Hand Laid Track on a SWSM Layout

The portion of my layout I'm working on is described under the thread "Layout Planning for SWSM". It is intended to be a highly operational layout and so the reliability of trackwork is critical. The two key aspects of highly reliable track is good alignment and track quality, and good electrical conductivity of all track. I have already have a good start on the laying of track but will back up a bit and show how I've done things so far, and some of the lessons I've learned.

I will try to keep the commercial references to other manufacturers to a minimum. Other than curves, the majority of the track I've laid has been constructed using fixtures and tools from FastTracks. They have made great documentation and videos to show you how to build turnouts, so I'll leave it to you to follow them if you wish.

A couple of areas that I've found lacking is how to actually install, and wire and weather. That's part of what I hope to share in this thread. I'm not saying I'm an expert, or that I do it the best way, but what will follow is what I've found works well so far.



  • Looking forward to your commentary
  • Mark,

    This should be a very informative topic to follow along. I have always wanted to try my hand at using Fast Track turnout kits.

    Later, Dave S. Tucson, AZ
  • Thanks Terry and Dave. I'll show the prep work and installing of finished turnouts, and would appreciate any ideas or comments anyone would have to offer. I have found Tim Warris' material and tool lists spot on. Please ask any questions you have along the way, and I'll do my best to answer them.

  • The following photo shows the paper template for a #6 left-hand turnout. I print these out, one matching for each turnout on the layout.

    I printed out the layout full size on 2' x 3' sheets of paper at a local office supply. It was not prohibitively expensive and beats taping 8-1/2" x 11" sheets of paper together printed out at home. I laid the sheets out on the floor, taping them together, and then gluing them down onto the homasote subroadbed. Then using the alignment marks on each template, I aligned and glued down each turnout template.

    You can see in this photo that the long ties for the turnout throwbar do not necessarily fit on the same side as the template. So I made notes on the layout of the correct alignment of the throwbar ties.
    *the long siding on the right is for ONeills and Mortons.

    There is a fair amount of work on cutting the ties to length. This photo shows scale 8-1/2' ties, and 16' turnout ties. I cut ties to match each of the length of ties to match those required by the template. This allows for a rather quick repeatable setup of the cutter. If you look closely, you'll see that I wrote the number of each tie required on each tie in the grouping on the right. A #6 turnout requires 42 ties, the #10 turnout requires 56 ties.

    I keep each group of ties for each turnout separate in a small baggie, Then I stain each
    group and tape them together once I've verified that I have all of them. This photo shows one of the tie groups I have yet to install.
    stained ties_sm

    The heads of the spikes are too long to fit in correctly over the rail base. As you can see in this photo, I cut the heads of each spike roughly in half. This really makes a significant difference when it comes to spiking the rails in place.
    spikes 1_sm

    I've tried to cover the basics with couple of hints thrown in. Before we actually get to the installation steps I've included a photo showing the custom fixtures, tools, and jigs I have used for the turnouts and sidings shown done so far. If you are only making one or two turnouts, these may seem expensive, but I will be making about 17 #6 and 13 #10 turnouts for the layout. And frankly, the quality you get is far better than what you purchase.

    Thanks for reading this far.

  • Your track will be well worth the extra effort.
  • Hi Mark,

    Thank you posting this topic. I used the fast track straight template to make track for a recent build to see I i would like the system. I had a horrible disaster with PECO track in my garage since it is really humid in southern Illinois in the summer. The track popped off the plastic ties. I was looking for a better solution and the track system seem to work really well. Are you using any of the curved non switch templates ? I used the pre-made baltic birch tie sections and pliobond adhesive and was wondering do you have any need for the pliobond when spiking the track down ? I see you have the tie rack tie jigs. What do you think of these for laying the ties? The cost savings seems to be worth it since the pre-made sections are expensive.

  • Hi Jim,

    a lot of this layout involves curved switches so I couldn't justify the cost of the fixtures. I did get the radius guides for the two radii I use. I spike one rail against the guide and the use track gauges for the opposite rail and it seems to work well.

    I picked up a couple of the premade tie-strips for the turnouts, but liked the color variation of the individual ties.

