My first experience handlaying switches

Yep, I sprang for a Fast Tracks HO jig and many of the other tools they sell.  I have some ideas to share, and also want to get some feedback, as I think a number of the denizens of the MRH forums have experience in the hand-laid-track realm.


My first handlaid switch

img_5110-first-switch-green.jpg471.08 KB


Part 2 of 3

Here’s an additional picture of my first #6 code 83 HO switch, built with Fast Tracks tools. 

Another view of my first switch


I’m very happy with the results - I figured the first few I build are simply for me to get up to speed and get used to the process.  My expectations based on watching the videos have been sustained, that this is completely “do-able” for me, as long as I’m patient and take my time.  In fact, working on switches for a little while, then breaking to tend to other chores or projects, and coming back to working on the switch goes pretty well, as long as I am stopping at places that make sense: for example, after forming guardrails and points; after forming stock rails, and so forth.  I’m sure I’ll get faster with practice, but at least for me, avoiding being in a hurry for whatever reason is an important ingredient in getting the best results.

The tools and jigs do make handlaid switches very easy – the main thing with this approach is being comfortable soldering.  At one time I owned five or six soldering stations, some of which were loaners for folks to use while working on projects for me, so not only am I comfortable soldering, I’m comfortable getting other people started doing it on their own.  Even my wife can solder!  (grin).  I won’t be asking her to work on my switches, though!!

I took advantage of being able to carefully pull the incomplete switch out of the jig in order to examine it and see what’s happening as I go, which is very nice.

Based on the Fast Tracks video about making curved frogs, it seems better to get the stock and closure rails curved before any filing or other steps are taken. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from the first switch, it’s that I want to try to get curves formed “on the money” as far as matching the jig is concerned, so they don’t pop out of the right shape when removed from the jig (for example, before they’re soldered in).  This “formed curve” is what determines whether the diverging route is on the money gauge-wise, and trying to tweak curved rails after they’re soldered to the ties is harder to do than when the rail is loose.  (I’m reminded about the saying about “Where does good judgment come from? Experience.  Where does experience come from?  Bad judgment”.  cool )

Since I’m building solid-point switches, I omitted the “H” PCB tie on this first switch. However, I’m thinking from here on out I’m going to include it anyway, since even though it can’t be used for securing closure rails, it can be used for the two stock rails (much as other ties that are only soldered on the outside of the rail for various reasons), and will provide an additional solid anchor/reference point where it might be handy to help coerce things to a more accurate placement. I know there’s tolerance for variation in the gauge, but since one point of all of this is to make accurate trackwork to reduce derailments and avoid operational problems, obviously being picky is better than sloppy in my opinion.

The Fast Tracks stainless-steel wooden-handle wire brush does an excellent job cleaning files, too; keeping the files clean is one way to ensure you’re not having to work any harder than you have to as construction proceeds.  (I have some official file-cleaning tools, but the brush is more efficient than they are).

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The Southern Pacific "Chainsaw River branch" in HO, specifics TBA


Part 3 of 3


In some places, the instructions recommend using the Quick-sticks as a guide to how long the various rails need to be (assuming the use of Quick-sticks).  I did so, then measured the resulting pieces of rail, then made notes for those lengths on the printed PDF template (since that’s the PC tie “gapping guide”, although I’ve made pencil marks inside the tiebreaker that I then mark on the ties using a Sharpie once they’re cut to length). 

So, for example, a #6 frog rail needs to be somewhere around 4-1/2” or 5” long to allow for filing and to stick out past the end of the Quick-sticks; I’ll just cut them to that length in the future, and that’ll remove one additional thing (the Quick-sticks) out of the way while I’m working (since otherwise I don’t need the Quick-sticks until the point at which the soldered assembly is fully cleaned and prepped and ready-to-glue).  I have a pretty big bench, but with the instructions in an open three-ring binder, all the tools and supplies and etc laid out, the space fills up quickly.


I didn’t intentionally start out this way, but my cutting mat has ½” grid markings, and that has made it pretty easy to eyeball lengths of rail and so forth, so no tape rule or other measuring devices need to be “underfoot” while I’m working on switches.

Based on my past experience with electronics in general, I’m constantly using my multimeter to check continuity as the assembly of the switch proceeds. E.g. as I’m filing and gapping the ties, check each one; if I file the tie again, check it again.  E.g. once the stock rails are soldered, double-check that no shorts have appeared. As construction proceeds, there’s be a stage where it’s not useful to do this anymore, since until the rails connected to the frog are gapped, the frog forms a short.  Nevertheless, catching any short early will save some work trying to trace down the culprit.  Yes, this is a little belt-and-suspendery, but I like the reassurance that no “landmines” are being added to the mix.

The technique of using a Sharpie to mark the side of the rail to be filed away when using the Stockaid is also handy when making points, so you know you’re prepping the correct side of the rail on a point. 

