The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 158


© September 27, 2010   

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How I make Switches for Groovy Track


Written by Laurence Johnson

Yeah, I know, groovy track is where the rail, made of steel flat stock, is pressed edgewise down into grooves cut into the crossties; but I weld 1/8” thick plates onto the rail and then screw things down when making my switches. And I’m not saying that this is the only way to make groovy track switches but this is my tenth switch and I hope you can get some good ideas for making your own switches.

My first step is to paint both sides of a half sheet of plywood with white paint (click images to enlarge). I’m using water clean up paint, but enamel base will work just as well. I use flat paint so I can pencil mark it up with layout lines. Gloss paint doesn’t work quite as well.

I am building a 25 foot radius turnout but any radius can be used following the same steps that I am using, if need be. A larger radius will require plywood longer than 8 feet.

I use several tools to layout and mark onto the plywood the inside surface of the rail and the point side of the crossties. Beside string line, I also use a framing square, adjustable miter square, carpenter’s pencil, 12 foot pocket tape, several long nails (16 penny), colored plastic flagging and two 50 foot box tapes.

Using the adjustable miter square, I make a pencil line 6 inches in from the left short side and 3 inches up from the bottom edge of the long side and on the other side of the plywood 6 inches in from the right side and, again, 3 inches up from the bottom.

In my back yard I stretch a string line (east and west), using two nails, about 10 or 12 feet long. The lawn must be mowed short and the nails not pushed in to much below the top of the grass. From the west end I measured in a foot and put a nail directly under the string (I’ll call it my one foot nail); measuring easterly from the “one foot nail” and exactly 9 feet I put in another nail, again directly under the string (and I’ll call this one my 9 foot nail).

As I remember from my high school geometry, a right triangle (that is a triangle that has one 90 degree angle) has sides are 3, 4, and 5 units long. And the corner between the 3 and 4 will be that necessary 90 degrees. (Units? One inch, one foot, one yard stick, one anything will work.) For my units I’m using 3 feet, so my 3, 4, 5 right triangle will measure 9 feet, 12 feet, and 15 feet.

Measuring 9 feet north from the “one foot nail” and 15 feet northwesterly from the “9 foot nail” at the same time with two box tapes, I put in my “midpoint north nail”. Again using my string line passing directly over the center of the head of the “9 foot nail” and box tape I will measure north from the “one foot nail” 25 feet and put in my “north nail”.  Reversing my string, I put a nail south of the “one foot nail” and, in alignment with the “north nail”, “9 foot nail”, and “one foot nail”, I put in my “south nail.”

The next step is to remove the “one foot nail,” the “nine foot nail” and the “midpoint north nail” and stretch string east-west and north-south from the remaining nails. Then, slide the plywood under the strings as shown below and align the pencil lines directly under the strings. Putting the hook on the “north nail” and pulling south to my base line on the plywood is at the 25 foot mark.

Using the tape measure as a compass, mark the 25 foot radius onto the plywood. Lift the tape measure several times to keep it straight and not bent in the grass. I measure up my track gauge distance and swing another radius using the box tape hooked to the “north nail” and the carpenter’s pencil. On my home track I am using 7-5/8” for my gauge distance. Repeat the above process on the other side of the plywood, but marking and measuring from the east and north sides.

Both sides? I use the backwards side to setup my cross ties and the “good” side to align the rail. More on this later.

After placing the plywood on a work table or saw horses as shown here, with the backwards side up, layout the point side of all the cross ties and mark using the carpenter’s pencil and framing square. Also, mark out the upper location for the straight rail. I am making a right hand switch and the bottom side of this switch will be backwards, i.e.; left handed. Since my plywood is only 24 inches tall I plan to set my crossties with a overhand of 2-1/2” on the bottom and mark up the same from the top arc line putting a circle around my tick mark. I can now decide how long I want my crossties to be as the distance increases for the curved sections of the track. Just to keep things simple in measuring and cutting lengths, I will group my tie lengths mostly by pairs. When making switches using 40 feet or more arc distances, you might want to group your tie lengths by 3’s or 4’s (click images to enlarge).

As I cut my cross ties I mark each with its length just to make things easier. Then I lay them in position on the plywood.

I fasten everything together using 1 x 3 green treated lumber and coated nails and screws which will resist the chemicals in the green treated wood. Remember, these boards will not be removed so don’t place them where they will cover the inside pencil location of all the rails.

Cut and drill clearance holes for the screws in 1/8 x 1 steel straps. Here I am gang drilling the holes just to speed up the process. Keep your drill bit sharp but remember, after about 20 or so holes, a high speed drill bit will need to be “touched up a bit” to keep it sharp.  We all know a dull drill can break when pushed too much, just because it cannot cut as fast as you might want.

Now it is time to flip everything over - cross ties and plywood. Using the adjustable miter square, vertically mark the location of the point side of the rail on each crosstie and on both sides of each crosstie when marking the locations for the curved rail sections.

