Friday, June 26, 2009


I have used two different types of roadbed. The first is easy - homosote. In the yard areas and in staging, I just use homosote as the underlayment for the track. The homosote is attached to 1/2" plywood which is supported from the benchwork using risers to obtain the appropriate height. I did want to have the main line elevated above the yard tracks, sidings and industry spurs. To do this I have used California Roadbed (formerly Homobed ) to elevate the main and also to transition from the main to the lower level tracks. Here are some photos of the homosote/plywood sandwich and the elevated track in what will eventually be Carpinteria.



The second style of roadbed is spline. I chose the hardboard (masonite) spline as used by Lee
Nicholas and Joe Fugate ( I have modified it just a bit. I use 6 - 3/4" plys of 1/4" hardboard. I lay in the first two to get the location, curvature and elevation. The spline above the "L-girders" are supported by normal risers. The splines near the thin wall are supported using risers which are cantelivered off the stiffeners of the thin walls. Once the first two hardboard strips are in then I add in 2 additional plys on either side of the center two. One additional piece of hardboard is cut in two on a 45 degree angle and each piece is glued to one side or the other providing a roadbed profile. Ends are staggered to connect one 8 foot section to the next. Some of the splines are arranged to leave holes in the spline about every three feet of so to allow for power feeds for the track. I use yellow carpinter's glue and lots of clamps. The spines are attached to the homosote/plywood by keying one of the center splines into a notch in the homosote/plywood. The height of the spline matches up with the homosote or the elevated homobed. The spline is smoothed using a shure foam plane and a belt sander before the track is layed. Here are some photos:

Traditional Benchwork

So what is traditional benchwork? I guess by that term I mean things like Linn Wescott's "L-Girder" or the old open grid type benchwork. Maybe you can include just flat spaces made from plywood over some support. I used it all. I try not to play favorites. I even used some shelf brackets to support one of the staging yards and hopefully some day some levels above that.

To begin with I needed to transfer my plan to the garage. I had an idea to put tape down on the epoxy floor and then build the benchwork above that so that we could judge where things would go. I purchased some wide colored duct tape and cut the whole roll on the table saw to make narrower rolls. Then I invited my local model railroad club over for a work night. If you do this make sure you have a list of tasks to keep everyone busy. Make them easy tasks so that you do not have to re-explain the job numerous times. Make sure you have some good eats for the crew. It helps to encourage them to come back for later work days.

What I did was have them come over and make "L-girders", lay tape, and put up a few thin wall stiffeners. Here are some photos of the May 29, 2007 work session.

A few days later Gary Siegel came over and we [Gary made the decisions based on the tape on the floor and I assisted. After all he has already built a beautiful layout and has the experience.] assembled the benchwork. It took a couple of days but from there it was easy to lay in the yards and the roadbed. Here are some photos of the finished benchwork.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

First Operating Session?

I sometimes have a hard time with delayed gratification. I often buy models that I hope to some day have running on my layout. I bought a used System One DCC system but it sat in a box for several years before I had an opportunity to use it.

I had a portion of "L-girder" benchwork along the south wall which I had built for the erstwhile Carpinteria Cambria and Northern. It had a plywood and homosote "sandwich" on top so I layed down some flextrack and put in one switch. I then proceeded to hook up the System One equipment and ran a couple of engines that had decoders in them. It was fun but I still had a long way until I could have an operating session. Or at least so I thought.

On January 23, 2007, I had some members of the local model train club, the South Coast Society for Model Engineers, over to my house. We were going to look at some videos and I was going to explan my plans. Some of the thin walls were already in but not the rest of the bench work. As we went into the garage, I got a phone call. When I got done with the call, I joined the crew and to my amazement, they had grabbed a couple throttles and were switching cars off a train into the single stub track. I am not sure I can really count it as an operating session but everyone was having fun.

First Operating crew - L to R, John Ryan, Walter Naumann, Art Aldritt, Paul Gannaway, and Joe Heumphreus, Tuesday evening about 8:00pm, January 23, 2007

Thin Walls

I call this "Thin Wall Construction" as an easy name for one-eighth inch thick, eight foot high, structural walls for model railroading. What follows is a description of the problem and the construction of a solution.
Many model railroaders always seem to complaining that they do not have enough room for their layouts. Solutions can include designing a smaller layout, joining a club with a large layout, moving to a larger house, or building a building specifically for your layout.
The need for this extra space may be more mainline, more yards, or wider aisles. The approach I took was to minimize some of the benchwork.