I find the labeling on the Pointform a little confusing: the term “Point” and the arrow are pointing at the end of the tool where the rail goes in.  So the other end of the tool, labeled “Frog”, is actually the end where you are filing the “Point” down.  Now that I have that clear in my head, I can mentally double-check that I’m about to use the tool correctly.  (I recognize there isn’t a good answer here, as the actual surface that would be ideal to identify “what is what” is the surface that gets worked over by the mill file every time a point or frog rail is prepped).

Once I got to a fairly-close stage to completion, I noticed the soldered rail/tie assembly was “cupped” a little bit (e.g. isn’t sitting flat anymore, but rather the points end wants to float above the surface of my workbench (or the flat backside of the jig) when the frog is pressed firmly down.  I was able to gently flex things to coerce the switch back to flatness, but I’m wondering if anyone has suggestions for things to watch out for while assembling to ensure the switch stays flat when it’s removed from the jig.



I also noticed that, once the PC ties are in the jig, the rail is actually sitting “proud” of the grooves cut to hold it in gauge. This means it’s not a good idea to mash down hard on the rail anywhere except on top of a PC-board tie.


My first Quick-sticks is also cupped (for lack of a better term).  Is there anything I can do to flatten it out where it’ll stay flat?  I’d prefer to avoid expecting any kind of track spikes or glue or fastening to the roadbed will keep the thing flattened out (I’d prefer to have the switch more-or-less floating, with a minimum of glue or fasteners, so there’s a reduced potential for binding or other deformations that could lead to derailments.  Suggestions?  Since the Quick-sticks are basically thin plywood, I figure simply stacking weights on it isn’t going to be particularly efficient at getting things flat….




BTW.  The “Knew Concepts” jeweler’s saw may seem really pricey as compared to the Zona, but the cam action makes quick work of properly tensioning the blade after detaching and reattaching it.  The process of adding gaps with a jeweler’s saw is fiddly and approaching tedious, but this saw’s mechanism removes one potential area of frustration once you get used to the system, and the gaps are definitely very tiny and worth the trouble from a cosmetic standpoint. (I’m not a big fan of dremel cut-off wheels, either, since they have a propensity to shatter at the wrong moment, no matter how careful I try to be in handling the tool.)

I also figured out that any jeweler’s saw cut always needs to be done starting at the base of the rail, not the rail-head.  That way, if things get chewed up, it won’t be the top or the running surface that gets a little chewed, but rather something that’s buried down in the frog where it’s hard to see and unlikely to affect operation or cosmetics.  This is another area where just taking your time and being patient keeps the switch construction enjoyable and rewarding instead of annoying and tedious.  devil

As the construction process goes along, it appears the nooks and crannies of the switch jig attract dirt, flux, and so forth.  (So do the bottoms of the rails and the PC ties).  So, I think it’s a good idea to develop the practice of doing filing and cutting “away” from the jig, so none of the removed material or associated dust ends up as junk in the jig.  Same goes for using the wire brush: do so with the switch out of and away from the jig, so you’re not junking the jig up as you go.

Do you guys have any suggestions for what you do to clean up flux and other stuff that tends to get on (or down in) the jig?

I know Tim of Fast Tracks likes to use the metal-bristle brush to keep the soldering iron tip clean.  As mentioned earlier, my background is from electronics soldering, and I’ve used a wide variety of tip cleaning techniques, starting with the ubiquitous (and somewhat problematic) Weller sponge/water combo.  Eventually I ran across what experience has taught me is the superior method (even to Tim’s wire brush), which is to obtain and use a Hakko tip cleaner “metal sponge”.  This system has some advantages, the most important of which is that the metal of the tip cleaner captures the dirt and flux, keeping it out of the work area, and in general is neater.  You simply plunge the tip of the iron into the coils of the cleaner, and out comes a clean tip, which you can then tin and proceed onward knowing you’re avoiding what Tim rightly identifies is a common pitfall of soldering.  It also has the advantage of not requiring another hand besides the one holding the soldering iron – which means you’re less likely to burn yourself by accidentally touching the iron.  (Been there, done that, got the T-shirt). The Hakko cleaning system is fairly inexpensive, too.


Hakko tip cleaner


The next “sub project” for me is searching for the appropriate-size clear or translucent plastic boxes to organize sub-assemblies, tools, straight lengths of rail, and completed switches.  Empty pill bottles work for individual PC board ties.  I have a large rolling toolbox, but I can see that having all the switch tools, jigs, and materials storable and movable as a unit will help keep things organized and make it easier to clear the bench when I’m at a breaking point in the process (not to mention making “Show and tell” sessions easier). 


Any suggestions from the peanut gallery on any of the above topics will be appreciated.



John “Steck” Stoecker


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The Southern Pacific "Chainsaw River branch" in HO, specifics TBA


oh, yeah.

