Articles - Hand-laying Track
01/18/2015

Making Ties

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Obviously you need to have something onto which to lay the ties. My experience shows that the sub-roadbed needs to be as smooth as possible. Flextrack is more forgiving of uneven sub-roadbed, because the ties can "float" above the sub-roadbed where it undulates a bit. For hand-laying ties and rail, the roadbed must be smooth.

I make the ties myself. You can buy them from Kappler Mill & Lumber Co for virtually all scales. There are other companies that produce bags of ties as well. When I switched to S-scale, I decided to make my own ties. To do this, I buy several pieces of 4" x 24" of 1/8"-thick basswood (a domestic wood cut in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin) made by Midwest Products. Hobby Lobby has a similar product which sells for $3.29 a sheet. I found my supply of Midwest Products basswood at a local Ace Hardware store for $2.49. I prefer basswood over balsa wood, because it seems a bit harder and heavier. This is needed to better hold the spikes later on.
Hand-laying Track
To start making the ties, I rip as much as I can from the sheet without endangering my fingers, up to about one inch or so. I took the table saw cover off for this photo, but I always use the cover, not only for dust collection but also to give my hand that extra notification when it is getting too close to the blade area.
Hand-laying Track
The remainder will have several inches of sheet that cannot be safely ripped. That goes into the scratch-building supplies drawer. I cut strips of 9/64", the width of a scale tie in S. Because my table saw blade has a kerf of 7/64", I can move the fence over a quarter of an inch for each cut to create the perfect 9 scale inch tie width (9 + 7 = 16; 16/64 = 1/4). It makes the job go very quickly. The photo shows four sheets cut up into to tie strips. One 4" x 24" sheet produces 60 (actual) feet of tie strips (there are 240 feet of tie material in this photo). Once the strips are sanded, they are ready for trimming.
Hand-laying Track
Since the sheets are 1/8" thick, that means the ties will be 8/64" or 8 scale inches tall. The prototype ties are 7" by 9". The extra inch will probably be sanded off after the ties are installed, and the ballast will hide the fact that they may be a tad too tall. The bottom line is, you won't be able to tell the difference.

To actually cut the tie to the right length, I use the NWSL Chopper II. It can handle 1/8"-thick wood. It makes a very nice cut. I simply set the stop at 8-1/2' scale feet (for regular ties; variable lengths for turnouts) and chop away. The result is a perfectly squared-off tie.
Hand-laying Track

Installing Ties

I always draw a pencil line against which the ties will be laid. In this photo I am using a piece of Masonite hardboard to draw a curve. The strip makes for a natural easement into and out of the curve, and I can line it up with ties I have already laid. For straight sections I simply use a ruler. I then mark a line with a pencil.
Hand-laying Track
Another approach I have used is to use a piece of flextrack (shown here is an N-scale piece of Atlas flextrack). I put some weights on it to hold it in place, and then run a pencil along the outside edge of one or both of the ends of the ties.
Hand-laying Track
Another approach I have used is to put a piece of strip styrene between two sets of weights. The weights on the right-hand side hold the styrene strip against already-laid ties. The styrene will then form a natural easement, and you can tweak it until you are happy. Then mark it off with a pencil.
Hand-laying Track
I glue the ties down to the painted sub-roadbed (ceiling tiles in this case) with Elmers yellow carpenter's glue. I simply spread a thin layer of yellow glue over the area onto which the ties are to be laid and then press the ties into the glue. Be sure not to have too much glue, because the glue will prevent stain from penetrating the ties later on. Also, spread the glue over as large of a section as you can get done in a few minutes, or else the glue may be dry by the time you get to that section.
Hand-laying Track
After all the glue has dried, I use the thin edge of a ruler to determine which ties need to be sanded down. A light sanding is typically necessary to ensure that all the ties are flat and even. I built this contraption using two pieces of left-over MDF boards. Some sandpaper was glued to the bottom of the tool. By leaving a bit of sandpaper sticking out the front and back of the tool it reduces the chances of it catching any ties that stick up too far. Go light at first, or else you can rip some of the ties off.
Hand-laying Track

Staining Ties

After using the vacuum cleaner to clear off the area, I stain the ties with Minwax' "Special Walnut" stain. I prefer to stain them after I have glued the ties, because it makes the job go faster and the stain doesn't get all over my hands. However, because I stain after the gluing, I have to be careful about excess glue. Once the glue hits the wood it seals it from stain, so any exposed wood covered with glue will never be stained.
Hand-laying Track
Next, I cut the sub-roadbed to match the roadbed profile. I use an X-acto blade and trim at an as low of an angle as possible. It is a bit tricky to avoid the edge of the ties. I only do this for areas that require a roadbed profile, such as the main line.
Hand-laying Track
Once done with that step, I cover the exposed areas of the sub-roadbed with latex paint to protect it, making sure not to touch the ties with the paint. The ties are now done.
Hand-laying Track

Making Ballast

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When hand-laying track, I prefer to ballast before laying the rail. This prevents the ballast from getting caught up in the rail, and it also allows me to manipulate the ballast to my heart's content without the rail getting in the way.

