Modeling Track: Introduction
Handlaid or commercial?
It’s a choice that can paralyze people. Each has positive and negative aspects and I won’t rehash those in this post as they are well known and merely scratch the surface. I find that unless there is a clear advantage of one choice over another, such lists aren’t that helpful. Instead, I’d like to approach this from another perspective.
Let’s agree that there is a wide range of opinion and that everyone has different goals to pursue in relation to the craft. Track may be a major or minor focus for you depending on what your goals are. I’m not offering a prescriptive formula here, merely some insights about the choices I made personally.
What Do You Want From Your Track?
We ask a lot of model track. Of everything that goes into a layout, the track probably has the most demands placed upon it. Track serves a dual purpose in that it needs to be functional and mechanically sound, while delivering a cosmetic appearance that can either add to or detract from the rest of the layout.
Mechanically sound track that guides and powers the train doesn’t have to be pretty (think vintage three-rail tubular track) to do its job; whereas cosmetically accurate track also has to be mechanically sound to serve its intended purpose. It’s this dual aspect that gives many of us trouble. It’s not an issue of choosing between mechanics and beauty; the issue comes from the other expectations we bring related to quantity and quality. Builders of larger layouts want speed and ease of getting the track down along with cost savings due to the volume of materials their plan might require. They’re willing to make compromises that others, for various reasons, would not. This brings us to the question of what do you want from your track?
Several things add to the realism of this scene such as the boltheads on the wing rail of the frog and the ends of the guardrail. Less obvious is the air space under the rail between each cross tie. We expect to see this on full-size track and here it adds to the illusion I’m creating. On most brands of flex track this space would be filled by the plastic webbing that connects the tie strip. Details that detract are the funky joint bar on the right and oversized heads on the spikes.
Understand Your Expectations And The Tradeoffs
Working in quarter-inch scale dictated a few choices for me from day one. Primary among them was at that time I started building the layout (roughly 2006-08) flextrack or commercial turnouts weren’t readily available in P48. I didn’t see this as a problem since I already decided to scratch build my track. Another contributing reason for this choice was the perspective of the scene. With a narrow shelf layout the track was in plain view and easy to study at close range. From this viewpoint missing or crudely rendered details are obvious.
I also had very high visual expectations. As I mentioned in the previous post, this track was the culmination of a long pursuit of greater realism in my track modeling. I chose appearance over convenience because I knew I could build in reliability from the outset. This is why I stress knowing your “why.” By clearly understanding my goals even though certain choices were limited by default, those within my control were easy to make. Had I been less concerned with realism and planned a different kind of layout, commercial five-foot gauge track systems might have been a viable option. On the surface they certainly would have been easier and quicker but I couldn’t stomach the compromised appearance or gauge.
The appearance of the track also contributed to the overall scene I created with the layout. Since I could control the quality, I could blend the track into the greater landscape seamlessly, which added to the impact the layout had. For example, I used continuous stock rails and eliminated the rail joints at both ends of each turnout. This small detail gave my track the same cohesive look we see on the real thing.
Realism suffers when one element of an otherwise cohesive scene sticks out from the rest. Historically, track has been treated as one of those things that gets a free pass from many people. We’ve all seen images of finely built rolling stock running on crude track, or surrounded by poorly done generic scenery. We’ve accepted this dichotomy without question yet our jaws still drop when someone gets all the elements right. Why? Because the image conveyed is consistent. No indifferently rendered single detail destroys the illusion we’re trying to create.
As mentioned earlier I’m aware these are choices one makes. I’m a strong believer in learning new skills that empower a modeler toward a more engaging experience of the craft. The ability to handlay track is one such skill and the options and subsequent rewards it offers deserve to be better known.
So, what do you want from your track? It’s worth the time to clarify your expectations because the alternative often leads to disappointment and wasted resources and, is that what you really want from this hobby?