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New Boston and Donnels Creek:

Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part. 2

If you've been following along with our planning, groundbreaking, and framing articles, you know that we moved in November, 2016 and have been planning and working on the new iteration of our railroad since March, 2017. The new version will be entirely raised, some of it quite high for vertical interest. All of it will be set on lumber, not on dirt, to avoid the problems of constant weeding and burrowing animals we experienced with our first railroad.

This is, obviously a followup to our "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part. 1" article, in which I set the vertical posts and ran enough lateral pieces to connect them and keep the structure stable. I also started adding the frame pieces for what will become the "middle layer" of my three-tier raised railroad.

One ongoing issue is the amount of lumber this is taking. The cost of materials is certainly going to be more than I spent on materials the first time around. But it's still likely to be cheaper than trying to achieve the same effect with posts, retaining walls, and several loads of dirt. And it should require far less maintenance in the long run.

After I finished the assembly bits in the last article, I added a few more pieces of lumber, to use up my odds and ends before they warped.

Adding Electrical Service To the Railroad Structure

Tying both electrical lines that served the old swimming pool into a junction box and outlets. Click for bigger photos.This is one of those "Don't Try This at Home" bits. I went ahead and hooked the wires coming out of the ground (left over from a previous owner's swimming pool) into a junction box and from there into two separate GFI outlets. Like everything else, I poured over all my different options before I selected one that would leave the GFI outlets in easy reach but allow for eventually running additional outlets to other parts of the railroad.

By the way, there were two lines controlled by two separate circuit breakers on the panel in the garage. I was glad for this, because it meant I could dedicate, say, one circuit to trains and one circuit to lighting and other accessories.

I realized before I started that work that one of the lines (the one with the big heavy conduit and the 12-gauge wire) was actually wired to deliver 220volts, not 110. So WITH THE POWER OFF, I changed out the circuit breaker and changed the service over to 15amp, 110 volts.

I will NOT go into details about how I did this, since wiring codes vary from state to state, and there have already been enough accidents (and fatalities and structure fires) because someone saw an electrical wiring shortcut on YouTube or some such. If you're not experienced with house wiring and you don't have the codes virtually memorized, consider hiring an electrician before you do anything as complicated as running underground wiring to a backyard structure of any kind. If you do choose to do this yourself, follow all recommended safety regulations, including working only when the master circuit breaker is off, using UF cable (12 gauge is recommended), burying it at the right depth, using conduit where it is exposed to potential damage from weedwackers, etc., and making certain the circuit and all outdoor wiring is "ground-fault-interupt" protected.

I'll also point out to people who know this stuff, that the gray wires you can see will eventually be stapled to the support board and have a deck installed over them, which is considered an acceptible practice in some - but not all - jurisdictions. The outlets you see will eventually be part of a structure with a roof - a mini-train shed attached to the railroad itself. For now I cover them with plastic when not in use.

More Decisions

With only half the framing installed on the "middle" section, I could still move in and out of the structure fairly easily. For a time I had considered finishing that section before starting on the upper railroad. Since the finished middle section will be a sort of deck that should easily support my weight, there's no reason I couldn't just clamber around on the thing. But I realized that it would be easier to attach the joists, etc for the upper railroad while I could still stand on the ground.

But where, vertically to align it? I wanted 11"-12" of clearance between layers, and had the idea that right of way on the middle layer would go under the edge of the top layer in at least one place.

As it turned out, I had not paid close enough attention to exactly where the middle layer went - it was a couple inches higher than I had planned. And that meant that there wasn't enough room to build the top layer the same way and still have as much vertical clearance on the top level as I wanted.

Now, two "fixes" were possible:

  • Finish the middle layer in such a way as to allow the ROW to avoid passing under the top layer at any point, and/or
  • Change the supports of the top layer so that it takes less vertical space.

So I decided on a "belt-and-suspenders" approach - do both. Because parts of the middle layer are still not finished, I still have the flexibility to widen it just a little if necessary (say by adding an extra 2"x6" on the outside of the frame where there is a "tight spot.")