I am building an HO scale layout that I anticipate will be multi-level in its later phases. Originally, I considered building stud walls and cantilevering the benchwork for each level off the wall. Stud walls are usually constructed with 2x4’s with the wide side cross wise. 2x4 dimensions are 1½”x 3½”. The 3½” dimension equals 25.375 scale feet -enough room for another track or a backdrop flat. If we turn the wall sideways so the 1½”is cross wise, that will reduce the space to 10.875 scale feet.

Walter Naumann, our model railroad club's physicist asked “What happens if you use 1/8” plywood? If the plywood is curved it would create structural strength. Adding external ribs below the track and anchoring the edges should gain stability from buckling.” I noted that would reduce the space to 0.90625 scale feet. Since the ribs are below the track and support it they don’t add to the 1/8” thickness at the track level where the scenery will be.
So we agreed one day to try it. It is much like the external ribs on some tanker trucks.

First we provided anchors for the edges of the 1/8” plywood. We marked the floor with the approximate location of the wall. Then we cut ¾” boards to place on the ceiling so we could fix the wall on the top. We secured one stud at the beginning of the wall, and then secured one end of the plywood to the stud. The floor to ceiling distance is 99”. The plywood is 96” tall. In order to secure the wall, we attached some wood blocks to the floor. The blocks were anchored to the floor first and then the wall was curved to place. The wall was secured top and bottom using blocks to maintain the curvature. After the first 4’x8’ panel was up, the second was attached to the first using liquid nails and temporarily attached with short 1” drywall screws through both pieces of plywood and into a 1x2.
Marking the floors

Attaching ceiling boards
Floor Blocks

End Stud

First two panels showing temporary 1x2

Walter lifting his weight on the first external rib

We then proceeded in adding the external ribs. Using an improvised divider to scribe a piece of ¾” pine, we cut a rib that fit nicely into the curve of the plywood. The rib was attached. Just to see how strong it was Walter lifted his weight on the rib and the wall did not move. It looked like it was working, so we continued with more panels.

Initially we used Luan plywood which is readily available at many “big box” stores. We also bought a sheet of Birch plywood to compare. The one panel of Birch ply seems as if it is more structurally stable.

About a week latter we removed the 1x2’s and the screws, which had temporarily held the joints in place while the glue set. We added several additional exterior ribs to stiffen the areas at the inflections of curvature. Once again Walter decided to test the wall. This time he put his full 200 pounds of weight on the wall by climbing the external ribs. Again it held. Clearly more weight than will be applied to the wall by standard NMRA weighted cars.

Walter on the wall

In addition to strength, the wall is stiff. It is effectively a wall that is eight
inches thick with a 1/8 wall at each edge. It is as stiff to hand hammering as a 2x4 wall. For the math inclined, stiffness increases as the cube of the thickness and the effective thickness is eight inches.

Additional Thoughts
The wall is up but not completed. I would like to try some laminated hardboard spline instead of the ¾” pine for some of the external ribs. The addition of ribs at the other levels will further strengthen the wall. The ribs should be spliced together with a doubler under them for maximum strength.

The joints on the panels still need to be filled before the basic “sky blue” backdrop can be painted on. Drywall compound should do well to smooth the crack discontinuity and patch the edges. A thin coat over all may be the quickest, least expensive way to fill the grain in the wood.
The bottoms and tops and edges of the plywood should be anchored continuously on about one inch spacing. The screws can be small because the strength limit is the plywood. This is most important at the extremes of the curves, and in most places that is the only places at the top and bottom we attached. Again, the strength seems to be there without screws at the inflections, but like continuous ribs, screws there will prevent buckling.

Some of the curves we put into the wall were down to a track radius. Less curvature would work because of our more than sufficient strength. The one area made with birch plywood 1/8” thick has a curvature of about 2 inches over 36 inches with a greater curve at the end. It has roughly the same stiffness as the Luan plywood with greater curvature,
The beauty of the curved walls in not only esthetic but the track will curve through these areas to partially take advantage of them. Finally, the walls will provided that necessary view block to locations beyond the train location which is so important in timetable/train order operation and for creating the feeling of distance on the railroad.

Walter says he appreciates that I was willing to try another of his model railroading “crazy” ideas.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Layout Design

This is another in the series of retrospectives to catch up to current status.

General Layout Planning

I really enjoy looking at layout plans. I have been doing it since the 1960's through the commercial press. In 1996 at the NMRA Convention in Long Beach, I discovered the Layout Design Special Interest Group (LDSIG)and became a member. Besides meeting a lot of great people that have the same passion for layout designs, I have gotten a lot of design assistance. The LDSIG website has a layout design primer with all sorts of suggestions. It is a place where you can put up possible designs for review and receive comments that might help. You can also post progress on your own layout projects in the post design stage.
The LDSIG also is very active in my area having several meetings annually at regional meets and a dedicated SIG meet in Santa Clara. The LDSIG always has a presence at the NMRA national conventions and it is always the high point of conventions for me to participate in these activities, including tours, clinics, displays, consultations, and just good conversations with fellow members. Somewhere along the way I became aware of the need to design for operations and so joined the Operations Special Interest Group (OpSIG) which also has an excellent website to support another beneficial organization.

