PRR Chartiers Branch: Hazel Mine - Lighting
The diagram below shows a side profile/cross-section of my overall layout. The brown part represents the cabinets upon which the layout is placed. The green part is the layout (the modules). The blue parts make up the overhead lighting system, the topic of this page. The dimensions are in inches. The horizontal frame piece that is marked as 54" actually wound up being 55-1/4" due to the section where the LED strip can be cut. That piece, measured from its top, sits down 10" from the top of the vertical member. The angled support brace is 33" long. As designed, the framework for the lighting just fits under the 8-foot ceiling of the room. I made it stick out over the front of the layout somewhat (by ~7 inches), so that it could light up the front edge of the layout, as well as the drawers in the cabinets below the layout. These lights are also used as the general lighting of the entire room. The ceiling fan with built-in light is not used in this room, but I didn't feel like taking it down (and having to put it back up again in the future). I did wind up removing its bulb and lamp shade, because they got in the way.
I am completely sold on using LEDs to light up everything, such as locomotives, cabooses, structures, and even the layout itself. The LED strips that are now available can be had in a variety of brightnesses and color spectrums. The LEDs I have experimented with are documented in my LED Strip Lighting article. I simply trim the strip to the desired length (paying attention to the proper cut lines marked on the strip).
External Reference:
I want a light-weight, easy-to-remove lighting system over my layout. After doing some research, I settled on the 7-foot aluminum frames you can buy at the local hardware store, used for repairing or making your own custom window screens for your home (the link shows these frames to be 8 feet long, but they are really only 7 feet long). These are very light, yet plenty sturdy, and cost around $4 each (in 2018). Given my measurements, I need two 7-foot frames per lighting frame. If they really were 8 feet long, I'd be able to build the frame out of a single piece. In these photos I show the building of three of the lighting frames described above. I first cut the 7-foot lengths to one 55-1/4" section (requires one piece), and one 44" and one 33" section (requires the other piece). The aluminum frame is easily cut with a metal-cutting blade in a handsaw, a powered saw, or a Dremel tool with a cut-off disc. I used a metal-cutting handsaw.
Little shards of metal will be left over, so I file the ends smooth. Even the factory edge requires some filing.
If you have worked with these LED strips before, you know that they usually have a self-adhesive strip on their backs. However, my experience has shown that the adhesive only really works for maybe 3 weeks. The problem is that the LEDs get quite warm, thereby "liquifying" the adhesive, which causes it to loose its grip. I highly recommend using a "real" glue to attach them. I have been using a 5-minute epoxy, and they have lasted for years with the lights being on 12 to 16 hours per day, every day. While there may be some brand loyalty in the glues, I have tried several, and have found that Gorilla Glue 5-minute epoxy has the best glue and the best-engineered dispenser (most others will leave your hands sticky, not something you want to deal with when you have only a couple of minutes of working time). As shown in this photo, I rigged up a system with angle boards and clamps to hold the 55" metal frame such that its wide, flat surface is facing up. I only apply glue for as much as there are metal weights for me to balance on the LED strip. An alternative could be to use blue masking tape, but if the glue oozes out, you may wind up with pieces of the tape being stuck on there, which would look bad. I rough up the flat surface of the metal frame with some sandpaper, and then wipe off the dust. I then apply the glue to the metal frame surface with a toothpick. I pull back the adhesive strip cover as I apply the strip to the metal frame. The weights are balanced on the LEDs to give it the clamping force. Be careful about using too much weight, because then the LED strip may slide away on the wet glue. When I have done as much as I can, I let it sit for 30 minutes.
To help manage the unwieldy LED strip, I use these plastic clips. As I progress down the line, they are easy to remove with one hand. When a section is done, I can put them back in place (because they also were used to hold the two wooden boards in position). Also, they can be used for marking off where you left off.
And this is the finished result of gluing the strips to the 55" frame member. The power wires will be soldered to this end later on.
Now the construction of the frame itself can begin. I drilled two holes, offset at a diagonal, at the end of the 55" frame member nearest the end that will receive the power feed wire. This is the side that is to be attached to the vertical frame member, hence the need for the holes. I drill two holes, to help keep this frame member at a 90-degree angle to the vertical frame member.
When you drill the hole, make sure that it is just thinner than the bolt's thread. That way the thread will dig itself into the holes in the aluminum. I have found that makes for a stronger system, and keeps the bolts from working themselves loose over time. This photo shows the package of bolts that I bought, which included their matching nuts. The drill bit I used to make the holes is also shown in the photo.
