Articles - Control Panels
10/23/2005
A friend of mine asked me one time if I could design and build a better control panel for his N-scale layout. He actually had a handful of panels that needed to be revamped. I had been experimenting with various designs, printing issues, and construction methods. After a while I developed a system with which I could reproduce consistent results. This is important if you want to have a set of identical-looking panels for one layout. The panels are time-consuming to make, but the results, I think, are worth it.

The first photo is of a control panel I did for an HO-scale layout for a client of mine (I used to own a company called MiniatureScapes, under which I did model railroading work for other people). Our entire interaction was done via e-mail. I design these control panels in a graphics program at a very high resolution, so as to avoid jagged lines. Everything is customizable. For example, the client wanted red lines to represent the main line track, and blue lines to represent secondary tracks. He also wanted industry names and key track names listed on the panel. I drilled holes for turnout switches and for block-control switches.
Control Panels
Another client had this existing panel on his N-scale layout. He used screws in the panel, connected to turnout wiring, that could be connected to via a metal pointer to trigger the flipping of a turnout. However, in addition to making the panel more appealing, he now also wanted to switch to using push-button switches for turnout control.
Control Panels
This was the design I came up with for him. He wanted the town's name on each panel, in addition to the spur and/or industry names on each track. The panels are highly reflective, so you see the overhead lighting reflected in the photo. These panels are made by printing the final design on very high quality paper perfectly matched for the inkjet printer I was using. After allowing the print-out to dry for a while, I glued it to a sheet of 1/8" Masonite hardboard using 90-minute epoxy. Any other glue will soak through the paper and ruin the result. I used wax paper on top of the print-out to be able to smooth out the paper and to put some weights on it while the glue sets. Next, I very carefully cut the panel on my table saw to match the dimensions of the printed paper. After that, I poured one solid layer of Envirotex epoxy over the panel. This is probably the hardest part of the job. While the epoxy is setting, you constantly have to watch it for air bubbles, and you must prevent any dust or hair from falling on the panel. At the time I did this, we had 5 animals in the house, so this was a major challenge. Even though the epoxy only needs about 24 hours to set, it is still susceptible to damage within the first few days. I typically let the panel cure for a week.
Control Panels
This is the above panel installed on the client's N-scale layout. I installed and wired all the push-button switches, which connect to the solenoid-driven turnout motors. The switches have just enough threads to stick through the holes drilled in the panel. If the Envirotex is poured too thick, the switches won't fit. It is also easy to scratch the panel's surface when installing the switches using a tool to tighten the nut. One alternative may be to use some form of plexiglass instead of Masonite, because that provides about the same rigidity while being available in thinner thicknesses.
Control Panels
This panel was built for the layout's large yard. It shows that by keeping the same colors throughout the panels (same fonts, etc.) you can build a theme for the layout. It is my understanding that when this layout was dismantled, a regular operator took this yard portion and is happily using it and this panel in his own layout. The space set aside for the old panel in this spot exceeded the width of my printer (greater than 19 inches), so the control panel was glued to a larger sheet of Masonite hardboard to fit the space. However, because of the new thickness where the switches were, more work needed to be done to clear a space for each of the switches.
Control Panels
Early on in my experimentation, I was starting to build a large diorama of an N-scale mine operation (which I never built). This was the control panel I designed for it. I was experimenting with various paper types. This was a thick paper, but the printer was unable to make a nice, solid, and even background color. I eventually started using high-quality photography paper, which was expensive, but gave me the great results you see above.
Control Panels