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Pennsylvania & Western Railroad
Layout Construction

(This page last modified July 2002.)

I will share some of the information on how I'm constructing the layout in this section. The construction descriptions are separated into the following subsections:
Table (Benchwork) Construction
Roadbed and Trackwork
Electrical Work
Scenery (hardshell, rocks)
Landscaping (foliage and trees)
Buildings and Roads

Hopefully, you may find something you can use on your layout. Or maybe something that I did will look like a big mistake to you. Seeing my goof might help you avoid doing the same! Let's only make new mistakes.

The layout backdrop received a painted sky effect. I used the white paint/blue paint method that is discussed in a lot of the scenery books. They make it sound very easy. In my case, it tooks lots of trial and error. I probably did 8 or 9 tests before I got a result I was happy with. The method I used was to paint the top of the "sky" blue and extend some blue blobs lower than others (here's a picture). White paint is now put on the bottom of the backdrop and in between the blue blobs. It is all then blended with a brush (see?). To get this to work, the paint must be pretty wet. I used a spray bottle to lightly wet the wall first, painted about a 4' section, then lightly wet the edge before painting the next 4' section. A product called Floetrol was also mixed with the paint in order to slow the drying. I worked on a rainy day so the air would be humid and slow the drying some more. (I don't think my method would work on a Winter day with the air in the house very dry.) I was able to work my way all around the room (about 190' of backdrop) in a single Saturday.

Table (Benchwork) Construction
The layout is done in 3-rail O-scale, basically around the walls on 4' tables, with an 8x16' peninsula. I decided to use open-grid benchwork on 4'x8' tables constructed of 1x4 stock with 2x4 legs. Roadbed would be 1/2" homasote over 1/2" plywood in areas where the roadbed was at least double track wide, and 1/2" homasote over 3/4" plywood in single-track areas. This benchwork/roadbed combination has proved strong enough to walk or sit on, which is very handy during construction. My dad and I are shown installing one of the tables here. A series of 5/8" holes were drilled in all of the cross-pieces prior to assembly, to provide ready-made wire runs. Leveling screws (1/4" carriage bolts) were installed in all table legs. The tables are a uniform 39" high, except for 37" at Horseshoe Curve (for scenic reasons). Adjacent tables are connected using 5/16" bolts, and each table is free-standing on 4 legs, yet is also attached to the wall studs for stability. Tables are held together with Elmer's carpenter's glue (the yellow stuff) and drywall screws. I use these screws for table building, attaching them to the walls, and fastening down the plywood subroadbed. They can't be beat. I have a few other table pictures, of the Horseshoe Curve area, the wall beyond the Curve, and the future freight/passenger yard area. Table construction goes really fast if you have a standard design. It took my dad and I less than a week each to do the long walls of tables pictured.

To support the kind of operation I want, I need staging yards at the East and West end of the railroad. Staging in O scale takes a lot of space, and I didn't want the complexity and difficult access of large under-the-scenery staging yards. A separate room was constructed to hold the staging yards. The East yard represents Harrisburg, Enola Yard and the Petersburg coal branch and is 42" above the floor. It consists of 6 loop and 3 stub tracks. The West yard represents Pittsburgh, Conway Yard and the Shire Oaks coal marshalling yard and is stacked on top at 58" above the floor. It has a similar layout to the East yard, except with only 2 stub tracks (but they are a little longer). Here are a couple of photos of East staging, before the upper deck was added. (photo1, photo2). I also have 3 staging tracks located under Horseshoe Curve that are reached after passing through the town of Franklin to the South. These tracks represent Cumberland, MD and an interchange with the B&O and Western Maryland railroads.

Roadbed and Trackwork
In order to get an appearance with 3-rail track that is anywhere close to scale, it is important to use small rail and wide radius turnouts (switches). I am using Gargraves Phantom flex track throughout the layout. The mainline is elevated on cork roadbed, while all sidings (including passing sidings) are laid directly on the homasote. This produces a mainline track that is higher than the sidings, as in most prototypes. I fasten the cork to the homasote using waterproof Elmer's glue (not the white stuff). The cork is held in place while the glue dries using 1/2" staples applied with an electric staple gun. Using this method, the cork roadbed goes in really fast. For appearance, I have superelevated most curves. Superelevation makes the train lean into the curve slightly. On the prototype it allows the train to run faster through the curve than if the curve were flat. On the model, it serves no funtion but looks cool. To do the superelevation, I glued balsa strips on top of the cork in a position directly under where the outside rail of the curved track would go. I used 18" of 1/16" square balsa to transition from the straight track into the curve on each end, and as much 1/8" square balsa as needed in between. This produces a scale 6" of superelevation which is pretty close to the prototype.

