Improve Locomotive Running with Graphite Pencils – How and Why

Using a graphite pencil to improve electrical conductivity and smoother locomotive operation on a model railwayWant to improve the smoothness and reliability of your trains? All it takes is a pencil.

Sometimes, the simplest solutions can have the most profound impact. And this is one of those solutions. Using nothing more than a simple graphite pencil can dramatically improve the smooth operation of train running.

You might be wondering, “How can a pencil help my model trains run smoother?”

It’s down to the magic of graphite. This unassuming substance is an excellent conductor of electricity, it’s often used inside electrical motors, which when applied to your rails shields them against the dirt, dust, and gunk that builds up and otherwise hinders conductivity.

By creating a smoother, more conductive surface with graphite, you effectively reduce the potential for interruptions in power delivery, ensuring a seamless journey for your model trains. It’s like greasing the wheels (pun intended!) of your model railway operation, making for a more enjoyable and trouble-free experience.

Since making using graphite pencils, I have not had to clean my tracks as often, and even at the slowest crawl speeds, the trains run flawlessly and reliably; with beautifully smooth operation.

What you’ll need

Before we get started, let’s make sure we have everything we need:

1. A wood-free graphite pencil (I use this Fabre Castell pure graphite 6B pencil*).
2. A clean cloth or a cotton swab.
3. A bit of patience.

Step 1: Identify the trouble spots

Take a close look at your tracks, especially areas like turnouts, where electrical connections can be less than perfect. You’ll often find dirt, dust, or oxidation, which can disrupt the flow of electricity.

These are the spots where our trusty pencil will work its magic. I also like to apply it where I frequently stop and start locos, near engine sheds, in yards, and near coaling stages.

Step 2: Apply the Graphite

Now, lightly rub the pencil’s lead over these problematic areas on your track. No need to press hard; a gentle application of graphite is all that’s required. Once across each rail is all I find needed.

As you do this, you’ll notice a subtle sheen forming on the rails – that’s the sign of success!

Step 3: Wipe away excess

Using your clean cloth or cotton swab, gently wipe away any excess graphite. We want to leave just enough to improve electrical conductivity while ensuring there’s no visible residue, just a slight sheen.

Step 4: Test the waters

It’s time for a test run.

Place your trusty locomotive on the treated section and watch the difference. You’ll likely notice that your train now stops, starts smoothly, and glides along with fewer interruptions caused by electrical issues.

Step 5: Make it routine

Remember, this isn’t a one-and-done solution. The magic of graphite isn’t permanent and may wear off over time due to regular use. Make it a part of your maintenance routine to check and reapply graphite when needed – approximately every 6 months in my case.

A few words of warning

Firstly, inhaling a lot of graphite dust can potentially be harmful. I have distant relatives who worked as coal miners, and I’ve seen firsthand what breathing in dust can do to the lungs, causing conditions like pneumoconiosis. So, I tend to be cautious, perhaps more than needed, but better to be safe than sorry and wear the same respiratory mask that I use for my other modelling activities when using this technique.

Secondly, I’ve found graphite really helps with low-speed operation but adding graphite to the rails can reduce the traction so I keep it off inclines, and where I have light locos pulling lots of wagons when extra grip is necessary.

Finally, this tip focuses on graphite pencils. There are other graphite applicators but I’ve had problems with these, particularly around points, and don’t use them. The applicators typically deposit too much graphite and in the worst cases, on points, this can build up between switch blades and stock rails and around frogs and create shorts.

Join the conversation

Have you tried this trick before? Do you have other tips to keep those trains running smoothly? I’d love to hear about your experiences of using graphite pencils and other approaches in the comments below. Your insights will help others get the most from their layouts.


* The pencil grading scale ranges from 9H, the hardest, to 9B, the softest. The letters H and B stand for “hard” and “black,” respectively. A pencil with a higher H designation will be harder and will produce a lighter mark, while a pencil with a higher B designation will be softer, with more graphite, and will produce a darker mark. As mentioned above, I use a 6B pencil as it’s softer and goes on more easily.



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