Articles - Flextrack
12/20/2002

Installation

This article shows how I prepare and install flexible track pieces. This particular installation uses code 55 Micro Engineering unweathered flextrack for an N-scale layout. However, I have used the same technique when laying HO- and S-scale flextrack. The first photo shows the AMI Roadbed already installed on the luan board sub-roadbed. In the foreground you can see the finished product.
Flextrack
The flextrack from Micro Engineering comes in 3-foot (91.4 cm) sections, as do most manufacturer's flextrack, regardless of scale. The plastic ties run all the way to the end of the track, so they need to be trimmed. This needs to be done to allow the metal rail joiners to slip on to the rails. I use a razor saw to cut the plastic away between the second and third tie from each end of the piece of track. Stop when the saw starts hitting the metal rails. Two ties provides enough space for the rail joiners.
Flextrack
Micro Engineering rail joiners provide an extremely tight fit with their rail. This is good because it provides solid electrical and mechanical contact. However, the rail joiners are therefore a real pain to install. After several of the joiners bent or went into my fingers, I came up with a better way to install them. The hardest part is to get the rail joiners to go on to begin with. Once you have a good start, they will generally slide in pretty easily. To give them this head start, I came up with the idea of filing a sloped edge on the bottom of each rail. I first use a relatively rough file to remove most of the material, and then a finer jewelers file for the trimming and getting rid of the flash. The next photo shows a side-profile view of the treated rails.
Flextrack
Now comes the fun part - installing the rail joiners. The method shown in the next photo is the most reliable one I have found. Put the edge of the rail joiner on the rail with your fingers. Next, grab the lip of the rail joiner in between your thumb and index finger nails. Then slowly push the rail on making an ever-so-slight rocking motion. If you push too hard, the rail joiner will bend. If you rock sideways too much, the rail joiner will bend out of alignment. If the rail joiner really doesn't want to get on, either go back and file the rail some more, or grab another rail joiner. Concentrate on the rail joiner and on your fingers' position. If your nails slip, there is a chance the lip on the rail joiner will insert itself in your skin (drawing blood). Also, because of the pressure on your nails, the nails will most likely be damaged. As tempting as it is, do NOT use pliers. They do not provide enough "feel". If you use pliers, odds are pretty good that you will bend the rail joiner out of alignment. Do not try to rescue damaged rail joiners. It is not worth it. Just make sure that you buy plenty (10 or 20% more than you need).
Flextrack
OK, so now you are done with the one side of the piece of flextrack. Since I am laying track on a curve, I installed the flextrack against existing track. The side that had the rail joiners installed got installed on to the existing track. I shape the track to fit my layout plan, and when it is all done I am left with what you can see on the next photo - uneven ends of the piece of flextrack. Even though Micro Engineering flextrack preserves its shape to a large degree when removed, I usually trim the other end of the track in-place.
Flextrack
Here I am in the process of marking off where to cut the rail that sticks out too far. Several years ago I bought a model railroaders tool set from Micro-Mark that contains track-laying jigs. I am using one here that lays on the rails. It provides a nice 90-degree angle to the first rail so that I can mark-off the other rail. Any straight-edge and a good eye will do the same.
Flextrack
Now that I have marked where to cut the rail, I use Xuron rail nippers to cut the rail to the right length (below).
Flextrack
With the rail cut to length I am basically back to where I started at the top of this article for the other side of the flextrack. I need to trim off the last two ties from the underside of the flextrack. However, because I don't want to disturb the track too much, I use the razor saw, upside down, and gently cut between the second and third tie, as before.
Flextrack
Use the rail nippers (or any other cutting tool) to cut the last two ties in half, and the plastic pieces should just fall off.
Flextrack
The rail nippers do a good job at trimming the rail ends, but a little filing doesn't hurt. Try to make the ends of the rails flush with each other. It will make it easier to fit the next piece of flextrack against this one.
Flextrack
Next, use the files to create that sloped edge under both pieces of rail. This requires a bit of patience and a good grip on the flextrack (not shown here).
Flextrack
Use the file to get rid of any left-over flash and trimmings. Normally you would be holding the file, but if I were holding it, I would have been blocking the camera's view. The side of this file has grooves on it too.
Flextrack
Slightly chamfer the top of the rails. Every little bit helps in keeping the wheels running smooth.
Flextrack
If the track is part of a large curve, or if it is attached to a turnout, I usually solder the rail joiners. This increases the electrical contact and permanently holds the two sections of track together in the desired position. However, soldering all rail joiners everywhere might be bad because it wouldn't allow for the rails to expand and contract as temperature changes happen. Note: not shown in these photos is what I do for ties under the rail joiners. I simply slip two or three Micro Engineering wooden ties under the rail joiners. The ties need to be a bit shallower than the plastic ties to account for the thickness of the metal rail joiners. If the ties are going to be loose for a while, I usually drop some white glue on them to hold them down to the AMI Roadbed. Otherwise, I just wait until the ballasting stage, because that is going to hold them in place.
Flextrack
When you have a closed-loop section of track, you will get to a point where two pieces of track face each other but don't close the gap. This situation is shown in the next photos. Measure between the existing pieces of track and cut and prepare a corresponding piece of flextrack (the camera angle makes it look like this piece is too small, but it isn't).
Flextrack
The hardest part is installing the rail joiners. The trick I use is one that I learned from a brief stint of involvement in a local NTrak club. Slide the rail joiners all the way back on the filler piece (both ends). Place the filler piece in place and slowly move the rail joiners into place. This typically isn't very easy, so take your time and be patient.
Flextrack
This next photo shows two feeder wires soldered to the bottom of the rails. It is barely visible here. Once ballasted, the solder and wires are completely hidden. Be sure to pull on the wires after the solder has cooled to make sure you have a good solder contact. If not, the wires may come loose. To insure a good contact point under the rail, I usually use a small jewelers file and roughen up the bottom of the rail a bit. This seems to hold the solder much better.
Flextrack

