JenTown Railroad

An N Scale Model Railroad

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Early Construction

On a dare from my daughter, I had formulated a goal of building a N Scale layout inside of a piece of Ikea furniture. The layout will be DCC and computer controlled. The layout will rest atop 2 linear actuators and raise and lower on a frame inside of the cabinet. The layout itself will attach to the frame with 2 hinges at the back. The hinges will allow the layout to open like the hood of a car so I can work on the track elements that are underneath the layout.

This is how the cabinet looks. Having the layout be able to raise up and hinge open as depicted here has been quite handy and saved my back quite a bit of stress. Can you imagine the difficulty of trying to do all that track work from inside of the cabinet? In this picture on the near end you can see the tops of the drawer slides that keep the frame centered inside the cabinet. On the far end you can see the top of one of the linear actuators that raise and lower the frame and layout. The frame as I call it is just 3 panels of MDF board placed around the 2 sides and back. This leaves the inside of the cabinet accessable from the front when the doors are open.

This photo shows one of the actuators fully extended. You will note that it's collapsed length is half of it's extended length. This means that actuator travel length is limited by the cabinet depth and this determines which length actuator one should install. Fully collapsed, the actuator must be short enough to allow the cabinet lid to close above not only the layout but any scenery that extends above the layout as well. But on the other hand, the actuator must be long enough to raise the layout up to the desired height. There are some trade-offs here. You can't have 20 inches of actutor travel and lower it into 5 inches of collapsed length. This photo shows one of the drawer slides behind the actuator. It may look like the actuator is attached to the drawer slide here but they are not. The drawer slide is attached to the actuator only at the top as this next picture shows.

Here you can see the MDF panel that makes the end piece of the frame is sandwiched between the top of the drawer slide and the top of the actuator. This seems to work well for me so far but it is my second attempt. My first attempt at designing the frame did not work well at all and was abandoned. But I'm not certain even the current design is final. Here you can also see the hinge attached to the 1x4 that connects the 2 end panels at the top. Another 1x4 at the bottom of the back panel helps keep the 3 panels stable.

The 2 actuators are controlled by a single module and the actuators move in tandem. The control buttons are shown here. The buttons can be set to position the actuators at any point along their travel. I have programmed mine so that button #1 moves the actuators into their lowest position, button #2 raises them to a position near the top of the cabinet and button #3 moves the actuators into their fully extended position. In this fully extended position the track is raised up above the cabinet and is easier to work on as well as allowing access to the under-track components. The second or "normal" position places the layout just below the top edge of the cabinet which provides a safety barrier that keeps the rolling stock from tumbling to the floor in the case of accidents. I attached the control buttons just inside the top of one of the doors so they are hidden from view unless the door is opened.

The first button push moves the layout from its down position up its normal run position. The next button I push moves the layout up and out of the cabinet so it can be worked on. The last button moves the layout back down inside of the cabinet for safe keeping. And finally I put the temporary lid on to keep the cats out.

The actuators require a fairly heavy 12 volt power source. They will not work on a common 12 power source found in model train applications. Bigger power supplies are expensive and I elected to hot-wire a power supply from an old computer. I say "hot-wire" because one must loop back the power-good lead on most PC power supplies in order for it to operate once it has been removed from the PC. Instuctions for doing this can be found on the internet and depend upon the power supply in question so I will not go into how to do it here. Suffice it to say that is very easy and provides an abundant amount of 12 volt power at a very low cost. My entire layout is powered by this one PC power supply. Additionally, it also provides quite a bit of 5 volt power as well which I hope can be used for lighting or other devices.

Time to start test-fitting some track. I should point out here that the 24x50 dimensions that Ikea publishes for this cabinet are exterior dimensions of course. The interior dimensions are somewhat less. That is something I didn't think about. Bad me. Getting a N scale loco to turn in that small space is not going to be easy. Wide, sweeping turns are out. The loco made it around these turns, but the turn took too much of the valuable space available for the layout. As the next photo shows, short, tight turns are not going to work either.

These turns look good, but they are too tight. The test loco would not make it's way around these turns and jumped the rails consistantly.

After much trail and error, I decided upon an optimal turn radius that maximized the available space but would not cause the test loco to jump the rails. This photo was taken as the test loco made it's way around the track at speed or would if that darned cord weren't in the way. Lesson? I'm very glad I took the time to test run a real loco around the rails and not just rely on someone's guess or the best-practices listed in a reference work.

After removing the test track and loco, it was time to lay the roadbed. I used old-fashioned cork this time. Next time I think I will try that Woodland Scenics product as it appears to be superior to cork.

The intial ballast is glued down with plain old white glue dilluted a wee bit with water.

Finally some track is being laid. As this is a DCC layout with occupancy detection, each piece of track has it's own power leads and becomes a detection section. The track sections are cut to the length required to achieve the desired size of the detection section and then if rail joiners are used at all, insulating rail joiners are required. It's a good idea to plan the detection sections ahead of time. :) Drill two small holes so the leads can be hidden under the layout and push the leads through. Glue or nail (or both) the flex track in place.

Here is a close up view from the above photo showing the leads attached to the underside of the rails. I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination, so others may have better ways of attaching the leads. This is what worked for me. Where I wanted the leads attached, I snipped two sleepers from the flex rail with my rail snippers. I sanded the underside of the rail to get a clean surface. Then applied flux to both the rails and the wires. Next I pre-tinned both the rails and the wires, just a short, quick visit with the 25 watt soldering iron is all it takes. With the wire and the bottom of the rail pre-tinned and each fluxed again, one more quick visit with the soldering iron and viola, leads securely attached to the underside of the rail with no ugly blobs of solder and (almost) no melted sleepers. I found the pre-tinning to be the most helpful and noticed that I had a lot more trouble getting a good quick solder the few times I got distracted and forgot to pre-tin.

I'm using Atlas code 80 flex track here because I had a bunch of it laying around. Next time I will try Peco code 55 or Micro-Electronics code 55. For now the code 80 is better for me due to my inexperience. But now that I've had some practice, I'd like to try some code 55. I'm not going to evangelize one kind of track over another here. Use what you like. But please do find what you like by trying some of the different track products available. Get one of each of the ones you are interested in and try them for yourself. Solder on them, bend them, connect them and make your own decision based upon your own experience. Don't just take someone else's word for it.

I used 20 AWG solid wire for the leads. The solid wire was easier to solder and strip. These leads will be really short as all they have to do is exit out the bottom of the layout and then be connected to the power bus that routes around the entire layout. That bus is a heavier gauge wire due to the length that it must travel. These track leads on the other hand don't have far to go and can be 20 gauge, no problem.

Remember all those leads that routed to the back side of the layout? This is what they look like. Pretty ugly, really quickly. No worries. They'll shorten up and get connected to a power bus and routed properly before long.

Most of the track is down now. Just a few pieces left to go. Be forewarned. For the closed loop sections, that last piece is going to be bear to connect up because it's such a tight fit. It seems somehow logical to leave the smallest, little piece of track for last but it might be a better idea to leave one of the larger sections of track for last as that longer section will have a lot more give and be easier to connect.

And here we go. Two test locos traveling around the new track.

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