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 Building a Simple Raised Railroad Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Best Choices for Beginning Garden Railroaders: a short list of things you're most likely to need when starting out
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

    The basic construction of a raised garden railroad using 2x6 ground-rated pressure treated lumber for the stringers and plates, and 4x4 ground-rated pressure-treated lumber for the posts.  Click for bigger picture.This article describes an easy way to build a raised garden railroad with 2x6" stringers (horizontal pieces) and 4x4" posts sunk into the ground like fenceposts. For many years, this method was the preferred way to install garden railroads, used by professionals and amateurs alike. It still may be the most widely-used method.

    Although some magnificent railroads have been built using this approach, this article focuses on building a simple railroad that a couple people without any particular skills could have operational (though not cosmetically finished) in a weekend. The idea is to get you used to thinking in three dimensions and developing skills you will use later when you get around to building your empire.

    Update for 2020 - In the years since I wrote this article, I have developed another more extravagant method for building a raised right of way that should hopefully turn out even lower maintenance in the long run. But even that method uses 2"x6" pressure treated roadbed similar to this method. And after fifteen years of weeding my old railroad (which was only partially raised), I'm more of a believer in using solid lumber roadbed than I've ever been.

    If you're interested only in the tips for cutting the roadbed itself, I have a more streamlined article with new illustrations here.

    Whether you leave the roadbed raised above its surroundings or backfill up against it, this approach.

    • Maintains as smooth a right-of-way as possible, minimizing derailments and track power "hiccups" on 4-wheel locomotives.

    • Keeps weeds from growing up through the track, vastly reducing maintenance compared to most other methods.

    • Keeps you from having to get on your knees to get trains on and off the track, to wipe the track, or to do almost anything else.

    In other words, if your garden railroad fantasy includes the notion that you can run trains any time you want to, without having to go through a bunch of track maintenance every time, this is one of the best and least exensive ways to achieve that. Even if you count in the price of a ~$30 post hole digger.

    In the years since I wrote this article, I've also witnessed several magnificent garden railroads that used less rigorous approaches fall into disrepair and eventually abandoned by their owners, because the time they "saved" initially was far outweighed by the amount of time it took to keep the railroad remotely operational.

    Skillwise, this article is a "step up" from the 1-Day-Railroad project, in which a loop of track and enough plants and buildings to dress it up are installed at ground level. It is skillwise at least one step down from Bill Logan's Flexible Roadbed method. When you are ready to build your ultimate empire, you need to look at that method. However, the project described in this example gets you from "ground level" to "the next level" with relative ease. And once your trains are off the ground, you'll wonder what took you so long.

    Another way of looking at this is to note that this project requires about the same tools, intelligence, and effort as installing a few feet of fence. However, in case you have never done anything along this line, I have broken the process up into many small steps, and provided diagrams and templates to make it easier to follow.

    For the sake of this article, we are assuming that you plan to use preformed track curves (the kind that come already curved in a box), and that your "layout" will allow "continuous running" (such as on a circle or oval). Our example will be based on an oval, although you may certainly use other shapes with this method. By the way, there's no reason you can't use "flextrack" and a railbender to create your own curves while building a simple raised railroad, but we are saving the railbender skill for another article.

    Advantages of this method include:

    • Raised railroads are easier to maintain, since you don't have to bend over so far to work on things. Your back and knees will thank you.
    • Raised railroads allow you to see the sides of things, not just the tops. The closer railroads are to "eye level," the more people notice details and feel "involved" with the train and the communities it serves. If people will generally be seated when they watch the trains, a railroad that is 24 or 30" off the ground will provide fairly horizontal viewing while allowing little kids to see what's going on without an adult having to pick them up. Even a foot of elevation provides better viewing and easier maintenance than ground level. How you fill any "empty" space between the ground and the raised roadbed is addressed later in the article.
    • This method allows you to compensate easily for difficult terrain.
    • This method minimizes the effect of soil shifting underneath the roadbed. If settling soil, a burrowing animal or a rainstorm washout rearranges the dirt around and under the track, the track will stay usable, so you can still run your trains while you are repairing the "cosmetic" aspects.
    • With this method, you can run trains long before the rest of the railroad is finished. (Many other methods force you to finish installing and tamping down the backfill before you can install the track.)
    • In addition, raised railroads that use solid timber construction make it virtually impossible for weeds to disrupt your train service. Even the "Flexible Roadbed" method can't do that, unless you install weed barrier underneath the roadbed as you backfill. In fact, the part of my railroad, the New Boston and Donnels Creek, that I installed this way is the only part that has approached zero maintenance out of all the techniques I have attempted.

