Bending my first piece of track

I got up late this morning and started the third pass with the router on the ties.  I finished all of them up by about 11am.  With that done, I got out the polyurethane and put the last coat on the ceiling mounts and then started putting it on all of the assembled sections of track.  Then, while waiting for the polyurethane to dry sufficiently to start a second coat, I got out the rail bender and ran a couple of strips of rail through the device.  I was surprised at how well it bent the curve into the track and how consistent it was.  I also experimented with unbending rail to see how difficult it would be if I bent the curve to small.  It turned out to be very easy to unbend it.

After getting all of the ties routed, I glued the ties on the second half of the S-Curve and put it in place to check the look.  Below is a picture of the S-Curve with both sections in place with ties.


Now that I have the curves all covered in polyurethane, the hangers mounted, the seconds checked for proper fit, and most importantly… the rail, I can start putting rail on the curves.  To do this, I got all of my little tools out and started bending rail.  Below is a picture of everything you need to bend and install rail on a curve.  This is the same set of tools needed for straight sections except that it includes the rail bender on the right side above the track.


From left to right, and top to bottom here are the pieces I use:

Item Purpose
Nickel-Silver Rail Guides the wheels of the train
Rail Bender Bends the rail evenly to fit the curve
1/2 inch black spikes Attaches the rail to the track
Hack saw Cuts rail to length
Track Assembled track used to support the rail between ceiling mounts
Curved Nose Needle Pliers Holds 1/2 inch spike in place while hammering
Brass Hammer Heavy head brass hammer for driving spikes in
Small head tap Drives spikes into final position after rail has been threaded onto track
ExactO Knife Scores ties to mark where to put spikes
Code 250 Precision Track Gauge Gauges track to get proper separation between rails

The process of laying the track is really simple but takes a fair amount of time to get it right.  The Precision Track Gauge is the key to the spacing and if you eyeball the rail on the track, you find that it should be about 1/8 inch over the wood rail under the ties.  The reason that you eyeball it is because the wood varies slightly since my saw is a cheap $100 Millwalkee and because the little cross members are pretty close but not exactly the same size.  1/16 of an inch is a big deal when working with small parts. After doing a complete track section, you will figure out how to do it most effectively.  That first track section can now be destroyed or used as scrap because it will have to many errors to be on your final production track.  Well, that is, if you are like me.  I had the benefit of creating prototypes of the various types of wood and got a good bit of experience learning to lay track when doing those sections.  Just be prepared for some waste.

Step 1:  Scoring – So, start by cutting off a small 2 inch piece of rail with the hack saw.  Using a small piece of rail for your measurements and marking is much easier than trying to handle a six foot piece of rail.  Put the small piece of rail in place over the second tie from the end, use the ExactO knife to gently score the tie on both sides of the metal rail.  Move over to the 4th tie from the end and do the same.  Now repeat this same process for every 5th tie until you get to the other end and do the 4th and 2nd from the end.  You don’t want to lock down the last tie because you need to insert the rail connector and it will go between the wood and the rail.

Step 2:  First row of nails – Using the bent nose pliers, take a spike and position it just to the inside of the scored line.  If you put it right on the scored line, the nail will be wider than the line and will push the track over. So, you are adjusting for the width of the nail and positioning outside of the two lines where the metal rail will go. Tap it down until it is the thickness of the plier’s nose.  This will leave enough space to thread the rail under the spike head but tight enough that it won’t move and you can make adjustments before final tapping.

Step 3:  Second row of nails – If you are like me, you will not get every nail exactly where it is suppose to be.  Don’t worry about it.  As long as you are pretty close, you can adjust for it after you thread the rail.  Take your small piece of rail, lay it against the nail on a tie, then with the pliers, position the next spike so that the body will be against the tie when it goes into the wood.  Tap it in to the same depth of the other spike and then remove the rail and do the same for all of the other spikes.

Step 4:  Threading the track – (Bend the rail as needed with the rail bender before threading the track) You should now have two small rows of spikes in your track that are spaced enough to thread the rail through the spikes.  You will be tempted to just lay the rail against the first spike and then start putting the second spike in to avoid the threading.  But, you will find that no matter what you do, you will end up with dings in the rail that are both unattractive and will scratch your car wheels.  Additionally, since the first spike is not on a perfect line with the rail, doing the method of spiking the rail in place will result in a rail that follows the spikes rather than staying with the curve you designed.  So, thread the rail through the spikes so that it is in the position that you want.

Step 5:  Tapping the nails – After you have threaded the rail through your spikes, let the rail determine what the line should be.  If you did it right, you have about 1/16 of an inch of play where the rail can wobble between the spikes and the spikes have about 1/16 variance along the wood rail under the ties.  So, let the rail be your guide and tap in the spikes so that they grip the rail in the line that the rail tries to form.  If you are doing a curve, this is very important.  You have to let the curve of the rail determine the final position so that you don’t have a curve with flat spots.

Step 6 – Cutting excess – Now that you have spiked the rail in place, you simply cut off the end of the rail to be perfectly in line with the end of the wood track.  If you have glued your ties on properly, you have 3/8 inch overhang where the rail is not supported on the end by a tie.  Be as exact as you can because when you put the next section to this one, you don’t want to have to adjust the rail after the fact.

Step 7 – Scoring the second rail – Get your handy dandy Precision Track Gauge out and put the single side on the rail from step 6 and your little 2 inch piece of rail on the end with 2 guides.  Now, use your Exact-O knife and score on the same tie that already has a spike so that you have lines for your nails for the other rail.  Do this same thing for every tie that you put spikes in for the first rail.

Steps 8-12 – Repeat steps 2 through 6 on the second rail.

Step 13 – Install Rail Joiner – Before you mount the rail in place, get your rail joiners (2 of them) and use the pliers to open up the joiner slightly so that you can get it started on the rail.  Use the hammer to tap it on further.  Be careful that you don’t catch the edge of the tie with the sharp underside of the rail joiner.  Leave half of the joiner exposed off the end of the track to receive the other section of track. I tried putting joiners on opposite rails so that I didn’t have to worry about the direction of the track, but found that there are other reasons (like the wood rails are not perfectly symmetrical or the curves only fit one way) that you have to worry about the direction of the track, so it is just as easy to simply put the joiners on the same end of the track.

Well, that is it.  That is how I make a section of track. Assembling it to the ceiling mounts and lining everything up is another story. The nice thing about a custom made track is that you can accommodate construction errors as you go along.  So, if you build a section of track and the metal rail is a little short, you just use the hammer and tap gently on the opposite end until the rail meets exactly with the joining section.  Then, as you build the next section, you increase the length of the rail just a bit to compensate.  This is only really necessary for sections that are not exactly 6 feet long because the rail is exactly as long as your track from the start.  You may also find that it is a nice touch to use a Dremil tool to buff off the end of the rail so that there are no sharp edges to scratch the wheels of your train.

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