Kalmbach started publishing Model Railroad Planning as a special annual in 1995. I have and read all of them. Many LDSIG members have had articles published within its covers and MRP has highlighted the LDSIG on several occassions. It is an invaluable source of information and inspiration.

I had the space, even if it was filling up with stuff, from the time we moved into the house. The big problem was what to put into it. To try and decide on that I read about layout design and visited other layouts. I tried to operate as much as possible to determine what I enjoyed doing most and to see how other layout designs functioned. I am very fortunate to live nearby Gary Siegel's L&N EK Division of the problems with Gary's layout is that it is large and well done so it becomes somewhat intimidating. But it is wonderful to operate on and to learn from. Gary has the ability to plan his railroads in his head and then execute the plan to create amazing views and prototypical operational capability. I think it comes from years of study.

At first I was considering a freelance railroad and designed a railroad called the Carpinteria, Cambria and Northern. It ran up the California Central Coast from Carpinteria to above Cambria where it crossed over the Coast Range to connect with the Southern Pacific at San Miguel. It included several locations and routes that would never have been served by a railroad because of terrain but it was fun to think about. Somewhere I may have some of the old plans I did on Empire Express, a good planning tool for MACs, but basically the CC&N has all but disappeared. I think there are still some CC&N entries in the OpSIG Industry Database.

As I did more research into what I wanted to do, I kept coming back to the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was the railroad I remembered while growing up and it was the railroad that ran along the section I wanted to model including two blocks away from home. So somewhere in the distant past I joined the Southern Pacific Historical and Technical Society (SPH&TS) [ ] and have enjoyed another sector of our wonderful hobby. Attending SPH&TS meets over the past 12 years has been very beneficial to my planning. My appetite for published material on the Southern Pacific has spawned a massive library of books, timetables, brochures and other ephemera. It is also another great way to delay building a layout. Here is a copy of a Coast Division Map found on the back of the old timetables, to which I have added the route of my proposed and now under construction layout:


One of the tools that I started using for my layout design was 3rd PlanIt ( I drew a blank from dimensions of the garage and used it to doodle on. I also gave them to friends and they doodled as well. Here is the blank. Feel free to doodle on your own if you wish but keep in mind that I am already well into construction so it is just an academic exercise. I do recommend doing this for your own design. As you will see below there are lots of designs that could fit into the space.
I did ask some of my friends to give me some ideas by drawing some plans in the available space. Jon Cure, who has a wonderful Southern Pacific layout on a slightly freelanced Inyo Subdivision ( ) grew up in Santa Barbara and has a good feel for traffic patterns along the Coast. He submitted this interesting plan:
Walter Naumann, who built a freelanced UP layout in his carved-out-of-the-hillside basement, submitted a mushroom design:
Here are the designs I came up with that I thought I wanted to try. This is just the lower level. There were plans to have three levels! The second level would have Lompoc where Carpinteria is on the first level with the wye at Surf over the curve just beyond Summerland on the first level. I doodled some ideas of having modules extend out into the driveway above the plan [Carpinteria is in the open garage door.] make a loop and come back into the garage at the second level. There was to be a staging yard underneath in a sliding drawer as used by John Signor as well as the Silicon Valley Lines club in San Jose. The third level would take me over Cuesta above San Luis Obispo and end at San Miguel before returning back down via a massive helix.
There were at least three major problems with this plan - three “blobs”, outside operation, a blocked back door, and complicated benchwork for the upper decks. I decided to attack the blobs first and put out a request for help to some of my friends.
Here is Mike O'Brien's idea:
Here is Gary Siegel's rough sketches:

I kept looking at everything and tried to figure out how to fit it all in. Then I found something else. I have another friend, Byron Henderson, who as the former Layout Design Journal editor helped me along with publishing several articles. Byron is active with the LDSIG and he and I have a friendly competition to see who gets their model railroad up and running first. We are both still working on it. Byron has a great blog at and provides professional design services through Model Rail Services Byron Henderson wrote an article in Model Railroad Planning 2004 about the "X-FactorStaging". The idea appealed to me and looked like it might fit into my plan. You can see the layout Byron used at Byron's N-scale design is actually just an oval with two branches and the X-factor staging behind the branches. I took Jon's plan and flipped it over, added Byron's idea and came up with the following plan:

It looked like it would work but I was not real pleased with the tight curves in the Santa Barbara yard. Someone, and I am sorry I forgot who it was, suggested I move the yard to the outside of the curve. I did that and the "final" plan looks more like this:
Well that is it for this edition. Next time we will talk about benchwork and "Thin Walls"

Friday, June 19, 2009

Layout Space

I promised some retrospective so that you can see what has already transpired on the SP Santa Barbara Subdivision. This is the first blog which primarily looks at the space and preparation of the layout room.

