More model train layout tips


My ‘best’ model tip is TRACKWORK.

I’ve only built three layouts (working on my fourth) and the ONE thing you HAVE to get correct is near perfect trackwork. After all, it’s useless if trains can’t take a bend or derail at a join.

JOINS: Need to be as perfect as possible. This includes insulated joiners. Its sometimes a good idea to arrange joins as non-adjacent (flexi track).

BENDS: Don’t force flexi track to do more than fixed track will do. If it won’t fit… something else.

Best Regards


“I take used coffee grounds, dry it and chop it very fine. It makes excellent ” dirt ” or what ever else one can think of.
No real cost involved either.( if you’re a coffee drinker)
Hopes this helps, Al


“I’m not new to rail models and their lay outs. But over the years I’ve completed three or four layouts for other people, sorry to say none of my own.

To get done fast with wiring I use the phone wire and the plastic connectors the kind with four contacts inside use a multi-plug phone wall jack. Pre-wire my blocks and switches in the control area with the wall jack boxes, do the same with the blocks and switches plus all accessories. Then make up my line with the male phone jack ends and start plug them where they go. I found out that if I want to change a block or other item I just unplug.

If you would like give me a few weeks and I can chase down part numbers for the plugs, wall mounts, and needed tools.

I hope this is helpful to your subscribers.


And now, Kim’s ‘how to’ on making cheap LED signals:

Hi Al and all the modeler’s.

This is so easy a job and much cheaper than bought ones.

First i bought a pack of 4 signal’s for $4.50.They didnt have lights and only had the plastic fake.

First i used a jobmate or mini hand drill tool.but not the drill only the tool.The drill will work to good and most likely buggerup the part so i hand drilled the holes bigger by useing the tool in the photo by hand It is a diamond thingy so goes fast..plastic is soft and doesnt take long.stop short of the face of the signal as to not drill out and damage it.

I bought these 2mm led diodes from ebay for $2 and free shipping you get 20 diffrent colors and resistor’s come with them.Found the other led diodes from mitey lites to expensive for 4.

Solder the stripped telephone wire as close but not touch the diode plastic.The diodes are not marked with positive or negative.Use a 1.5 volt battery to test what side is positive as seen in photo.

Keep the positive on the same side negative on other side.Be careful dont over heat it as you see in photo i placed the clip as close to draw heat from the part.Trim any extra solder.Try to keep plastic on the wire intact and close to part soldered reason i soldered them before putting them in the holes as to not melt the signal and find it much easier and alot safer..

Once i have soldered the green and red.I pushed into the hole as far as it will go.Dont force to hard or break the plastic signal of diode.Now you have the green and red installed.

Next the ground.both positive should be on the same side and ground’s on the other side.Now carefully bend the negative so they cross beside each other as you will solder the black ground wire on both post’s as seen in photo.On the signal i ran the red wire in the slot for the ladder the green in the center and the black in the right hand slot.I drilled a tiny hole in the bottom of the signal as close the body as i could to run the 3 wires threw.

Paint the wires black.Now the ladder that comes with it.Has two curved parts on the top.I trimmed it down so the ladder will fit in the slots with the wires.Your done woooooo hoooo


PS if anyone has problems or dont understand leave message in Al’s site and i will try to make easier to understand.And last if you want the signals for DCC since its a constant 28 volt’s use step down resistors to 1.5 volt can get them on ebay as well.Okay i said anough enjoy.”

Stuff you need





A big thanks to Steve, Bill, Lee and Kim.

That’s all for today folks.

Please do keep ’em coming.

And don’t forget the Beginner’s Guide, if today is the day you start your railroad adventure.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

48 Responses to More model train layout tips

  1. mark says:

    where you got pack of 4 signal.?

  2. Larry B. says:

    Morning Alastair. I have been an avid reader of your posts since I discovered you on the net. The tips, tricks,and photos from your followers are remarkable. I have modelled in n-scale and ho scale but the layouts were basic. I have drawn up a plan with help from Any Rail. The plan I have created will take up at least 12 feet by 8 feet and promises to keep my wife mad at me for a very long time. Just wanted to touch base with you and thank you and the enthusiasts for their great ideas. The most recent is the tip on led signals. Excellent. Now, how about a tip on how to drop crossing gates and activate signals from a realistic distance from the crossing. Kep up the excellent work Al and to oyur readers,thank you all. Larry in Ajax,Ontario.

