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

Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part. 5

If you've been following along with our planning, groundbreaking, and framing articles, you know that we are building a new garden railroad that will be entirely raised, not set on dirt near ground-level like I did back in 1998-2003.

This is, obviously a followup to our "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part. 4" article, in which I decked the top layer and temporarily assembled a loop of track to check clearances and "nail down" the location of the waterfall and bridge.

Where Things Stood

At the end of the last article, I had tested and somewhat tweaked my "track plan," such as it is, to make certain:

  • I had enough clearance to run the longest pieces I was ever likely to run there.

  • Mark the ROW so I wouldn't trim the excess deck pieces off too tight.

  • Establish where the bridge and waterfall would need to be to suit the ROW installation.

The north side of the upper level showing where the bridge will cross the

The "Big Plan" Is Still There

Just to keep perspective, the drawing below shows how my current installation should fit into my plan for next year. The dark brown and orangish-brown squares are the posts I sank this year. You can get some idea of how far out this year's installation will go by looking at the brown posts, which more-or-less border the middle layer.

Or look at the track loops. The inner loop is the ROW for the top layer. I updated that part of the graphic to show the track pieces I'd actually be using. It is about 5' off the ground, based on 5' curves. The middle loop is the middle layer, about 40" off the ground and based on 8' curves. It's the last part I expect to get done before cold weather.

The outer loop (all in light gray) represents the lower layer, which I expect to be about 2' off the ground and based on 10' curves. That's the part where I expect to have room for industries, sidings, etc. But it's not going to happen this year. In fact, the "plan" here is an approximation, just a target to shoot for until I know exactly how much room the middle layer will really take.

All three layers shown on a single plan.  The top layer is shown in amber; the middle layer is shown in brown and gray and more-or-less boounded by the brown posts.  The design for the bottom layer, which won't be installed until next year, if then, is shown in light gray.  It will be tweaked after the middle layer is complete.  Click for bigger photo.

In the meantime, my goal for the rest of this fall is to get track, dirt, some plants, and at least a few buildings and accessories installed on the top and middle layer while it's still warm enough to run trains at least a few times.

Protecting the Ties

Another issue is that some of the ties on the used track I was using are starting to lose that "new-tie" shiny vinyl plastic look, which means that they're starting to show mild UV damage. "UV-resistant" doesn't mean "UV invulnerable," and no brand is excepted. ANY garden railroad track left in direct sunshine will dull and eventually start to break down. As far as I can tell, ties do last longer in places like Ottowa and have shorter lifespans in places like Alabama, possibly because of the sun hitting them at a more direct angle. In Ohio, 12 years of direct sun permanently damaged some of my track beyond effective use.

This is a big problem for track that might get kicked or stepped on, because the little "tie plates" and "spike heads" that hold down the ties get fragile, and it becomes frighteningly easy to knock the rails right out of the tie strips with a light bump. In this case, nobody will be stepping on the track, but I thought I'd take precautions to protect the tie strips from further deterioration.

Frankly, I've never heard of anyone else doing this on a garden railroad, and it may be a wasted effort, but I decided to scrub the track pieces thoroughly, let them dry, then paint the ties with a weather resistant paint.

On the other hand, back in the days when HO modelers could only get brass track, some of them would get a tiny little brush and paint the "web" of the track brown to make the track look more like real track.

Hopefully this would prevent further UV damage to the tie strips, and I think this will do it. I'll let you know in ten years if it made a difference. :-)

My first thought was to mask top and inside of the rails and prime and paint everything else. Rust primer, dark brown spray paint. But after investigating several kinds of paint online and not seeing any I was sure would stick to the vinyl, I saw the product below left. Always the optimist, I thought "I can just brush this on and not have to worry about masking anything."

Unfortunately, the little depressions in the ties made it hard to get the paint everywhere it needed to be without paint slopping onto the rail surfaces where it didn't belong. So I had to sand the top and inside edge of the rails anyway.

