Short missive of railroad modelling tips

Quite liked these modelling tips that came in.

Please keep ’em coming!

“Best method of creating a landscape? Sprays. Just spray your layout with a spray gun or can (obviously before anything goes on). Then cover with another colour or go straight to laying track, scenery, and other goodies.

Bit obvious but it helps!”

— Jamie


“To BROWN or not to BROWN.

I have never been very big on the black ties of flex-track. I usually lightly spray paint the flex track with a dull brown acrylic ( I suppose a gray would be OK too).

This makes the shiny black ties appear more natural and weathered. Sure this will paint the track but a light sandpaper will remove the paint, restores the contact and rail shine. I also sand the interior of the rails to improve wheel contact.

You can also paint switches, turnouts and crossings to blend but extra sanding is needed at all electrical points of contact of the throws and frogs of the turnout itself.

I usually do all of this “RR tie painting” anytime before applying ballast.”

GRADING is not too difficult to achieve as long as you don’t exceed a max of 4.5% elevation.

Take in consideration the height of an over/underpass. The elevation angle is determined by cumulative height of… “the cork-bed ballast, the track/ties and the tallest car plus .25″ clearance”. This will give the total inches/degree of elevation on a run of 100″.

Lets say that the total height is 4.5″; that converts to a 4.5% elevation over a 100″ of linear track. If the running length of track is say 75″ then the angle becomes greater to 6.7% (too great and possibly will stall any long run train). Compared to a running length of 120″ (10-feet) equals 4.2% angle of elevation/grading.

Multiply your grading/elevation by 2 to allow for down grading as well at the same “gentle decline”

— Ron


“The best thing I can say — makeup removal. I use cotton wool that comes in pleats. Just tear these pleats apart (or even just get regular cotton wool) and rap around a thin piece of solder. insert the solder into your old steamless loco and there you have it: smoke effects!”

— Jen


“My tip is get the correct couplers you need so you dont get them mixed up like tyco or the knuckle couplers”
— Jason


And if you missed my last missive, it’s here. Pat needed some help to get started. Thanks to all those who took the trouble to post, and steer Pat (and many others –  including me – in the right direction).

A big thanks to everyone above – and also to everyone below – have you seen the gems in the comments?

Please feel free to add or comment. I enjoy them as much as you lot do.

That’s all for today folks.

Please do keep ’em coming.

And if today is the day you get going on your layout, the model train Beginner’s Guide is here.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

53 Responses to Short missive of railroad modelling tips

  1. Tony Daly says:

    In reference to rail cleaning after painting or for general rail cleaning.
    Never use sandpaper as even the finest grade of wet & dry will leave tiny scratches which will attract & trap dirt & grime.
    If you need to clean paint from the rails after painting or spraying use a small piece of softwood the end grain of which is ideal for the job.Any residue left over can then be cleaned simply with a piece of cloth wrapped around your finger.
    For general rail cleaning use Isopropyl alcohol or mentholated spirits.
    Also to keep rails clean eliminate any plastic wheels from your stock as these are like dirt magnets & simply spread the dirt everywhere.Metal rails are much better & even help to keep rails clean & extend the periods between rail cleaning.

  2. Martin Wood says:

    Are you that desperate for smoke effects? It sounds worse than a santa’s beard!

  3. Johnstuf says:

    I like Tony Daly’s use of the end grain of soft wood to clean track, no scratching! I would next use isopropyl alcohol. After that I use Bar Mills “NO-OX-ID” which is a rust inhibitor that penetrates into the surface of the rails and keeps them from rusting. I have used this on a fishing knife that was solid rust, cleaned it with a wire brush and used it for about 6 months without any rust forming. It is advertised that 500′ of N scale track will only need about 1/4 teaspoon.
    PLEASE NOTE I HAVE NO INVOLVEMENT WITH BAR MILLS. I have found this product to be very easy to use and lasts a long time.

  4. John T UK says:

    Cleaning Wheels:
    To clean my N Gauge loco wheels, I use earbuds and vinegar.