But I needed to frame out the top layer before I was entirely sure where it would overlap the planned ROW on the middle layer.

Redesigning the Top Layer

My August, 2017 design for the top railroad, using separate joists and supporting boards.  Click for bigger picture.My earlier designs for the top layer incorporated a lot of redundancy and extra rigor, the sort of thing you'd need in a freestanding raised garden railroad that people might be bumping into and visiting children might even climb. There was a joist layer (shown in dark brown) and a separate layer of supports running the opposite way (shown in amber). This was the way you would build a backyard deck, more or less, and it would stand up to just about anything, including people leaning or even climbing on it.

As I tried to figure out how to sandwich this construction between the middle layer and the boards running around the top of my tall posts, I realized that I just couldn't afford the room that the "extra robust" structure would take up vertically.

How could I reduce that without substantially reducing the sturdiness of the thing? No I wouldn't be standing on it, but you never know when someone might, say, lose their balance and find themselves putting more weight on it than they meant to.

By the way, since I haven't mentioned this recently, the grid in these drawings shows 2' squares. So the posts are 6' apart one way and 3' apart the other way.

Reviewing my earlier designs, I realized that the three joists were close enough together to put decking across without a separate support layer. For a level that few people would even reach, and hopefully nobody will be climbing on, I thought I could afford to lose some of the redundancy in my earlier designs.

A simplified version of what I decided to use to save 5.5 inches of height, and allow more train headroom. Click for bigger graphic.Why couldn't I simplify the design by simply making the joist boards into the support boards and losing the separate row of boards? I could widen the cross-pieces, and add two more boards parallel to my joists on the outside edge.

The "weak point" in this plan would technically be that long, relatively unsupported middle part. But, again, nobody was going to be walking on it, and I had several options for fixing that if it became a problem. (If I was designing a free-standing railroad this way, I'd just add two more posts and a cross-piece in the middle, by the way.)

Partial cross-section of the top layer as I redesigned it, showing how I 'saved' 5.5 inches by combining the function of the joist and support layers. This is not as robust as my previous plan but hopefully nobody will be crawling on this layer anyway. Click for bigger photo.The drawing to the right is a partial cross-section of the top layer as I redesigned it, showing how I 'saved' 5.5 inches by combining the function of the joist and support boards. This is not as robust as my previous plan but hopefully nobody will be crawling on this layer anyway.

By the way, the cross-pieces are notched just in case, after all this planning, they are still too close to the ROW on the middle layer.

Getting Started on the New Plan

By the way, you may get the impression that I suffer from "paralysis by analysis" - endlessly rethinking everything. I certainly did come up with a number of different plans before I had a chance to start digging holes. But once I start building things, a lot of ideas come about because I tried something that doesn't quite work out. Or once things start to come together enough to really visualize them, I realize there's a better approach.

In this case, I actually tried an in-between solution that is not shown, fastening a few boards in place to test it, before I settled on this approach.The first permanent boards on the top layer of my new railroad.  Originally, these would have been joists, but now they will support the decking directly. Click for bigger picture.

Once I was sure where I wanted the next layer to go, I screwed two of the long boards (what would have been joists in my earlier design) to the posts. I screwed those directly to the posts, triple-checking levels as I did so. The rather unimpressive but critical result is shown at the right. The long boards I'm discussing are shown in yellow.

The long crosspieces were attached under the first two long boards. In this design, they will support both the long board in the middle and the outside frame pieces. Click for bigger picture.Then I cut the long crosspieces, notching them slightly on the underside, in case a little more clearance would be necessary. Then I fastened them underneath the first two long boards. The crosspieces are shown in reddish brown.

Yes I realize that in most sets of instructions, those cross-pieces would have gone on first. They probably will if I ever use this sort of plan again. But I measured and placed the first boards very carefully while I had some other pieces installed that have since been removed, so I knew they were "right. The top layer so far. Click for bigger picture.So the cross-pieces were level once they went on as well.