  3. Wayne Spencer says:

    This is a big help for me, as I was having a problem with the wiring. Thanks, Kim

  4. builder Kim says:

    Hi Mark.You can get the signal’s from ebay.I mentioned 2mm diode’s.I found out after the 3mm will fit nicely.Put resistor’s on both red and green wire’s to step down the voltage from 12 volt to 1.7 and 28 volt to 1.7

  5. builder Kim says:

    Hi Larry.Dont know about getting none working crossing gates to work up and down.You may have to buy the one’s that work.To set off the signal lights from a reasonable distance is to use a reed switch hidden under the track.Or wire them so when the polarity of the track changes so does the light’s.

  6. del says:

    My wife took a look at the 12′ x 4′ N scale lay put I am building as asked ….can you make this any bigger? What is it with wives? We are not out there playing around. Or getting shoes on QVC.

    These tips/tutorials are all very helpful. There are all kinds of offers out there for tip books that aren’t nearly as good.

    I have used foam for the board and scenery. I go into the Home Depot regularly to get ooops paint and damaged foam. Last time I asked for a discount and got an offer of 50%. I showed the item to the check out person and said that they really couldn’t sell it and she gave it to me free. The free did make my wife happy.

    Progress is slow with the track. Mainly because I keep changing my mind.

    Thanks for the great help


  7. Tom Saunders says:

    On an LED, the FLAT side of plastic and the SHORT wire are the negative, long wire is positive.

    Great HOWTO.

  8. John says:

    Great Article — could we all see some more photos, closer photos and possibly a layman’s version of a wiring schematic for those of us who are new to the wiring aspects of the hobby !!

    Thanks so much …

  9. Brian Clauser says:

    LED’s have improved lately. The white ones are now white, not that odd blue color. For $$ you can get LED’s from the model train suppliers that have a yellowish glow, but not worth it for me. Radio Shack has bags of LED’s that are not too expensive.

  10. paul Otway says:

    Thank you for this lesson

  11. builder Kim says:

    Hahaha wouldnt beleive how many times i changed mine.I also layed down on my table 1 inch white styrofoam and found a green paint to paint it.I used a roller.waited till i dryed hard.some little styrofoam eggs i call it will poop.just run ya hand on it gently wipe clean and paint once more.find it easier to change lay stuff down with it already green.till grass.

  12. builder Kim says:

    Thank’s Tom Saunders for the lesson.didnt notice that.Advice.solder the wires close to diode but not touch plastic.then each one push in signal head.i melted one already to crap.found doing this way will keep ya head clean of paste,solder,heat..DONT GLUE. if ya blow ya light’s and ya glued it in ya buggered.

  13. builder Kim says:

    John you asking for better pic’s of the wireing,and right to it explanation

  14. Yukonjoe says:

    Great Tip – I’m going to the big York train meet next week and I’ll be looking for similiar matrerials to construct block lights. The signals that are readily available at the show are rather pricey. My wife is the electronics wizard and insists that our layout has operating block lights. This will give her something to work on and install on our system. Kim, thanks a lot for the tip.


  15. builder Kim says:

    Yukonjoe your very welcome.I like makeing it easier and cheaper for other’s to be able to save money on stuff they can make and be proud of.And put the saved money put toward’s new engine’s.And flower’s for the wife to make happy lol Wow a show. look for the cheap nonworking signal lights.Look on ebay if ya cant find them, pickup a package of 3mm green and red diodes.strip some phone wires and use it for the signal’s.Follow my plan and wont go wrong.If your haveing problem’s let me know and i will help.PS your wife solder’s we are so impressed lol wish there was more like her willing to join in on the fun.Oh last word on makeing these signals dont glue them in the heads.if ya blow ya lights ya throw away ya signal light.solder before ya install them inside.

  16. builder Kim says:

    Was wondering if anyone maybe interested in trying something new i made.Its a template on makeing a house out of balsawood.I made the template and used it to make 3 homes fast.If interested let me know and i will send it into Al.I just sent in a way to make the most realistic metal fence ive seen in awhile.Only thing ya may have to jump a road construction flag man for his flag.

