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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
New Boston and Donnels Creek:

Framing Out the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part. 1

If you've been following our series on planning and building the next iteration of the New Boston and Donnels Creek, you're probably wondering if I'll ever get anything actually built. Well, this is the article where I start that process.

I love garden trains. I love gardens. But if you build a garden railway the wrong way, you can find yourself combining all the maintenance issues of a model railroad plus all the maintenance issues of a large flower bed in the same patch of ground.

My first "permanent" garden railroad was a glorified dirt pile with railroad-tie retaining walls that has almost all disintegrated by the time we moved. But that was how we did things back in the 1980s and 1990s, following the example of the North American garden railroading pioneers, nearly every one of whom lived in areas where you couldn't even keep weeds alive without irrigation. In my case, I created a perfect environment for weeds and burrowing critters, plus having a right-of-way that went between ground-level and 18" above ground got harder on my back the longer I tried to keep it going.

After our move to a "new" home with far more room than I would ever need for a garden railroad, I determined not to make all the old mistakes. So I've been very busy making all new mistakes.

This is a continuation of a series that included a lot of planning and a lot of digging. In the previous segment, I staked out and dug most of my holes before having to replace my post hole digger.

In this article I describe what it took to build the basic frame of my up-and-coming railroad. For convenience sake, I will repeat two pictures I included in the last article. Since I was focusing on posts, I made versions that grayed out almost everything else.

The plan to the left shows what will be the middle layer of my three-layer design. The plan to the right shows what will be the top layer. I grayed out everything but the posts because I was focusing on where the posts would need to go. Again, the brown posts will be 5' long, in 2'-deep holes, so they'll stick out about 3'. The yellow posts will be 8' long, in 2' deep holes, so they'll stick out about six feet. (By the way, I precut the 5' posts by buying 10' posts and cutting them in half. The 8' posts were bought at that length, which is usually the cheapest way to buy this kind of lumber.)

The red circle shows the first post I had to place, because I wanted it next to a conduit I could use to power the railroad eventually.

You can see how the top layer will go over the middle layer by mentally aligning the red circle and the yellow posts. The four yellow posts in the second drawing will essentially be the "pillars" around which the rest of the railroad will be built. Initially they were going to be only a foot taller than the other posts. But the more I thought about things, the stronger I felt about having a railroad that was tall. As Paul Busse once told me, having a three-dimensional railroad adds significant interest, and I've seen enough of his railroads to know he was right.

The top loop would still only be about five foot above ground, but it would go through a tunnel in a much higher mountain. And at the "back" of the mountain (to the left in the first drawing) will be an access area for setting trains on the track.

The 'middle layer' of my future 'wedding cake' railroad, showing where I needed to drill post holes.  The yellow posts will stick up 6' from the ground. The brown posts will stick up 3' from the ground.  But the post holes all need to be the same depth - 24 inches. The top layer' of my future 'wedding cake' railroad, showing the four tall posts that will essentially be the core of the new railroad infrastructure.
Middle Layer Map, Showing the
Location of the Posts
Top Layer Map, Showing the Location of the Posts

The last article finished with me having almost all of the post holes done and getting a new post hole digger in the mail. Well, on the weekend of August 5-6, I dug the other post holes. And I started dropping the posts into the holes so I could get a better visual impression of how things were going to go together. Ooops, one pair of posts was almost a foot off - I had calculated its location wrong. I was able to just widen one of the holes, but the other needed to be moved, period. Here's a reminder that even if I had rented a power post hole digger/auger to dig all of these holes in the first place, I would still need a manual digger for things like this. Of course, if you ever do this, you won't make dumb mistakes.

This drawing shows where the first joists would go.  They would connect the 'pillars' that would eventually support the upper layer to four shorter posts that would eventually support the middle layer. In some of the earlier photos, I used the "short" (5' poles) in holes where the tall posts would eventually go, since I was just aligning things. When I was sure that the holes for the "pillars" and the shorter posts they needed to connect to "lengthwise" were aligned, I brought out the longer posts and started with the first set of joists.

Trying to keep all the posts vertical while screwing the joists on was interesting. But I focused on one plane, not two. Once I had the pillars connected by joists, I also ran a lateral "bar" across the top, parallel to the joists, checking frequently to make certain the posts were still vertical.

By the way, if this was a real deck, I'd be using carriage bolts to connect the joists to the main vertical posts. As it is, I'm using 4" screws, which should hold things together well enough for my purposes.

This drawing is a The drawing at the right is an "artists' conception" of what this assembly would look like when was complete. It's sort of a cross-section of one of the areas shown by the ovals in the drawing above - two of the pillars aligned with the short posts on either end. By sinking two screws at every junction, I hoped to make the thing stable enough to keep it from flexing like a parallelogram. At the end of this process, each group of was pretty solid in the dimension shown.

By the way, the joists leave 2-4" of the post exposed, so I can screw the frame pieces to them as well, for additional stability. The joists also protrude about 1 1/4 inch past the posts so the outside frame pieces can rest on them.

