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Many modellers and layout builders look at hand laid track with awe, and in some cases with horror. They exclaim "I don't know how you do it?" or "I don't know how you have the patience!" In this article I am going to try and dispel some of the perceived horrors , and with these horrors gone, you will find the achievement of with laying your own track will bring great enjoyment. And anything you enjoy doing does not require patience.

What are the advantages of hand laid track? To me the most important is the look of weathered timber ties with lightweight rail spiked down - nothing looks more prototypical, especially in photographs. Secondly, the ability to build track that suits the location required, especially with custom built turnouts, means you can design track plans that often commercial track doesn't allow. Thirdly, hand laid track is much cheaper than commercial track, and anything that makes our hobby dollar go further must be good.

Hand laying track is a huge subject, and here I have tried to break down into its various sections, and thus simplify each of these areas as much as possible.



I have been hand laying track for over 10 years, and I'm still learning new methods, tools and techniques in this interesting aspect of the hobby, and hope to adapt to new ideas as they come along. I still have much to learn, but hope to pass onto you what I have learnt so far. 


Before hammering the first spike into a tie, lets look at the construction of the baseboard and road bed. All my baseboards are a frame work of 42 mm x 19 mm ( 2"x 1" ) pine, with cross struts about every 300 mm ( 12" ). White polystyrene sheet, normally 50 mm ( 2" ) thick, is glued to this frame work using Selleys™ "Liquid Nails". For the road bed I use 6 mm Craftwood ( this is also called Medium Density Fibre Board or MDF ). I then mark out the shape of the road bed required, including the centre line of my track. This is then cut to the required shape. I lay the board in place to check it's correct. With any modifications done, I then 'Liquid Nail' the shaped road bed into the foam base. I also add 42 mm x 19 mm pine droppers through the foam, from under the Craftwood road bed to the cross struts for added stability. Before going onto the next step, I very carefully examine the road bed for any undulations, warping, high or low spots, and that the grades are smooth and even, as well as ensuring that the transitions from the flat areas to the grades are correct - for more hints and tips on this, see section 13 of the article. Care should also be taken at the joins between baseboards if your layout is modular, to ensure that these areas are smooth and even. It's better to take a little time now to get the road bed 100% correct, than try and re-do it after the track is laid.

When I am happy with my road bed, I start gluing 35 mm wide by 3 mm thick strips of cork to the road bed, using the centre line of the track as a guide, using a PVA white wood glue. This cork strip has a 45° bevel along each edge to help form the ballast shape. After gluing the cork down, I use a steel ruler to check for any undulations, just as I did on the Craftwood road bed. Any high spots can be sanded off or low spots filled in to give a smooth surface.


The ties I use when I am building my 'O' scale ( ¼"to the foot ) 3 foot narrow gauge track work are from Mt. Albert Scale Lumber Co. and are a scale 6'0" or 6'6" long by 7" wide and 5" deep. The spikes I use are Micro Engineering™ medium spikes (product #30-106) and the pre-weathered code 70 rail is also by Micro Engineering™ (product code #16-070), as are the rail joiners (product code #26 - 070) - these are not available pre-weathered

I have found this combination of 3mm cork and 3mm deep ties is perfect when are used in conjunction with Micro Engineering rail and spikes. The spike is pushed into place with pointy nosed pliers until it comes to the craftwood (MDF) road bed. The spike is then about 1mm from being fully home, and one or two taps with a nail punch and track hammer will drive it home securely.


Once I have the craftwood / cork / tie roadbed in place, I distress the ties with a course razor saw by dragging the blade across the tie. I then stain the ties a weathered grey. The stain I use is a mixture of brown (1/2) and black (1/2) ink diluted with rubbing alcohol


Before we start laying some track, let's look at the tools and other useful items that are needed. 

N.M.R.A. Track Gauge

Small pointy nosed pliers

Small tack hammer

Nail Punch - with a fine flat point

Bench grinder and a fine file

Rail Cutter - either a Dremel type power tool, 

       small saw or cutters

Spare discs for the Dremel

Steel ruler

Good soldering iron & solder  

Soldering Flux  

Brass roller gauges

Wooden block track gauge

Lead blocks


Short length of a hack saw 

(I will explain its use later)

Fibre glass eraser pen

Razor saw (course teeth type)

Bench grinder

Track Rubber  

Most of the tools and gauges listed above you will probably already have and require no modification to be used for track laying. The one exception is the pointy nosed pliers. The set I use have curved ends, which allow you to see the spike and the position on the tie clearly. I have cut a 'T' on the inside of one the pliers points. This allows me to position a spike in the 'T' and grip it firmly. It will stay there and not move around as you push the spike into the tie. It is also useful to magnetize the pliers as this makes picking up the spikes easier.  