    Dip the earbud lightly in the vinegar and then gently run the wheels. The angle of the earbud helps get right into the flanges and it picks off loads of dirt and greasey grime. I then simply pass a current to the wheels to turn them round and continue cleaning. Once finished I use a clean earbud or soft lint free to remove any residue.
    Hope this helps

  5. Ivan says:

    Hello all, newbie here.
    Thanks for all the tips so far & looking forward to more.
    I have been building a simple 6×5 layout to test run the 20 odd loco’s & 100+ mixed rolling stock acquired from my father, having been painting wargame figures professionally for 30 years (ish) it seemed like a natural progression to apply some of the same modelling techniques to my new hobby.
    I’m constantly surprised by the ingenuity of modellers and have learnt a lot from you guys & plan to build a website to chart the progress of my own garage railway (building websites is something else I do).
    Couple of quick points I have picked up on:
    1. Track ballast: Do people really pay for this stuff? I use fine (& I mean fine) garden soil or sand mixed with any emulsion paint I have laying around, spread it like butter, let dry, spray with £1 can of matt black car body paint & dry brush with any brown or gray emulsion/acrylic paint. If you want you can mix the gray or brown with white or cream to lighten & go over again to add depth. I did my whole track layout for about £3, taking about a day allowing for drying time between coats.
    2. Cleaning: Worried I was going to ruin all my newly acquired engines, carriages, wagons & track I looked long & hard at how best to remove 30 odd years of grime & dirt. In the end it cost me £1 from the pound shop & several hours of getting very dirty & loving it. It’s called elbow grease. None acidic/ none abrasive grease remover & worked perfectly on metal & plastic. When I set everything up in the beginning only 2 loco’s moved when I applied the power, now all but 2 run like a dream at all speeds. The 2 none runners need new motor brushes (@£5 for a pair for new ones there having a laugh aren’t they?). I stripped down every engine & piece of rolling stock, cleaned, rewired where needed & now everything is almost as good as new. A few have lost their details over the years so am going to replace with some slide transfers I have made (transfer paper cost me £2.20p for 10 x A4 sheets (far more than I will ever need ).
    3. Lighting: I know it’s a contentious subject but I like it so bare with me. I found a guy on eBay selling kits to do 3 or 4 diesels for about £4, dam good price I though until I started making my own. I’m now buying loco’s & carriages off eBay in rough to wrecked condition for a few quid and after sorting them out & fitting lights to them I’m adding them to the layout (i.e. Hornby class 55 Deltic for £2 = a bargain). White, red and cream lights fitted works out at around 30p per loco & 10p per carriage. Will put up details on the website as soon as I have built it. Working on lighting for platforms, buildings, signals and so on now.

    Well thanks for reading & I hope it’s of some use to you & I will add more later.


  6. Hey there, can anyone able to provide info on a great way to get the cateye look with makeup? thanks

  7. Charlie Morris says:

    Which NO-OX-ID product do you use? I didn’t find anything at Bar Mills but plenty of choices on eBay.

  8. Charlie Morris says:

    When using Peco insulated rail joiners there is a gap at the top of the rails, which I don’t care for. Am I over thinking the issue or do any of you have suggestions on how best to fill the joint with non-conductive material to leave the track “seemless”.

  9. Larry Vach says:

    I have not been in this hobby long…but have friends who have..Charlie..they tell me that playdo works well..apply it and then let it dry..once it is dry it will become hard,then if you want you can easily paint it

  10. Martin Wood says:

    Mmmm Seems like there are two Martin Wood who get Al’s tips. I’m Martin Wood but never left the comment about Santas Beard! Even though I look like the mythical good guy.

  11. Matthew says:

    For you who have sanded and scratched your track if you get some metal polish and a drill with a polish weal you can polish almost any scratch out of the track and its water clean up after.

  12. Karl Kirkwood says:

    For cleaning the every day grime and grit from my rails I use a piece of cork roadbed and apply a little pressure with my hand and run around the track. It works good for a quick and easy pre-run cleanup.

  13. william says:

    just starting to build a layout and was wondering what is the best height I should make the legs

  14. George Hine says:

    Saw your last Viedo Dave, Al is right have you been in the Sherry to often? LOL.. You make the best vids ever, and I have learned a lot from watching them. Beautiful lay-out.

  15. Tony says:

    Tony’s tip on using a piece of wood to clean track is great. I have used scrap pieces of 1×2 to clean my n-scale track for years. When it gets really bad I dip it in alcohol before use. I regularly run one hundred plus car length trains and have maximum grades of about 2.5% on my layout. So, smooth operation is absolutely a must. Another tip I use is to clean my wheels on a straight spot in the track I place a piece of paper towel, spay it liberaly with alcohol and the just run the train. Make sure the paper towel is small enough to only break contact on a single set of pick wheels on the locomotive and be sure to clean the track every few passes of the train or you will just make dirty track!