Rustoleum Ultra-Cover Expresso paint. Click for bigger photo. Track with ties painted with weather-resistant brown paint.  Click for bigger picture.

The "Expresso" color looks like a warm brown (bordering on burgundy) in the can, but it dries as a cooler dark brown not far removed from new creosote. In the photo to the right above, I left two of the original track pieces unpainted to show how the "black" color of the ties had faded.

As it turns out, this paint sticks VERY WELL. I can say this confidently, because some of it is still on my knee three showers later. It won't protect the ties permanently - nothing will, really. But if it can extend their life another eight years or so, I'll be satisfied.

And once I started sanding the top and inner edge of the rail, I have to confess, I really like the look, as shown below left. The photo below right is of one of my painted curves next to one of the old Aristo pieces that came with brown ties. Not a bad match, really. I once had a piece of LGB track that had brown ties, too, and as I remember , it would have been a pretty good match, too. That is before the ties broke down. Hopefully I've put that off for this loop for a while.
Track painted with the top and inside edge of the railhead sanded clean.  Click for bigger photo. One of my painted curves next to one of the old Aristo pieces that came with brown ties.  Click for bigger picture.
That said, on a trip to WalMart to buy something else, I came across what seems to be the same color in spray can format. So from now on the track will be masked and sprayed, which I'm sure will save some effort in the long run.

Model train rail profile, showing areas where electrical pickup occurs. Click for bigger picture.You may wonder if painting the rails will keep them from conducting electricity. It won't. The pickup wheels (and shoes if your locomotive has those) only ever hit the top and inside edge of the rail head. The color or condition of the rest of the rail does not matter at all. On straightaways, in fact, the wheels tend to hit only the very edge of the rail. When I'm doing a quick track-cleaning before a run, I use a fine-grade sanding sponge to make certain that edge, and maybe 1/16" on either side is shiny, and all of my trains run great.

Installing Vinyl

Then it came time to cut and install the vinyl underlayment. I measured the deck and figured that a piece 10' long and 80" wide would give me the extra I would need to overlap.

The printed side of my billboard tarp. Click for bigger photo.I started on the side that had been printed. You can see in the photo to the right why the piece I ordered was never used - the printer glitched. I have no idea what it was probably an ad for, but I'm glad to have such a nice piece to use.

I cut the piece into three pieces, since I was going to work around the posts. The center piece went in between the posts. Then I cut slots in the "end pieces" that would wrap around the posts and overlap the center piece. The photo below shows the pieces in place. But the days are getting short, so that's as far as I got that night. Fortunately, I had already bought some cheap bags of topsoil I could use to hold them down until I revisited.

The tarp in place. Click for bigger photo.

Later, when I had a chance, I cut the tarp material down so that it would leave about 1/2" all the way around and used a staplegun to hold it in place.

The tarp is trimmed and tacked down. Click for bigger photo.

I need to fasten something around the edge of the platform, not just to dress up the edge, but to keep the gravel I plan to pour around the track from constantly spilling off the edge. I have already tried one material that did not work, period. Stay tuned.

Also, I didn't fasten the vinyl down in the middle, since I expect the dirt and rocks to hold it down just fine.

Rethinking the Middle Layer

Since I bumped the ends of the top layer out about another 6" from my original plan, I suspect I'll have to do the same with the middle layer so that the 8'-diameter curves have enough room to clear the supports of the top layer. So, yes, there were the mandatory "walking around measuring things and trying to visualize" exercises, too. I've figured out a couple ways to extend the middle layer without doing anything too crazy if necessary.

At work, I've been training people on a project management approach called "Agile." One of its precepts is that you don't make firm design decisions on things that are several steps into the future because in the meantime you might:

  • Discover a better way of doing things, or
  • Realize that one of the components your future plans depended on won't work exactly the way you thought it would, so you have to tweak everything downstream anyway.