The next step is to work on the vertical frame member. I mark off a line at 10 inches from the top of the member. You might be able to make out the pencil lines near the bottom left corner of the photo. That is where the top of the horizontal frame member is going to be positioned.
The objective now is to drill matching holes for the two that were drilled into the horizontal member. I clamp down the vertical member to the workbench. My method does drill a hole in the workbench, so if you don't want that, but a scrap piece of wood under the frames. The framing square is used to verify and hold the 90-degree angle. I show the small plastic clips in the photo, but really, the only way to hold this is with your hand; there are too many moving parts. I drill one of the holes only. I then put in a bolt into that one hole first, because otherwise the two holes may not line up later if the pieces move on you.
Note that I put a scrap piece of frame under the other end of the 55" frame member, so that it can lay flat.
I then tighten the bolt all the way down until it hits the frame member. Don't tighten them too much, or else you'll crush the aluminum.
The nuts are tightened down, but also not too tight.
This is the set-up I used to get ready to install the angled piece. It's purpose is to make sure the horizontal piece remains at 90-degrees, and also to offload the stress that it puts on the vertical member. The 55" section with the LEDs is clamped to the workbench (not too tightly). The vertical member is placed off the workbench, and the framing square is used to make sure the two pieces remain at 90 degrees to each other. I then drill a hole through the angled piece (at the top) and through the vertical member. When the hole is ready, I install the bolt, but I don't tighten it all the way down, just yet. The pieces will move around on you, so after lining everything back up, I repeat this process at the other end of the angled piece, mounting it to the LED section.
I can then tighten up the bolts and install the nuts. The basic frame is built, but it is not yet finished.
To feed the wire through the interior of the vertical frame piece, I drill a hole about an inch down from the horizontal frame piece, and make it wide enough to just clear the width of the wire I am going to use. Be sure to file down any sharp edges the drill bit may leave. I drill another hole near the bottom of the vertical piece. Its location depends on how far up the vertical piece is attached to the modules. For some the hole was at about 5-1/2" and for some it was at 4-3/8". I drill that hole on the opposite side of the vertical frame piece.
It is then just a matter of feeding the wire into that hole.
I keep pushing the wire through until it comes out of the bottom of the vertical piece. Note that I made one wire a bit shorter than the other. This is to make it easier for the next step, which is to fish the wire out of the bottom hole I drilled earlier. I actually found it much easier to remove the insulation a bit from the end of the shorter wire and pre-tin the wire with solder (not shown in the photo).
Once the wire made it out of the bottom, I cut the wire to length at the top, leaving about two inches there. I then pull the wire back out until the bottom end of the wire is visible in the bottom hole. I use a pair of needlenose pliers and/or tweezers to grab a hold of the slightly longer wire. Then, carefully, try to grab the other, shorter, wire. With some patience, I eventually get the wire pulled through the bottom hole.
Next, I strip the ends of the wires at the top, and solder them to the LED strip. Be careful to mark which one is plus and which one is minus. I usually make the lead that has text on the wire to be the plus wire. And, now, we are actually finished with the construction of the light frame.
For my particular layout, I have a lip on the back of the modules, so I cut a groove into that lip to just clear the vertical frame piece.
After inserting the lighting frame into the groove, drilling two holes through it and into the back of the layout, I install two screws to hold the frame in position.
Everything was fine with the first one, but the other two were severely bent length-wise in the vertical member, to where they rotated and hit another existing light frame. This was the first time this ever happened.
This is what it is supposed to look like.
So I solved that by cutting two short sections of left-over frame pieces and just put them in between the three frames. I cut them such that they have a lip on each end, which allows them to rest on top of the lighting frames. It doesn't look too bad, and it is not really noticeable.
A terminal, or barrier strip, is used to make it easier to connect LED wires to power supplies or between modules, without having to bring out the soldering iron when it is time to take the lighting frames down. There can be up to 4 vertical lighting frames per module, so I installed an 8-slot barrier strip at the end of the module. At the next module over, I installed a 4-slot barrier strip, merging two of the ones from the other module per pair. When I need to move the modules, all I have to do is remove these connecting pieces of wire (made from heavy-gauge house electrical wire).
This shows six of the seven lighting frames with them turned off.
And this is with them all wired up and running. Adding three more lighting frames to the four that I already had has added a significant amount of the light. The layout is so much better lit now. It took a little over two weeks of modeling time to build and install these, but it was well worth it. Mostly for my own information: all arms use 21 watts, except for the one on the far right (standing in front of the layout), which uses only 6 watts, for a total of 132 watts. See the bottom of my LED Strip Lighting article for how I power the lights.