As you can see below, I’ve also laid out the 1/8” plates making sure to have the correct lengths and quantity (click images to enlarge).

Hold on there, Mr. Johnson, do you want to weld and have all that splatter fall down onto your template and cover up your lines? Take the plywood out and set things on the sawhorses. Then you will have all the room you need to place clamps to align the rail and position the 1/8 plates! I have welded all but the last four plates leading up to the points on the straight rail and then I cut the rail for the “kick” point and then clamp and weld on the outside of the track to leave room for the movable point rails. Note, I have offset the rail half its thickness to allow for the thickness of the point rail which will be attached later on.

And then someone asks, how do you keep from burning the cross ties when you weld the rail to the 1/8 plates? Water, son, slop some water on before and after; the cross ties will be scorched, but next year this time, you will not see any burn marks if you dab the water on quick enough.  Don’t use a manmade fiber brush, it’ll just melt and make a mess.

This time I’m using cedar wood for my crossties.  In the past I have used green treat when I could get the old style that did not attack the drywall screws that I liked to use. As you can see, I’m now using stainless steel Phillips drive screws that have a washer incorporated into the head. This 1-1/2” screw seems to hold better than the drywall screws; or at least they don’t snap off when driving them in (click images to enlarge).

I bent the curved rail every 5", nothing exciting about that distance as it is the width of my vise. I heat up the rail with the gas torch and just crack the straightness trying to keep the bends equal. This picture (right) shows my next step of aligning the short sections of rail with my pencil marks. I marked the angle onto the end of the rails and welded them together. The only hard part of this process is holding the steel bar stock while cutting the acute angles....

...which is best accomplished by using a drill vise upside down (far left) with its jaws as a reference for flatness. The body of the vise also provides a good handhold for positioning the bar while cutting. Here is another view of the aligning process. The two pound maul hammer is there just to hold things in place without going to the trouble of using C-clamps. The narrow strip of plywood, on the right, was used to help in aligning the short straight rail. I do not use cast rail frogs; the rail itself will do the job. From now on I am constantly checking the rail gage distance keeping it at my standard 7-5/8 inches. Once the inner rail sections are welded and screwed into position I next turn my attention to the outer curved rail section.

This is where the layout lines on both sides of the crossties become very important. If the curve is to sharp I bang things straighter, so to speak, with the anvil and 2 pound hand maul. This may look primitive but it is very easy to do and cold forming makes for small changes in the curvature of the bar stock. Again the rail is welded to the 1/8” plates, daubed with water to cool and screwed into place (click images to enlarge).

Check, check, check alignment and gauge before and after every weld. I use clamps of every kind to hold the rail in position but only after the rail is at the correct curvature; don’t use the cross ties and the rest of the switch to hold the curve in the rail. I tried that once and had to dig up the switch a year later and rebuild it — time allowed the steel bar to return to its natural curvature and bent the whole switch creating a constant derailing location. Not good!

I followed this same procedure in fabricating the rail kick on the curved side and after welding the rail ends together I heated up the rail red hot at the third tie space to the right which allowed the steel to find its normal relaxed stresses in this position. Daub water before and after and hold the propane torch upside down directing the excess flame and heat away from the wood. I really don’t think I scorched the wood at all.

I next formed and fastened down the straight point rail. I used 1/4” bar stock for the frog guards and positioning them 1/4” away from the frog. This picture shows the alignment process of the curved point rail and the marking of its frog guard. I don’t have pictures showing this: these rail sections were some 24 inches short of the switch points. The remaining rail lengths were made from the 1/4” thick steel which is more flexible allowing for easier switch construction (click images to enlarge).

In this picture (left) one can see that I am fastening the ends of the rail points together. Both rail points are free to move back and forth; no dragging on the 1/8” thick plates. One side came out perfect with no dragging and the other side I had to heat up the rail with the upside down propane torch and bang it a bit with the 2 pound hand maul. Nothing serious and I only raised the rail up a 1/16 of an inch. This did, however, make the top surfaces higher than its neighbor so I touched up the rail tops with the right angle grinder. When I removed the clamps right after taking this picture was taken, the moveable rail moved into a neutral position midway between both sides of the span.

The last four pictures are self explaining, I fabricated the Neponset Switch Stand following the plans shown in my Volume 1 CD but any switch stand may be used. The outer frog guards are welded in place with a 3/16” space to the outer rails. I did check the inner distances and found it, of course, to be within standards. The linkage between the points and the switch stand was my typical cut and try process I always use: balancing the forces and compression length of the springs to the movement of the swing link at the bottom of the switch stand. As you can see I have welded a length of 3/8 NC ready rod into the link on the right and two upright alignment pieces coming from the switch stand. Make those holes large and free from burrs. This switch is ready for use.


Written by Laurence Johnson

Laurence Johnson is the author of: "CAD Drawings for the Live Steam Hobby"

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