What’s new?

A lot.

The last few weeks have had many of us staying home account the Covid-19 pandemic.  In my case, I have a weeks’ vacation which I managed to stretch into twelve days off. This gave me time to lay some track in Santiago Yard.


Main track laid down, with a couple of boxcars posed just to add interest to the scene.  From the main track are No 1, 2, and 3 Sidings.

Previously, I’d laid ties and ballast down. The cinder ballast was laid first, using a blend of Woodland Scenics’ products.  I used mostly fine cinders, but mixed in small amounts of a couple of other colours to add some colour to what otherwise would be a black cinder monolith. I tried using some finely sifted real cinder ballast from the real Santiago Yard.  It looked great, but had a fatal flaw.   I smelled a strong sulphur smell on a foot of ties laid down using this product, so went back to using the WS ballast.  But I don’t use this ballast as is.  I find even the “fine” ballast too coarse, so grind it a bit in old blender–cast off by my wife when she got a new one!

Laid down on a bed of brushed on carpenter’s glue, a thin layer of ballast was spread on No 1, 2, and 3 Sidings, as well as the River Spur lead off the main track.  The loose ballast was brushed off after it dried. I’ve learned that carpenter’s glue gives a yellow cast to materials like light coloured ballast.  This is not an issue with cinder ballast!  I prefer using carpenter’s glue, as it is resistant to water.

The main track and all turnouts were ballasted using WS fine gray ballast.  I first masked off a demarcation using painter’s tape between the yard tracks and No 1 Siding.  This time around, I wetted the ballast with “wet water” aka a litre of water with a few drops of detergent in it.  Once the ballast was saturated, I used an eyedropper to drizzle diluted white glue on the grey ballast.  I let this dry and then removed the masking tape, leaving a sharp line of grey ballast bordering on the black cinder ballast of the yard tracks.


The famous “masking tape” method for making a sharp demarcation between colours of ballast.  I’m using an old pill bottle to hold the white glue/water mix.  It sits in a holder made of a four-inch square of 1/8″ acrylic sheet with a two-inch length of 1 1/2″ inside diameter ABS plumbing pipe glued vertically to it.  Seldom do I knock over open paint and glue bottles–now!

Peeling off the tape, I found a nice sharp edge of ballast, but also that edge was higher than the cinder ballast in the yard tracks.  Chipping it away was tedious–but white glue is softened by water. With a spray of water, i was able to remove ballast sort of to my liking.  I’ll probably revisit this again later.


Turnout for the west end of Santiago Yard dropped back in place after ballasting the main track.  More ballast will be added, but we’ve basic ballasting in place.  The missing closure rail will be placed later.  It’ll be a movable rail as part of a spring or spring-rail frog. Things will look a lot cleaner with more ballast. 





Getting back to work on Santiago Yard


Ties laid in place at what will be the west end of Santiago yard.  

After what was a bit of a lull in my modelling endeavours, I’ve gotten back to work on Santiago Yard.  Transitions from thicker main track ties to thinner yard track ties have been laid down, so it was time to lay the rest of the yard’s ties.  The use of thinner ties and lighter rail in the yard than on the main track gives a visual demarcation between the two, while allowing me to keep the same roadbed height for both yard and main track.

Previously, I’ve mentioned using twigs for ties.  Along with the commercial ties and twig ties, I wanted some ties in very rough shape, perhaps in dire need of replacement. What’s the easiest way to replicate them?

I went back a few decades in my modelling and made my own ties from sheet balsa wood.  Using thicknesses from 1/32″ to 1/8″ thick, I cut a strip scale eight feet wide off each sheet.  This strip was then cut into individual ties using a guillotine-type modeller’s tool called a K-Tool Modeling Miter.  My NWSL Chopper is hiding somewhere.–amazing how much one can miss a good tool when you can’t find it!

Accuracy is not too important, as the balsa wood ties will be severely distressed once laid in track.

I placed my ties in a piano-key jig.  I’ve made three of these.  One has 14 ties to a 33′ rail length, and is used for yard and industrial track.  Another places 16 ties within a 33′ rail length for use on sidings and branchline main track.  The yard tracks at Santiago Yard use this spacing.  The third jig places 18 ties in a 33′ rail length; this is the tie spacing for the main track of the Campbellford Sub.


Piano-key tie jig in use.  This places ties at the appropriate spacing for the type of track that I am modelling. Red and blue markings indicate joints of prototype standard 33′ rail lengths so that I may place these ties closer together while still in the jig.  This will be useful later.

It’s not difficult to use whatever ties one wants to in the jig.  PC board, twigs, balsa wood, or commercial ties all can be used.  No 3 Siding at Santiago Yard will be nearest the layout edge.  Someone clumsy like me can damage handlaid track through pushing rail out of alignment accidentally by leaning on the layout, track cleaning, etc.  I know this because…. I figure that using PC board ties here instead of spiking rail down will be advantageous for preventing damage.