The ballast I use is an interesting sidebar. I used to use Arizona Rock & Mineral Co. ballast (their web site no longer lists ballast) for my N-scale layouts. It worked great. However, I am not convinced that the ballast they sell is the right size for S-scale. It is perfect for N and HO, but the only other size they sell is for "large scale". A bit too vague for me. With no local store carrying the material and with the cost of shipping, it can get quite expensive.

Ballast, from my research, is rock about one to two inches in diameter. Ballast needs to be sharp for it to settle and grip well. Rounded river rock will not work.

One day I was cleaning our parrot's cage when I realized the crushed walnut shells we use for litter for the bottom of the cage is just the right size. I grabbed the ruler, and, sure enough, it was, on average, two scale inches in diameter (for S-scale, that is). It has sharp edges. It is called Kaytee Walnut Bird Litter. It is about $11 for a bag at Petsmart and you will find it in the bird or ferret aisle.

The advantages of using crushed walnut shells are that it is relatively cheap (one $11 bag will probably provide enough material for an entire large layout), it is light-weight (great for modules), can be colored to match your prototype's ballast, and is readily available (most larger towns have a Petsmart or similar pet store). The disadvantages are that it takes more time to prepare, and doesn't look like rock until it has been prepared and weathered.

The advantages of using real rock are that it looks like the real thing because it is, it doesn't have to be colored, the rock dust will "weather" the surrounding ties, is ready to be used right out of the bag, and is available in different sizes. The disadvantages are that it is harder to obtain, can be heavy in large quantities, is relatively expensive, and color selection is limited.
Hand-laying Track
The crushed walnut shells look like, well, walnut shells. This is not the right color for Pennsylvania Railroad ballast. That is more a mixture of white granite and dark-gray coal. I color the crushed walnut shells using Delta Ceramcoat "Hippo Grey", white, and "Charcoal" (not shown). These acrylic paints can be found at any arts supply store for about $1.50 each. Any kind of acrylic paint will do (oil-based paints don't seem to work on walnut shells), and any color of gray will provide the balance between it and white. You can experiment will small batches and different ratios. You can, of course, use any number of colors.
Hand-laying Track
I grab a handful of crushed shells and put them in a bowl. Next, I add a good amount of paint and a very little amount of water; just enough to make it mix easily. If you add too much water, the color is thinned too much and the color won't take. However, if you don't use enough water, the walnut shell pieces become glued together and can be difficult to separate. Experiment to find the right consistency. Make each batch of a separate color (mxing will be done later). I thoroughly mix the paint until I no longer see any tan-colored walnut shells.
Hand-laying Track
Next, I spread the mixture out on a piece of glass and let it dry overnight. I do the same with the other color or colors. I used to use newspaper for drying, but the ballast was hard to remove from the paper. Sometimes the paper would tear off and stick to the ballast, which would be visible on the layout. Not good. The paint will actually make the ballast stick to the glass as well, but it can be easily scraped off and the glass can be washed with hot water and soap.
Hand-laying Track
Once the ballast has dried (usually overnight), I try to remove it from the glass. I break up the ballast while working it on the glass surface. If there are parts that are really globbed together, I throw those away. What I am looking for is individual pieces of walnut shell, only colored. I then place all the ballast in a plastic jar (one that has a lid), insert some metal weights, and shake and rotate the jar for as long as I can. This really breaks them up, mixes the colors nicely, and even rubs some of the darker ballast onto the light ballast. It gives the whole thing less sharp of a contrast between the various colors. When it is all done, this is what I get.
Hand-laying Track

