And I’m sure glad I don’t have to lay that much on my layout.
Of all aspects of model railway construction track work is the element I dislike the most.
I’m not talking about ballasting— that’s relatively easy once you understand the technique and have a ballast spreader — or track planning which I enjoy (I can spend ages sketching new track layouts and then working them out in detail in an application like AnyRail).
And it’s not tunnels, embankments and cuttings that many people struggle with. I really enjoy constructing those!
No, the aspect I struggle with is laying track down in the right place while maintaining good rail joints and electrical connections.
Maybe it’s just me but positioning track so it sits in the rail joiners and meets the wiring holes while aligning to the track markings and not getting covered in glue is a royal pain in the posterior.
And then just when I think it’s all done I find a wire has worked loose because it wasn’t soldered correctly (see this article if you have that problem) and it needs doing again. Or worse, a point has somehow got damaged and needs replacing. And that point will, of course, be in the most awkward place. Typical!
This stuff does my head in.
Or it used to until I acquired the right tools.
Having the right tools for a job makes it so much easier. Who would have guessed!
And they’re not just screwdrivers and the like. These are uncommon tools that it’s taken years — and lots of broken track — to discover. Some have been recommended, others I’ve found after a track troll has visited and I set out to find a better way of slaying him.
Here then are the 5 tools I’ve acquired over the years that will transform your track work from terror to triumph.
Let’s start with the tool that got me thinking about this article: The Archimedes Drill.
For reasons I won’t dwell on here, I needed to run some wire under a strip of track. In the past, this would likely have resulted in either damaging the track as I drilled the hole because the drill touched the rails as I made the hole or I’d have pulled up the track and started again. Either way, really frustrating.
With my trusty Archimedes drill, however, I was able to the perfect hole, with pinpoint accuracy, without risk. I found it at a boot fair long ago and haven’t looked back since. The small finger-operated shaft gives me the precise control to allow holes between sleepers and what would have otherwise been nerve-racking difficult job becomes a simple five-minute exercise.
It can also accommodate incredibly thin drills and so can also be used to create holes in the sleepers themselves (even at N gauge) so inserting track pins isn’t such a risky job.
Terror to triumph.
To be honest I mainly use these to model construction and checking the distance between wheels on rolling stock or model making but they’re incredibly useful for checking the distance between rails after heavy track work.
A few misplaced hammer blows can easily knock track out a tiny but big enough few mil to cause train wheels problems. With digital callipers, I can check the rails are still correctly spaced as I do the work and not later when it’s too late.
What I like about the digital variant is that the display can be seen easily as they’re moved along the track. With the old school variety, which I have and use for some jobs you have to read off the rule so for track work, these win every time.
And of the brands available, I prefer the Mitutoyo Absolute Digimatic Caliper from Amazon for the following reasons.
- Large and clear LCD readout
- With thumb roller for easy operation
- Very accurate (a problem with some of the cheaper alternatives).
I work with both fixed and flexi-track and in various gauges but irrespective of the track you work with always comes a time when rails need cutting.
And for this job, I always turn to my weapon of choice, the Dremel 300.
Slip in a cutting disk, don the safety glasses and the rails are cut to size in seconds or fit a sanding drum disc and a few mill overshoot that would otherwise require relaying can be quickly shaved off.
I do have Xuron cutters and while they do have their uses, for me the Dremel wins for speed and for times when only a tiny bit of rail needs removing.
Not only that but its a great general purpose modelling too and has a million and one uses elsewhere around the house.
See my review of the Dremel 300.
A soldering iron is a must-have for all manner of model railway activities but for track work what’s needed are fine tips — the bit that gets hot.
The inherited standard soldering iron I started with didn’t have a narrow enough tip for much track work and after a lot of false starts and even ruined track, I settled on an Antex 25W model.
The 25W is more than enough for most jobs but what really makes it ideal and eases track work is the ability to change tips.
Compared to the sledgehammer sized tips of many standard soldering irons the tips available, .5mill and up, are much easier to work with on even N gauge rails. (Yes, I exaggerated a bit there but you get the idea).
The Antex 25W isn’t the cheapest but they’re well made, are comfortable to hold, have that all-important exchangeable tip and many modellers swear by it (not just me!).
I’ve left this one to last as it’s not really a tool but since getting these my work around my track has become a LOT easier and less problematic.
I used to work with track and from what I could see believed everything was fine. It was only later that it became apparent that all was not what it seemed.
Did my eyes deceive me?
It’s only when looking through a magnifying glass later that I realised how much I was missing. I could suddenly see gaps between rails at joints, bad wiring connections and even blobs of glue on rails the will play havoc with the rolling stock wheels.
Initially, I used a jewellers loop and even a Sherlock Holmes style magnifying glass but these require one hand to hold them and when you’re trying to hold track and work on it at the same time this doesn’t work.
I tried Helping Hands style tools where the magnifying glass is held mounted a base but these needed surface space on the layout on which to position and steady them. This just wasn’t practical for much of the layout.
At first, I used the typical black plastic head magnifier seen in hobby stores but these were uncomfortable and I went in search of an alternative.
Since finding this head magnifier I’ve not looked back.
Not only do they leave both hands free without requiring space on the layout but this particular pair have multiple levels of magnification which makes them ideal for different types of work.
So there you have it, my five favourite tools for track work.
None are essential but they’ve transformed my track work and make an often annoying job easier and faster.
I’m always on the lookout for other tools and techniques that help so if you have a trusty tool that makes your life easier please share it in a comment below.
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