Pennsylvania & Western Railroad
(This page last modified on 1/13/99.)
This is the story of how I prepared the basement room to house the layout. There are several picture links throughout, which will show up in blue type. This phase of layout construction has received relatively little coverage in the hobby press, with the exception of repeated recommendations to prepare the room before beginning layout construction. I had built several layouts prior to the current Pennsylvania & Western, and all of these were in "as received" rooms. Nothing special had been done to them to house the layout, with the exception of adding some light. That would change for my "dream layout".
A job relocation in 1992 meant the opportunity to shop for a new basement, with a house on top to keep the weather out. Despite extensive hunting, a suitable basement was not found. All of the really good ones had been finished off into rec rooms, family rooms, etc. by the poor misguided homeowners. It seemed silly to pay the extra $$ for a finished basement, only to rip out the "improvements" so a proper layout could be constructed. Once the decision to custom build a house was made, my terrific wife and I designed the house with the future layout in mind (as a small token of gratitude, the town of Annville was christened). We built a fairly large house, resulting in a 1950 square foot basement. Access is via a central stairway, with the furnace and water heater housed below and beside the stairs. I specified 9 feet from the surface of the floor slab to the bottom of the floor joists above, and steel support beams heavy enough so that no support columns would be needed (except within the stairway enclosure). A 12"x12" beam solved that problem! A breakfast nook in the kitchen provided the environment below to house a depiction of Horseshoe Curve. The basement was designed with only two windows (in the workshop), a ground-level access door to the workshop for building materials, and only the one "basement well window" required by local building codes in the rest of the space. Layout lighting can thus be completely controlled, day or night. Electrical circuits totaling 160 amps were run to the basement, and a separate circuit breaker box was installed in the stairway enclosure to house the basement electrical distribution. Best of all, the house includes a full attic (with full access stairway) so ALL of our household storage is in the attic. The basement is 100% devoted to the railroad!
Preparing the Room
Although I had plenty of electrical service run to the basement during house construction, I wanted to place the lights and outlets where I would need them (and not pay $25/outlet for ones I wouldn't use). I thus had the electrician install only the minimum required by the building code, which resulted in a single ceiling light bulb at the base of the stairs! I patched a temporary romex cable into the box and extended it to 5 other ceiling boxes. This resulted in four 100 watt bulbs in the main basement and a ceiling box to mount some fluorescent fixtures in the area that would become the workshop.
I hired a carpenter to come and install 2x4 stud walls around the perimeter of the basement and also to divide off the areas that would become the workshop and my staging yard room. Once the studs were in, I ran the electrical service. I had decided on incandescent dimmable track lighting for the layout. This produces museum-quality lighting effects. I planned to leave the joists exposed (to make it easy to run additional wiring, access pipes, etc.) and spray-paint the ceiling, joists, pipes, heat ducts, etc. flat black. I'd seen this done before and it makes the ceiling essentially disappear, the paint tends to seal any dust into the joist/floor joints so it doesn't filter down, and the additional headroom cubic footage gained by not covering the joists helps to dissipate the heat from the track lights. Anyway, a black ceiling means black track lights. I could find white ones on sale (3'track with 3 light heads) for $19.88, but the cheapest black ones were $42 each! Since I was buying 40 of them, I went with white and spray-painted them black. I used Krylon for the tracks (masked over the track slot) and high-temperature automotive header paint for the metal light heads. After purchasing the lights, I installed the necessary ceiling boxes about a foot from the edge of the future layout (whose shape was now known). I wired the boxes into four separate 20 amp circuits, each controlled by a heavy duty 2000 watt capacity dimmer switch. I then ran the layout circuits, consisting of an outlet every 8' around the room. These are divided into two 15 amp circuits controlled by switches with pilot lights at the base of the stairs. When I leave the room, if the pilot lights are out, the layout is electrically dead. An additional 20 amp circuit was run to provide power for a TV, compact refrigerator, and shop tools. After all the wiring was installed into roughed-in boxes, the ceiling was painted flat black using a commercial paint sprayer.
Once the ceiling was painted, the next step was to seal the concrete floor, to eliminate concrete dust. The layout area will eventually be carpeted once the construction mess is gone, but a concrete stain will greatly help in the meantime. The first step was to etch the concrete using a dilute acid. This gives the stain something to "grab" to. You can see a picture of me doing this messy, fumey etching job here. After this, I stained the floor using a long-handled roller. I next installed a plastic vapor barrier to the studs around the entire perimeter. Now it was time to wallboard! My wife, son and I are shown installing the ceiling of the staging room here. The staging room, shop, and stair enclosure were completely wallboarded, but the main layout received wallboard only along the top 4'. This was easier (no electrical outlets to cut around) and all that was necessary due to the planned height of the layout. All inside corners were coved using masonite. My 90-year old dad and I are shown installing one of these corners here. All wallboard joints were taped, compounded, and sanded smooth. I found a nifty wallboard sander that attaches to a shop vacuum and uses special screens instead of sandpaper. The vacuum sucks most of the dust through the screen before it gets a chance to ge into the air. This method is not completely dustless, but is orders of magnitude better than using sandpaper. Be sure to install a paper collection bag and a good filter into the vac, or the exhaust might spew a dust plume worthy of a Pennsy Decapod climbing to Horseshoe Curve! The masonite was covered with a thick wallpaper underlayment product intended to be used over concrete or cinder block basement walls. This paper was overlapped onto the wallboard adjacent to the masonite, and blended using joint compound. Others have reported that simple taped/compounded joints on masonite cracked soon after installation. So far (2 and a half years) the wallpaper method has not cracked. The walls were all primed and the staging room, shop and stair enclosure were painted warm white.
It took about 2 years (!!) to get the basement completely ready, but it has been worth it. The lighting is just as I has envisioned it, I have little dust (other than sawdust), and it is a comfortable place to be. Finally, in October, 1996 it was time to begin the actual layout construction.