Painting

My sequence for installing flextrack is to first lay the roadbed material, install the flextrack itself, then paint the flextrack. After the painting is finished, I install the ballast. The ballasting is almost always done before scenery work. The reason why I do that is because the ballast actually provides the majority of the holding-power to keep the track attached. I don't use nails or spikes to hold the track down. Note that I do use glue, such as Liquid Nails, to initially attach the flextrack. However, on the AMI Roadbed material I used, that isn't a good permanent solution.

The track painting method I use here I learned from Allen Keller's video tape covering Monroe Stewart's layout. Painting track by hand with a small brush is fine for about a foot or so, but it is too tedious to do for extended periods of time. I spray-paint the track with two colors, flat brown and flat black. The brown is a cheap 97 cent spray can I bought at K-Mart (I believe). It is called "Fresh & Easy" spray enamel and the color is "FE509 Brown Primer". The black color is called "1602 Ultra Flat Black" by Krylon (probably bought at Walmart). Really, any rust-like brown and flat black will do. To start painting installed track, I covered any area that does not need to be sprayed. You can pretty much assume the spray to go everywhere, because it does. I have sprayed on one side of the room, only to find the dust on the other side of the room. I also use painters masking tape to cover track or other items that shouldn't get painted.
Flextrack
Before spray painting the track, I grab a household lubrication oil and put a dab on my finger. I run my finger over the top of the rail so that a thin coat of oil covers the rail head. This makes removing the spray paint from the rail almost trivial later on. Without this step, you'll spend a lot of time rubbing the paint off of the rail. I spray a short section of track (usually do no more than two feet) with the brown color. This is my base color so it needs to cover all of the rail side. I spray it at a low angle to the track so that most of the spray hits the side of the rail. I spray only those sides that are visible from within the layout room.
Flextrack
Immediately clean the rail head! I recommend having the tools right beside you. The longer you wait with cleaning the rail heads, the harder it is to clean them. That is why I only do a short section at a time. With the oil, cleaning is easy. I use an eraser (or a Bright Boy) and wrap it in a piece of paper towel. The eraser provides a smooth flat surface and the paper towel picks up the paint. Thoroughly check the rail head to make sure they are indeed clean (one wipe of the paper towel should be all that is necessary, if the oil was nicely distributed). I usually finish painting all the track with the brown color first before moving on. I then cover the railhead with oil again. Next, I spray the black paint. I want to use the black as more of a highlight color. This particular black spray paint is very aggressive and tends to lay down a thick layer. So I only barely touch the nozzle of the can to let just a bit of paint out every so often. I don't cover all the track, just an occasional dab here and there. Again spraying from the side. Once the ballast and scenery around the track is in place, the black highlights represent oil or grease spills. I then clean the track and remove the masking tape, plastic, and other materials used to cover the surrounding areas.
Flextrack