  17. builder Kim says:

    Brian.I tryed radio shack.ha.Buy ya 3mm diodes from get resistors with most of them.I bought a package of 20 diffrent color diodes for 99 cent and free shipping and came with resistor’s,And still will pay way less than radio shack.Get ya nonworking signal light’s from ebay as well cheap.I payed total amount about.$7 max to build 4 signal lights.use old phone glue

  18. builder Kim says:

    Okay Larry B.Now ya done it.Since i read your feedback about getting nonworking gates to move up and down.My brain hasnt given it up and came out with useing model plane servos to operate the gates.Let me get back with ya on that one lol

  19. Tom Strangeway says:

    Hi to all.

    Another relatively thin cable is cat 5 as used in data comunication. It has eight cores in twisted pairs. Comes in very handy for all sorts of lighting etc. The solid core one is easy to set in a shape and once painted can easily disappear.


  20. Austin Wilson says:

    Hello Kim and thanks so much for this. I have all kinds of those fake red and green lights on my track where the left and right turns are and I can actually put real lights in them, wow, that is awesome and thanks for the great idea. Now more work to do, LOL, love working on my very large rail road.

  21. builder Kim says:

    Since this is about wireing signal’s.I’m really courious,and would love to see one of my creation’s made by another.If possible would like to hear how it went with it or a photo.thanks everyone.

  22. TOM says:


  23. Phil says:

    LEDs are available where voltage is applied in one direction is red and voltage applied in the opposite direction is green. Also LEDs with 3 wires are also available where voltage applied to one lead and common is red, other lead and common is green and both leads and common is yellow.

  24. del says:

    Al at the end of the day you deliver pleasure in addition to the great fund of information.

    Pleasure is priceless

    Thank you

  25. builder Kim says:

    Hello Austin Wilson.Glad you liked the signal’s.Save you lots makeing it yaself.Make sure you use resistors to step down any voltage to 1.7 volts or burn them out.No glue.I have an idea to make your own street traffic lights.Ebay will have most you need.In my plan i said to use 2mm diodes.i found 3mm works as well.If ya have problems with the lights let me know.have fun

  26. builder Kim says:

    Austin can we see a picture of your layout thanks

  27. ChrisAzza says:

    Hi Kim,
    Question ? How are the LEDs wired to the track and controller ?
    Thanks for the great idea…..

  28. builder Kim says:

    Hi ChrisAzza.I copied the way the expensive ones are, to make it cheaper and the injoyment of makeing them.For the rest that make’s it functon.I been working on something.There is a few ways.most either expensive and so complicated,or you have to buy the whole kit including the signals.not saveing there.Or build your own board,or put the signal’s on a manual switch next to your controler.I been searching and thinking on a easy way to build a real easy idea to make a relay or block.If anyone has an idea.Let us know.I will get back with ya

  29. builder Kim says:

    Okay i sent in a how to on plans for hooking relay and reed to the signals.

  30. Cliff J. says:

    AL, Thanks so much for all your help on these sites, save them all to use from time to time. Been a little slow to respond since auto wreck. Miss seeing you! Cliff J. By the way those new walthers turn tables work great. Just follow directions. Put one in for 87 year old man and he loves it. That’s saying something!

  31. David says:


    After many, many years I am diggging out my (and my father’s) O gauge trains from the early 40;s through the mid 50’s and making a new layout. When my Dad and I put up the layouts at Christmas, we used SAWDUST that was DYED GREEN for grass and etc. In that the theme of my new layout is going to be O gauge, early 40’s to mid 50’s pretty much done as it would have been done back then. So, we did the COFFEE GROUNDS for dirt, and etc. that works well and gives the room a neat aroma especially early in the morning. DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY IDEAS OR EXPERIENCE IN DYEING SAWDUST TO USE AS GRASS? I never did know how Dad magically came up with a 55 gallon barrel half full of green saw dust. Thank you for any ideas you have. David

  32. tom says:

    Boy what a wealth of information, I do have questions. Lee where do you get the phone plugs and accessories? Kim where did you get the traffic lights,?I need HO gage. And where do you find the LED`s that light 3 colors? Sorry for so many questions! You guys are amazing. Thanks Tom in AZ

  33. Ray Bonifas says:

    Hi Alastair
    I’m in the planning stages of resurrecting my childhood 027 Lionel. I will furnish pictures as the mancave is started and the Lionel Set buildup. I have come across a way to acquire a DC Volt power supply cheap. It is basically a power supply from scrap computers +3.3, +12, -12, +5 and -5 VDC.
    Thank You for your emails
    Ray Bonifas, Ramsey, MN USA