Applying Ballast

If the track has a slope, I glue the ballast to the slope area first. This will provide a barrier for the remainder of ballast; keeps it from falling down as I adjust it. To get the ballast to stick to this slope, I use full-strength matte medium (white glue would work as well). I cover a section with the matte medium using an appropriately-sized hand painting brush. I then sprinkle the ballast over the area using a teaspoon. I put a sheet of paper under the area so that I catch most of the ballast that falls off, so that I can use it again. I also gently blow on the area to remove any ballast that didn't get glued down. The matte medium takes about an hour to dry.
Hand-laying Track
Next, I use the teaspoon to put a pile of ballast in the center of the ties and carefully work it into the ties. I use my fingers for that. I also use my finger to tamp it down so that it will stay and that it is even with the tops of the ties.
Hand-laying Track
When I am happy with the ballast, I use a fine-mist sprayer filled with water and a few drops of dishwashing detergent (this mixture is typically referred to as "wet water") and soak the area that I am about to glue. You can also use rubbing alcohol, but that really leaves a strong smell, especially in a closed off room. Water works just as well, but without the smell. Although water can do damage to surround scenery or structures, if you already have those in place. Use rubbing alcohol in that situation, because it evaporates faster. At first I spray very lightly so as to not to disturb the ballast, and then I soak it more heavily. The purpose of the water is just to allow the glue to be more readily absorbed into the ballast. I use a small, re-used Elmers white glue bottle for applying the glue. It allows me to place one drop in just the right spot. The glue is actually a mixture of 50% matte medium, 50% water, and a few drops of dishwashing detergent. I usually mix a large bottle of this material (because I also use it when I make scenery), and then just pour it into this small bottle. The ballast is covered with this glue mixture one drop at a time. I try to avoid placing the glue on the ties, because it can leave a watermark on the ties (this is not so much of a problem if you use alcohol). I let this dry overnight.
Hand-laying Track

Store-bought Ballast

Update: Although the approach I described above works well, it is rather time-consuming and messy to make my own ballast. For our club layout, the Houston S Gaugers, we were using Arizona Rock & Minerals' "HO Mainline" ballast. This is larger ballast, and actually flagged to be used for O-scale by the company. I bought some (as shown below), and found that the average ballast pieces come out to just under two scale inches in S-scale. This is just about right. It is definitely easier to buy these bags rather than to make your own. The company's new owner has made it very easy to order online, so it is easy to buy even if you don't have a local store. From now on I will be using this product.
Hand-laying Track

Aging Ties

Once the ballast is dry, it is time to make those perfect railroad ties look like they've been there a while. The first thing I do is to use the famous India ink and rubbing alcohol mixture to put some dark shadows in the ballast. I simply use a soft brush and cover the entire area. I let it dry for an hour or so.

Next, I use a fairly stiff brush and dry-brush acrylic white paint over the ties. I also dry-brush this same white over the tops of the ballast. This is especially effective on the darker bits of ballast, because it makes them look like rock. If you get too much white paint on the ties, simply use your finger right away and wipe it off. That gives a nice effect also. Don't wait too long because this paint dries very fast.

The photo shows the difference between "aged" (left) and non-aged (right) ties. Also note the subtle difference between the darker pieces of ballast on the left and the ones on the right. Dry-brushing really makes a difference.
Hand-laying Track

Store-bought Spikes

In the past I have gotten quite a few e-mails asking me how I spike my rail. When I bought the Tomalco Track tie plates, Larry recommended that I purchase the Micro Engineering "micro" spikes, because that was what the tie plates were designed to use. So, I started off spiking with those Micro Engineering spikes, as I suspect most people who hand-lay track have done. However, I soon discovered that they are hard to drive into the ties (their footprint is actually rectangular; apparently ME has changed their spike formation according to the "elders" in the industry), their quality control varies from package to package, and the spikes are magnetic, which means that if you mean to pick one up with your spiking pliers, you're bound to grab three!
Hand-laying Track

