I enjoy handlaying track. I like the methodical nature of the work and with my favorite CD playing in the background, it’s relaxing. The section I’m working on for the P48 Experience is especially enjoyable because I’m working at the bench instead of being hunched over the layout. My back appreciates the comfortable chair.

As much as I enjoy this work, I know it’s not for everyone, either by personal choice or temperament. In HO I used Micro-Engineering Code 70 flex and loved it. I reworked the ties for a more random look and combined with handlaid turnouts it was a good option in that scale. I was happy with the look because in HO, the finer details aren’t nearly as visible as they are in 1:48.

Saving time on track laying is important to a lot of folks and I understand why. Simplicity is also a plus for many, especially around turnouts, with their switch point mechanics, power routing and polarity issues and of course, budget is the determining factor for all of us. Given those reasons and many others, I understand why modelers might find handlaying track intimidating or the wrong choice for their needs.

Now that I’m back to the module, I promised I wouldn’t bore you with a blow-by-blow set of instructions about the track but will share a few photos of the tools I use.

TIe one on_00I built the I&W on a limited budget that drove many of my choices. I hand cut all the ties for the layout from 3/16″ square basswood strips that were readily available locally, which meant more money could go toward needed supplies instead of gas for a road trip. Since I had to save up to purchase materials and details in quantity, I laid my track in bite-size sections over a period of two years. I cut strips until I had a sufficient amount of ties for a session of work, then built the track until I ran out of something, and then enjoyed running a train or moved on to another project. I wasn’t worried about saving time because I wasn’t in a rush to finish and because I had very clear priorities for the track. I know that hand cutting ties sounds like a gargantuan task in this era of instant gratification but doing it in small batches wasn’t that bad and it got me where I wanted to be within my budget. Time was more abundant than money and I would do it the same way today.

I didn’t need expensive tools to lay track, but I did want functional ones. I made this simple cutting jig from scrap plywood and as you can see, I marked the lengths needed for regular and turnout ties with permanent ink and simply moved the spring clamp I used for a stop as required. I used to have a work surface that was at standing height and clamped the jig to it for cutting. Trying to hold the jig, a strip of wood and cut ties at the same time quickly proved fruitless.

Tie one on_01

I also made a jig to make regular and turnout tie strips. Again, this is nothing more than a scrap of plywood and some styrene spacers to fit the ties into. You’ll notice I included all the relevant information right on the jig itself. The numbers in parenthesis indicate how many ties of a given length are needed. In this case it’s laid out for a No. 10 turnout.

Tie one on_02

Tie one on_03

To make the strips, I secured a strip of masking tape sticky side up and place the ties in line. In my misspent youth I would spread glue along a section of roadbed and place ties one at a time. The tie strips make that process simple and speed it right along, letting me cover more area before the glue gets too dry. I lay out  a centerline and another for the end of the ties that prevents a strip from drifting off center. As Rich would say: “See Chapter Five of my book.” The design of these jigs and making tie strips with tape date back to the 1960s, proving that old school methods are still relevant in the twenty-first century.

Tie one on_04

I’ve never regretted the decision to hand lay and I encourage people to try a short test section at least once in their modeling career before they dismiss the technique completely. There is no better option for recreating prototypically accurate track that you’ll be proud of for years to come and your feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment will be unbelievable. For further info, here is a link to a post from the archives on working with tieplates and a link to my book Detailing Track   (Over 800 copies sold and still going strong. Thank you everyone.)

I have the ties for the module cut and glued in place. I’ve started the weathering and distressing process and will pick up the story there next week.



  1. Chris Mears

    Good morning Mike

    I enjoyed reading this post. Building track is something I enjoy as well and it was fun to read through something and compare our approaches and look forward to learning something new. To that end, I like the idea of using the simple clip as a stop when cutting ties. Sometimes I see something so simple and equally so amazingly elegant that I just want to try it out too.

    Thanks for another invitation to the bench. Not sure why, but this one just felt really enthusiastic and it felt good to read.


  2. mike

    Hi Chris,
    I guess we’re both track nerds! (Track geeks? Track afficionados? Track…)


  3. Ctown

    Have you considered cutting your own ties? Granted, I’m working in a larger scale (1/29), but I can get a paper grocery bag full of ties from only a couple of pieces of cedar fencing 1″x 4″ x 6′ ($2-3 at the local hardware store). It’s a little bit harder to spike into than basswood, but it still spikes easy. In the process you create a lot of sawdust (I cut mine outside on my table saw), but I figure that the cedar ties are worth it as they last longer outdoors than basswood (not that you would have that problem!). 3/16″ square (or an exact 7’x8′ tie) is still fairly large enough to cut on a full sized table saw with a zero tolerance table.

  4. Doc

    I also really enjoy hand laying track. It’s one of the few things in this busy marathon called “life” that forces me to slow down and let the rest of the world continue at warp speed. I find that it also dislodges long forgotten details in the memory bank, which sometimes surprises me. I recently got to walk a long abandoned section of the branch line that I grew up on and was amazed to find some pieces still intact and ready for photos and memory storage.

    Thanks for your blog and the great work tips.

    Bill D

  5. mike

    Hi Craig,

    I did try to cut ties but didn’t have the right blade for my saw. There was a lot of waste and inconsistent results, so I gave up on the idea. If I had a bandsaw I would have gotten better results.


  6. mike

    Hi Bill,
    I’ve also have lots of time and memories trackside. Funny how they come flooding back.

    I’d like to wish everyone in the U.S. a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoy the day with family.