Tracks, Issue #005 -- Model Railroading Newsletter

February 1, 2020

Building Your Model Railroad

Newsletter - February, 2020

Station Yard on the BR&S Model RailroadStation Yard on the BR&S Model Railroad
Trackside Scenery on the BR&S Model RailroadTrackside Scenery on the BR&S
Hobo Camp at Trackside: Scene from the Blue Ridge and Southern model railroad.Hobo Camp at Trackside: Scene from the Blue Ridge and Southern

WELCOME to the February, 2020 issue of Tracks - a monthly newsletter published by Building Your Model Railroad, devoted to providing breaking news and tips to model railroaders of all ages and all scales in a quick and easy-to-read format. Resources are always credited where appropriate.

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Note: √= sponsored link - See disclosure page for details. If you see a √ next to a link on this page or on the site, that signals that the link is an ad. So if you click on it and purchase something, I might get a small (very small, I might add) commission on it. Just so you know.

Requests: If there are any particular subjects that you would like to see in the newsletter, please let us know at [email protected]. Even better, if you have a tip or something you would like to add yourself for the newsletter, please send it in!  Use the form in the Comments section of the BYMRR website.

Back Issues: And don't forget, there is a huge amount of information in the 33 issues of the old newsletter called BYMR-Zine as well as previous issues of Tracks.  Back Issues are available here.

Thank you for subscribing. We have lots of new tips and tricks in this issue to add to your model railroading pleasure. And please tell your friends about us. The more we can spread the word about model railroading, the better.

Photos: We're always looking for new photos for our Gallery pages. If you have photos of your layout that you would like to share with other model railroaders, I'd love to post them on the site. Send them in to [email protected].

Contributions Encouraged:  If you have a tip, picture, video or an article about model railroading that you would like to share in this newsletter, please let me know.  I'm always looking for more information.

Uncoupling Tips

I learned about this from Chuck Davis as he was showing me his fantastic Lehigh Valley Railroad - Wyoming Division, which was featured in a prior newsletter a few months ago, and previously featured in Model Railroader magazine in 2015.

He was trying to figure out a way to establish various uncoupling sites on his layout in strategic areas around the yards where railcars would be uncoupled from the main train and then sorted to add on to a different train.  He was using Kadee magnetic couplers on his locomotives and railcars, but the track magnets that were required to do the uncoupling were large and would require either placing them under track that was already laid, or cutting through the ties on the tracks so the magnet could be glued in between the rails.  The first method of putting the magnets under the track meant that he would have to tear up the track to do that, and besides that, the magnets made for this purpose were not strong enough to do the uncoupling due to the distance from the magnet to the couplers (The track magnet has to be very close to the couplers for this to work.)  The second method of cutting the ties just didn't look very realistic.  So he looked up a company, called K&J Magnetics, that specialized in magnets and found just the right product that was easy to install without tearing up track and also didn't negatively affect the realism of the track.  The magnets that he purchased were small cylindrical magnets that he could place vertically, adjacent to the inner aspect of the rail on each side of the track.  This allows the Kadee magnetic couplers (which must be present on both railcars or locos that are being uncoupled) to separate easily when they are positioned over the magnets. The train can then pull away and leave the railcar where it was placed. 

The magnets are available in all different sizes - vertically and horizontally - and in different strengths.  It is somewhat daunting to find the ones that fit your needs by just looking at the many varieties available on the website, so Chuck found it best to call the owner and get his recommendations.  I did this for my layout and I'm happy to report that my uncoupling dreams have been fulfilled!

How to Install a DCC Decoder in Any Locomotive

When I first switched to DCC, one of the more intimidating tasks that I avoided initially was learning how to install decoders, especially in N scale locomotives which is what I was modeling.  So I gravitated toward purchasing locomotives that already had decoders installed.  I also sent off 2 of my favorite steam locos to a hobby shop in New York that would install them for you, albeit at a price that I couldn't afford to do for my whole fleet.  I found that I could run my DC locomotives on my DCC wired layout by using the "00" code on my Zephyr command unit, but that didn't allow for separate train control for my DC locos, which is the main point and the beauty of DCC.  Therefore, I had a lot of older DC locos that I really couldn't use any more.  So, like most model railroaders at the time who were changing to DCC, I had to learn how to install decoders in my older locomotives.  If you're still in the process of learning this,  I found this video recently that  demonstrates the process, much better than I could ever explain it in print.  Even if you've done this before, you may find some helpful hints, like I did.  Once you know how to do it, it's much less daunting, and actually adds to the fun of making something work that didn't work before...