    Also, since I first wrote this article, I have built three portable raised railroads that used 5/4" decking instead of 2"x6" planks. One was made for 10'-diameter track and it worked fine for two demo setups and teardowns. I gave the lumber to a friend near Cleveland after that, and lost track of it, so I don't know how the stuff fared after that. The other two were made for 4'-diameter track and have been used for clinics and temporary open railroads. That said, it's impossible to get ground-rated 5/4" decking throughout most of the United States, so I wouldn't trust it for a permanent installation in constant contact with the dirt. To me, the additional cost of ground-rated 2"x6" boards (available at most Home Depots) is offset by the additional robustness and probably lifespan.


    If you are planning to raise a ground-level railroad (such as the railroad described in the 1-Day-Railroad article), you already have most of what you need, except for the lumber, concrete (optional), posthole digger, and any additional materials you need to compensate for any expansion. If this is your very first outdoor railroad project, you will find the planning information in the 1-Day-Railroad article very helpful. The process will be different, but the list of materials for each size of railroad is about the same for a simple raised railroad as it is for a simple ground-level railroad - except for the lumber, of course.

    One difference between a raised railroad and a ground-level railroad is that when you get everything where you think you want it and you put your track on the wooden "roadbed, you may find that your measurements are off a tad and you need to cut and insert a little piece of track to make things meet up right. Of course this won't happen to you, but on the rare chance that it might, you may consider picking up the following things before you start (in addition to all the things listed in the 1-Day-Railroad article):
    • A hack saw that will cut the rail you are using.
    • A flat file to smooth any rail cuts you make.
    • A package of aftermarket rail joiners (sometimes called rail clamps) that screw onto the rails without the rails requiring pre-drilled holes. (The Split Jaw and Hillman lines of clamps are among the best, but I have used other kinds with success.)
    Hillman Rail ClampSplit Jaw Rail Clamp

    How Much of the Railroad Should I Raise?

    Any single loop of track should be raised to about the same level at the same time, so your train doesn't fly down one hill and struggle up the next as it circles. That doesn't mean that you have to raise all of the earth around the train at the same time. In fact, you may leave part of the "scenery" at ground level, so that it "drops away" from your roadbed. This almost gives the effect that the train is going up and down hills, when, in fact it's on level track. Such a solution also provides many more opportunites for scenery than a totally "flat" railroad, be it on the ground, or two feet up.

    Then again, there's value in having your railroad operate in different vertical planes. On my first "permanent" garden railroad, shown at the right, I had a small ground level loop and a very large raised section. In the railroad I'm building now, there are two separate, level, raised sections (and hopefully a third some day). But the point of a "simple raised railroad" is to have the majority of your track raised for viewing pleasure and operating convenience, and to keep each loop of track relatively level.

    How Big a Railroad Should I Build?

    If you haven't already set a loop of track in your back yard, you may not realize how tiny the 4'-diameter circle of track that came with your train looks outside. In fact, most people who plan to run big, modern trains consider a 10'-diameter circle of track about the minimum; bigger is better. Trains just look better and run better on wider curves.

    On the other hand, if you're really cramped for space, just experimenting for now, or you're thinking about having a dinky mountain train circling the waterfall four feet off the ground and adding another, bigger railroad a foot or two lower, you may find a 5' or even a 4' circle fits your needs. But lay it out in the grass (or maybe on cement blocks) before you get out the shovel, so you know what you're getting before you put a bunch of work into it.