Turnouts on the visible parts of the layout are mostly Curtis Hi-Rail, along with a few Ross Custom Switches. Some Gargraves turnouts are used in the staging areas. There are over 100 turnouts on the layout! A few editorial comments about the various turnouts are in order. The Curtis and Ross products are top-quality. The point spacing is perfect, the throw bar moves effortlessly, and the individual wooden ties match the Gargraves track beautifully. The older Gargraves turnouts with the black stamped-steel point rails also work pretty well, though they don't look nearly as good as the Curtis/Ross products. Used Gargraves turnouts can be found at train shows for only 10 dollars or so, so they are a good value if appearance is not that important. I think the newer Gargraves turnouts with the silver point rails are not nearly as good as the old. For one thing, the ends of the point rails are very thick and blunt, and unless they are filed heavily the wheels of certain freight cars will ride up over them and derail. There seem to be a lot of production variability problems, too. The clearance between the running rail and the point rail is sometimes much too narrow (less than half the clearance distance provided in the Curtis/Ross turnouts). What happens in this case is that one set of wheels on a car will "pick" the point rail and that end of the car will take the diverging route through the turnout. Obviously, if most of your train takes the main route while part of it takes the diverging route, that is not a good thing. I recommend to stay away from the new Gargraves turnouts, or at least open the boxes and examine them before purchase so you don't end up with the narrow clearance problem.

I am using Caboose Industries number 208s ground throws for turnouts that are easy to reach from the aisles, Circuitron Tortoise machines in the main yard at Annville, and NJ International twin-coil switch machines for hard to reach turnouts, staging turnouts, and in places where I wanted a non-derailing feature like the Lionel switches have. The contacts on the NJI machines can be used to make the non-derailing feature. A wiring diagram to do this is enclosed with each new Gargraves turnout.

Electrical Work
Let me say up front that I HATE electrical work. Visitors can easily see progress made in benchwork, trackwork, and scenery. But electrical work, which takes many times longer (at least for me) is invisible to most other people. However, these are ELECTRIC trains, so we need to do a bunch of wiring to make them work. As described above, I'm using all Gargraves track which means the 3 rails are all insulated from each other. I wire one outside rail as ground and leave the other for signaling, non-derailing turnout operation, accessory triggers, etc. as needed. You may have read in the hobby press that both outside rails should be wired together to use as a ground. In my experience this is not necessary. One solidly-grounded rail is enough. I have run a 10-guage solid copper wire around the layout to serve as the common ground run. I also install 12-14 guage stranded wire under the table and parallel to the tracks to serve as the power supply for the center rail. Both the center rail and the ground rail are connected to their respective bus wires at least every other track section. I don't want to rely on rail joiners to carry the current. The layout is divided into blocks, with 6-position rotary knobs to control them.

I initially built the layout to use conventional cab control, but in July of 2001 I converted to Lionel TrainMaster Command Control (TMCC). The rotary block power selectors are now used to separate the layout into "power districts", which means that various areas of the layout receive their power from one of four (4) transformers. With multiple trains running at the same time, having the layout divided into power districts avoids overloading any single transformer. Power for the layout comes from Lionel pre-war Type Z and Type V transformers. Lionel's official recommendation for TMCC is to have both outside rails grounded and carrying the TMCC signal. As described above, I only have one grounded rail. I have had zero problems with TMCC operating in this environment.

As I've said, I'm using NJI twin-coil switch machines in the staging yards and for most hard-to-reach turnouts. I like these because they can operate on either AC (for the non-derailing feature) or DC for a "diode matrix" control. The turnouts in the approach leads to the staging yards have diode matrix controls for the switch machines. These circuits have appeared in several of the model magazines, and they function so that pushing a single button will throw all of the necessary turnouts to align for a certain track.

The 21 turnouts in the main yard at Annville use Circuitron Tortoise switch machines. These machines are really a small electic motor that runs on 12 volts DC. The switch points move slowly with Tortoises (hence the name) as opposed to the snapping action of the NJI machines. It is also easy to wire red and green diodes in series with the Tortoises to get indicator lights for the control panel (pic).