    I really like the tie jigs. I have the mainline, branchline, and siding jigs. I show some photos of how I use them likely tonight. When used in conjunction with the straight fixtures, you simply skip every sixth tie in the jig to accommodate the PC board ties.

    I hope this helps. I be happy to answer any questions based on my experience.

  • Mark,

    Things are looking great and moving along quite well. Whose spikes were you using?

    Later, Dave S. Tucson, AZ
  • Thanks Dave, I'm using Micro-Engineering small spikes. They are long enough to extend into the subroadbed, and yet small enough to not look out of scale.

  • So once the ties are stained, I glue them down to the sub-roadbed using waterproof carpenters glue. These next photos show how I lay down the ties. The first photo shows a couple of turnouts with the ties glued down directly onto the templates.

    This shows an end view of a siding that I laid out using the tie jigs. I use wide tape for straight sections and a strip roughly one-third the width of that shown. You can see the guide lines on each side of the centerline as well as the ties skipped to accommodate the pc board ties on the fixture.
    tie tape_sm

    You see three different rows of straight track in this photo. The closest shows a section of installed mainline track with the PC board ties initially primed. The next shows mainline ties glued down, and the far strip is ties spaced for a siding. You can see the difference in the spacing.

    I use switch machines that mount under the layout. It is necessary to make a slot for the machine to activate the throwbar. I take an awl and use it to create four or five pilot holes between the rails for the throwbar. I then drill out these pilot holes with a 5/32" drill bit and then drill at angles between the holes until I have opened up the hole. I then use a flat file to smooth out the sides and make it uniform. If I make any marks on the ties, I touch them up with stain later.
    One other item of note is that I remove subroadbed under the area where the throwbar will move to allow it room to move freely.

    This is a place where I depart from the standard instructions. I try to construct sections of track with full length rail when possible. Minimizing rail gaps reduces the number of chances for misalignment and derailments. This photo shows two turnouts I have constructed. You can see where I have started soldering the ties in place for the lead in straight section. I normally allow about one inch extra on each end for overlap with the connecting track.

    This is a closeup of the throwbar. This is about as long as I ever make them using the under track switch machines. I simply want enough tie to make sure it holds the rails down under the stock rails. You can see the hole for the throw wire from the switch machine as well as the grooves that electrically isolate one rail from the other.

    I use operating switch stands for each turnout. This is an end view of the throwbar. If you look closely, you will see a small hole drilled into the end of the throwbar. I insert the activating wire into this hole to make it appear as an extension of the mechanism. I could have also drilled a hole into the top end of the throwbar, but it looks less prototypical.
    throwbar end_sm

    I expect the next update to this thread will be to discuss wiring. I hope you are finding something of interest in this.

  • Excellent Mark and thank you for the thorough explanations and accompanying pics. I'm in class and learning a bunch, much appreciated !!
  • Thanks for your efforts, Mark...anticipating each episode of your tutorial
  • edited April 2019
    Hi Mark,
    Thank you for doing the pictures. This is very helpful. I will likely have some questions as you do this. Two questions are :

    1. Are you going to use tortoise switches or something else?
    2. I was wondering about wiring the switches and track from the side of the rails after installation verses underneath then installing. Any advantages or disadvantages of either method you can thing of.

    Pictures are worth a thousand words. Thank you again.

  • Thanks Paul, Terry and Jim for the kind words. I worked on the straight section of lead in track to the mainline turnout so don't really have pictures yet to post of new items. Jim's questions bring up a couple of different points that converge on a discussion of the "why" on wiring. I tried to create a drawing, but if you are familiar with turnouts, then you have heard the term "frog". The frog and closure rails are the most critical as far as alignment but also present some unique challenges as far as wiring.

    This photo shows the general parts of a turnout.

    If you look at the flow of the tracks, you can see the frog is is the common section of rails between both routes. If we just use therms of N and S for opposite rails on a route. The frog has to be S for one route, and N for the opposite route. For this reason the frog needs to be electrically isolated from the rest of the track as you can see below.