I place balsa and twig ties in the jig where I figure that I will not be driving spikes into them.  The twigs are hardwood and would have to be pre-drilled.  Balsa is too soft to hold spikes.  So every fifth tie must be a commercial or PC board tie to make life easier when securing rail in place on the ties.


My preference is to use painters’ tape for transferring ties from the jig to the layout. After drawing the track centre-line, I draw a parallel reference line scale four feet from it. This line is where I place the ends of my ties. I smear straight carpenter’s glue onto my roadbed, stick the ties down, and remove the tape after a few minutes.  Yes, some little bits of the ties come off on the tape–it’s not the end of the world!  I got a little daring here and dropped some ballast down into the still-wet glue.


Here’s an admixture of commercial, twig, PC, and balsa ties ready for weathering before rail is laid.  Those twig ties really show their value in modelling ties made of logs flattened on two sides.  Trimming the tops of some ties has removed stain; I’ll stain them back to uniformity.  Yes, I’ve been playing with the Noch Gras-Master.  More on that later….








Progress, and making the transition….




Turnouts test-fit in place but not spiked down at the east end of Santiago Yard.

Having found a little time to build turnouts and lay turnout ties down, it’s time to lay the yard tracks that will store cars at Santiago Yard.

I want to use thinner ties in the yard tracks than are used on the main track, to simulate the yard tracks being lower than the main track of the Campbellford Sub.  Along with the use of Code 55 or Code 60 rail representing 80- or 85-pound per yard rail in the yard tracks compared to the Code 70 rail modelling 100-pound rail on the main as well as the use of cinders in the yard tracks versus gravel ballast on the main, the purpose of the different tracks should be plainly visible to even the casual viewer.

Following CN practice, the main track uses scale 6″ thick by 8″ wide Micro Engineering ties; turnouts use scale 7″ x 9″ Mount Albert Scale Lumber turnout ties. The yard tracks will use Campbell Scale Models and custom-cut scale 4″ thick by 8″ wide ties.  Campbell to my knowledge no longer makes their excellent HO scale ties, but I can cut similar ties from Mount Albert Scale Lumber HO scale 4″ x 8″ stripwood stock, which I buy in bulk.

The difference in tie thickness is negligible between HO scale Mount Albert and Micro Engineering ties, both being about .082″– ,085″ thick.  I need to make a height transition between these and the scale 4″ .044″ thick Campbell ties.  As well, the difference in height between Code 70 rail in turnouts and Code 55 or 60 rail in the yard tracks must be addressed.   Vertical curves, though with a total difference in rail top height not more than about .050″  between turnouts and yard tracks, still call for some planning to ease the transition between ties thicknesses and rail heights.

Four-wheel-trucked diesel locomotives or four-wheel driver steam locomotives are very tolerant of vertical curves.  Not so for eight-coupled steam like a Mikado, or at most a Northern.  A CN Northern has a wheelbase of twenty feet for the drivers alone; a Mikado which I will run on the Midland’s grain trains far more often has a fixed driver wheelbase of about sixteen feet.  Fortunately there is enough vertical play to let the lead and rear drivers drop a little to start into vertical curves.


I measured some sample Campbell, Micro-Engineering, and Mount Albert ties to determine their thickness.  The prototype railways set the ties into the ballast and raises or lowers them to make up differences in desired track height; we modellers don’t have that device to use on our layouts.  I also measured the thicknesses of regular 20-pound paper and a standard 3 by 5 inch index card.  Also measured were the thicknesses of some scale lumber in one- and two-inch thicknesses.

Wanting a replicable formula for use on the layout, I calculated the thicknesses of various combinations of card, paper, wood and track ties to deduce some tie thicknesses and shim combinations to make a smooth transition from thicker ties to thinner ones.  The above sheet shows what I came up with initially.


I used a home-made 16-tie-per-33-foot-rail tie spacing jig to place some yard track ties.  Ties 1, 2, and 3 are Mount Albert scale 7″ x 9″ wide ties; ties 4 through 13 are intended to make the transition to ties 14 through 18, which are .044″ thick scale 4″ height Campbell yard track ties.


Combinations of paper strips, scale lumber, and ties were white-glued together using the determined dimensions in my calculations on the above sheet to obtain suitable tie thicknesses for the planned tie height transition. I measured the thickness of each tie/shim combination using a digital vernier caliper to determine the total tie thickness before placing it in the tie jig.


Above the tie jig are some of those strips of scale lumber, paper, and card used as shims under the ties.   The bottom of ties 4 through 13 are marked with each tie’s measured thickness.  I found that even the white glue added a few thou to what was the calculated thickness of many ties, calling for some re-placing of the shimmed ties in the jig.

Next step will be to make some more shimmed ties of various thicknesses and try this out at the diverging end of a turnout in Santiago Yard.  And I have not figured out the rail transitions next, so there may be a few tie height tweaks to come.  This 1925 CN standard rail distribution diagram may help.

CN Standard rail distribution at turnouts plan, 1925.