How To Make Your Own
Hand Laid Track
For Your Model Railroad 

I had tried to install hand laid track on my HO model railroad in the past with mixed results.The mainline and sidings worked out well in rail codes from 55 to 100. It was the turnouts that caused the problems. Then I discovered Fast Tracks.

Fast Tracks slip-switchFast Tracks hand-laid slip-switch

This was when I and the Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club decided to build some free-mo modules with hand-aid track in Code 83. This is not a paid advertisement for Fast Tracks. I just think the system is superb. After building a couple of #5 switches, I ordered the jigs for a Code 83, #5 slipswitch. We' built eight of them. Take a look.

This is the first slip switch I built for the Underhill North yard extension.  In the photo the hand-laid track has been sprayed painted with Floquil from a can. Ballast has not been applied.

model railroad hand-laid yard tracksHand-laid yard throat at Underhill North
Fast Tracks slip-switch jigFast Tracks slip-switch jig

Here's a view of the yard throat. It has three Fast Tracks slip switches and a couple of standard #5 turnouts. Below is the Fast Tracks jig. The slip switch is almost complete. One point still needs to be filed and the points have to be soldered to the throw bars. 

The rails are soldered to copper-clad circuit board ties. The pre-cut ties are hand-spiked to the roadbed. There are some track tools to make the job easier.

These jigs are not cheap so it helps if you can find other modellers in your area who will share the cost. It helps to belong to a train club!  At the price of special turnouts today it doesn't take many hand-laid turnouts to start saving money. The track work looks great, too.

I have used Fast Tracks tools with the free templates you can download from the Fast Tracks website and built some turnouts without the jigs. The jigs help to keep things aligned and in gauge. There are jigs for most rail sizes and configurations. You can use the paper templates if you want to save money. Just be careful and take your time.

Below are two photos of completed trackwork at Ft. Eerie on my previous Utopia Northern layout. This section was added to improve operations by providing an open staging area. In the photo the track has been wired but has not been ballasted. Some rail needed to be painted because I ran out of weathered rail.

Note the use of pins to act as stoppers at the end of tracks.

hand-laid ho yard trackageHand-laid yard tracks at Ft. Eerie
hand-laid curved yard throat trackageHand-laid curved yard throat tracks

The curved turnouts were constructed on Fast Track paper templates without jigs.

Conductive cork roadbed!

This fits under the "weird but true" heading. We had been hand-laying code 83 track on new modules at the Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club. 

We were baffled by a short circuit on an 8-foot section of newly-spiked track.  We had glued down some old cork roadbed that was lying around because we had run out of new Mid West cork.

Wooden ties had been glued to the cork. The ties had been spray-painted with Floquil Tie Brown paint. The code 83 track had been handspiked about every 6th tie with Micro Engineering small spikes: ie, the spikes penetrated the cork as well as the wooden ties. Of note here is that the same procedure had been used on some other sections using this same old cork.  None of us knew where the cork had been bought or when it was acquired, so we had no idea of what it contained.

When we got the short circuit, we isolated the section by removing metal rail joiners. Yes, we checked to make sure there were no wires attached. This was a length of track on a curve: No turnouts or crossing or other fancy trackwork, just two rails.  Completely mystified we removed one rail and the spikes. As soon as we replaced the rail and respiked, the short returned. We then removed both rails and substituted code 100 prefab track on plastic ties and reconnected the joiners. Presto, no short circuit!

Where's the problem? It had to be the plywood, the cork, the ties, or the paint. As soon as we added spikes to the rails, the short circuit returned. Finally, we inserted the test meter's probes directly into the cork roadbed beside the ties (no track in play, only the cork). The meter indicated continuity between the probes. The only answer appeared to be that the cork is conductive and insertion of the spikes completes the circuit between the North and South rails.</p>

We now had three choices: replace the section with Code 83 prefab track on plastic ties, glue the rail without spikes, or rip up the cork and start from scratch. 

We opted for the prefab track because the track was on a curve, crossed a joint between modules, and had to allow for extreme heat and humidity changes. The "portable" building where we kept the layout was only heated in the winter when we met on Monday evenings and was not cooled during the summer. On top of this, the modules have to be trailered to model railroad shows.

What was even stranger was that this was not happening on the other sections with the same cork roadbed, at least not on DC. 

We didn't know what, if any, implication this might have had for DCC because we had not changed over at that time.

In all my years as a model railroader I have never encountered this problem before. It probably could only happen when handlaying rails as prefab track on plastic ties should isolate the track if one is only inserting spikes or track nails through the plastic ties.

You may never run into this problem, but if you do, check to make sure the cork or whatever roadbed you're using, is not causing the problem.

The other suspect sections were also indicating continuity but to a lesser degree. We may just have been lucky that locomotives were passing through these sections without trouble. If we had convert to DCC before fixing the trackage this problem may have reoccurred due to the increased sensitivity to short circuits.

How to spike hand-laid track

I own a Kadee spiker that uses small staples as spikes. The cutting heads are designed for specific rail sizes and I only have Code 100 and 70 heads, not Code 83. The spiker is out of production although Kadee still has some in the catalog, but new heads would be very pricey.

My usual method is to use a small pair of pliers and Micro Engineering Company medium spikes. Some modelers recommend filing a groove in the pliers to hold the spike head. I did this once but find that after all these years I can insert a spike without the groove. I lose a few here and there. I try to spike every 5th or 6th tie on both rails when doing hand laid track. More around switches and on curves. I have a bunch of track gauges acquired over the years that I spread out along the track I'm laying down. An NMRA gauge is used as a final check.

Tip: Run a bead of Walthers Goo or Pliobond along the underside of the first rail with a toothpick and then lay it in place. Put in a few spikes along its length. On straight track, use a metal ruler to keep the rail positioned on the ties where you want it. Once in place, slowly run a soldering iron along the top of the rail to quickly set the glue. If you have too much glue on the rail you can use acetone to thin it. I'm told nail polish remover will also work. I haven't tried that.

Tip: Keep a Kadee uncoupling magnet nearby. Sweep it along the track to pick up any loose spikes or filing shavings.

Wiring guidance

wiring 3-way turnoutsWiring 3-way turnout diagram

Fast Tracks slip switches are easy. Just wire to the outside rails in the middle of the turnout. I haven't even needed to wire the gapped frogs independently. All my engines cross without a problem. If you need to, use auxillary contacts or a relay to power the frogs and add signals. I eventually added Tam Valley frog juicers for added reliability of pickup for short wheelbase locomotives.

Three-ways are a little trickier to wire. An excellent reference source I found on the Internet for wiring turnouts is Allan Gartner's site. The diagram is from Allan.

I highly recommend the Fast Tracks system for anyone who would like to try handlaying some track. It can cut your cost tremendously if you have a few to do. It also makes your track look terrific and your trains will run much better through the solid rail frogs.

If you would like more information, the September 2008 issue of the NMRA magazine  Scale Rails had an article with photos on page 42 written and photographed by Stephen Priest.

Check out the Fast Tracks website after bookmarking this page. The Fast Tracks website has lots of information and the videos and instructions are very clear and easy to follow.

Go to Ballasting Track .

Go to More About Hand laying Track .

Go to Track Tools.

Go to Painting Track.

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