    When you look at commercial turnouts, some simply use a formed plastic frog, which causes an electrical deadspot. Others have an electrically isolated frog which must be wired independently. In building these turnouts, the frog is electrically isolated from the other rails by filing gaps in the copper on the pc-board ties, and by cutting a gap in the rails at each end of the frog/closure rail area.

    The closure rails are those movable rails which physically change the direction of the train. In order to insure reliable operation it is best to wire them to the appropriate polarity instead of relying only on the point contact with the stock rails. This is accomplished in the handlaid tracks I build by soldering the matching rails to common isolated copper on the ties, which is conceptually shown in the drawing below.

    So to answer Jim's first question, yes I do use tortoise switch machines because they have been on the market a long time, are very reliable, and can be wired to automatically switch the frog to the appropriate polarity. I'll show the wiring for the tortoise in another update.

    I prefer to attach my wire to the bottom of the rails. This requires me to trim away part of the tie directly under the rail where soldered which requires some additional planning during installation. If done correctly, it is absolutely invisible which is the the reason I do it.

    You also can solder the wires to the side of the rails. If I were to do this, I would choose to solder them to the outside of the rails to ensure they present no risk of obstruction to the wheels passing along, but that is just personal choice, though I have no experience soldering them to the inside. I believe if done with care, that could be successful as well.
    The other challenge for me would be how to camouflage the solder joints aesthetically.

    Thanks again. I'll add more when I get the wires attached.


  • Wow Mark, nice work and well above my pay grade!
  • Mark,

    I agree with Ken's comments. "Well above my pay grade." But I think if I read it often enough and study your photos hard I might be able to execute it someday and use it to build a functioning turnout for a diorama.

    Great photos and illustrations. I was wondering if you are using a resistance soldering unit or the traditional soldering iron?

    Some ramblings from someone who doesn't know much about soldering. Wondering if drilling small holes in the brass ties then soldering from underneath might help tidy things up a bit. I guess I am looking for guidance from someone with much more soldering experience than I have or might ever have.

    Later, Dave S. Tucson, AZ
  • Dave,

    You will be surprised how straightforward the whole process is. I use a 35W normal soldering iron which is one of the tools you can purchase as you get your supplies. I also use a very fine thread of acid core solder. When you see the process below, I think you will see that drilling and soldering from underneath would not be very functional using the fixtures.

    When you use the fixtures, you prepare the ties by cutting them to length, dressing the ends and sides, and dress the upper surface for soldering and file the gaps in the copper foil. You then place the ties in the fixture. At this point you lay the rails in on top of them in the fixture, applying flux to each tie, rail joint. I think you can get by with a lighter solder joint than I use, but for me, having the joint secure is paramount. I don't want to have a loose rail three years from now. As a final step, you take a steel brush to the assembly which helps clean up the solder.

    Once painted, it is really hard to spot. I'll show that later on the painting and weathering step.

    I used to hand spike all my track without the use of fixtures. If I were to just be building a diorama and not worried about the operation of it, I would probably revert to hand-spiking all the rails in place and forego the fixtures.

    But there is a youngster who made a comment above saying "well above my pay grade!" who does some of the most amazing detailed trackwork, to include modeling individual spike heads on each tie. Yes, Ken, I stand in rapt admiration to your skills.

    I think the key is to find what works for you and go with it. I have had to strike a balance between what looks prototypical, what gives the best operational reliability, and works with the time I have. Other than being an engineer, I am also husband, pastor, and grandfather, so time actually is key consideration.

    Well enough rambling. I hope this helps, I truly appreciate the questions.

  • Hi Mark,
    Thank you for taking the time to do this. I now have a better understanding of the switches and wiring and placement of the wires. I am really looking forward to more!
    I am completely in on the fast tracks system.
    Thanks again
  • I figured that I would add one more picture into the mix since I probably won't get to actually soldering wires until Sunday.

