Hand Laying N Scale Track

I’ve long lusted over picture after picture of model railroads.  I’ve been a subscriber off and on to Model Railroader for something like 8 years.  Three of those years was with the ridiculous international subscription rates, but at the time I was sufficiently impressed that the magazine made it to my door on time that I thought the price worth it (something like 100 bucks a year for a kid in the 8th grade).  It wasn’t until I walked into a hobby shop in the US a year or so later and saw July’s issue sitting on the rack on June 1 that I realized they mailed out the issues a month early, and were just as slow as Guitar World and other magazines I received.The point is, I’ve looked at so many model railroad pictures that I can instantly spot the tells.  Rail joiners, Code 100 track that’s too big, oversized couplers, and unpainted and unweathered rails.  In fact, the track is one of the biggest things that can ruin a photo of a model.  A little weathering can cover up almost any model and make things look nice, but the track is really hard to cover up.  While I think Kato’s Unitrack is an excellent starter project, I HATED how it looked when messing with the second layout, and it bugged me to the point where I was very unsatisfied with the decision.  My chronic fear of derailments (which I experienced a lot of on my first HO layout, mainly due to poor construction and even worse components) was overcome by my hatred for the visuals and the realization that I’d never make it into the pages of a magazine with my plastic molded track roadbed.  I also stumbled across the aforementioned FastTracks outfit that was really pushing hand laid track and their tool sets, and I was surprised that one of the biggest selling points from their point of view was completely trouble free operation.I spent over a year reading Tim’s blogs (the Port Kelsey Railway and the Bronx Terminal), and spastically checking handlaidtrack.com for updates, watching videos, reading forum posts, and basically wondering if I could possibly build turnouts in N scale of sufficient quality, and have fun doing it.FastTracks isn’t cheap.  I’d say that unless you’re building over 20 turnouts, you don’t have a chance to recoup your investment on a pure dollars-to-dollars basis.  That’s unfortunate too, because if you’re building over 20 turnouts, you might rethink your decision to hand lay them.  However, now that I have my tools, fixtures, and 6 turnouts under my belt, I think that there’s no question that handlaying track the FastTracks way is the best way to approach model track.A couple of notes (in no particular order):

  • Buy the switch kit, then buy more rail than you’ll think you’ll need, and buy all the tools he recommends in the turnout builder’s manual.  Tools are hyper critical when doing really intricate stuff like this.  If you don’t have exactly the right tools, you’ll wast a lot of time and get frustrated.  Things I couldn’t live without but was on the fence with before purchasing them: the jeweller’s saw, the fine soldering tip, the flux, the point form tool, and the Quicksticks ties.
  • It really sucks that they ship from Canada.  The shipping is ridiculously expensive, and slow.  Plus, you get to pay customs fees.  What the hell was NAFTA for anyway?
  • Watch the movies.  They’re important and really show you good techniques.  And read the manual before you build a switch, then follow along step by step as you build.
  • My first turnout was 75% good, which meant it was a complete waste.  That’s OK.  I used to it practice putting on the ties and practice weathering.
  • I didn’t order the stockaid tool until just now.  Will review that when it arrives – my guess is it will remove the need I currently have for a dremel tool.  If so, that’s a big plus.
  • The soldering is super easy once you watch the videos and once you have the right tools.  My tip got accidentally left out of my order, and I tried to build my first disaster turnout with the normal blunt tip.  Get the fine tip.  I bought 3 replacements after I saw the difference.
  • Consider getting an auto-off switch for your soldering iron.  The wife doesn’t really get inspired with confidence when you leave your iron on for 48+ hours by accident.  It doesn’t help you soldering tip either.
  • The turnouts operate ridiculously well.  It’s hard to overstate this.  Seeing an N Scale model roll through without any bumping or movement up and down or jerking is just amazing.
  • The turnouts look ridiculously good.  They are almost indistinguishable from the prototype.  Only the isolation gaps on the frog remain to give it away, and you can fill these in with plastic if you must.
  • It’s irritating how there’s no mechanism to “switch” the turnouts until they’re installed.  Nothing you can do about that, but I just thought I’d mention it.

If you’re serious about modeling a railroad, you must consider FastTracks.  Now that I’ve built six turnouts, I can build one start to finish in about 35 minutes, which is about as fast a modeling project as you can have.  Even building 30+ turnouts, the time invested is roughly 20 hours, which is less time than you’re going to spend messing with the commercial guys to get working properly, and then you start to really experience a major cost savings.  I’m not sure there’s a more important item for a railroad than the track, and you can’t easily change or replace it down the line.Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever received a higher quality product from an outfit that’s no more than 2-3 guys.  The packaging is great, and the video resources and manuals are the best I’ve ever seen, on a topic that is super intricate.  I can honestly say that it’s really hard to complain about cost when the product is so top notch on so many levels, from the printable templates down to the DVD that’s included (just wish it would run on a Mac!).Excellent tools, lots of fun, great looking and great running results.

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