No, I'm not being paid by Fast Tracks to plug their stuff - at least, not yet enlightened

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The Southern Pacific "Chainsaw River branch" in HO, specifics TBA


suggestions from the peanut gallery

  I'm building code 55 switches for my new N scale layout  similar to the fastrack type but not using a jig. I glue down the ties to thin plywood roadbed then solder the rails using an NMRA standards gauge. I prefer to add more PC ties than fastrack jigs hold as well as hinging the points to get better throw geometry and less stress on the throw bar and throw mechanism . Before soldering the rails I glue dummy wooden ties to the roadbed to fill in between the PC board ties. I've found this method easier than spiking rails to all wooden ties and more flexible than using a jig. I also suggest gapping all the PC ties on the bottom before gluing them down so a short can't develop if something get between the ties and connects the top and bottom surfaces of the PC tie. Once my turnouts are soldered I then glue the whole turnout assembly to the benchwork in the proper spot and fill in between the switches with flextrack. The soldered handmade switches don't look as good as good flextrack switches but they are sturdier and easier to repair if needed.....DaveBranum

re: Dave - jig-built vs. not.

(edited since I missed some nuances of Dave's reply)

I didn't really get into why I chose to go this route in my first post, but I'll summarize by saying there's no benchwork yet, and there won't be for a while until the weather warms up enough that I can work on it outside.  I decided that standardizing on some #6 switches would make a good starting point, and I could get more complex later if/when the need arose.

How thick is the piece of roadbed/sub-roadbed that you are gluing the PC ties to?  Makes me wonder if I could "freehand" stuff using "blank" pieces of the same plywood Fast Tracks uses for their Quick Sticks.

I'll probably add bottom-side gaps adjacent to any feeder wires I solder to the switch, since that seems like the most likely culprit of a short between the top and bottom layers of cladding.


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The Southern Pacific "Chainsaw River branch" in HO, specifics TBA


Another FastTracks user here

....and my wife does solder them (she's an EE and knows how to handle an iron). I manufacture a batch of rails for several switches and put the different bits in a divided tray, then she will solder them up, and I glue it to the QuickSticks and lay it down. So we've got a bit of mass-production going. She even re-wrote some of the User Guide as an assignment in her Tech Writing course. I have a N-scale #6 jig, and also a 30/18 #6 curved jig.

For curving the rails, I highly recommend getting the Rail-Roller -- gives a clean, kink-free curve.

Also: BIG second on gapping ties top and bottom, and buzzing for shorts at key points during assembly.


re: Steve, EE wife

That's nice, makes it a family project (grin).  You are wise not to mention her name here to preclude other modelers attempting to solicit assistance  LOL

You should pass along that I applaud her applying her soldering skills to a known-solid relationship-building activity, model railroading! LOL

The rail roller is indeed helpful, and I'm using it.  However, there's some finessing required as only part of the stock and closure rails need to be curved, and the jig's diverging route is actually not a constant radius.

Are you finding that slivers of copper cladding are causing shorts?  I'm trying to get my mind wrapped around what the conductive element is, that throws the wrench into the works.


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The Southern Pacific "Chainsaw River branch" in HO, specifics TBA


re: slivers of copper cladding are causing shorts?

Yes. I often find a shorted switch, and when I examine it under a strong light and magnification, I find a tiny whisker of copper across the gap, at the very edge of the tie. It seems that the file sometimes, instead of cutting everything through, just stretches the last maybe 0.1mm of copper and folds it over the edge. I sometimes think that I could fix the problem just by connecting a 9V battery across the rails -- that little whisker would be gone in a small puff of smoke!

finding that slivers of copper cladding are causing shorts?

Yeah that's one thing I found, also possible for  a drop of solder or other metal to fall in between the ties and make the connection. It might not be as big a problem in larger scales but in N scale it don't take a very big piece of metal to close the gap. I draw out the rail locations on the roadbed then cut the ties and gap the bottoms where needed then mix epoxy and glue them all down.

The plywood I use for N scale is some left overs I had in my workshop, about 0.10"  just a bit less than the 0.090 thickness of the cork roadbed I'm using under my flextrack. I've found I can glue down the switch and adjoining cork roadbed then lay the flextrack with caulk leaving a tiny ramp  down from switch to flextrack. The rail joiners hold the vertical alignment into a nice vertical curve, about 0.010 feathered out for about 3 inches. Since I'm modeling a shortline industrial switching district the undulations  don't bother me. If I was doing it for HO I'd measure the HO roadbed I planned to use then go looking for some suitable plywood to cut the switch blanks out. With your fastracks point jig and other track  tools it would be very easy to construct any special turnouts you might need such as  curved switches or odd frog angles....DaveBranum

My Solution to This Problem


When ever working on track I set my Digital VOM up as a continuity meter between my two rails and if I make one of these mistakes, it immediately buzzes so I can get the alert when my action causes the short.  Makes it much easier to find the gremlins.

CM Auditor

Tom VanWormer

Monument CO

Colorado City Yard Limits 1895

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