  16. Chris says:

    Re the height of a layout I am constructing mine with the board surface at about 91 cms same as my kitchen work surfaces but guess personal preference might make this higher or lower. Comfortable working height coupled with ‘reach’ considerations if it is at least in part accessible from one side only come into play.

  17. Laurie says:

    Re layout height. We just went to model railway exhibition in Perth AUS. when the layouts are higher than a normal workbench you get the chance to have a closer look at everything. I’m in the preliminary stages of doing a layout and have now decided to have the height about 1400mm

  18. Chris Flatt says:

    RE Layout height. I am absolute beginner at this hobby and am about to start planning my layout. I have seen it said that an eye level view of a layout gives the most realism. I suppose this is why the Perth Exhibition height was a 1400mm height was mentioned surely this is much too high to be able to work on the layout that is without standing on an orange box or similar.
    Perhaps the builder is a very tall person or am I missing the point.

  19. Tom Durham says:

    Al and friends: have enjoyed the posted tips and comments since joining. I have I been collecting locos and stock in N scale for about forty years. First layout was 4’x8′ on bench work. Second was inside modified mahogany desk table 30″ x 60″. I hinged the work top to reveal two level layout inside. Used two drawer fronts as access for added yard modules. After twenty years, I would like to build my next layout to be suspended from the basement ceiling and raised/lowered when I desire to access and operate the layout. I am soliciting suggestions and advice from hobbyists who may had success with a system to raise and lower a platform. Thoroughly enjoy your site, Al. Thank you for your efforts. North Carolina, US

  20. Peter Macdonald says:

    Wanting to view my track from more of an an eye level view of my track I set my layout baseboard at 1200mm (4 feet).

    The advantages:
    A) good eye level viewing (with little bending down) -good viewing realism
    B) Keeps little sticky fingers away from touching, breaking, dislodging or plain stealing things. Most parents then resort to holding their tiny tots which stops them from reaching things on the track.
    C) Good level to work on without getting a sore back.

    The disadvantages:
    A) Need to use small step ladder to reach distant items or higher levels of the track.
    B) Need to provide a viewing platform (box or steps) for children to be able to see the track without being held.

    If I was concerned about easier small people viewing I would have made the track height closer to 1 metre (3.28 feet)

  21. john andrew says:

    layout height? depends on your height,better higher than lower (it,s easier to cut legs and lower afterwards than raise,

  22. boris durham says:

    when trying to put very small springs into bogies try two strands of cotton, thread through the spring, pull the loose end of the cotton to compress the spring, put it into position and release the cotton slowly

  23. Art Ellis says:

    Layout height 40 inches is the NMRA recommended standard rail height from the floor for a module layout..

  24. Claude Dodd says:

    Help! I am just rebuilding what was almost finished…you know what I mean. N-Scale. Problem I have two Shinohara triple yard right and left. The left is OK however the right has a short in it. Even when I isolate it from everything else there is that short. Help! What can I do?

  25. Yale S. says:

    Another technique for dealing with black flextrack is using the dry brush technique with brown paint. It reduces the amount of track cleaning which is a real pain with n scale.

  26. David Murray says:

    Regarding layout height: I’m influenced greatly by the North Midland Railway layout of the late Theo Pearson (1880-1959). In the booklet published to display his railway that was 21′-37′ he mentions that the baseboard was 39″ high but, another 6″ would have been more useful. So, mine is 39″ high but I still need a step-stool to reach over to the raised town part of my Elmton. I take the point about “little fingers.” I now only allow family members into the former attic bedroom where the railway is. If anyone else asks, it was dismantled years ago when I had a new central heating system installed.

  27. Dan Marso says:

    Some great tips, layout height depends on a couple of things, I used have little fingers, one of my Sons took a pair of wire cutters,and cut every single wire under the table! But you have to be able to access the layout easily. The eye level layout at the train show is great view, but remember they were going to dismantle it in a few days. Besides little fingers,pets seem to like to jump up on the bench work and pretend they are the Cat who ate Detroit,LOL!

  28. IRA Copeland says:

    I need to put more power to the tracks. I’m new at this, do you have any ideals?

  29. I must be the only nut case that likes the airplane high type of vantage for looking at my villages ? I get tired of trying to access things off a ladder on them .
    and I love flying in full scale planes so that is what I am used to seeing things
    from all the time !
    I just keep a close eye on the little fingers when they are around my village !
    I also do not let small fingers near it alone -ever !