The second joist connects the other two 'pillars' to each other and to the short posts on the ends.  Click for bigger photo.The photo at the right shows the structure after the second joist was run, so all four of the "pillars" were connected to the short posts in line with them.

As crazy as it may sound, it was both rewarding and a little suspenseful to see the three-dimensional structure emerging from my two-dimensional plans. I was a little apprehensive that I'd see flaws after the thing was built that weren't apparent on the plan. So there was a certain amount of walking around the emerging structure, comparing it to the plan, both to make certain I was doing what I planned and to make certain that my plan wasn't seriously flawed.

This drawing indicates the first supports, resting on the first two joists and connecting the pillars 'crosswise' to other posts. Next I turned my attention to the other horizontal dimension. Two of the supports (which will eventually support the surface material) would rest on top of the joists and connect the pillars to the shorter posts that aligned with them. My greatest concern at this point was keeping the assemblies I had already made vertical in both directions. Which involved a lot of false starts - including screwing things together wrong more than once, before that happened.

If you were doing this with two or three people, you'd probably have no problems to speak of, but I wanted to demonstrate that a single person could do this if he or she had to. The other aspect of this, which I don't emphasize nearly enough, is that much of this was new to my experience. I've built some goofy things, but nothing this complex. So a good portion of what I did involved staring at what I had done already and trying to figure out my best next step. Or in some cases, realizing that I had made a serious mistake two steps back and needed to undo and redo a lot of work. Best not to have any witness for that sort of thing. Once again, these articles are not prescriptive, they are descriptive. For twenty years, reader input has constantly reminded me that being honest encourages readers to start their own projects far more than pretending I have it all together and never make mistakes.

If I was building a real deck or some such, I would have screwed (or - better yet - bolted) all of the joists (lower layer of 2x6s) into place before I put any of the support pieces on. But I wanted to stabilize things as quickly as possible, and those other joists aren't so critical to the overall structure. In fact, I plan to just cut them to length and screw them under the supports that are already installed. They'll serve the same purpose, and it will keep me from measuring a bunch of stuff and - like as not - getting it wrong.

Back to the construction. You'll notice in the drawing above that one of the supports (the one nearest the bottom of the picture) was long enough to go the whole length of that part of the railroad. I did the other one first, though, trying to keep the pillars straight in both directions as I did so. Then I did the support that runs all the way to the fifth 8' post. I got the long post as vertical as I could and screwed it to the support, which stabilized it on one direction (only). That still left a number of the short posts disconnected, and one long post not installed at all. I wasn't so concerned about the short posts that were still disconnected - they would be fine once I ran the other joists and supports. But I was concerned about the two long posts that weren't entirely connected yet. Any long post or board that isn't fastened firmly into place before it warps will warp, and sometimes quickly. So I wanted to get the major frame pieces screwed together before I stopped.

Next, I measured and cut the long crosspieces that would tie the long posts together at the top. I attached them by predrilling screws in one end, then placing my stepladder at the other end to support the end I WASN'T screwing while I climbed up my stepstool with the drill, lever, and one end of the crosspiece. I drilled one end of that to hold it in place, then climbed down, went up the stepladder with the drill and level, and screwed the other end in place. Then I went back and seated the second screw in the first end. Yes, two tall people could have done it much faster, but then there would have been a witness to all the things I messed up.

I finished the top level by measuring one more crossbar and connecting the last two tall posts. By then it was twilight and I was afraid I'd start making dumb mistakes if I kept going.

The major framing members in place.  Click for bigger photo.When the last crossbar was in place and the whole thing seemed pretty rigid, it was apparent that three of the long posts had slipped from true vertical by a degree or two. But overall the whole thing looked good and seems very stable. Frankly, I have seen new housing construction that was further "off." And once the scenery is installed, there won't be many straight lines for anyone to judge.

If you're trying to relate the photo to my plans, the four tall posts to the right are my "pillars." The first two joists are the lower horizontal boards connecting them to the shorter end posts. The first two supports are the 2x6" boards that cross them, one of which connects to the tall post closest to the camera.

I have a suggestion. If you want to try this sort of thing, don't try anything this elaborate your first time out. Unless you're good with construction and/or you wait until I have plants and trains on it and decide that you really, really like mine. Build something like the top layer by itself and put it on posts that stick out of the ground 2'. If I have time and reader interest, I'll do something like that as an example first project later.

Several of the folks who drive down the road past my house slowed to see what I was doing. Yes, I often wish I had something to screen this project from the road, but that's life at this moment. As far as they know, I'm building an elaborate chicken coop. I told Shelia that at this stage it looks like M.C. Escher designed a gazebo. Or maybe Picasso.

I put on a few more pieces after I took the photo above, but it gives the general impression.

This graphic shows the pieces I still need to add to complete the structure of the middle layer.The graphic to the right shows the pieces I still need to complete the structure of the middle layer. The brown represents one joist that still needs to be added. The yellow represents support pieces that need to be added. I actually have scraps that will go where two of the short boards are shown, but I want to get the other big pieces installed first.