The staging yard control panels have a row of pushbuttons to align the turnouts for the proper approach track using the diode matrix system, a row of indicator lamps to indicate the turnouts are thrown properly, a rotary knob to assign track power to the proper track, and a set of indicator lamps for each track. Red lamps indicate the train is fouling a turnout, yellow are "near foul" areas, and green means the train is in the clear. This panel controls six loop staging tracks and three stub staging tracks. No turnout controls are needed for trains exiting staging, as the "non-derailing" wiring throws the turnouts ahead of the train automatically.

The indicator lamps were originally the only means of telling where your train was in staging. The layout has now been updated with video monitoring of the staging yards. Video monitoring kits (made as baby monitors, etc.) are available for about $90 at Sam's Club, K-Mart, and probably other places. The kits contain a 5-6 inch black and white TV, two video cameras with built-in microphones, and about 50 feet of cable to connect the cameras to the TV. I mounted the monitor under the layout on a wood bracket (pic) and mounted the cameras to either the wall (pic) or under the benchwork (pic). I have two monitors, one for the main east/west staging areas and one for the south staging tracks. Since the south tracks are under the scenery, there is no light available. Not to worry! The cameras also have 6 infra-red LEDs on them and they give a great picture even in the dark (baby monitor heritage). It is much more comforting to actually see your train in staging than to follow the blinking lights!

Remote uncoupling is provided by the use of the uncoupling magnets from Lionel postwar O-27 uncoupling tracks. The magnets are removed from the tracks, a section of the Gargraves center rail is removed, and the coupler is glued into place(pic). The method for doing this is credited to Jim Barrett who demonstrated the process in one of the "O-Gauge Railroad - the Video" tapes. The magnets are all powered by a common 16 volt power source with a bus wire that runs under the entire layout. Control is by small Radio Shack pushbuttons located on the layout fascia.

Scenery (hardshell and rocks)
The scenery methods I'm using on the layout are (were) new to me and may be new to you as well. I'm not using plaster or styrofoam for most of the hills. Instead, I'm using a 2-part resin-based system called geodesic foam scenery. This is sold by a company called Bragdon Enterprises in California. There is a link to their web site on my links page. Basically, the method produces scenery "blankets" of whatever size you want (I usually work with 1 foot by 2 foot pieces) that are hot-glued over the scenic forms. Here's a picture that shows me (my best side) gluing a blanket to the supports. Note that not much support is needed. The blankets harden in 20-30 minutes to form a hardshell scenery base. Here's a couple of pictures (pic1, pic2) of that. The second picture also shows some of the rock castings that are made with the resin (they are white in the picture). The best part of this method is that the rocks are also very flexible and soft for the 20-30 minute working time. In the picture, they curve around the mountain, following the curve of the track. This would be difficult with plaster casts. The rocks also can be easily cut with scissors while they are soft, so they can be any size or blended with other castings. When painted, I think they look really good (pic).

These photos were taken in the Horseshoe Curve area, and you can see the "finished product" in the Photos section. Select the Construction Update 07/13/02.

You can see how much just adding the hardshell scenery does to change the look of the layout by going to the Photos section and selecting Photos Added 05/29/00.

Tunnel portals and retaining walls were all cast in molding plaster from latex rubber molds that I made using Scenic Express portals and walls as masters. I bought a 100 pound bag of the molding plaster from a local lumber yard for $16 and it was enough to do the entire layout. I lined the inside of the tunnels with walls as well, so no raw wood or other distracting things would be seen inside the tunnels (pic).

Landscaping (foliage and trees)
I am using Woodland Scenics ground foam for landscaping. The hardshell scenery is painted with brown latex paint, then the foam is added. For the many hillsides and steep slopes, preliminary ground cover is added first. This consists of Woodland Scenics Foliage Clusters, torn apart into pieces about 3/4" across (pic). I use a mix of 3 parts dark green, 2 parts medium green and 1 part light green. Several packages are opened, torn apart, and the pieced dropped into a large cardboard box where they are mixed. The pieces are then hot-glued onto pieces of brown wrapping paper (available at office supply stores) to form a type of scenery blanket (pic). The blankets can then be hot-glued to the hardshell. They work really great on steep (even vertical) areas (pic).

For most of the mountain hardshell, I let the shell sag in between the support ribs. This gives a pleasing rolling effect to the terrain much like a real mountain. For embankments that were supposed to be filled by railroad construction crews, I did not want to have any sagging. To accomplish this, I first hot-glued some construction paper across the ribs (pic). The paper prevents the soft hardshell material from sagging while it hardens. After the hardshell was painted brown, I painted full-strength white glue on it and sprinkled Highball Ballast on it (cinders color). Here's how it looks with the cinder ballast added (pic).

