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Track Tips - Model Railroading Tips, Tricks and Techniques

Track Tips

Do you have track tips to share? Email them to me here.

Realistic Track Bed
I have only tested this on Life-Like Power Lock Track but this can be used universally. If you ever seen the rails, you have noticed that the sides of the rails are of a darker "rust" color while the rail head is always a polished "shiny" steel look. Also, the wood in the track bed is of a weathered appearance. Mix White, Red, and Black paint which should create a rusty color. Add baby powder or pepper to the paint and mix it evenly among the paint, to give it the "rusty, flaky" texture". As you know, electrical conductivity between your locomotive and rails are key, use alcohol or a hobby knife (not too sharp) to get the rail heads bare, realistic, and conductive. Also you can paint the wood planks with the same paint for a realistic look. -Sean Devine

I have found that Kitty Litter works good for a few purposes. I have not used this technique for very long, so it involves some experimenting by you.

First try using it as carloads for gondolas and hoppers. You can put it in them predominately by using watered-down white glue, or just put it in whenever you please. Try to shape it into little piles for more realism, but it is a little tough. Also, try painting it black or a glossy graphite to represent coal, or leave it plain for gravel. Maybe a gold color could be grain.

Another good idea would be for ballast. Just make it like you do any other ballast, but kitty litter is a better value, and the 40lbs buckets last forever. Just use your favorite ballast technique and presto! Instant ballast roadbed at a cheaper, economical price.

Try using kitty litter for other things, too. Gravel roads, put it by your cement plant to be used in concrete, or make a rocky shore, just for starters. Try it out!

I have been trying another idea, for scenery, but it is totally experimental. I've been trying to use insulation, from houses, as rocky bluffs near water and such. I had a bunch left over from a project, but I haven't really used this idea much. If your bored, just try it out someday. Please, if you use any of my ideas, please email me at at and tell me how it worked, or didn't, or how you improved upon it. Thanks. -John O

Track Nails
I read the post about using needle nose pliers to hold the nails while driving them in to hold the track in place. I use a nail set to push the nails in. I found that driving the nail in (even with a small hammer) would set the nail too deep and am very happy using the nail set (purchased at a local hardware store for about $3.00) to push the nails through the cork and into 3/4 inch plywood. -Charles Chapman

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More Ballast
I live near the sea and a river so I have various grades of sand on hand. It ranges from course to very fine. The course is great for track ballast. I stick this down with a 50/50 mix of PVA glue and water. Remember to wash the sand before you use it. Removal is easy, just spray with water. For more ballast pay a visit to the beach. -Jim More

Insulated Rail Joiners
For 0-Gauge Gargraves Track there is a very inexpensive insulated rail joiner. Go to your local garden supply. Buy one package of .065 weed eater nylon. You will be able to supply your whole town with insulated rail joiners and have enough left over for the rest of your life. -Don Grabski

Track Nails
I have found new nails for track. Go to the hardware store and get House-Mates Hardware tack size 18. They're a prefect size for HO. -Alston Pike

Flex Track
I have found that you can achieve smooth clean curves, using flex track. Start by laying the curve out and establish what ties have to be removed. These can be replaced when the track is laid permanent. Be sure to place the moveable rail on the inside of the curve. Once you have removed the necessary ties and established the curve remove the sections from your layout. Pin the sections on a straight flat board. A redwood plank works great for this.Use a straight edge to maintain a perfectly straight rail line. Now solder the sections together at the rail joiners.

Be sure to solder on the outer edge of the rail joiners. Don't be shy, use your NMRA track gauge to maintain the exact distance between the rails at the joiners. When you have finished your soldering, place the soldered sections back on your layout curve. The soldered joints will maintain a smooth curve through the joiners. Be sure to pre-drill the nail holes. You will only need a few nails to hold the track in place. You can place the removed ties by gluing them to your benchwork. I recommend that this method be used when utilizing hidden track, straight or curved. Happy Rails to You. -Jim Campbell

Migrating Rails
I used to have a problem with migrating rails that would shift and short out my power blocks. Big problem as there are 67 of them on my N-Scale layout. Place a flat surface item, such as a single edged razor blade, dental chisel, etcetera, on the inside surface of the rail and hold it there. Squeeze a sufficient amount of hot glue into the rail end space, from the outside, to fill that space. It is O.K. if the hot glue also attaches that rail area to the roadbed, as it will hold the track alignment in place. Let it cool and trim it with a sharp tool. With a little practice you will be an expert. -Jim Campbell