  30. Cary B says:

    Great tips, Keep them coming

  31. Reed Becker says:

    just starting in HO. what radius are recommended. I was planning on 30 inches but it looks like a lot of people use smaller?
    thanks, Reed Becker

  32. JIM hINES says:

    A cheep and inexhaustible supply of ballast and scenery fill is Dried coffee grounds spray painted to your needs and applied as you go.

  33. John says:

    RE: Peco insulated rail joiner gaps. Try J-B Weld. It is an apoxy that will dry black, it can be sanded smooth, even with the top of your track, and it is non-conductive. I’ve used it a few times and found it be do what I wanted – no more “clack” as the wheels go over the gap.
    This is a tip I read a few months ago from another reader of Al’s blog.

  34. Malcom Lee Johnson says:

    Well, I don’t know. Back in the stone age when I was a youngster, and was watching “real” trains run, the clickety-clack of wheels going over bolted rail-joints was definately a major part of the sound system. Now, with welded and ground smooth rail joints a major part of the “Atmosphere” is lost.

  35. Mark says:

    quick question ,,,,i have used brass track on my last layout about 20 years ago, is it better to go to the nickel silver look now.


  36. jacques zanin says:

    nickel silver is more money but have to clean it less it seems that brass track is always dirty. I changed a few years ago and I am happy.

  37. Peter T Sitter says:

    Any suggestions on using 1-inch Styrofoam or 1/4-inch cork sheets underneath my Bachmann E-Z Track.. Any references? I will be using pieces of Styrofoam to make my hills or mountains.

  38. Geoffrey Kerr says:

    Just about to start an N gauge Christmas layout. L shaped with the tree in the front hall going under the stairs. Plan to be about 75” x 85”. Will use styrofoam for elevation on a three section (for off season storage) wood base. Probably about 6” off the floor. Comments welcome.
    Years ago (65 more or less) I had an HO layout that I super elevated the curves. Does anyone have suggestions on doing easements and super elevation?
    Have enjoyed reading the sight for years and am finally getting started. Thanks Al, your doing a great job.

  39. Scott J says:

    Charlie Morris, I use nail polish to fill the gaps created by insulated rail joiners. Not only does it fill the gaps nicely, but it also solves the problem of having a train longer than the length of a reversing spur, as the polish negates the polarity reversing effect of metal wheels conducting across the gap when employing a DCC reversing module.

  40. Scott J says:

    Regarding track cleaning…I use heavy weight scrap paper, using firm pressure over the rail tops. I am an N-scaler who was frustrated with choices like cleaning cars, sand paper, etc. Then I happened on the effectiveness of using a piece of scrap paper from a note pad because of its small size. It was one of those desperate moments when I was trying to solve a particularly annoying section of track with two adjacent turnouts that more than one loco was having trouble moving through. When I rubbed a piece of scrap paper over the rails in the area, I was astonished by how much dirt was left on the paper! Afterwards, even my most problematic loco ran through at a creep with no issues.

  41. Eric Bosch says:

    I am in the process of setting up an HO layout. Set the height at 42” because I am
    old and fat. Makes it easier to reach far side
    of layout. Eric Bosch

  42. Mikee says:

    Scenery buildrs:
    Instead of gluing styrofoam sheets and then carving them into mountain shapes, consider using old time systems like cardboard strips and then covering with bubble wrap glued down with hot melt glue. Then buy some spray foam kit(s) from Green Foam or others and just spray your contours ove the bubble wrap about 1/2 to one inch thick. Paint the foam with latex house paint and sprinkle on ground foam and/or sifted dirt. Vey light weight, fast to build, no messy plaster, screen wire or styrofoam dust!

  43. Keith Hart says:

    Easy way to lay track & ballast.I use pre formed trackbed A505 as it’s flexible & bends +has beveled sides. on the underneath use a glue stick BOSTICK/UHU I use [ any supermarket,craft store newsagent sell it very cheap] place length of flexitrack in the formed trackbed bend to your desire ,place a trackpin at each end
    to keep keep your curve rigid,with a pencil mark the curve made with the trackbed
    bevel remove the nails on the trackbed ,turn the trackbed over smear the under
    side with the glue stick especially at the ends.if you move just leaver the trackbed
    up with a knife or anything flat& strong,this way the trackbed mat be used again

  44. Greg Proctor says:

    I’ve never heard of A505 track bed. A quick Google search revealed nothing. Could you tell us more about it I.e, who makes where to buy it, etc.

    Greg in Mississippi,USA

  45. Rich Gavert says:

    I use different “roasts” of coffee, & tea to get different colors of ballast, & ground cover!