Building Decks to Hide Switch Machines

When I first started building layouts,  I used Atlas remote switch machines because they were readily available at the local hobby shop, they were already integrated with the turnout, and the wiring was easy.  The only downside is that if you have quite a few turnouts on your layout, they are a bit unrealistic.  It's not easy to cover them with scenery or ballast because glue and particles of scenery can get into the device and gum up the works.  So I decided to build small decks or truck ramps  to place over the machines to hide them - not over every one, but over several of them where it seemed to be appropriate - like near a town or freight station.  The result was that there was considerable improvement in the scenery and the realism, and it added some detail where there was none before.

I purchased a pack of small flat "boards" of balsa wood from a local craft store - measuring about 1/8" by 1/32", which looked to be the right scale for my N-scale layout.  I cut the "boards" to a length of 4" - a little longer than the length of the switch machine.  I glued 3 of them together to form a platform.  I then cut 4 small pieces about 1/2" in length to use for legs that, when glued on the four bottom corners of the platform, would bring the platform up to the level of the average freight car as it sat on the track.  I then cut 3 more "boards" to a length of 2" and glued them together to make a truck ramp.  Then I glued the end of that to the side of the platform. I then added some brown or grey wood stain, a truck on the ramp and workers loading or unloading the truck.  Each scene could be made a little different by varying the size of the ramp, the type or color of the truck and the different items being loaded. 

The other thing you can do is paint a layer of thinned white glue (Elmer's) on the surface of the switch machine and sprinkle on a layer of ballast or static grass just to make it look like a small hill or a pile of ballast that hasn't been used yet. You'll have to be careful not to get any glue or grass or ballast inside the switch machine.

Smooth Running Trains

We've all had the experience of watching model trains sort of jerking along, starting and stopping suddenly - sometimes requiring higher power to overcome the initial resistance and then jumping to a higher speed than we want when it actually starts running. 

Some of these problems can be avoided by making sure the tracks and wheels of your locomotives are as clean as possible in order to improve the electrical contact between the wheels and the track.

Another thing to do is to apply a very thin layer of transmission fluid along a flat section of track on your layout.  You don't want too much because then you will start noticing slippage, especially on grades.  If you just add a little to a small section of track the train wheels will carry it all over the rest of the layout.  This does wonders for improving the electric contact and making your locomotives more responsive to changes in power.  

A third tip is to always use at least 2 locomotives to run every train. That way if one loses contact for an instant, the other will still provide power to the train and keep it going.  You can put both locos in the front, one in the front and one in the back, or one in the front and one in the middle - depending on the length of the train and the radius of the curves in the track that it's traversing.  You will need to test your locomotives first to be sure the speed of each one is about the same as the other at the same power level coming from your transformer or command station.  If you are using DCC, sometimes you can change the speed of the locomotive by programming the decoder.  If running DC, you just have to find 2 or 3 locos in your fleet that operate in a similar manner with regard to pick-up and speed.  A side benefit of always running each train with 2 or more locomotives is that you will have a lot less problem with slippage on grades.

Using Natural Materials for Your Best Scenery

In the modern era of model railroading, we often purchase all of our scenery materials from hobby stores - both online and offline.  However, in the earlier days of modeling railroads, master modelers like Bill Henderson on his Coal Belt Railroad learned how to create fantastic, beautiful and very realistic scenery from natural or ready-made materials. 

For example, sawdust applied over a painted surface was often used for ground cover. 

Aluminum screens over blocks of wood and covered over with spackling compound were used for mountain terrain and land formations.

Polyfiber from old pillows was used for bushes and vegetation. Taller bushes or hedges could be made from stretched out steel wool or scouring pads painted brown or green at the top. 

You could go out in the backyard and clip off branches of real bushes, clip them with scissors into a tree-shape, add glue to build up the stems to look like trunks, glue on smaller branches to add detail, spray paint them brown, grey or black and then sprinkle them with sawdust.  You could then add a light spray of green to make a summer tree or other colors if you wanted an autumn tree. If you don't have a backyard, you can buy various types of dried plants from craft stores that, when clipped into the shape of a tree, look just like real trees.

