Moving up from track clips to attaching power wires to track? Here are 3 techniques, how to do each and the pluses and minuses of each.
Every model railway enthusiasts at some time or other has started with the standard track clips. Little plastic assemblies that you push the wires from the controller into and which then slide under the track and between the sleepers to take the power to the rails.
They’re easy to use and ideal for basic model railways. They’re also flexible and ideal if the railway isn’t permanently fixed down.
But as the layout gets larger, you’ll need more and more clips to get power and the DCC signal to all parts of the layout.
Additionally, the clips can work loose or the wires come free. They also look ugly and scream model train set. W
What’s needed is some way of permanently fixing the wires to the track that’s reliable, unobtrusive and allows multiple connections to be made around the layout.
There are three techniques for doing this.
#1 Use pre-wired fish plates / joiners
Fish plates are the tiny bits of metal that connect sections of track together and a common approach is the these where wires are already soldered to them, such as these for Hornby-style code 100 OO gauge track and these for N gauge.
Then it’s s just a matter of connecting the wires from these to the wires from the controller (or to a BUS wire that in turn connects to the controller) which is achieved using a terminal block or other wire joiner as explained here.
This approach avoids the need to solder but costs more as you pay extra for wired fishplates than normal versions. There are also potential problems with wired fish plates that are covered next.
#2 Solder wires to your own fish plates
If want to save money, you can solder the wires to the fish plate yourself. With a bit of practice, it’s relatively easy to do following this technique.
As mentioned above however, there are downside with connecting wires to the fishplates, whether doing it yourself or buying prewired versions. Specifically, fishplates can corrode or work loose over time and when this happens, the electrical connection can fail resulting trains stopping on sections of track that rely on the broken fish plates.
For these reasons, the next technique is generally regarded as the most fool proof and reliable.
#3 Soldering wires directly to the rails
This is exactly what is sounds like, wires are soldered directly to the underside of the rails.
And as a well soldered join will form a solid, lasting, connection you’ll have far few problems if going this route; hence it being the preferred approach for many long term model railway enthusiasts.
Soldering wires to the rails is more involved than with fish plates but easily achieve-able with a bit practice.
Firstly, remove a sleeper from where you’ll be attaching the wire. For Peco and Hornby track, this is just a matter of cutting the plastic webbing between two adjoining sleepers and pulling the sleeper off.
Next, clean the rails where you’ll be soldering the feeders or wires to them so the solder will have a clear surface to attach too. I use a fibre glass pencil and rub a small patch clear.
Next pre-tin the rail and the wire you’ll be attaching to it. You only need a very small amount, as seen in the photo below.
This is no more than heating the rail and wire and then applying the solder so it melts onto the wire or into the strands in the case of stranded wire and lightly coats the surface of the rail.
Now present the wire to the rail and heat with a soldering iron (I use the Antex SX 25, which with its changable tips works fine for the majority of work around a model railway). Hold the tip against the wire until the solder on the wire and the rail runs and mixes together. Now let the solder cool and the wire will be soldered firm to the rail.
Soldering the wire to the underside of the rail, using only a small amount of solder and not letting it run when molten will give you wires soldered to rails with a firm, lasting, connection and with wiring that won’t be visible once the ballast is in place.
As mentioned, with a bit of practice soldering and the right soldering iron, solder and associated accessories it isn’t difficult.
Perhaps the single biggest tip I can give you is to get clean the tips between each use (pardon the pun). Old dust and dirt on the on the tip will ruin how well the the solder behaves and prevent it from flowing correctly.
This and using iron with different sizes of tip so you can apply enough heat to an area but not damage the surrounding materials will improve your results 10 fold (at least it did with mine).
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