    What if I Want More Than a Circle of Track?

    Large Scale Track order FormOrdinarily, I recommend taking smaller steps, like proving to yourself you can build a small raised railroad first. However, you may certainly jump right into a bigger plan if you prefer. If you do, I hope you consider a number of track plans to determine which one will best meet your needs. I also hope you read my article Planning Your Garden Railroad for High Reliability. Even if you are only building a slightly more complicated railroad than is described in this article, the tips and tricks in the Reliability article will save you a great deal of frustration later.

    What Tools Will I Need?

    • ___ shovel
    • ___ post-hole digger (you may use a narrow-bladed or flat-bladed spade if you live where there's no frost line to speak of)
    • ___ power screwdriver or reversible electric drill with screwdriver bits
    • ___ circular saw with a blade appropriate for pressure-treated lumber
    • ___ measuring tape
    • ___ carpenter's pencil, grease pencil, or other marker to measure boards, and to lable the bottom of each cut piece.
    • ___ carpenter's square
    • ___ yard stick
    • ___ levels, incluing a little short one for leveling the roadbed from side to side, and a nice long one or a laser level for leveling the roadbed pieces from end to end. At least one of your levels must have a "sideways" bubble that you can use to make certain your posts are vertical.
    • ___ a five-gallon bucket or a garden hose attached to a water supply.

    How Much Lumber and Supplies Will I Need?

    • 2x6" Pressure-treated lumber - You will use 2x6s for the horizontal part of this structure, so how much you need depends on how much track you have, plus a 25% or so "fudge factor" to compensate for waste at the end of each board. If you are using preformed curves (and you remember what diameter track you bought), you can use "PI" to figure out how many linear feet of curved track you have. (I use 3.2 to compensate for the fact that the outside edge of the roadbed is longer than the inside) And you can obviously figure out the straight ones with a tape measure. For example, One 4'-diameter circle of track will require about 12.8 linear feet of 2x6 (4'x3.2), plus whatever waste you'll have at the end of the board.

      The following table gives the minimum lengths of 2x6 you'll need for the most common preformed track diameters - remember to add length to compensate for waste at the end of each board. There will often be more waste, if you are using larger curves than if you're using smaller curves.

    Track Diameter of preformed curves
    # of curves
    per circle
    Length of total circle
    Length of outside rail
    of each curve
    # of posts
    per circle
    4' Diameter
    6-12 (see below)
    5' Diameter
    8-12 (see below)
    8' Diameter
    12-16 (see below)
    10' Diameter
    Not Applicable
    Varies; use the examples above as a guideline.

    • 1x6" Pressure-treated lumber - You will use 1"x6"x10" pieces as "plates" joining the 2x6 roadbed pieces. The easiest way to calculate this is to figure 10" for each piece of track you are using, then add a fudge factor. (You may have noticed that I cheated and used 2x6 "plates" on the railroad in the title photo, but try to imagine how much nicer it would look with 1x6s there instead.)
    • 4x4" Pressure-treated posts - For this method most folks use one post per every 18" to 24" of track, with a maximum of 32" for straight pieces or really broad curves. You can see from the table above that:
      • If you are using 4'-diameter curves, you could theoretically get by with one post for every two curved pieces, but some folks prefer a few more posts than that, since they feel that the horizontal boards require more support because of the sharp curves.
      • If you are using 5' or 8' diameter curves, you should be okay with one post for every one and a half curved pieces, but some folks decide that's too hard to figure and use one post per curve anyway. Note: If you've read my article on Planning Your Garden Railroad for High Reliability, you'll notice that I actually prefer a modified oval that mixes track diameters to create smoother transitions from straight to curve, but this illustration will give you the general idea.
      • If you are using 10'- diameter curves, consider using at least one post for every piece of curved track.
      You can "get away" with longer distances between posts if:
      • You plan to backfill all or most of the way to the post.
      • The part you are installing has low risk of visitors or workers leaning against it or bumping into it.
      • There is low risk of washouts, flooding, standing water around the posts, or extremely cold winters.