You could use dirt that you can pick up from the side of roadways, filter it through a sieve or screen to use for ballast.

Use real ash from your fireplace sprinkled over a rail-yard to make it look old and "dirty". 

You could use diluted India Ink 25:1 for weathering track, ties and ballast. 

Weather your buildings, locomotives and railcars by dry-brushing filtered dirt or ash or colored chalk on them.

You could use 2-3 coats of regular polyurethane gloss varnish from the hardware store to make all your creeks, rivers and ponds.

Create a new backdrop using sky blue paint first, then add a spray of white blotches for clouds blended with a little grey spray on the bottoms of the white blotches.  Then cut out pictures of towns, mountains, hills or rock formations from magazines and paste them on the backdrop to create the landscape, Use similar colors of landscape scenes so they will match when you put them next to each other.  Then bring your polyfiber bushes, trees and ground cover right up to the backdrop to make it blend in using all similar colors to the pictures you have used.

Create a snow scene in the higher elevations of your layout by just sprinkling talcum powder thinly over the whole scene. Spray a very fine mist of diluted white glue to hold the powder - not too much so it doesn't clump.  Make sure to clean the  rails well afterwards; and make sure you don't get any in your locomotive gears or railcar wheels. Vacuum up any excess around the rails and switches.

When you are out and about, take pictures of scenery, railcars, buildings, etc. that you would like to model.  Then when back in the train room at home, pull out those pictures and see if you can match the realism on your layout using the techniques above.  You will be surprised at how creative you can become using simple everyday materials and a little imagination.

More Pics from the Layouts We Love:
     (Click on each pic for more info)

And from the Blue Ridge and Southern RR...

Birdseye View of the Sandy Valley Central Station-yard and Surrounding Area on the BR&S Model Railroad
Newer Lumber Yard on the Main BR&S Model RailroadNew Lumber Yard on the Main BR&S Model Railroad
An Early Morning Horseback Ride along the Railroad TracksAn Early Morning Horseback Ride along the Railroad Tracks
Rolling Lumber Ready for Pickup on the BR&S Model RailroadRolling Lumber Ready for Pickup on the BR&S Model Railroad
Using Dried Plants from the Local Arts & Crafts Store for Trees.Using Dried Plants from the Local Arts & Crafts Store for Trees. It's a great Day for Fishing in the Pond (in the background)

Videos for the Month

Work Trains

Durango and Silverton: Behind the Scene on a Steam Locomotive

Coal Mining in Appalachia

Abandoned Railway in Saluda, North Carolina - The Steepest Grade in America

Upcoming Train Shows and Events

Lots of model railroad displays are always available to see anytime of the year.  If you're traveling, make sure you include a train show, museum or even a train hobby store to visit in your itinerary.  The best way to find them is to enter an Internet search in your favorite search engine for "Train Shows" or "Train shows near _____" or "Train stores near _____". 

Or click here to find train shows in your area...

Or train museums...

Or go directly to the website!

This is sure to be great fun for the entire family!

If you live in Ohio or any of the surrounding states, you just have to go see the EnterTrainment Junction near Cincinnati.  They boast the world's largest miniature train layout and has been voted the best family entertainment center in Ohio.  

7379 Squire Ct, West Chester, OH 45069
Conveniently located off of I-75 at the Tylersville Rd. exit (#22), 30 minutes north of downtown Cincinnati and 25 minutes south of downtown Dayton.

√Model Railroading Books!

Learn even more tips and techniques from these great

Model Railroading Books

Model Train Supply Store

Buy all your supplies here!

Trains, tracks, electrical supplies, scenery, tools, paints, weathering supplies, buildings, locomotives with or without DCC, freight and passenger cars.

Available in all scales from 12 major manufactures!

Hope you enjoyed this issue of Tracks. Feel free to pass it on to your friends, family and other model railroaders. If you have a great tip or article that you would like to publish on the website, please let me know - The more, the better. Any comments or suggestions are always welcome. You can either go to the Comments/Contact Page and enter your suggestions there or contact me directly at [email protected]

Thank you for your support and for subscribing to the free newsletter for Building Your Model Railroad.

And, as always, thank you for visiting the BYMRR website at We are committed to providing all the newest techniques, tips and articles to help YOU build your own great model railroad!

-Greg Warth

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