This is the second part in my series of model railroading articles. The first article talks about my pre-model-railroading days, and how I got into this hobby, up to the point, when I acquired my first model railroading train set and made my first train table (aka workbench).
So, this article will be about my first train table, all the fun I had working on it, the experience I gained, before scrapping it and starting all over again.
As I mentioned in the first chapter, it is quite common to start with a 4x8 feet piece of plywood, and an all-inclusive train set. There is nothing to construct, and nothing else to buy, to quickly get the train running.
I wanted something more, than just a simple loop of tracks. A large and important part of model railroading, is planning and building the layout. Besides tracks, one also wants realistic-looking terrain surrounding the tracks.
A typical layout often has towns, industrial areas, rivers, bridges, overpasses, mountains, and other interesting features. Most of the time spent in model railroading is creating and crafting the landscape and structures. Running the trains is of course one important and fun part of it.
I did build a free-standing train table, but I made it 5x7 feet, to better fit my design, and to fit in the corner in my garage. The general design plan for my railroad would include multiple loops, a town, and a mountain, with railroad tunnels.
I am using the Mt St Helens volcano as prototype for the mountain, but in a modified, simpler shape, to fit into my model railroad concept.
My first train was Bachmann Trains’ HO scale “Overland Limited” train set, consisting of a Union Pacific 4-8-4 steam engine with nine cars.
It is an electric train with functioning head light and a smoke unit. The DC power supply feeds variable power through the controller, to the tracks, and through the metal wheels, to the motor.
Speed is controlled by amount of voltage, adjusted with the speed knob on the controller. The smoke is generated by an electric resistor, heating up smoke fluid inside the smoke stack. Travel direction is toggled with a voltage polarity switch on the controller.
This system, called DC, or direct voltage, is the classic way model trains have been run for decades. In recent years, the DCC, or digital command control, system has become more dominant. In a DCC system, constant AC voltage is fed to the train. Digital signals are included in the feed, received by a digital control board.
Specific digital signals are sent from the controller to the control board on the train, controlling everything, including speed, direction, sound, lights, etc.… I will talk more about the DCC system in some future chapter.
It didn’t take long to realize that having a 5x7 feet train table in the corner of a crowded garage was not practical. Besides taking up much room in the garage, it was also hard to reach the far end of the table. I would have to pull out the heavy table out off the corner of the garage any time I was working on it.
So, I created a system where the table can be tilted vertically and wheeled to the side when not being in use. That seemed to work quite well, clearing up some space in the garage, and it was easier to work around the table.
The first step in building the railroad was to set up all the tracks, including the elevated loops with their overpasses. That way I could test-run the train before progres further into the construction.
I needed to make sure that the tracks were joined together properly, for smooth running, without stalls and derailment. I also needed to make sure that the inclines weren’t too steep for the train.
The next step was building the mountain, and the tunnels. I used paper shoptowels and Plaster of Paris on top of a skeleton structure, to create the volcano.
I used gray paint and black concrete dye, which I happened to lave laying around, to colorize the mountain. The center of the mountain, the crater, was going to be a lake.
As I progressed with the benchwork, I started running into various problems with it. Having the train table in a inadequately insulated garage exposes it to large temperature- and humidity variations. That causes the woodwork and the metal tracks to shrink and expand, causing the tracks to bend out of shape.
The tracks that came with the train set are steel tracks, which have a high expansion rate at temperature changes. The steel tracks also corrode easily, causing bad electrical conductivity.
The exposed wood work also expands quite a bit. It should have been sealed, to minimize the effects from humidity and temperature changes.
Adding to those issue, I wasn’t satisfied with the layout. I figured it was best to start over from scratch, with nickel silver tracks, which don’t corrode, and is not as sensitive to temperature changes.
Building a new wood benchwork, also would give me an opportunity to seal up all the wood during construction.
I also decided to give up on the tilted table option. I decided to make a larger, 6x9 feet, table, and keep it hoisted to the ceiling during storage.
That will be the topic of the next model railroading chapter. Starting over also gave me the opportunity to implement an improved layout design.
Instead of tearing apart the train table, I sold it for cheap, including the trainset, on Craigslist. When starting over, I wanted to go with the DCC system, which require different train engines and train controllers.