I did enough calculations to figure that five or six more 2"x6"s will be enough to finish framing this layer. Now, decking it is another issue - I'm still sorting that one out. I'm thinking the optimum deck will be ground-rated 2"x6" boards with a layer of thick vinyl on top of that and the dirt and plants on top of that, a sort of big raised planter. But that won't be cheap. We'll see.

The entire top layer needs to be added, so I didn't make a special graphic for that. I did make one tweak, which I'll discuss when I get around to starting on it. BTW, that should take about five 2"x6" boards to frame, and the posts are already in place, so that won't be as big an investment in time or money as this layer was.

At the moment, I'm wondering if I'd be better off finishing this level and getting at least one loop of track installed before I start on the upper level. The pillars aren't going anywhere, after all.

Why didn't I buy all the lumber I would need before I started putting stuff together? For one thing, even if I can calculate up to the board how much more lumber I need, I am careful not to load up the minivan to the point where I destroy the shocks. For another, if there were too many unavoidable delays, at least some of the lumber would warp before I got it installed. Actually a couple pieces did anyway, but I was able to use them by putting the warped part where it wouldn't matter. But if a third of the lumber, say, had warped, I'd be in trouble.

And - true confession time - as I'm working on a project like this I always have to stop and rethink things. And sometimes I redesign midstream, when I realize something's not working out the way I thought it would. So trying to buy exactly what I'll need the first time I go to the store is always futile.

The day before I posted this, I also picked up a few electrical whatsis, including two GFI outlets, to hook up the wiring coming through the conduit into actual outlets. Then after I got the last few pieces of lumber attached, I realized I need at least one more junction box to accomplish what I have planned. That's okay, I have to go back to the store anyway.

Because of the weight issue, the next load won't be quite enough to finish framing out both layers either. But I'm satisfied, as long as I can keep making progress, and my plans and "proof of concepts" keep getting closer to reality.

The immediate next steps will include:

  • Framing out the rest of the middle layer

  • Hooking up and testing the electrical lines.

Then there will be other decisions to make. . . . .

Best of luck, all,

Enjoy your hobbies, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family in the coming season.


Click to go to articleProceed to "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part 2" - Once I started dropping posts in the holes and screwing things together, I didn't want to stop before I had the basic frame built (for one thing, the wood warps less once it's fastened in place). Now the folks driving down the street past our house (we're on a corner lot) probably wonder if I'm building an elaborate chicken coop, but that's fine with me. I still need to make a few more lumber runs and do a lot more cutting and sawing, but having the basic frame in place should make the next bits a lot easier.

Click on the photo to see our status as of September 7, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Breaking Ground on the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek" - Okay, in case you wondered if we'd ever get started on the thing, we broke ground in July, using a manual post-hole digger. Well two manual post-hole diggers. But by the end of this article, we're ready for the posts to start going in.

Click on the photo to see our status as of the end of July, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 4" - Well, the rented post-hole digger fell through, so we dug our vegetable garden with a manual post-hole digger (the scissors kind). In addition, I stake out where the railroad was going to be. Twice. And tweaked the plans again. Sorry about the redo's, but sometimes just walking around the yard trying to visualize things makes me reconsider something that seemed "settled" only a few days before.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering as of late May, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 3" - We have still not broken ground. In part because we plan to rent a post-hole digger and dig the post holes for our raised vegetable garden and the first phase of the garden railroad at the same time, and we don't have enough lumber on hand yet. (If we didn't break it down into multiple trips, we'd be blowing out the shocks on our minivan.) In the meantime, we used a line level to see if the slope of the back yard was as bad as we thought it was (it's worse), and we did other site preparation, including planting a whole bunch of spruce tree seedlings to eventually give us some privacy in our side and back yard. Plus, I'm still wavering a little on the "where-to-start-first" issue.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering as of late April, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 2" - More plans. We've moved on from the 2"x6" roadbed-on-posts to a sort of "train-table-outside" plan. Our goals include low-maintenance, high interest, and high reliability. We're also trying to get around having a thousand dollars' worth of dirt hauled into the back yard. If you want to get some idea of what our planning process looks like, reading these through in sequence may help. Or it may drive you crazy.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering in early April, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 1" - If you're subscribed to our newsletter, you know that we moved just after Thanksgiving in 2016, leaving behind most of the track, a few of the bird feeders, and one Bachmann train set for the new owners. We also left behind a high-maintenance garden that we do not intend to replicate at the new place. This is the first chapter of a new chapter in our lives, which we hope will include a lot of "lessons learned." But first, some serious landscaping had to take place.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering in March, 2017

Click to go to home page of the New Boston and Donnels' Creek RR, Paul Race's home railroad. Return to the New Boston and Donnels Creek RR Page - This is the page describing Paul Race's progress and frequent rework on his own garden railroad, started on a shoe-string budget in 1998, later expanded, and later refurbished several times as issues arose. Issues that Paul hopes to avoid by building the next iteration above ground.

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