Track Nails
I am in N-Scale. I have found a better way to nail track through cork and into plywood. The Atlas nails are approximately .037 in size and they have a tendency to bend slightly, when hammered or pushed into plywood. This will really mess up the position of the track you are trying to achieve. To maintain accuracy of the desired track position, use a .036 bit and drill through the existing tie hole or establish a new one where necessary. Continue drilling into the plywood while holding the track exactly where you want it. This makes for easy nail removal, when necessary, in the future. I hope this is helpful. Happy rails to you. -Jim Campbell

When laying track some times you get gaps in-between two peace's of track. So get out your soldering iron and some solder and melt it into the gap. To smooth it out get a dremal and grind it smooth on a low speed or with sand paper. -Bryan

Spline Roadbed
When building with spline roadbed and thick foam tabletop, use a flat plate soldering tip (sears) to melt a wide groove into the foam to sink the splining into . . . makes a smooth transition from a grade to the level. -HO RR fan

Fill Those Gaps
To fill those nasty little rail gaps with solder, coat the rail ends with flux then before soldering the joiners, prop the bevel of the tip of a very hot iron against the side of the rail heads spanning the gap (so it touches BOTH rails) and touch the gap with solder wire then file smooth. -HO RR fan

Clean Track
Just picked up this hint at a local swap meet: cleaning old American Flyer track w/Steel rails and ties, place the track in a diswasher, load w/soap, wash and then dry in oven at low heat. Cleans all the track gunk of ages, although you do have to hit the rail tops with scotchbrite or similar abraisive pad. -Tom La Pointe

If track nails can't seem to get through plywood after going through cork and this is causing hassles, I simply snip them in half with the wire cutter part of my long nose pliers. then they go right into the cork and hold fine. -Fitzy

Ballasted Track
If you want realistically ballasted track, and have a lot of track to ballast, you might try the system developed by the North Penn MR Club and featured in Model Railroader back in the early 1980s. They had their track sections trimmed and prepared ahead of time, then painted the roadbed with a thick, oil-base house paint the same color as the ballast, putting on a first coat to soak into the roadbed material (cork or Homasote), then a second coat of proper thickness so that when the track is laid down into it and spiked or nailed at adequate intervals, the paint comes up between the ties about halfway. The ballast is then poured over the track liberally and the paint is allowed to dry. The excess ballast is vacuumed up into a canvas pouch and reused. The method is fast, looks great, and the track is down for GOOD! Be sure to cut clearance pits under the pivot and point areas of turnouts so that the paint doesn't foul the action. -Dave Reichley

Small Nails
When I lay track, I find the small nails are too small to hold. I use needlenose pliers to hold the nail, place it in the hole in the tie, and then hammer it in. No finger damage! -Craig Wilson

Curves and Grades
To make a foam grade, you will need two 4' straight edges, two clamps with insulation shoes and a hot wire cutter. And a 2" thick foam 4' long for HO. (1 ½" thick for N, 1" thick for Z) To make a 2% (apx) grade sandwich the foam with the straight edges and clamp them at 1"at one end and 2"at the other end. Cut with hot wire. You will end up with a 4' long foam, 2" wide. One inch high at one end and two inches high at the other end. You now got a straight grade. To curve it, use the carpenter technique of kerf-bending. Cut out ‘V’ ½" wide halfway through the 2" wide foam. Cut 1" slits on the other side between the ‘V’ bottom.

Now put the kerf-bending on the foam. Bend it towards your desire radius. Hold in place with toothpicks. Double check center of curve for sharpness. Mark base foam around the sides of kerf-bending foam. Remove kerf-bending foam. Cut out slot on base foam. Insert kerf-bending foam into slot. You now have a secured grade curve on a flat surface. You can try to fill up those ‘V’ opening with the ‘V’ clippings that are now on your floor. -Drew Dubler

Track ballast
Try mixing colors of ballast to add realism to your layout. For your switchyard mix a little light gray in with some black balast. For the mainline, use mostly light grey with only a little black. The contrast will help to set apart the different parts of your layout. -Ezekiel Johnson