To cover the ballast with ground cover, I use a 3-step process to get variations in texture. For the first step, I paint on full-strength white glue, then sprinkle Woodland Scenics turf colors onto it. I then spray it all with wet water (water with a few drops of dishwashing detergent added) and let dry for a day or two. I use Green Blend, Earth Blend, Green Grass, Weeds, Burnt Grass, Yellow Grass (very little because it is pretty bright), Earth, Soil, Medium Green, Dark Green, Light Green and Conifer Green colors.

For step 2, I repaint with the white glue and stick down some Woodland Scenics Coarse Turf and Clump Foliage colors. This I do by hand (pic). In the photo, you can see the step 1 result in the foreground and I'm working on step 2. To the right and behind me is an embankment with just the cinder ballast on it but no foliage yet. After I've added what I want, I spray the whole thing with diluted white glue (3 parts wet water, 1 part white glue in a spray bottle). I soak it really good, then use a folded card and a straw to blow some fine turf colors over the top to tie it all together. Here is another pic that shows the small plastic bins that I keep all the foam colors in (pic).

Step 3 is to add more foam to bare areas (spot treat with white glue first) and add trees or bushes. The key is to vary the textures of foam and do the last sprinkling with just a color or two to tie together. It can even be relaxing (pic).

Most of my trees are a Scenic Express product called Supertrees. This is a plant of some kind that has branches we can turn into very realistic and really cheap trees. With a layout this big, cheap is good! I bought the jumbo pack for around $100 and it will make 300-400 trees. Instructions come with the trees. You separate the plant into tree pieces and spray paint them black. You then soak the painted trees in diluted matte meduim (5 parts wet water to 1 part matte medium) for a few minutes, remove and sprinkle with the ground foam colors of your choice (one color per tree). You then hang the trees upside down to dry. I do this in the garage with a home-made clothesline (pic).

Buildings and Roads
I am kitbashing most of the buildings on the layout. I'm using Ameritown building fronts, Korber kits, Atlas kits, Lionel kits, DPM modular wall sections and some MTH and Walther's built-ups as the basis for buildings. The railroad structures (signal towers, freight and passenger stations) are all being repainted into PRR colors. Pennsy used two colors on structures, imaginatively called "Structure Light" and "Structure Dark". The Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society has published the mix for these colors using Floquil or Polly-Scale colors. They are as follows.
Structure Light: 8 parts Reefer White, 2 parts Roof Brown, 1 part Depot Buff
Structure Dark: 5 parts Roof Brown, 1 part Reefer White

Here is a Walther's signal tower that has been repainted using these Pennsy colors and with window shades (pieces of paper) added (pic).

The largest building to date is the Altoona Brewing Company in Franklin (pic). This building is made of DPM modular wall sections. The lettering along the top is made from Woodland Scenics dry transfers. The advertising posters on the end were made as follows. I have some custom-run Weaver reefers (by Jim's Train Shop in Homer City, PA) in Curve Beer and Altoona Lager decorations. I took digital photos of them, resized them on the computer and printed them out on plain paper. I then sanded the paper very thin using 320 grit sandpaper and glued them to the building using the old standby white glue.

Building foundations and roads are all made from 1/4" thick extruded styrofoam. This is available at large home stores like Home Depot or Lowe's. For foundations, cut the foam to size using a sharp utility knife, glue in place using Elmer's Carpenters Wood Glue (this is yellow and sets up much faster than white glue) and paint either concrete or aged concrete color. Be sure to use acrylic paints as solvent-based paint will dissolve the foam. Here is a picture of a small foundation for AE Tower (pic) and here is the tower (an Atlas kit, repainted to the PRR colors) in place on the foundation (pic). The foundation for the brewery is just bigger, and I also use the styrofoam for roads (pic).

For roads, glue the styrofoam down with the yellow glue and weight it down until dry (a few hours). After the road is dry, take a sharp utility knife and bevel the edges to make it easier to blend in the scenery ground cover. Finally, paint the road. I use craft paints that come in squeeze bottles to paint the roads. You can get these in craft stores (Duh!) or Wal-Mart's crafts section. Use about 4-5 parts black and one part white. Glop the paint on in a thick coat using about a 2" brush. The craft paint has a thick consistency and will hide the joints between pieces of foam. Finally (and I thank a Dave Frary video for this one), sprinkle the wet road paint with N-scale sand or light gray ballast. You can use a small screen strainer or just sprinkle with your fingers. Do this from 2-3 feet above the road so it separates as it falls. Don't use so much as to make the road white. When it all drys, the sand will make the road sparkle in the light like real asphalt roads do (pic).

