Der blinkenlights

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. Progress is being made but it’s been slow. The holidays are a busy time and winters in New England are cold, which means our unheated basement is also cold. Tough to spend much time there after work when all I want to do is crash in front of the TV and a warm fire.

The Yard.

The Yard.

Building a train layout is a very linear process. You can’t build the benchwork until you’ve cleared out a space for it. You have to build the bench before you can lay the roadbed. The roadbed has to go down before the track. The wiring and switch motors have to be installed before you can make a fascia. The fascia, because it sometimes follows the contours of the hills, has to be put in before you start forming the land. And on and on and on.

Does fascia sound like FACE or FAST?

Does fascia sound like FACE or FAST?

We’re new at this and we only have Google and a few books to guide us along the way, so not all of these steps are obvious. Some are, of course. We knew we had to build a bench before anything else. Some of the steps only make themselves apparent once we’ve realized we skipped them. Oh, so we can’t put a hill here until we’ve installed the tunnel portal? And we have to buy or make a portal, prime it, paint it, weather, it and install it first? Oh. Good to know.

But first, let’s a talk about electronics.

The beginning of a rat's nest.

The beginning of a rat’s nest.

I went to school for a electronics. Analog, digital, microprocessors. I learned all about them. I used oscilloscopes and logic probes to troubleshoot 1970s-era computer trainers. I knocked myself onto the floor after I grabbed a large capacitor I forgot to discharge. I put AND and OR gates on a breadboard to build flip-flops and counters. I graduated with high honors with a certificate in computer electronics.

And I’ve forgotten it all.

I decided early on that I wanted to build a control panel. It’s true, with the right components, that all my switches could be controlled by the DCC hand controller. I didn’t want to do that, though. I wanted a panel with a track schematic, physical switches and lots and lots of blinkenlights. Old school, baby.

So I bought me a bunch of bi-color LEDs, some switches, and lots of wire. After some research and some trial and error working on a breadboard I eventually figured out how to make the lights do what I wanted them to do. The idea was that, when a switch gets flipped on the panel, the corresponding turnout on the track would switch to the new route, and the lights on the panel would turn green or red to indicate the active and non-active track.

I built a control panel cabinet out of plywood, too-small I would soon discover, and drew up a track diagram in Visio. I printed the diagram out on card stock and mounted it behind a sheet of acrylic. Using a stepped dill bit so as not to shatter the acrylic, I drilled about 36 holes for the switches and lights. I then installed all the lights and switches and soldered them together. This took several days to do and I soldered more than I’ve ever soldered in my life. It was tedious, sometimes frustrating work.

But boy was the end result awesome.

Das Blinkenlights

Das Blinkenlights

Now the green lights on the panel show the active tracks and everything can be controlled from one location. Inside the cabinet there are buses for the track power and switch power. I’m rather proud of it, if I do say so myself. It took a lot of thinking and a lot of hard work. As far as electronics go, it’s pretty basic, but it does what I wanted it to do.

Along with that I also finished the track wiring. Although the track seemed to be working fine with just a couple of feeder wires, the advice I got was to add feeder wires every few feet and make sure each section of track was soldered either to the next section of track or to a feeder wire. This is now done so I’m confident the entire track will always have power.

This is turning into a long post so I’ll just add that I built a fascia out of hardboard, using decorative washers and wood screws so it looks all fancy-like. I’ll eventually paint it once I figure out what color it should be. The fascia makes the bench look a little bit more like furniture and helps to hide the wires and other electric thingies under the track.

This week we began the landscaping. We’ve started putting a cardboard lattice where we want the hills to be. This will be covered in plaster cloth and other substances in order to look like rolling hills.

Hot gluin' check it and see. Got a fever of one hundred and three.

Hot gluin’ check it and see. Got a fever of one hundred and three.

We went to a train show a few weeks ago and I bought some plaster tunnel portals and a culvert for where the lake goes under the track. These I have to paint and weather and they will be the first “finished” items installed on the track. I’m still pretty new to airbrushing and weathering models so I hope I can do them justice. The first coat of primer and paint was applied last night.



I don’t really think anything like those portals exist in New England but I said a long time ago that realism is taking a back seat to fun in this layout. The Boy wanted a tunnel so a tunnel we shall have. I had to modify the portals a bit. They were too high for where we wanted to put them so I cut about an inch off the middle of each one and replaced the top cap. This I did on the bandsaw, which cut the plaster portals like buttah. I then glued them back together and filled in any gaps with putty.

Train goes in here.

Train goes in here.

I’m looking forward to making the lake though that’s something I really need to research. It will need to be contoured and the various areas (lake bottom, beach, grass, rock) on the shore painted the proper colors in preparation for landscaping. Then the “water” resin poured 1/8 inch at a time until it’s filled in. A process that will take several days, if not weeks.




I glued the retaining walls to the culvert portal and primed them. I’ll paint them a shade of grey that resembles concrete and get them down on the layout soon.

As I mentioned before, the hills are being formed with a cardboard lattice which will be covered with plaster cloth, painted, and then landscaped with grass, dirt, shrubbery, trees, and whatever else will make it look like a miniature world.


This will one day be a beautiful, rolling green hill.

The cardboard is being hot glued together; I’ve burned my finger about a billion times already. Some bigger hills will be first formed with some wood contours and some flattish areas will be carved out of foam. I’ve very happy that, although this layout is somewhat small, we’re using all the techniques one might use on a larger layout.

We seem to have crossed a line between the hard skills such as carpentry and electronics and have moved into the more artsy areas. We now have to sculpt, paint, and landscape. Neither me nor The Boy are really artistic (though he is showing signs that he is) so I feel like we, or at least I, have moved out of the comfort zone into new, and frightening, territory.


About Jim

Just a guy who likes to make stuff.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s