Hand-making Spikes

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I have bought and used two packages of the Micro Engineering spikes, and that will probably be all that I'll ever buy. Thanks to Stephen Hatch of Railway Engineering, I learned that it is just as simple to make your own spikes. They are under your control, you don't run out, they go into the ties like butter, and they hardly ever bend when driving them in. They are non-magnetic and they stay put in the wooden ties just like the Micro Engineering ones. I use 0.015" or 0.016" brass wire. I have used all of the following (see product photos below) with equal success. The first one is K&S Engineering 0.016" brass wire part #5087 ($3 for 3 feet of wire).
Hand-laying Track
These are Detail Associates 0.015" brass wire part #2505 ($3 for 8 feet of wire).
Hand-laying Track
My personal favorites are the Tichy Train Group 0.015" phosphor bronze wire part #1102 ($2.50 for 8 feet of wire). My experience was that 0.019" brass wire is too big for the Tomalco Track tie plates and a bit harder to bend. Music, steel, or piano wire, even at 0.015" diameter is too hard. It won't bend at all.
Hand-laying Track
To make the spikes, I use two tools, namely a thin flat file and a small pair of rail nippers. I have also used a small metal ruler. The face of the file or ruler is perfect for the length of spikes I want, so I line up the brass wire to one edge of the file's face, and make a 90-degree bend around the thin edge. I put the file down and cut the spike just away from the bend using the nippers. The distance from the bend determines the length of the spike head, so you can make them as long or as short as you would like. It takes a bit of practice, but I found that, through muscle memory, I could very quickly cut these without thinking about it and it became kind of like assembly-line work.
Hand-laying Track
When you cut the spike off the brass wire, be careful, because they tend to fly away. Here's a very close-up photo of a couple of spikes. I push the spikes in just like I did the Micro Engineering ones, and then touch the spike heads with some Floquil "Rail Brown" paint to blend them in with the rail when I get around to painting the rail.
Hand-laying Track

Laying Rail

It is now time for the actual laying of rail. I draw a light pencil line on the tops of the ties where the center of the rail is to be placed. Another method I use is to use the NASG track gauge centered over the ties so that the position of the rail is such that they are going to be centered on the ties.
Hand-laying Track
I place the rail piece on the line and mark off where the feeder wire to the rail is to be soldered, both on the top of the rail and on the ballast. I punch a hole in the ballast with a scratching awl.
Hand-laying Track
I then drill a hole through the ballast, ceiling tile, and underlying MDF. I use the next drill bit size bigger than the diameter of the insulation of the feeder wire I am using. This gives me a little bit of wiggle room to precisely position the rail later on. However, I try not to make the hole so big as to be noticeable from a normal viewing distance.
Hand-laying Track
I cut a length of wire and strip the ends of the wire. The length is determined by roughly laying it out from where I drilled the hole and to where the nearest bus wire is. I try to keep it as short as possible, but not so short as to be too tight.
Hand-laying Track
Next, I file the bottom of the rail clean, mark the location of the wire, and pre-tin it. Cleaning the bottom of the rail is important to help the solder secure itself to the rail, because there is paint and/or oxidation on the rail.
Hand-laying Track
After pre-tinning the end of the wire that is to be soldered to the bottom of the rail, I bend it at a 90-degree angle. The amount of wire that is bent should be less than the distance between the two ties.
Hand-laying Track
After the feeder wire is soldered, I file off any excess solder and test fit the rail in its position. Sometimes I have to move the feeder wire a bit by re-soldering it on the rail so that the gap between this rail and the previous one is not too big. I leave a little bit of a gap for possible expansion. Sometimes I have to clear or remove some of the ballast to fit the soldered wire under the bottom of the rail. I may also need to cut out some of the tie (see the marked area) depending on the size of the wire bend. Generally, this is not visible ones everything is in place. However, the nice thing about this approach is that the wire is hidden in the ballast.
Hand-laying Track
For spiking I have found a small curved pair of pliers works great. It keeps the tool away from the rail (so it won't move the rail as the spike is going down), and allows me to see where the spike is going. The photo shows the tools I use for spiking rail.
Hand-laying Track
External Reference:
The thing I love about S-scale is that I can really add a lot of detail and it is actually visible afterwards. With that in mind I decided that I wanted to go the extra mile and use tie plates. I bought a package of tie plates from Tomalco Track (see photo below; which is one sheet, unpainted). They fit code 83 rail perfectly. If you use the Micro Engineering micro spikes, these tie plates require a bit of work to prepare them for the layout. I have found that the holes in the tie plates have some small amount of flash at the bottom. Most of the time there is enough flash to not allow the spikes to penetrate. I use a #75 drill to open up the holes I want to use for spiking. For my homemade brass wire spikes, the flash is not a problem and will penetrate the holes just fine.
Hand-laying Track
After that, I cut them off the sheet using a pair of scissors or, lately, the Northwest Short Lines' The Chopper II. I used to paint the tie plates before I installed them, but with all the handling, I discovered that most of the paint flakes off of the tie plates by the time they're installed. I now use a tiny brush and touch them with Floquil Rail Brown after the track work is done. This also allows the spikes to be painted.
Hand-laying Track
I place the tie plate under the rail and carefully drive the spike through its hole and into the basswood tie. I put a tie plate on every other tie, and spike it with one spike on each side of the rail on opposite corners. There are four holes in the tie plates, but I leave the other two empty. That is what the PRR seems to have done with its track. I plan to later on come back and "super-detail" by adding tie plates and spikes to the remaining ties. If it is the first rail to be laid in a section of the layout, I spike the first tie and the last tie under the rail. I then spike the appropriate tie under the middle of the rail, and keep dividing the spiking like that. I have found that that gives me the straightest rail. Due to the uneven thicknesses of the tie plates, after the first two tie plates are down, I slide the remaining ties plates under the rail before continuing to spike, or else they are very difficult to insert.
Hand-laying Track
External Reference:
If this is the opposite rail being laid, then I simply start from the end of the rail where another rail has already been laid and work my way to the other side, every other tie. I use the code 83 gauges by Tomalco Track to make sure the rail is always at the correct spacing from the other rail. I stagger rail joints so that no two gaps are right next to each other. These gauges, by the way, cause the rail to be right in between the minimum and maximum of rail spacings, according to the NASG Standards Gauge. They snap on to the rail head and hold the rail firmly in place - great for spiking. I wouldn't be able to lay reliable track without them. I highly recommend them. I have found three is all you need.
Hand-laying Track
For curved track, I started off pre-bending the rail. At first I cut the scale 39-foot rail sections and then tried to bend them. It worked, but the ends of the rail were hard to bend. That meant that when they are all down, the rails alternate between straight, curved, straight. It looks really bad. Next, I tried pre-bending the entire 3-foot piece of rail to the curve. After that I cut it into the 39-foot sections. This worked much better, although it is very hard to accurately pre-bend a long section of rail like that. Finally, I e-mailed a friend here in town and asked how he laid his curved track for his code 100 HO-scale layout. He told me that he simply spikes enough of the rail so that the rail stays in place; he doesn't pre-bend his rail. At the same time I also decided to see if the "clickity-clack" sound I was looking for by cutting the rails in 39-foot sections was actually producing the sound I wanted. It turns out it made no difference. It was hard to hear any of it. Add to that the sound of the sound-equipped engine, and all that work was for naught. I decided to lay my track using as long a piece of rail as possible. I also stopped pre-bending my rail. It actually turned out to go a lot faster, and the curves are nice and smooth. The gauges help a lot when laying curved rail. I keep them close together, placing one over every tie that doesn't get spiked. The important thing to remember with regard to hand-laying curved rail is to always start with the inside rail first. If you start with the outside rail first, the inside rail may literally not fit on the ties!
Hand-laying Track

