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  • John

A Well-Tempered Layout

Let’s assume you are new to the wonderful hobby of model railways and want to build a layout, either for yourself or a child or grandchild. Or, perhaps, you have some experience in the hobby and want a fresh start or, maybe, another layout. Whatever the individual circumstances regarding the decision to build a model railway, I assume the reason for wanting to do so is to have fun. What follows are some ideas about how to build a well-tempered layout where you will be able to enjoy playing with trains. You can build the layout in any scale and gauge you like and more information about these is HERE. My preference is ‘N’ Gauge as the little trains are really attractive and a layout doesn’t require much space. I have written what follows with ‘N’ Gauge in mind, but most of it is applicable to whatever scale and gauge you choose.

Please don’t be surprised by my writing this, but a well-tempered layout doesn’t start with the baseboard and tracklaying. I believe it starts before that – at the planning stage. The planning process can be based on three factors: track and trains, track plan, and baseboard. It’s well worth investing time, thought and a little bit of research at the planning stage. I think it’s a good idea to do some research and experimentation to find a combination of track and locomotives (and, to a lesser extent, rolling stock) that are happy together. For instance, many manufacturers now specify Peco second radius curves, or similar, as a minimum for their products. But Union Mills locomotives are carefully designed to be happy on Peco first radius curves. Care taken at this stage will help you to decide what track system to use and what the minimum radius curves will be. In the old days of the train set, this was done for us by the manufacturer. Although there are a few manufacturers still supplying a good range of both track and trains, it is rarer nowadays to find a layout using track and trains from a single manufacturer. Therefore, your research into what will run well with what is important. Once you have this in mind, you can start to think about a track plan.

For an ‘N’ Gauge layout, Peco ‘Setrack’ and Union Mills locomotives work particularly well together.

Please don’t be too ambitious and try to make the layout too big. A smaller layout is much easier to look after, particularly when it comes to track cleaning. Please bear in mind that all parts of the layout ought to be easily accessible. It’s a good idea to take some time to work out what is your own comfortable width to lean over. Will you still be comfortable leaning this far in five years’ time?

What about portability? Will the layout require to be moved? If so, will this be a regular requirement or only on rare occasions? How many, if any, people will be available to help? What is easy to move at present might be a lot more difficult when you are five years older.

Consideration of these factors will have led you to the size of the layout and the track plan. Please remember to leave some space between any track and the baseboard edge to avoid your trains accidentally plunging floorwards. The baseboard will likely have some cross-bracing beneath its surface. Having your track plan finalised before you start to build the baseboard will help you avoid a cross-bracing beam being in an inconvenient place, such as where you want to drill a hole.

To summarise, before any work starts on the layout it is a good idea to have established what trains you want to run and a track configuration with which they will be happy. This, together with considerations of size and portability, will have been the fundamental factors underlying your track plan. Having prepared your track plan and knowing where the power feeds to the track and the point operation system will be located has helped you design the baseboard. Work can now commence!

Although some very sophisticated baseboard building techniques are available, for a first layout a simple table-top baseboard is probably best. It is important that the baseboard is flat and level, and that it stays that way. Any imperfections on the baseboard surface will likely be obvious and troublesome once trains start to run. If in doubt about your woodworking skills, there are now several suppliers which can provide easily assembled baseboard kits.

Although commonplace on large, sophisticated model railways, it is best to avoid baseboard joints at this stage. Or, if unavoidable, minimise them and please make sure that they are situated below straight, plain track. One of the great advantages of ‘N’ Gauge is it is possible to build a very nice little layout on a single baseboard. No baseboard joints required!

The flat, level baseboard for Poppingham. It is only three feet by two feet and can be easily carried by one person.

Once you have a track plan and a baseboard, it is time to lay the track. Please take care with track laying. A flat, level baseboard surface pays dividends. And so does accurately laid track. I suggest sectional track for a first layout. All that needs to be done is to lay the track pieces on the baseboard, with no bending or cutting required. I prefer to pin down the track as that means it can be removed more easily. Alternatively, it can be glued. There are several manufacturers of sectional track. I have experience of Peco and Kato, and both are excellent. I suggest at this stage you avoid gradients; especially steep, curving gradients.

It is also a good idea to avoid facing points* where possible. If these are necessary, it’s helpful to have a short length of straight track between the end of a curve and a facing point.

It is likely that, at some time, you will need to replace a failed set of points. How easy will this be to accomplish? The best time to think about this is at the design and track-laying stages, not a couple of years later when the points have failed. It is very easy to end up in a situation where you feel that construction must have started with these points and then the entire layout was built around them.

Please minimise wiring and electrical circuits. Any necessary wires benefit from being easily identifiable. How accessible is the wiring? Attempting to solder a connection above my head in a confined space below a layout is not my idea of entertainment. There is an assumption nowadays towards electrically operated points, but are these necessary? Old-fashioned manual control is fun and reliable.

Please have more than one power feed to the layout, including to each loop on an oval layout. The electrons will thank you for this, as they prefer to travel through a nice copper wire than through the nickel-silver rails, with rail joints every so often to further impede their progress.

The track for Poppingham has been laid with care. This layout has manual point operation using wooden dowels – very traditional and completely reliable.

I like to sit down to operate my layout. Having the baseboard at just below chin height when seated gives, in my opinion, an attractive viewing height. No matter what height you decide, it helps if all controls are easily to hand and there is a convenient place for a teacup or wine glass.

I’m conscious the points I’ve made here raise some questions and areas for discussion. I hope to consider these in future Blog posts.

One last thing – my favourite gardening author is the late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter in East Sussex. One of his best-known books is The Well-Tempered Garden. I like the idea of a well-tempered garden and a well-tempered layout. Both are things to enjoy rather than endure.

* ‘Facing Points’ is the term used by railways to describe points where a train changes from one track to another as it moves forward. The danger is that the points might move while the train is passing over them. There have been serious accidents because of this and, on real railways, special locking mechanisms are required. In the past the railway companies in Great Britain went to considerable lengths to avoid facing points where at all possible. The alternative is called ‘Trailing Points.’ Here a train has to pass over the points and then reverse through them to change direction. This arrangement is common at crossovers between the lines on a double track railway and for the entrance to sidings and goods yards.

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