Ballasting

This article provides a step-by-step guide on how I ballast flextrack. The photos for this article are of a previous N-scale layout I had, but the principles are the same regardless of scale. I have used the same method for HO- and S-scale flextrack. For ballast in this article I used Arizona Rock & Minerals (the company has a web site, but it appears they no longer sell ballast there). However, the ballast choice is yours and has no real bearing on how to apply it. Just make sure you don't use the kind that seems to float when it gets wet (some Woodland Scenics ballast is known to do that). Try to use real-rock ballast, if possible.
I generally do my ballasting before I do the rest of the scenery work. This is because, for flextrack, I depend on the ballast to really hold the track down (some light applications of Liquid Nails keeps the track in position before ballasting). If you want a sharp edge around the roadbed (representing a well-maintained roadbed), you may want to place some masking tape around the track area. Remove this tape after about an hour or two of ballast drying time. If you remove it too soon, you will disturb the ballast. If you wait overnight, the tape may become a permanent part of your layout! If you spray-painted the track before placing any ballast on the track, wait for the paint to be completely dry. Overnight is best. If you do not, the ballast will start to ball up when it grabs the wet paint and you'll wind up with a mess (impatience thought me that lesson!). This photo shows the track ready to be ballasted. It has been spray-painted, the rails are clean, and the area is free of sawdust and other debris.
Flextrack
My favorite ballast dispensing tool is a plain-old teaspoon. You can use whatever tool you are comfortable with, of course, but the key is to have a tool that allows you control over how much ballast is dispensed.
Flextrack
Pour a heaping pile of ballast in between the tracks. I usually do about 8 to 12 inches of track at a time.
Flextrack
Using a small paint brush with fairly stiff bristles (the larger the scale, the wider of a brush you can use), I spread the ballast down the middle of the track. As you can see in the photo, the ballast will naturally fall outside the rails and down the slope of the sub-roadbed. This is exactly what you want. Sweep the inside area between the tracks so that most of the ballast is either in between the ties in the area between the rails, or outside the rails.
Flextrack
After you have swept the area between the rails, this is what you are left with. Most of the ballast in between the rails is in between the ties, and there are piles of ballast on either side outside the rails.
Flextrack
Now I sweep in a similar manner but this time the brush runs over the rails, focusing on spreading the ballast between the ties on the outside of the rail.
Flextrack
Do the same thing over the other rail. As you can see, it is starting to look good already.
Flextrack
As you clear the ties on the outside of the rails, some ballast will fall back into the area between the rails. Sweep this area again. Always feeding the left-over ballast down the track that has not been ballasted yet. You may have to repeat these steps a few times.
Flextrack
I am now done with the major sweeping.
Flextrack
However, you will notice that there are still individual pieces of ballast on top of the ties. In the real world this is not acceptable for a well-maintained track. So, to fix this, simply run your finger down the track. The pebbles mysteriously disappear!
Flextrack
Ahhh, much better! If you have stubborn pebbles, just run your finger between the rails a couple of times. Also, check to make sure that ballast isn't starting to pile up against the inside of the rails. This may interfere with the flanges of the wheels of your locomotives or cars. You can move them using the brush. Be careful not to disturb the rest of the ballast, though.
Flextrack
Next, carefully run your finger on the top of the ties on the outside of the rails. This removes the ballast from the top of the ties there. Be careful not to hit the ballast on the slope of the sub-roadbed, because it can move on you.
Flextrack
Sometimes the ballast on the outside will not be enough. You may have to do some spot treatment here and there to fill up the profile so that the sub-roadbed is no longer visible. After you are done with this, be sure to double-check the tops of the ties again that they are free from ballast. After I have done a section of about 8 to 12 inches, I usually do another 8 to 12 inches before applying the glue. This is because it takes about as much time gluing 12 inches of ballast as it does 24 inches. However, if you go more than that, the ballast may dry up prematurely.
Flextrack
No this is not a lot of dust on the camera's lens, but I took a shot of me spraying normal household rubbing alcohol over the area I just ballasted. A fine hairspray bottle (plastic empty bottles can be had at drug stores, for example, or recycle an empty one from a member of your household) is used to dispense the alcohol. At first spray very lightly. The slightest touch from anything will make the ballast move. Watch for blobs of alcohol coming out of the sprayer and hitting the ballast. If that happens, aim the sprayer so that they don't hit the ballast or get a better-quality sprayer. I start by spraying well away from the area and not at all aiming at the freshly ballasted area. Spray several layers of very thin amounts of alcohol. The more you do it, the more you can spray more directly on the ballasted area. The ballast needs to be well soaked. Also, be aware that the alcohol evaporates fairly quickly. I usually soak the whole area I am about to glue, and then focus the alcohol spray on a small section of about 6 inches. Instead of rubbing alcohol (and, yes, the whole room will start to smell like it), I have also used plain water. It works well, but if you have any finished scenery or structures in the area, water may cause some damage, whereas rubbing alcohol evaporates quickly.
Flextrack
And finally it is time to glue. I use a small glue bottle that is filled with 50% white glue, 50% water, and one drop of dishwashing detergent. This makes for a smooth flowing mixture. If the ballast is wet enough from the alcohol, the glue should spread out and dissolve into the ballast. If the glue balls up or causes the ballast to ball up, you didn't use enough alcohol. Simply spray more alcohol. I spread the glue down the middle of the track, and on each outside edge.
Flextrack
A quick spray of alcohol disperses the glue even more and also eliminates air bubbles in the glue which may relocate some of the ballast as the glue dries. Whatever you do, do NOT touch the ballast with your fingers or any other tools until it is completely dry. Disturbing the ballast now will make things worse. If you don't believe me, try it once, and you'll be convinced. If you are not happy with the result, you can always wet the glue with water later, when all of the ballast is dry, and vacuum up the parts, or add more ballast in some spots. Once you apply the glue, it is best to just walk away from it. I usually let the ballast dry overnight. The next day I clean the tops of the rails because they may have some glue residue on them. After that it is time to vacuum up all the loose pieces and test the new track.
Flextrack