Track Details

Before ballasting, I always try to add something to the track that needs to appear as if it growing out of the track, such as tall weeds or grasses at the ends of the track where few freight cars actually travel. These are grasses sold by Woodland Scenics. A set of different kinds of grasses are available. I use a pair of tweezers and glue them in place with superglue or Aleene's Tacky Glue.
Hand-laying Track
This photo shows one such set of weeds on a N-scale module I built. They will be trimmed to the right length (about one to two scale feet in height) later on.
Hand-laying Track
External Reference:
At the end of spurs I like to install Hayes Wheel Stops by Tomar Industries. I used those on my N-scale layout and I was glad to find that Tomar makes them in S-scale also. I believe that was actually my first S-scale-specific purchase!

Another detail I want to add is joint bars (strips of metal that hold two pieces of rail together in the real world). In our model they are only used to add that extra level of detail. I bought the ones that Tomalco Track sells, but they seem way too big for code 83 rail. I am thinking about buying brass ones from Free State Systems (I don't know if they are still being manufactured) or from Details West. From Internet discussions I have learned that a lot of people use rail bars designed for the next smaller rail height than the rail actually being used. So, since I use code 83 rail, I would use rail bars designed for code 70 rail. This kind of detail can be added at any time, so it is not critical for track laying. I would only add joint bars where they are visible from normal viewing angles. Joint bars would be glued every 39 feet or so of track. Another idea I have been told about is just to use small strips of styrene, but you won't get the bolt head castings.
Hand-laying Track

Track-laying Checklist

I had been keeping a private document about the individual steps I take to lay track. I decided to move it on this page, so that it could possibly be of use to others. I use this page myself, so any updates are always made here.