  34. Bruce says:

    Ray. Web site you gave yields 404 error…source not found. Appears you copied address directly from the computer, so something is amiss. Thanks to you and all contributors and comments.
    Bruce in SC USA

  35. Michael Reich says:

    Couple of ideas: I use Easter egg dye pellets to dye my sawdust. By the packets right after Easter for a fraction of the original cost. Follow directions but use half the liquid (it will dry out faster. Then mix different shdes together for more natural effect.
    ALSO: many small electrical projects look great except for the oversize wires. Take an old computer cable, cur off the connectors, and strip the insulation (there is usually a tiny string you can pull down the length of the cord to split open the insulation). You will get about 20 color-coded wires about hair-thin but good enough for any LED current. Save the foil wrapping too – it is good for flat glue-down wire you can solder too instead of the expensive foil tape. Mike R

  36. Tom Lawton says:

    Very nice looking.
    But in the U.K., the train signals have the red at the bottom, apparently so snow cannot pile up on the lower signal and obscure the red signal.

  37. Jan says:

    Cheap signals…
    Look at Aliexpress, yes in China.
    I bought several packs of 10 simple signals.
    At about 3 to 4,- € per piece (depending on type) I can’t be bothered with trying to get leds installed myself even though I’m an experienced electronic engineer.
    If you want to I can even provide you with a couple of reference URL’s or such.

  38. Bob says:

    The old coffee grounds trick for dirt is a good idea. If you want black coal put the old grounds into a old toaster oven and cook the old grounds at the highest temperature. That will actually burn the grounds black. Use a old toaster oven because this process will make a mess of your toaster oven. I use a Pyrex dish to put the old grounds to cook.
    Thanks to all for the great ideas.

  39. Charles Gantt says:

    In reference to the tip on using coffee grounds for dirt – the grounds in “K” cups
    used in Kuerig and similar coffee makers is already very finely ground eliminating the need to grind it any further

  40. Lee: I would love to see your wiring materials and tips using phone wire and plugs. The street lights and other LED’s wiring on my Z scale layout are so fine that they are very difficult to connect and nearly impossible to solder to my buss wiring. Any tips, plug and wire sources etc would be greatly appreciated. First time in Z scale, have done HO for many years.


  41. steve miller says:

    what is the best way to make lionel metal track look realistic

  42. steven Joyce says:

    I for one would definitely like to see and hear more about Lee’s wiring tips. I plan to finally start my “monster layout” as I am moving into my new house in next few days and something that will make things easier will always be appreciated

  43. Len Mills says:

    To power the gates you can use tortoise “switch machines” and can either power the electric ones (phone wiring can handle the necessary ampacity) or use manual ones with their light stiff plastic rod screw-on extensions. E-bay is a good source if you are patient and check every few days. Getting unopened packaging from a club whose plans for a mega-layout had gone awry was a great source for me.


  44. Butch says:

    I just bought a Lionel #364 Lumber Loader 4 my layout,I wired it up, put power to t he locomotive back it up to the log loader, hit the switch to power the loader & the noise coming fro the motor is loud!! How can I quiet this motor down? Thank you

  45. Gloria says:

    Hi Alastair
    I enjoy the lessons and especially videos of the trains. I am new to trains and planning on building a train feature for my Christmas village. I would love information for beginners.
    Here is my plan.
    Using HO because it is best size for village
    Track to be 2 loops joined by a straight run of tracks
    I have read that the loop needs to be at least 36”. Is this correct?
    Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thank you

  46. Norman Kayler says:

    FYI All types and sizes of LED lights for the hobbyist are available on-line from “Evans Design” many made just for trains. I have used many of them and they always worked very well. I hope this is helpful to all.

  47. Calvin Kaufmann says:

    Easy way to test LED’s is to use a CR2032 lithium battery. Slide the battery between the leads of the LED. If it does not light, reverse the leads. The battery is rated at 3 volts and will not harm the LED if the polarity is reversed. This is an easy way to identify the polarity of the LED.

  48. Tom says:

    I would recommend against using coffee grounds on a layout. When I was a teenager, 60 years ago, I used coffee grounds as track ballast and they absorbed enough moisture ifrom the air in the basement of our house that white mold grew on the coffee grounds. It was a mess! I had to spray bleach water on the grounds to kill the mold.

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