    I would strongly suggest that you come up with a color code for your wiring on the layout. If you use motorized switch machines, you will have at least five different wire colors typically associated with the switch machines. These wires will be:
    Switch Machine + In (blue)
    Switch Machine - In (yellow)
    Track + In (black)
    Track -In (white)
    Frog - Out (green)

    It is really important that you set a plan for which rail will be which polarity. If you get them crossed, it will cause a short circuit in your wiring. The portion of the layout I am working on is a yard with sidings within a loop. So I have decided that the rail closest to the center of the layout is + or N. So even though I show a given color scheme above, it can change depending on the orientation and location of the turnout on the layout.

    For track wiring, I use black and white for bus wires, and red and white for feeder wires (This came up as a result of a wire colors available in thermostat wire that I use for feeders that only comes in red and white)
    I use green for the wiring to the frog since it will can be different polarity.

    You can see where I make connections to the turnout itself in the picture below. The colors shown are not the actual wire colors but were chosen for visibility.

    You can see that I attach wires to each of the stock rails, the frog, and each of the rails that become the frog. Above all, I do not want to have to contend with dead spots in the track after everything is installed. I will sometimes omit the wires to the frog approach rails if I am soldering them to the adjoining segments of rail.

    My next post should be to show where to place the wires in relation to the other trackwork and soldering. Thanks for following along.

  • Thanks for all the great information Mark. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us!
  • Mark,

    Thanks for that detailed reply.

    Later, Dave S. Tucson, AZ
  • I use an awl to make a pilot hole where I want the feeders to go through the sub-roadbed. When I am selecting where to place the wires, I try to locate them at least two ties away from a PC board tie to help not loosening any other solder joints. As you can see from the photo, I select the location by centering the holes on the rail indicated on the template. I then use a 3/32" drill bit to drill the holes for the wire.
    stright holes sm

    Next, place the turnout in the correct position on the ties. The absolute, most critical aspect of the alignment is the position of the throwbar relative to the ties. This photo shows the correct positioning of the throwbar precisely centered between the ties.
    slot align_sm

    Next, make a small mark on the rail head where the feeder is to be attached. As a means to keep things straight, I plan on soldering wires from this mark towards the diverging rails.
    straight marking sm

    This photo shows a typical alignment for a curved turnout. Note there are two holes that are not on the template. These holes have to be placed on the location of the actual rails. I have found it key to use the rail where it is held in gauge by the PC board ties.
    curve holes sm

    This photo shows how I place the tip of the awl under the rail making a small indent where I want the holes to be drilled.
    curve marks sm

    It can seem like some of this is a bit tedious. But similar to the work on SWSM kits, the details along the way impact the overall quality of the results. Thanks for continuing to follow this thread.

  • Mark, excellent information and thank you very much. I am learning a lot and your well thought out explanations with the pictures are clarifying this whole process for me. Very much appreciate you taking the time to do this for us !!
  • Mark,

    Great tutorial. Much like several others I am learning quite a bit. The photos help tremendously.

    Later, Dave S. Tucson, AZ
  • Well, sometimes life happens in the interim. With Easter, my son and his family moving into their new house, my hands were full for a while. Before placing the track onto the subroadbed,
    Once I have the turnouts soldered, and basically fabricated, the next stop is to paint the ties. I have found a tan primer that works well that allows me to pretty much paint one coat that forms the basis of the weathering.

    The next two photos show the primer used for the PC board ties.
    01 paint sm

    02 paint sm

    I focus on ensuring the upper, side, and ends of the PC board ties are well painted. The bottoms of the ties are relatively unimportant as they are hidden from view.
    03 painted track sm

    This shows the solder I use for attaching the feeder wires to the rails. It is rosin core and very fine, which helps to use only the amount of solder necessary.
    04 solder sm

    This is the soldering iron setup I use for all rail and electrical work.
    05 soldering iron sm

    It really is critical to have the tip of the soldering iron properly conditioned. This first photo shows the typical condition of the tip after the iron has heated up from being cold. I start out by taking a steel brush similar to the type we use for texturing strip wood. I just try to knock off any loose material.
    06 si sm

    I apply a small amount of solder to the tip of the iron then stick the tip into the container of flux. See the next photo for the results.
    07 si sm

    Once the tip is tinned, I use the steel brush to even out the finish of the iron. Now we are ready to go.
    08 si sm