If you are new to hand laying track, I suggest you start with laying a test length of straight track, then move onto laying some curved track, then finally to laying a turnout.  

We are now ready to lay some straight track. To get these rails in the correct position on the ties I use two brass roller gauges and two lead blocks. Lay the two rails centred on the ties using the roller gauges or the NMRA gauge as a guide. This is where a couple of extra heavy lead weights come in handy to hold the rail in place while you put the spikes in. Place the first roller gauge on the two rails about two ties from where the first spike is to be driven and check that the rails are centred on the ties. Hold the gauge in place with the lead block. Repeat for the second roller gauge about 300 mm from the first. I then lay a steel ruler against the outside of one rail and hold in place with a weight to ensure that the track will be straight. If you are modelling narrow gauge like me, a slight wavering of the track is quite prototypical - that's my excuse anyway!  

Placing a spike into the pointy nosed pliers, position the point on the spike and away from the rail the length of the spike head and push down firmly. Don't try and push the spike all the way down, as more often than not it will bend. Sometimes you may have to realign the spike head as it can twist as you push down. With the nail punch and the tack hammer, tap the spike home. Do the same on the other side of the rail. Repeat this several thousand times and it will  become easier. 

NOTE: Because of the size and weight of my On3 locomotives, I spike every second tie. This will vary with the scale and weight of your locomotives.  I spike every fifth tie, until the entire length of rail has been secured. I then go back and spike the ties in between those already done.  

WARNING: Do not tap the spike down too hard as you can distort the rail or the spike can go under the foot of the rail. If you do this it's easier to leave the spike there and insert another spike next to it. Also, by only having your spikes just firm, this will allow the rail to move when it expands and contracts with temperature fluctuations.





When hand laying curved track, it's important to have some type of radius tool to enable you to accurately mark the position of the centre line of the track. This can be as simple as a length of timber with a nail in one end and holes, or notches in the side, at the required track radius. You then place the nail in a hole at the centre of the curve and draw the lines where needed.

While this works reasonably well to mark the centre line of the track, it won't hold the rail in the exact position while you spike it down.

Getting the curve exactly right is vitally important when the radius you want is at the minimum that your locomotives and rolling stock will negotiate. It's so easy to go slightly under this radius when hand laying track, and this will cause on going problems and frustration's.

To eliminate this problem I built a jig, which the two ends can be seen in the photographs below. It was built from bits and pieces that were lying around the workshop, and all the pieces can be bought at your local hardware shop.

The parts to build this jig are list below 

  ·  2 x Aluminium 1/2" channel by 1/2" long

  ·  1 x length of 1/4" All Thread (36")

  ·  1 x Aluminium strip 3/4" x 5"

  ·  2 x 1/4" wing nuts

  ·  6 x 1/4" nuts

  ·  2 x 1/8" by 1/2" bolts and nuts

You will also need a hack saw, power  drill,  

and 1/4" and 1/8" drill bits.


The wing nuts allow the radius to be changed to the required length. The strip on the end has notches cut into it for the centre line, the two rails, the tie width and the craftwood (MDF) roadbed width (if required). To use the tool, drill a 1/4" hole at the centre point, and draw the centre and tie width. When you are ready to spike the rail, use the two rail notches to hold the rail in place while it is spiked down. Remember to check these notches match the NMRA track gauge.


Not all track is an exact curve. We often require transitions from straight track to exact radius curves, 'S' curves or spiral curves. There's no easy way to get these looking correct. The best that I have come up with so far is to use a long length of masonite packing strip. This is available from all timber suppliers, including most hardware stores. It is 1" wide by 1/8" thick by 8 feet long and bends in a nice transitional curve. I draw the approximate centre line of the required track, and then bend the strip to this required curve and hold in place with nails until I am happy with the curve. I then mark the roadbed along the strip. This becomes the centre line of the track.  

I then clue the cork along this line, and when dry, add the ties in the same way as for the straight track. When laying rail on these types of curves it is important to get the rails centred on the ties. To achieve this I use a simple jig made from a block of wood the same as the width as the ties. On the flat face I mark the centre line and using a hack saw, cut two slots across the face at the track gauge. These need to be deep enough for the rail to fit into. Make sure you check the width of these slots with the NMRA gauge. It may take two or three goes to get this right, but this is a very handy tool for laying all types of track.