes and will sell it or even give it away.

    How are you going to change the flourescent lights near the wall when they burn out? You may want to consider moving them or coming up with a way to change them before you get the layout fixed under them.
    "If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees.
    If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children."

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    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    That's a terrific idea. I probably don't need it now, with the layout idea pretty well settled, but it's really good to know for the future. The inside of the layout will be open so all the lights will be reachable in one way or the other.

    I was finished at work early today so I painted the walls sky blue. The patches do show up, but the viewing distance will be more than 10 feet and I'm going to paint some clouds (bought masks yesterday that work nicely with spray can paint.)

    Here's the latest shot.

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    I'm not working tomorrow either or Monday for that matter so I'm going to start laying out and cutting wood.

  13. #13
    Global Moderator Defense Professional JAD_333's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gun Grape View Post
    Really like your well thought out plywood cut plan. Min waste, max value for the buck.

    I don't like tapcon screws for holding anything. They pull out pretty easily and will loosen due to weather changes. Wedge anchors are my choice of fasteners. They are a bit more expensive. But a few years from now you won't go to the basement and find the layout on the floor.
    Second grape on the use of Tapcons. Good for shear force, but don't hold well when leveraged. Wedge anchors a good choice, or you could use 1/2" all-thread imbedded in sleeves and epoxy. Look for specs on attaching deck ledger boards to concrete walls.

    Super pro design work. What cad program are you using, or did I miss that in your description? Anyway, you're gonna have fun. Hell of a basement. You should have painted the wall gray before you painted it blue. Still looks good.
    To be Truly ignorant, Man requires an Education - Plato

  14. #14
    Contributor Builder 2010's Avatar
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    I took your advice and took the Tapcons back and bought 1/2" wedge anchors. The house will fall down before the trains come out of the wall. I also had to buy a carbide hammer-drll bit. The bolts cost less, but the drill pushed it higher. I use CorelDraw X5. It's a vector drawing program like Adobe Illustrator. It has precision features that let it do mechanical drawings, but without the specificity of a CAD program. I'm also learning to do precision 3D work with Google SketchUp.
    Last edited by Builder 2010; 18 May 12, at 20:06.

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    Fix'n to Cut Some Wood

    Well... I bit the bullet and got into the garage to start cutting out the OSB roadbed pieces. I built another set of sawhorses just to hold a second 4 X 8 next to the one I'm laying out. Many of the curves have centers that fall off the primary sheet. I clamped two pieces together so I could locate the off-sheet center point with my Rotape compass rule.

    Doubling up the sheet's a bit of a pain since I can't reach all the way to the center, but if all goes according to plan, I will only have to double up the sheets this one time since the pieces I cut have the radii that I'm using for all the rest of the curved pieces and will serve as templates. I just have to locate the starting and ending points of the curve, hold the correct radius piece up to those points and then trace the curve without having to use the Rotape. In fact, I'm going to hammer in some brads at these end points so I just push the curve up to the brads and trace away. It should speed things up since it took longer to lay out the piece than to cut it.

    I laid out and cut all the pieces of sheet A. That was five pieces including two large sweeping curves. My computer locations came out very close to the real world and that was a relief. I used the circular saw to do the straight cuts and my 30 year-old Sear Craftsman saber saw for all the curves. That saw is USA made with an all aluminum housing, variable speed trigger and build like a truck. It just keeps going and going. My circular saw is new and is a Skil with the laser alignment thingy (that's a technical term).

    I was glad to see how clean cut sheet edges are. I was worried about using OSB instead of plywood, but so far so good. My original layout used plywood (sperrholz) that I bought in Germany. Their standard lumber is a higher quality than standard US lumber. The ply was 7 layer instead of 5, and was completely knot free.

    Funny story here: When I built the first layout in Germany, I laid all of the pieces out based on what I thought a metric-sized plywood sheet would be. I just assumed that they would have something equivalent to a 4 X 8, which I figured was a 1 X 2 meter sheet. I get to the builder's supply store and show the associate the plan, and he claims, "Falsch, falsch!" meaning, "wrong, wrong!", and I ask "Warum?" (why?) so he takes me over to a piece of ply, pulls out his tape and measures it. Guess what? It's a 4 X 8, it just measured in metric. So it comes out to 1.22 X 2.44 meters. So it was "back to the drawing board", literally! It killed another whole week since I was working full-time, and they closed early like all other German businesses with very truncated Saturday hours and no Sunday sales. I had to re-draw all the cutting templates since the sheet size was so different than my assumption. But none of their other dimensional lumber was an English measure shown in metric; they were all true metric sizes. But not the plywood.

    It's a bit of a challenge to throw a 4 X 8, 19/32 piece of OSB onto those horses all by myself, but I persisted. It's not that it's so heavy (64 pounds), but it's so unwieldy. My first attempts would have been great on "America's Funniest Home Videos". The saw horse fell over towards me and almost smashed my toe, but almost doesn't count.

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    I'm keeping all the scrap of a usable size and proportion. There's going to be all sorts of opportunities to use all sorts of pieces of OSB during the construction.

    It will get easier going forward since it's always the planning and worrying that seems to take all the mental energy. Once you get into action it becomes easier with each piece. I've spent almost 3 years thinking about this rebuild, and at some point it almost seems like an impossibility.

    Also, sheet A was one of the more complicated with 5 pieces. And none of the pieces will have trouble getting down the cellar steps.

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