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Track Construction

Written by Andy Watkins, 2001-2015.

Preservative for Sleepers

I have only built a few points in 16mm, so only really have my smaller scale days to fall back on, but perhaps I can add a couple of points (!) The first is that life is much easier if you build a jig. Use an offcut of melamine faced chipboard (a bit of the fitted kitchen will do just nicely . . .). Glue down card spacers so that sleepers slot into place.

One thing that I an others have learnt over lots and lots of years is that ramin is not the best stuff for sleepers. Like card, it is almost a paradox - use softwood sleepers instead. Something hard and dense, with a low natural resin/oil level like ramin likes to eventually succumb to rot (and particularly, splitting),because it doesn't like absorbing preservative. Redwoods and oak have their own preservatives built in. But softwood seems to do the business apparently indefinitely because it absorbs glops. Now I have to say that we are talking really long term here. Ramin will last for 15-20 years quite happily, given TLC. But why pay for that when softwood sleepers that have been out of doors for 60 years at least are still giving good service. Added to which, it is a lot easier to put a pin in softwood. You may well feel happy if a sleeper lasts for a certain length of time. But, as I seem to keep repeating, it is frightening how quickly that time suddenly nips by. I claim no originality for this hardwood versus softwood sleepers thing: it has kept resurfacing since the 1900s. Somewhere around the CDR I have several sleepers that are pre WW1. I've found that the big thing is NOT to use creosote. It smells realistic on a warm day, which I like, and it burns with a wonderfully appalling clag in one of my industrial applications. Other than that it has no virtues: it's no longer even particularly cheap compared to other jollops. I seem to have found happiness with coloured fence gunge at a fiver for lots of it. It is kinder on the environment.
Peter Jones.


On my line I never got as sophisticated as pure creosote. It gets an annual application of old sump oil and paraffin put on with the wife's dinky watering can. After a week it fades to a mucky grey,. cheap and seems to work
Colin Binnie


For many yonks I used old engine oil as a wood preservative, very happily - particularly on my bit of 5" gauge track. The price was right. And yes, I used to get plenty of warnings about it being carcinogenic and would probably give me foot and mouth disease. But the fence post glop is kinder to adjacent plants and certainly kinder to the small creatures that wander our gardens. What are we trying to do ? - we are aiming to maintain the integrity of the structure of wood. We best do that by excluding damp and little nibbling things. There is the action of physically excluding moisture - and the action of killing any spores or nibblers who are anti-wood. Almost anything will suffice, provided that it is applied at intervals that are close enough. Creosote is noteworthy for having a shorter active life than many other things. Mistakes in the past have convinced me that it is a mistake to use paint - or anything that forms a skin. Best quality yacht varnish, for example, is excellent for those who look forward to hard work in coming years.
Peter Jones


Creosote is now banned in some other countries: some US states included. But I'm not really a natural ecologist. My objection to it is that it isn't very durable compared to alternatives. One alternative for preserving structural timber and sleepers is to consider getting the wood tanalized. I was pleasantly surprised at how cheap this process could be, compared to the cost of the preservative that doesn't need to be used for years. I wish I had gone this route years ago.
Peter Jones.


Yes, dress cut ends of tanalized wood. I was with our local MES when another 1/3rd of a mile of track was added. The sleepers were cut from lengths of tanalized timbers. Those raw ends, combined with 4 screw holes in each sleeper ensure that they rotted quite quickly. The thing to have done would have been to cut them to length, drilled 'em and then dunked 'em. Subsequent events elsewhere verified this.
Peter Jones

Testimonials about track laying methods

My line has approx. 90 yds of Peco SM32 which has been in place for 11 years now. It is pinned using 1" Brass pins through roofing felt into Thermalite block. The odd pin has risen slightly in that time otherwise no problems. Regular hosing down gets rid of muck etc. Also, I had no problem with 6ft radius curves - the track is designed to just that. Happy tracklaying,
Alan Smith

Making your own track won't save you much time or money, but making your own points certainly will! As to ballast, a weak mix of cement and fine gravel will do [say 1:7]; lay it dry and let nature moisten it. The 'Rowlands mix' alternative includes a measure of peat, to encourage moss to grow. Don't bed wooden sleepers in a strong cement mix, as it will trap moisture and hasten rot. Regards, John

Sharp curves

On my line with many 3ft rad curves I cut the sleepers to widen the gauge to at least 34mm. Sounds drastic but it works and I can get an 18 coach train round a 270 degree 3 ft rad reversing loop.
I use a pair of pincers to slice the sleepers and then re-pinned them in place.
Barry Reeves

While not experienced with the Peco setrack, one of the things about flexitrack is that when it is bent, particularly to small radius, it does tend to come in, and reduce the gauge a fraction. This is exactly the opposite to what you need on a curve, where the gauge is often slightly increased in both full size and model sizes to give increased flange clearance. Set track should be much better in this regard.

I run a number of 45mm commercial layouts, using LGB track, and I have found that LGBs advice to use set - track curves for all small radius curves, and only use Flexitrack for wide and transition curves is absolutely right. You get better and more reliable running this way, and far less wear.

The latter is important to me as in commercial service, the locos I run often do several thousand actual kilometres per year - 12-14 hours per day, 7 days per week - the wear is considerable!
Jim Gregg