The next step was to connect the two long boards with short pieces that went over the ends. Then I put the third long board in the middle and fastened it in place, screwing it into the "caps" and toenailing it into the crosspieces. So the "plan" for the core frame of the top layer as I initially installed it shown at the right.

The photo below shows that layer as it was first installed. The two boards with the notches are the crosspieces shown in reddish-brown in the drawings. The rectangular box sitting on top of them is shown in amber in the drawings. Once the middle long board was screwed into the end caps and tonailed into the crosspieces, it was very stable.

The core frame of the 'top' layer as initially installed. Click for bigger picture.

Yes, you may have picked up on the "first installed" wording in the paragraph above. The box part has stayed, will stay, right where it is. So will the cross-piece on the end closest to the camera. But once I had that part in place, I realized there was one more improvement I could add without undoing anything I had done so far.

One More Tweak

At this point, I could begin to see where the other pieces of that layer should go. And I realized that one more tweak would be helpful. The way our land slopes, I didn't think you'd see the waterfall from our back porch, so I hadn't taken that into account. But once I got this far along, I realized that you would be able to see it if it was turned the right way. And in almost all of my plans, including my most recent overall plans, it was facing the wrong way.

September 5, 2017's plan for the upper level, with the upper part of the waterfall slightly more exposed to the back porch. Click for bigger picture.So the new plan involves making the end that is furthest from the house just a little wider than the end that is closest, so that part of the waterfall can be just a little more visible. Again, the blue funny-shaped thing represents a Marccourt connecting pond that I'm planning on having sit on the next level down, emptying in turn into something else for now - the pond (if any) will have to wait until next year, at least.

The extra cross-pieces will be installed to give a little more leverage/support to the short pieces on the right side of the table, where we have the cutout for the waterfall and bridge.

BTW, I haven't bought any of the pond hardware yet, since I didn't know if my design would change so radically that I would be having to change that, too. In fact, I'm not deliriously happy with the pumps and filters I've seen so far - most of the ones with the features I want seem way overpriced, and frankly, overrated for what they really deliver. For example, a pump might say "1200 gallons per hour" but if you look closer, that's only if it's not having to pump water uphill at all. If you are pumping water uphill, say six feet, that drops to a trickle. For this iteration, I'll probably order a pump that will get me through the next couple phases of construction and worry about getting a bigger, more reliable pump if and when I install an actual pond.

The reddish-brown and amber pieces in this graphic show what remains to be built before I can start framing the top layer of the railroad.  Click for bigger picture.As of this writing (September 7, 2017), the following support pieces remain before I can start installing decking on the top layer:

  • Two long cross-pieces (shown in reddish-brown)
  • One long support piece (shown in amber at the left)
  • Multiple little short pieces to create the "notch" for the waterfall (shown in amber at the right)

I don't show the track in the picture to the right because I know I've aready allowed enough room for it, and it's a pain to redraw those curves precisely. :-) The main consideration is that the track must cross the "notch" at a straight line if possible. That seriously simplifies bridge-building.

Of course, once this level is done, I can go back and finish up the middle layer. More lumber, of course.


As you can see, doing this project a bit at a time allowed me to think and rethink. If I'd broken ground as soon as I had my original plan back in March, the result would have been nowhere near as nice as I expect it to be now. Since I'm designing what - for me at least - is a new kind of garden railroad, I can't help feeling that all the extra thought that has gone into this, both in design and in execution will pay off "big-time" once the plants and buildings are installed, and the trains and waterfalls are running.

In the meantime, if I've helped you get any ideas at all for your next garden railroad construction, I will consider the time it took to document all of this time well spent.

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 3" - With the basic frame in place, I framed out the top layer and started ordering parts for the waterfall and planning the decking layer. .

Click on the photo to see our status as of September 17, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part 1" - 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 August 10, 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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