The most recent building under construction is the Furnace Hill Coal Mine tipple. This is being scratchbuilt to fit a certain spot on the layout (pic). I made a cardboard mock-up of a mine tipple to judge the size needed, then built a wood frame to support the tipple (pic). The tipple itself is built of black foam-core board following photos in a book on Appalachian coal mines (pic). The foam-core board is easy to cut with a utility knife and will be covered with metal siding made from aluminum foil (the next website update will describe this). Here is the mine tipple in place (pic).

There is a 10-stall steam enginehouse under construction in Annville. Prototypically, these were called roundhouses only when they indeed were round and covered a complete circle. Partial roundhouses were called enginehouses. I assembled the wooden framework for the enginehouse using Korber plans (pic) and have assembled the structure to this point (pic). A very talented builder in Indiana scratchbuilt my coaling tower, ash hoist and sand house/tower from photos in PRR books (pic). The diesel enginehouse will be built from 2 IHC enginehouse kits to get some extra length (pic). I also plan to use a flat roof on this structure.

One other large building has been mocked-up. That is the pipe company in Lebanon, a kitbash of Korber and Lionel kits (pic).

The standard PRR position light signal target (signal head) was 4 feet 4 inches in diameter with a light in the center and six additional lights arranged as part of a circle of 18-inch radius. Single signals were mounted on a mast so that the center of the target was 20 to 24 feet above the signal foundation. The foundation was set so that the top of the concrete was even with the top of the rail. For most of their lives, the signals used all yellow light bulbs. The signal was designed to mimic a semaphore: three lights in a vertical line meant all clear, three lights on the diagonal meant proceed but be prepared to stop at the next signal, and three lights in a horizontal line meant stop.

NJ International, Inc. makes a very nice O-scale brass model of the PRR position light signal. I say a drawback in the price of these signals. The single mast signal lists for around $60. Since I needed about 24 for the railroad, I ruled out this option. I had intended to scratch build the signal targets out of styrene and use 3mm yellow LEDs (light emitting diodes) for lights "someday". Then MTH did me a big favor by releasing their model.

The MTH 7-Light Block Signal is a reasonably good representation of a PRR single signal mast. The target is about 25% too large in diameter at a scale 5 feet 9 inches with the lights arranged as part of a 24-inch radius circle. The light hoods are about half as long as they should be, a concession to the diecast construction. Longer hoods would have been either much too thick or very prone to breakage. The target is also unprototypically thick, but this is required to hold the LEDs and the circuit board. The center of the target is a few inches over 20 feet above the foundation. On my layout, with Gargraves track on cork roadbed, the top of the foundation is about 4 scale inches below the top of the rail. The worst thing about the "stock" signals is the glossy black paint, but I was able to fix that by repainting. The best thing about the signal (apart from the reliable operation) is that it is made largely of brass and is put together with small Phillips screws, which made it easy to modify. Since it uses LEDs for the lights, there is no worry about bulbs burning out.

MTH's signal has a single smaller light attached to the side of the mast below the main target. A few prototype signals had this light, so it is technically correct. It's use was as follows: 1) signal indicating stop and small light off meant absolute stop, 2) signal indicating stop and small light on meant stop then proceed at restricted speed, 3) signal indicating all clear and small light off meant all clear, 4) signal indicating all clear and small light on meant proceed and be prepared to throw the next turnout encountered. Most of the PRR single mast signals did not have the small second light.

In order to make the signal more typical of PRR practice, I chose to remove the small light, fill the hole where the wires from this light go into the mast, and repaint the whole thing. In my PRR books, there are photos of these signals with black masts and others with silver masts. I chose the silver version. I used Floquil Polly S paints (so I could clean up with water) in the following colors: Flat Black, Concrete, and Flat Aluminum. Here is a photo of one of my modified/repainted signals next to a "stock" MTH one (pic).

I've also successfully removed the heads from the MTH signals and mounted them to a Plasticville Signal Bridge. Lucky for me, the Plasticville bridge is based on a PRR prototype! More recently, I've used the electronics and signal heads from the MTH Pennsy signal bridge on my Plasticville bridges. The MTH bridge is diecast and much too "heavy" looking, but the signal heads on that bridge are closer to scale size than the earlier MTH trackside signals. The signal detection circuits are wired using relays. The next website update will describe this process and have more photos.