When we first moved into our current home, I looked for a space for a possible model railroad. There were several possibilities.

The house has a large 17' x 34' "Family Room" which was an addition along the back of the house. My wife actually offered that as a possibility. It looks out a large sliding glass door into our back yard. The ceiling slopes from just over 8' to about 12'8". Plenty of room to build a good sized model railroad, maybe even using a mushroom design. The big issue for me was that the house is not just for model trains and I felt the room was better served as a space for the family to entertain and also to enjoy looking out on the yard. I do have another vice - books. Instead of a model railroad, I built an 8' tall bookcase that covers one of the 17' walls. Even so we do not have enough space for all our books.

There are four bedrooms in the house and there were only my wife and I along with our daughter and son. That meant theoretically there was an extra bedroom. There are plenty of plans for model railroads based on bedroom sized rooms so this was also a possibility. We ended up using one for our computer room but also had a futon in it for guests.

I did have a friend, Paul Catapano, offer to build me a large purpose-built building. He did an addition on his garage, adding a second story for his model railroad. He calls it the "Garage Mahal". It is a great space for his railroad, but I decided to decline and keep within the current footprint of the house.

Lastly, there was the garage. I decided this was the best space to allow me to build something yet keep peace in the family and utilize the house space for its intended purposes. The garage is basically 25' x 20'. We decided to park a car in the garage. That limited me but we started out by putting a stripe down the middle of the garage.

There are some interesting plans that utilize a garage and still share it with the automobile. Take a look at

This is a page that has some links to the Design Challenge held in 2004 at the Bay Area Layout Design & Operations Weekend. The event is held every January or February and draws over 100 people to discuss layout design and operation as well as to tour some excellent layouts and actually operate on some of them. If you have a chance to attend, I highly recommend it. Back to the Design Challenge. Look at the four files. It is best to start with chllng_1_2.pdf as this talks about the parameters of the challenge which is basically a two car garage where a compact car still needs to fit into the garage and share the space with the railroad.

So I started doodling plans for a space of 20' x 12'. Lots of other activities took my time including the growing family and work. Not much was accomplished but it was fun dreaming about how I could fill the space.

Unfortunately, the space did fill up.

It is truly amazing how fast it filled up. Dreaming about the layout and being tempted by sales of model kits and locomotives, saving model railroad magazines with "pertinent" articles, changing scales a bit and acquiring some G-gauge locos, collecting a prototype switchstand and sections of rail. all added to the pile. Whenever, we needed to quickly clean the house the "stuff" ended up in the garage on the side where the layout was suppose to go. This clearly was not going to work. Note the white line just to the left of the growing pile of "stuff".

Eventually, I knew I had to do something so I moved everything out of the garage and into the family room and started preping the space. This entailed finishing the garage. There was dry wall only on the walls adjacent to the house, the other three walls, including the garage door were bare stud walls. Also the space was open all the way to the roof. I wanted to put in a ceiling, and finish the walls. I also started considering some sort of floor treatment. All of this was to cut down on dust and to control the temperature in the space. Even though I live in Southern California, the summer made the garage very warm and the winter made it quite chilly.

One other issue: When the house was built they never put in all the ceiling joists! The joists were spaced about 24" on center until you got to the street side and suddenly there were spaces of 48". This would not do if I was going to put up a dry wall ceiling. So with the help of my wife we added a couple of joists. Have you ever put in a joist after the roof is on? It is not easy. We had 22' 2x4's but they would not fit without turning them on their sides, bending the middle towards the floor and slipping the ends on a diagonal
up to and on top of the header blocks. This was finally accomplished.

The dry wall was added to the walls with the addition of bats of insulation in the spaces between the studs. That was the easy part.

To do the ceiling, I recruited members of my local model railroad club. They came over and we managed to get all the ceiling up.

That left me to do the taping and mudding. Note attic access door has been installed.

It went well and shortly I was priming and painting.

Finally, I again recruited my wife and we put down an epoxy floor.

Finally, the space was finished.
Next I started getting serious about the plan so we could put in the benchwork. We will leave that to another day.