And I’m sure glad I don’t have to lay that much on my layout, especially as track work is the area of model railway construction I dislike the most.
I’m not talking about ballasting— that’s relatively easy once you understand the technique — 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).
No, the aspect I struggle with is laying the track down in the right place while maintaining good rail joints and electrical connections.
Maybe it’s just me but I find positioning track so rail joiners line up, and aligning with the wiring holes and the track plan markings all while not getting covered in glue is just one frustration after another.
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 I need to start over. Or worse, a point has somehow got damaged and needs replacing. And that point will, of course, be in the most awkward place and difficult-to-reach location on the layout. 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 recently needed to run an additional 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 or I’d have pulled up the track and started again. Either way, it was going to be really frustrating.
With my trusty Archimedes drill, however, I was able to make the perfect hole, with pinpoint accuracy, and without risk. I found my original one of these 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 a 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 got these for model building construction but have found they’re incredibly useful for checking the distance between rails after heavy track work.
A few misplaced hammer blows while track pinning can easily knock rails out by a tiny but significant few milli-meters and set you up for derailed locos or wagons. With these digital callipers, I can quickly check the rails are still correctly spaced as I do the work. I also use them to check sleeper spacing at the ends of rails and on flexi-track when I’ve cut the ribbing or the length of piano wire between point motors and point tie-bars.
And being adjustable they’re also useful for lots of other precise measurements in model making and around a model railway, checking the back-to-back gauge of rolling stock wheels, platform height and loading gauge to name just a few.
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.
- 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 there always comes a time when rails need cutting.
And for this job, I always turn to my weapon of choice, the Dremel 3000.
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 mm 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 when only a tiny bit of rail needs removing or a section of track needs cutting out.
And they’re a great general-purpose tool for general household DIY, with a million and one uses.
See my review of the Dremel 3000.
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’ is the bit that gets hot.
The inherited standard soldering iron I started with didn’t have a narrow enough tip and after a lot of false starts and even ruined track, I settled on the Antex XS25 model.
The 25W is more than enough for most jobs but what really makes it ideal and ideal for track work is the ability to change tips.
Compared to the sledgehammer-sized tips of many standard soldering irons, the tips available, .5mm and up, are much easier to work with on even N gauge rails and help avoid melting nearby sleepers. (As an extra tip, attach a Crocodile clip with a length of wire to the rails downstream of where you’re soldering but before sleepers, this will carry some of the excess heat way before it gets to the meltable plastic).
The Antex XS25 isn’t the cheapest but it is very well made, conveys the heat from the heating element to the tip, is comfortable to hold, and has that all-important exchangeable tip. It’s not surprising I and so many other modelers swear by it.
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 was only when looking through magnifying glasses 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 that would play havoc with the rolling stock wheels.
But it’s taken me a while to find the magnifiers that work best.
Initially, I used a jeweler’s 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 also tried Helping Hands style tools where a magnifying glass is mounted to 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.
Many people use well-known black plastic head magnifiers seen in hobby stores but these were uncomfortable and gave me headaches so I went in search of an alternative.
And since finding this head magnifier I’ve not looked back.
Read my review here but in summary, not only does it leave both hands free without requiring space on the layout but it has multiple levels of magnification which makes it ideal for different types of work. It also has a built-in light and is comfortable to wear, no more headaches. Finally, this particular brand is well made and doesn’t break as do some of the identical but cheaper looker models
While not strictly a tool, and hence why I’ve not titled this post a list of the top six track tools, an engineer’s block is a great aid for track laying.
I first came across these when doing a mechanical engineering course about the same time as I was creating my nascent layouts as a teenager, many years ago. In workshops, they’re used for milling and grinding and while I didn’t stick with mechanical engineering as a career I did remember these when looking for something to hold the track down while the glue sets. I now own my own set for this reason and they’re perfect for the task.
Their weight is just right to hold the track in place without damaging the rails and the narrow width makes them ideal to sit on OO/HO gauge track without occupying too much space on either side, as is the problem with the common “bottles of water” solution. They can be oily and greasy however so always place a sheet of paper between them and the rails.
So there you have it, my five favorite tools for track work.
In fact, sometimes I now almost enjoy it! The only other thing I could mention is a good plier set, such as this one, and these screwdrivers. I haven’t listed them as a main tool in this article as most people have them for other household duties but if you haven’t I’d definitely recommend getting both.
The different sizes and types will come into use for lots of different jobs when working on track – flat nose for squeezing joiners tight, needle nose for recovering track pins you’ve dropped between the rails etc – and will make your track life a lot easier while the sizes of screwdrivers in will tackle most model train electrical jobs.
One last thing, once you’ve finished laying your track it’s worth cleaning it, if you’re looking for advice on how to do this check out my track cleaning guide.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.