JenTown Railroad

An N Scale Model Railroad

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The Challenge

All my kids love Ikea, I do too! One day my oldest daughter sent me a link to Ikea Hackers that showed where a guy named Steffen had won an award for building a small model train set inside of an Ikea coffee table. Attached to the link my daughter had added "You should do something like this." As this seemed to be a great way to keep the cats from destroying my layout and she had issued a challenge, it was game on.

But I couldn't just do the same thing, my train set had to be somehow different. Being better was out because the train set that Steffen had built was absolutely beautiful. I decided that my train set would be completely computer controlled and that would be my difference.

First I had to find an Ikea coffee table. This proved to be rather difficult as the coffee table Steffen used to win the award had been discontinued. Ikea stores are big, really, really big. But Ikea coffee tables are small. I felt that N scale was the only viable option due to the limited supply of building materials for the smaller scales. I decided to look for a table that was at least 24 inches wide so that I would have enough room for the needed turning radius of an N scale train. I looked and I looked but I just couldn't find anything, I almost gave up. Then one day I found something that I thought I could work with. It wasn't a coffee table though, it was a kitchen base cabinet from Ikea.

Picture of Varde cabinet from Ikea

Picture of the Varde cabinet from Ikea.

Picture of my Varde cabinet set up in my kitchen
This is my Varde cabinet after assembly and set up in my kitchen. I don't know why there are so many jokes about putting Ikea furniture together. It was very easy and all the pieces fit together quite well. The cabinet is very sturdy and could probably support hundreds of pounds of weight. It's going to be more than adequate for my little train set. Ikea sells this cabinet with no top on it and then you can choose a top from many different ones available. They have tops made of stainless and some made of Formica. I got the one with no top and figured I could make a top out of glass or clear plastic. As you can see in the picture, regular model train sized N scale track from a kit was just not going to work. Obviously I was going to be using a custom layout and flex track. Luckily, I found Mikes' Small Trackplans Page. He has lots of great ideas for small spaces. I liked the one pictured below for my purposes.

Picture of a 2x4 layout design

I decided to use this as a reference design. I would leave more free space in the middle of the layout for buildings and such by eliminating some of the track in Mike's original design. I liked this one because as I was planning on a DCC computer controlled layout that would be able to run multiple trains simultaneously so the double-track layout was perfect.

I've got my Ikea table er, cabinet and I've got the layout reference design. I should be ready to start building right? Not quite. There was still the question of how to mount the layout down inside of the cabinet. During my extensive search for the right table I had come across a guy who was working on an idea to make a small layout that lifted out of it's cabinet. I thought that was a very good idea. I could see that working on a layout that is down inside of a cabinet might be difficult. It would be handy to be able to lift the layout up and out of the cabinet to work on it. Some drawer slides could be used to allow a frame to slide up and down inside the cabinet. My thought was that the top lid would hinge in the back. You could open that lid and then pull the layout up to work on it. Then I "discovered" linear actuators. Talk about feature creep. My original goal of a layout inside a coffee table had taken on a whole new dimension. But I figured, since the cabinet afforded so much more vertical space, why not at least entertain the idea?

Not Used

Linear actuators are nothing new but they are very cool. They are used to open and close the trunks and hoods on custom cars, used extensively in robotics and computer applications and lots of other things. I found the one pictured above at Trossen Robotics. These guys are some serious robotics nerds. They have a lot of cool stuff. At first I was going to get one actuator and place it in the center of the layout. Then I thought that it would be difficult to keep the layout level because the top of the actuator is just a single point really. Kinda like balancing a plate on the tip of your finger, keeping the layout level would be possible in a perfect world, but my building skills are far from perfect. I decided to get 2 actuators and place them at diagonally opposite corners beneath the layout. This in theory would allow the frame supporting the layout to slide up and own inside the cabinet, the drawer slides would keep the frame centered inside the cabinet and by using 2 actuators at opposite ends, the layout would stay level.

Having a basic idea of what I wanted to accomplish, it was time to start constructing.

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