Laying Sub-roadbed

  1. Fit ceiling tiles together.
  2. Mark off the sub-roadbed on to the ceiling tiles.
  3. Cut the ceiling tiles.
  4. Drill and screw the MDF sub-roadbed to the support blocks.
  5. Level the ceiling tiles between each other.
  6. Glue the ceiling tiles to the MDF using wood glue. Dries in 30 minutes.
  7. Fill gaps between ceiling tiles with Vinyl Spackling.
  8. Sand filler.
  9. Glue Masonite splice plates under the MDF where needed.
  10. Paint the tops of the ceiling tiles with earth-tone latex paint.
  11. Cut any splice joints between modules.

Laying Roadbed

  1. Cut ties with NWSL Chopper; sand if necessary.
  2. Glue ties to ceiling tiles using wood glue.
  3. Allow at least one hour for drying time.
  4. Sand ties flush on the top.
  5. Stain ties with Minwax Special Walnut.
  6. Cut ceiling tiles to fit the roadbed profile, if the track is on the mainline outside of a town.
  7. Vacuum.
  8. Paint sides of tiles and MDF to prevent dust and water damage.
  9. Paint crushed walnut shells in various colors. Use white and gray colors. Do not use unpainted shells.
  10. Determine if weeds are appropriate for this stretch of track. Use superglue.
  11. Apply a layer of crushed walnut shells, flush with tops of ties.
  12. Soak the area with "wet water", and glue down with watered-down Matte Medium.
  13. Let dry overnight.
  14. Clear off any ballast that sticks up above the ties, otherwise the rail won't sit on the ties.
  15. Vacuum area.
  16. Spread India ink solution over ties and ballast.
  17. Let dry for an hour or so.
  18. Dry-brush white all over the ties and ballast to make the ballast look more like rock.

Laying Rail

  1. Paint tie plates with Floquil Rail Brown.
  2. Paint rail with Floquil Rail Brown.
  3. If rail is on a curve, start with inside rail.
  4. Cut rail to length, if required.
  5. File and clean up the rail.
  6. Drill holes in tie plates.
  7. Cut and trim tie plates.
  8. Determine where the feeder wire is to go.
  9. Drill hole for feeder wire through sub-roadbed.
  10. Solder feeder wire to rail.
  11. Place rail on tie plates. Allow a slight gap between the rails for possible expansion.
  12. Make spikes from brass rod.
  13. Spike rail through tie plates.
  14. Solder feeder wire to main DCC bus wire.
  15. Test track.

Gluing Track!?!

When I was using N-scale code 40 rail, I tried using both super-glue and five-minute epoxy to glue rails to ties, and discovered that it worked well. Although above I talk about spiking rail, I do still find it a frustrating experience. There are several annoyances, but the biggest of all is the fact that the rail seems to shift on me sometimes when I insert a spike. This can make for odd horizontal "bumps" in the track when my intent was to have nice straight track. Having recently experienced that again, and wanting to have simulated tie plates, I decided to explore the idea of gluing code 83 rail in S-scale.

Much like in the prototype, the idea is to attach tie plates to the ties, and then attach the rails to the tie plates. So, the first thing I had to do was build some tie plates. I had previously used tie plates made by Tomalco Track. They work well, but they require a bit of time to remove them from their casting, and not all of the casting is usable; there can be quite some height difference between one tie plate and another. Also, Tomalco Track recommends using the Micro Engineering micro spikes (the smallest they sell), but I have found them extremely frustrating to use, because they bend so easily. So, you either have to pre-drill the Tomalco Track tie plates, or go without them. I have tried the mini spikes, but they shatter the Tomalco Track tie plates. So, I decided that given the amount of preparation time involved in using the Tomalco Track tie plates, I might as well make my own. My method described here, I believe, is actually faster and definitely more enjoyable than using the Tomalco Track tie plates and spiking my rail.
To test the idea, I started with a section of MDF that I painted.
Hand-laying Track

Installing Ties

I decided on a five-track "yard". Using the measurements from the design I was following, I laid out a single line for each of the five tracks with a pencil against which the ties will be laid. The ties are ones made by Kappler Mill & Lumber, and measure a scale 7" tall, 9" wide, and 8 feet long. 8-1/2' long ties could have also been used. I glued them down with plain white glue, and spaced them at about 22" on center.
Hand-laying Track

Staining Ties

When all the ties were down, I brushed on two applications of the india-ink-and-alcohol mixture to age them. I usually use Minwax stain, but I didn't feel like waiting for the stain to dry and for having to smell that smell in the house for several days. I had never actually just used the india ink solution on ties, but I am quite happy with how they came out.
Hand-laying Track