    I use 18 gauge thermocouple wire for the feeders. The thermocouple wire comes encased in an outer insulation jacket. I first start by splitting the end with a utility knife and pulling the insulation back to expose the two wires inside.
    10 wires sm

    I set out all the feeder wires I will need for the turnouts and track I intend on installing. The two green feeders shown are 22 gauge wire for connecting to the frogs of the turnouts.
    11 wires sm

    I strip back about 1/4" of insulation from each of the feeders as shown in this photo.
    12 wires sm

    I place a number of wires in the jaws of a pair of extra clamps to hold them for tinning. Tinning is the process of applying a small layer of solder to a wire to allow it to be soldered more readily to the rail.
    13 wires sm

    This photo shows a set of feeders that have just been tinned.
    14 wires sm

    Just before attaching the feeders to the rails, I place a 90-degree bend in each feeder about 1/8" long as shown in this photo.
    15 wires sm

    If you look closely in the next two photos, you can see a small lump of solder on the rails where they are to be soldered. I transferred the marks from the railheads to the underside of the rail at each feeder location.
    I then hold the soldering iron on the rail until it heats up and then momentarily touch the solder at the rail-soldering iron point of contact which leaves a small lump of solder.
    This photo shows how I hold the feeder on the solder before I attach it. I simply hold the soldering iron along the wire against the rail which heats the solder on the wire and rail, causing them to flow together. Keep holding the wire until the joint is cooled
    20 track holding sm

    If you look closely in this and the previous photo, you will notice a long line on the bottom of a couple of rails. I used this as a flag to know which rails to attach the positive (red) feeders to.
    This photo shows the feeders attached to one of the turnouts. At this time, I make sure to give each of the feeders a tug to ensure they are firmly physically attached to the rails. Then I use a multimeter and ensure that I have a good electrical connection between each feeder and the rail. I set the meter to make a beep when I have good conductivity.
    21 wires connected sm

    This photo shows the feeders fed down through the subroadbed. Once they are through, simply pull them from underneath to pull the turnout down to gently rest on the ties. Do not worry about snugging them down tight, as we still have to trim the ties out from under the feeder-rail connection points.
    22 wires  sm

    Depending on the placement of the feeders on the bottom of the rails, it may tend to force the turnout slightly out of alignment. This photo shows the alignment of the throw bar as it initially lays down. You can see that it is jammed to one side. This needs to be adjusted. Hopefully, if you have taken care to get the feeders in the right position, you will not have to resolder any feeders.
    23 throwbar sm

    I took the same pliers used to hold the feeders to the rails (see photo above), gripping the stock rails and pushed the turnout back so that the throw bar is centered in the gap between the ties. You can clearly see this in this photo.
    24 throwbar sm

    The next steps will be to trim the ties from under the solder connection and then to spike the turnout in place. We will get there in the next installment. Thanks for following along.

  • Mark, I couldn't have explained it better. I did exactly the same when I placed my track and turnouts. Except, I have all wood ties.
    Very good tutorial for soldering aswel.
    I will follow along :smile:
  • Thanks Robert.

    I appreciate the kind comment. I migrated to using the PC board ties for consistency and more reliable operation but you can certainly do these steps and just take the time to spike or glue the rail to all wooden ties.

    Thanks also for your exceedingly artistic contributions to the forum. You have amazing skill at scenery and details.

  • edited May 2019
    Great tutorial, Mark....a few posts back you mentioned you were a Pastor....I’m guessing your sermons/homilies are as entertaining and informative as this tutorial ....thanks for your efforts on both counts
  • Thanks, Terry. One thing I learned in the military is to try and present the material so it is easy for everyone to understand. I've done a bit of traveling lately, so have not been able to put together another post. Fortunately for anyone following, I think I am past most of the quirky things. the next things are relatively simple, trimming the ties and then looking at the wiring.

    I asked earlier, but if there is anything that anyone would like me to address, I will be happy to throw in my two-cents worth.

  • I love the look of handlaid track. A coat of AK Interactive "Wash for Wood" will make those gray ties match the wood ties very nicely.
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