  46. Bil says:

    If you buy coffee grounds doesn’t that leave an awful coffee odor behind?

  47. Chuck Frank says:

    “awful coffee odor behind”??? Must be British to think coffee smells awful! LOL! The odor dissapates in a few days, and paint and/or glue would seal it permanently. I’d be more concerned with it bleeding brown when wet from gluing or painting. interesting Idea tho I’ll save tomorrow’s grounds and experiment some.

    A higher layout not only gives a better view of the layout (roofs are not near as interesting as street scenes) but makes it much easier to work underneath from a low rolling chair or stool, Try what mechanics call a “brake job” stool, most even have a tool tray attached. Mechanic also have something called a “topside creeper” That would make reaching and working on the back of the layout much easier. Like a short ladder on wheels with a chest pad you lay your torso on while working. The are meant for working on engines in larger trucks, but are perfect for our needs as well. A 2’x2′ or larger plywood box with spring retractable casters underneath could be made to use as a viewing platform for shorter observers and/or as a work step-up, then rolled under the layout when not needed. I am currently building a 8×13′ two level layout with the top level at 44″ and the lower large staging yard at 30″.

  48. Terry Rogers says:

    Has anyone tried floor tile grout, sanded or unsanded, as a ground cover or ballast? It comes in a lot of shades and colors, is fairly inexpensive for a large quantity of material at Big Box stores. I wonder if it settles or shrinks when you wet to set it. I would think wetting the base first then apply the grout would create a anchored bottom side until you can wet the entire run. Any thoughts are welcome.

  49. Donald R says:

    Fine coffee grounds (as in the K-Cups) make good dirt where needed in my HO layout. However, always be certain to completely dry out the grounds before using, as mold will form in the grounds becoming a major problem if you have adhered it with spray glue.
    I fill a small jar about halfway with the grounds, and stir or shake them a couple times a day for about three days, leaving off the top so the air can get into them after each shaking. The coffee smell also disappears quickly. I add a bit more grounds as I use them, repeating the process, and always have some in “stock” with my jars of gravel and sand.

  50. Jack Moody says:

    II use a 20 inch by 30 inch plexiglass that I mount to my layout at a viewing point where little finger can’t reach around or over. I use wing nuts to attach it and when they leave I remove it! I have a step stool which stops their sideway movement. It really takes the stress out of the viewing…

  51. David G Barnes says:

    I am a 76 year old machinist who just started an ho layout on a 8×12 table. For cleaning my track i found an old polishing stick that i used to use for polishing injection molds. it is one inch wide by 3/8 thick and six inches long. it is made of rubber and has a fine abrasive molded right into the rubber. i don’t know, but assume they are still available from industrial machine shop supply stores. The fine grade is perfect for a quick wipe down of the track. the rubber and abrasive combination does not scratch the track and one pass cleans quite well, since the one inch width will polish both rails at the same time. The rubber sticks can be shaped on a sander to almost any shape and when it gets dirty, a quick clean up in the sander gives you a new surface to work with. for HO track i just sand a 45 degree angle on the end so I can quickly run it around the layout and watch my locos pick up speed after cleaning. even brass track cleans with one pass. I keep a couple of them handy at all times. Hope this helps old guys like me who are too lazy to find the right solvent and lint free rags for the job. Has anyone experimented with a few drops WD-40 applied to a cloth or paper towel to prevent corrosion?

  52. David Murray says:

    When visiting the Pendon Museum in Oxfordshire, I asked one of the volunteers about track cleaning. The reply was that a special wagon pulled a piece of ordinary hardboard over the tracks. He then disappeared from view for a few minutes and returned with the aforementioned piece of hardboard. It clearly showed two black lines of track dirt. He cautioned against using anything abrasive on the track that would cause scratches that dirt would enter, thus causing interruptions to the running of the trains. Even the Peco track rubber, said I? Yes, was the reply. I’ve now started using Isopropyl alcohol on cotton buds to clean my track and engine wheels. I’ve noticed an improvement in running which is important when selected visitors arrive.

  53. Phil says:

    Little fingers! At a train show an adult lifted his kid high enough to reach oI of trees, much to the childs delight. When I braced the adult about some replacement
    and damage funds, he replied, “If you don’t want your TOYS broken, don’t bring them to shows!”
    I replied that these were not toys, and then next thing to be broken was his face.
    He hurried away cursing, as I advised him to learn some parenting and social skills

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