Scratchbuilding Tie Plates

To make tie plates in quantity, I use one scale 1"x12" Evergreen styrene strip, two 1"x2" strips, some weights, styrene glue, and a piece of code 83 rail.
Hand-laying Track
Put the 1"x12" strip on a smooth flat surface, supporting the entire strip. Then place the rail on top of the styrene strip. Place it such that it is in the center of the strip all the way. You'll want to use an as straight of a piece of rail as possible, and one that is at least as long as the strip of styrene. Then use the weights to hold the rail firmly in its position on the styrene strip.
Hand-laying Track
Here is a close-up photo, showing the rail in the center of the styrene strip. With the weights on it, you can make slight adjustments to the styrene strip to have it conform to the rail (the rail might have a slight curvature to it).
Hand-laying Track
Then place one of the 1"x2" styrene strips up on top of the base styrene strip, and carefully push it against the base of the rail. If you look at a prototype tie plate, you will notice that it has a lip that is positioned against the rail base. That is what this strip of styrene is to simulate. The styrene strip may not entirely fall against the base of the rail, but that's OK. Using a fine-tipped paint brush dunked into the styrene glue you use, tap it at the joint area between the base styrene and the 1"x2" strip. When you do that, give the 1"x2" strip a slight push to get it to snuggle up to the base of the rail. You will need to do the entire strip that way rather quickly, because styrene glue, due to capillary action, will spread quickly and it will set in a matter of a few seconds. I do the entire strip that way, except for the area under the metal weights. After it has dried for a while, I remove the weights and apply some glue to those areas as well. As you can see in the photos, I work on a flat piece of glass. This is because the styrene will slightly adhere itself to the surface upon which you work, so you want a surface that doesn't have too much of a roughness to it, otherwise it will be a real chore to remove the styrene. The rail will also stick to the styrene, so you will need to work it loose as well. If you give the glue enough time to set, the rail will be able to be removed without damaging the two styrene strips. If anywhere along the joint the 1"x2" isn't firmly attached, try to fix it with some more glue before going to the next step.
Hand-laying Track
Next up is turning this long piece of styrene into individual tie plates. I set up the NWSL Chopper to a scale 8 inches (for 9-inch wide ties), and then started chopping away. This will yield a collection of tie plates that have one 1"x2" tiny strip attached to them. This will allow the tie plate to slide under the rail and accurately stay in position.
Hand-laying Track
To be able to complete the tie plate, another such tiny strip needs to be attached (later) on the other side of the tie plate. Use the second 1"x2" strip to cut those little pieces. This is probably the most annoying part of the whole process because those tiny strips are statically charged and will stick to anything.
Hand-laying Track

Installing Rail

External Reference:
With the tie plates done, we can now move to the actual process of installing the rail. I cut two pieces of rail to the desired length, if need be, and then use the Tomalco Track gauges to roughly line up the rails to where they are equally spaced on the ties. If you wire your rail, then this will be the time to solder feeder wires to the rail.
Hand-laying Track
I then slide a tie plate under one of the rails. The tiny 1"x2" strip sits to the outside of the rail's base. Then place another one under the opposite rail on the same tie. I do that again with another tie some distance away, and put a metal weight on the rails in the space between them. That holds the two rails in position and the gauges will make sure the rail spacing is correct. Visually line up the two rails so that they are evenly spaced across the ties.
Hand-laying Track
Using a small applicator (this is a dowel with a sewing needle whose eye has been cut in half; bought at a local train show), I apply super-glue to the joint area between the tie plate and the tie. Capillary action will draw the glue into and under the joint. If the tie plate has shifted somewhat during the alignment, you can use the applicator to gently push it into position as you apply the glue. The super-glue will grab in a matter of one or two seconds, so you must be quick, but gentle. I then do the same step again on the tie plate on the other side of the tie. And, finally, do that again to the tie plates on the other tie.
Hand-laying Track
This is an optional step. The reason being is that I am getting ready to permanently glue the rail to the tie plates. This is OK if the track will be in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, but if it is not, the rail will need to be able to move around. You could drill a hole in the tie plate and spike the rail, or apply some sort of brass wire to simulate the spike head's functionality of preventing the rail from lifting up, if you want to use this method and have those ambient conditions. I am using super-glue to attach the rail to the tie plate. I do this by applying the glue to the applicator, and then touching the applicator to the joint corner between the tie plate and the rail base. Again, capillary action will draw the glue into the area under the rail base and above the tie plate. I let the weights and gauges sit for several minutes to really allow the super-glue to set, and to prevent any movement of the rail. When it was all done in a test piece I had built, it was nearly impossible to remove the rail from the ties; I really had to willfully force it to come apart before it did. So, this is a very solid connection that is established here.
Hand-laying Track
I then continue to glue two tie plates to a tie every so many ties apart. What this does is it establishes the overall flow and position of the track. If you just start applying tie plates from one end and work to the other end, I found that it is too easy to get the rails to misalign. Note: when placing the weights on the rails, be sure that they have tie plates (even loose ones) under them, so that they do not bow the rail down.
Hand-laying Track
The initial set of tie plates are installed, and the rail has been glued to them. It is now just a matter of filling in the blanks.
Hand-laying Track
I do a set of tie plates in between each of the initial ones, and then go back and attach the tiny 1"x2" strips to the inside of the rail base. I use a pair of curved tweezers to place them (do them all in one section), and then use a fine-tipped paint brush to apply the styrene glue to them, pushing them against the rail base as I do that. The photo below shows the result. Later on, when the rail is painted, it will be easy to paint the tie plates as well. You could add some sort of brass wire or a small piece of styrene to simulate the spike heads, if you want to. I am not going to do that here, because most of this track will be buried in ballast and it will not be visible. So, this is my alternative to spiking rail. I am very happy with the results and straight track is now actually straight!
Hand-laying Track
It took me two weeks of modeling time to build these five tracks (ten feet total).
Hand-laying Track
I thought it might be fun to see how many cars I could fit in this "mini yard". There is space for fifteen 40-foot cars on this little space. I put the track as close together as the prototype diagrams seemed to indicate, so the cars are extremely close. This makes it a challenge to get them on the tracks, but they should run on the tracks just fine.
Hand-laying Track