So I could claim that I'm using "Agile" principles to build my railroad. But the truth is, my projects have never gone quite the direction I expect them to, and I've gotten used to starting on the part I was sure of and working my way out from there. :-)

Installing Track on the Top Layer

As mentioned earlier, I put my track together in subsections, so I wouldn't have to be fiddling with those tiny screws too much out in the yard. As it was, I still lost two of those little screws indoors working over a flat surface. I have no idea how they could bounce or roll so far. Critics of "Murphy's Law" say it is irrational to assign malevolent intentions to inanimate objects. Personally, Murphy and I go way back, though.

I also discovered that Bachmann puts two kinds of screws into those packages, for two different kinds of track. This way, they don't have to carry two different inventory items or spend all of their time giving refunds to people who ordered the wrong kind. I did get 25 of the screws I needed in each package, so there is no false advertising. But that confused me at first.

Some of my track, painted, screwed together, and installed.  Click for bigger photo.

As you may notice, once the track was tightly screwed together, I had to adjust the position of the "bridge" a little.

Power hookup for Aristo Trackage.  Click for bigger photo.Also, as I was fastening the track together, (before it was installed) I ran a power line to one of the pieces that was going to go on the south side, where there will eventually be a tunnel, and storage tracks. This is 16-gauge lamp cord that I bought from Radio Shack years ago, attached to two little "spade terminals" that I also bought from Radio Shack years ago, fastened under the little screws that AristoCraft use to hold the rail to the tie.

I have wired many ROWs this way, including many jumper and booster lines, and it always worked fine. In fact, this set of jumpers came from a temporary railroad I used to set up at Thanksgiving and keep set up until mid January, or later. So don't let the rust stains fool you - those little lugs have a lot of life left in them.

Now I suppose I'll have to look those products up on Amazon so I can give you the links, which is not really as much fun as when I used to be able to just provide the Radio Shack catalog number.

Testing, Testing

Of course, once I got that far, I couldn't very well walk away without trying things out. For a moment I worried that painting the track with the rail joiners on might have hurt conductivity. It didn't.

I realize that the "maiden voyage" should have been done with fanfare and a train that had special memories or something. But it was starting to look like rain. So I grabbed a Christmas-themed Bachmann Streetcar, because, A: It was handy, and B: the rigid wheels on the power truck make it more sensitive to bumpy track than my more expensive pieces, so it's a good piece for testing ROWs.

I also used one of my old AristoCraft 1.5 amp power supplies. The streetcar ran great, and I left it on while I fiddled with the carpentry for the middle layer. Then it started raining, and the streetcar, power supply, and I went indoors.

A Bachmann streetcar circling the upper loops to test my connections and the smoothness of the track.  Click for a bigger photo.

I'll have some fanfare eventually, but the days are getting short so I get done what I can when I can.


I still have dirt and gravel and lots of rocks that I intend to put up on that layer. In fact, some of the bags of dirt are helping to hold the tarp down in the meantime. But I think getting the next layer under control should come next. I can spread dirt and rocks later.

As always, 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 6" - Modifying and finishing the framing on the second layer, cantilevering, using R3 track versus all other pre-curved track formats, finalizing the track plan, why painting the track makes old and new track blend better, and more. This will be the last bit of "framing" in 2017, and it worked out well, considering.

Click on the photo to see our status as of October 15, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part 4" - Planning and running the decking for the top layer, testing the track plan, checking clearances, prepping used track with new railjoiners, examining the vinyl I ordered to go over the decking, and more.

Click on the photo to see our status as of September 26, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part 3" - Getting the frame finished on the top layer, ordering other things I'd need eventually, deciding on materials for the decking on the top layer (at least).

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 2" - Once I had the overall frame relatively solid, I hooked up the underground power lines to two GFI plugs that should be in easy reach once everything is finished. I also decided to frame out the top railroad layer while I could still access the center of the railroad easily. Because I was running out of vertical space, I reconfigured that layer. Then after I got the "core" pieces on, I changed my plan again. But the whole thing is getting easier and easier to visualize, and is getting closer to complete with every board I cut and fasten on.

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