Joint Bars

I decided to try making some S-scale joint bars. I used a strip of scale 2.5" wide and 2" thick styrene (the smallest I had in my inventory), and applied to that 7/8" Archer rivets. These are a thin film, identical to what is used for holding decals, to which tiny drops of resin are deposited to make the rivets. I sliced one row of those rivets off, soaked them in water for a minute, and then carefully applied it to the strip of styrene. This requires quite a bit of patience. Then I let it sit and dry for a while. Next, I cut the strips to where there were 4 rivets per joint bar (main line track typically uses 6 bolts per joint bar).
Hand-laying Track
These I then glued to the inside webbing of the rail, using super-glue, tweezers, and patience. I have marked them in the photo below. I realized pretty quickly that they aren't really visible, so I only did the outsides and insides of the front track, and then only the visible ones on track #2 and #3. Each were spaced the prototypical 39 scale feet apart, and staggered between rails (and centered over a tie). I also tried cutting a thin groove in the rail to simulate the rail separation, but I don't have a metal cutting blade thin enough. This was all really just an experiment to see if I want to pursue this as my track standard.
Hand-laying Track

Painting Rails

Next, I used Poly Scale "Rust" color to paint the rails and the tie plates. This left them a bit too orange-y for my taste, so I followed that up with a heavy dose of Bradgon weathering powders (dark gray and black). If you look closely, you can see one of the joint bars on the right-hand rail in the photo below. In general, they are not really visible, and so not really worth the effort in S-scale. At least, that's my opinion.
Hand-laying Track

Ballasting

OK, it is time for ballasting. I wrapped the outside of the base board with blue masking tape to keep the ballast and the glue contained.
Hand-laying Track
I first put down a strip of glue on the outside-the-track areas. I used Elmer's white glue. For the coal that I sprinkled on the glue I used "Decorative Sand" ("Black Coarse Sand", item #73054, made by Panacea Products Corp, Columbus, OH) that I had bought at craft store Michael's (see my Coal Load article for a link and photo).
Hand-laying Track
After that dried, I sprinkled the coal in between the ties, and sprayed that with 50/50 water and white glue. I let that dry overnight. The next photo shows the third step, which is to apply coal up to the top of the rails. I am using a spare truck to make sure that it still rolls smoothly through the loose ballast. The fan brush was used to lightly move the coal around where needed.
Hand-laying Track
Because this was a fairly large layer, I spent the next two days spraying the white glue mixture over the ballast, giving it plenty of time to dry in between applications.
Hand-laying Track
I spent quite a bit of time getting all the tiny pieces of "coal" out from where it interfered with the movement of the engines and cars. As I moved the engine or car, I carefully watched for any slight movement of the body to determine where there might be a problem. One big advantage of having battery-powered engines is that I can do this sort of testing without powering the rails. This photo shows the tools I used to get smooth-rolling track.
Hand-laying Track