        Note: As an example of the maximum possible length for these things, my friend Will Davis has a long straight section of raised railroad with 2x6 stringers supported about every 48". This section has been installed for about five years as of this writing and is showing no signs of "swaying" or other problems yet. Again, your mileage may vary.

      Conversely, if you have no plans to backfill immediately, or if your railroad will be exposed to contact with visitors, workers, or extreme weather conditions, you should consider a more conservative installation (such as one post every 24" or less).

      The length of each post depends on how high you are raising your railroad and how deep your frostline is. A number of folks who live where they get serious cold weather have tried to "cheat" by not properly "seating" their posts. After all, they were going to add two feet of backfill, so the bottom of the post would be under the "new" frost line, wouldn't it? They learned a hard lesson the next spring, when the posts were pointing every which way and the track was all distorted. The first couple years your railroad is installed, the soil is still packed so loosely that the frost line is pretty much right where you left it. So if you want your railroad elevated 24" and the frost line where you live is 18", each post will need to be around 42" long. For some reason 4"x4"x8' pieces are a much cheaper per foot around here than 4"x4"x10' pieces. So if this is the right math for your area, it probably means you'll be buying one 4"x4"x8' for every two posts you need, which should give you plenty of extra for "leveling" the finished roadbed. On the other hand, the 2x6" stringers and the 1x6" "plates" will add an additional 2.3" to the height of the project, so that may affect your figures if you need to be really precise about the height of the track. (In addition, you can use additional pieces of wood as horizontal supports for your track if you desire. See the "no concrete, horizontal support" alternative method of installation described in Appendix 1 for details).

      Note: If you live where there is no frost at all, you might consider a solution using DekBlocks or some similar method for your "foundation;" if you do that, you will not save much money, but you will save time. Read the instructions carefully, though, particularly the part about not burying the DekBlocks, and don't plan on your posts to stick out much more than a foot beyond the DekBlock, unless you devise a method of crossbracing.

    • 2" Deck Screws - Get the extra, extra galvanized kind that works with ACQ lumber. You will need about 6 per piece of track.
    • 4" or 5" Deck Screws (for ACQ lumber). You will need about 2 per piece of track.
    • Concrete Mix- It is possible to install a raised railroad in an area with deep frost without concrete. (See the "No Concrete" and "Horizontal Support" alternative methods of installation described in Appendix 1 for details.) However, many folks recommend using concrete to help set your posts, so follow your own judgement and experience. If you are using concrete, I'd consider a 40lb bag for every four posts for "light duty," more for "heavy duty." If you wish, you can get the kind that is especially made for fence post holes, but that's not critical, as we've used the "plain" stuff with success. Other variations include:
      • If you are working in cold weather, consider getting the kind that sets in cold temperatures.
      • If you are trying to get the whole railroad installed in a day, consider getting the kind that sets up really fast.
      That said, most folks I know use the "plain stuff" in most cases, but we feel obligated pass along the advice of people who are probably smarter than we are.
    • Spray Paint for marking your post hole locations before you dig. I'd consider getting cheap white flat paint (WalMart sells cans for .99), one can for every 16 pieces of track should be plenty.

    Cutting and Installing Your Posts

    Doublecheck Your Track Plan

    Once you get everything ready to go, you may want to doublecheck your track plans. For a small loop, this may be as simple as putting the track pieces together and laying them where you expect the track to go once it's installed permanently. The advantage of this approach is that you can easily mark the locations where the supporting posts need to be. That way you can get one person digging post holes (or moving DekBlocks) while you go off and start cutting lumber.

    Note: If, when you're laying out your track, you find a section in which it looks like you will have to cut a piece to make everything fit, just make a note to yourself, and let it go for now. Your railroad is likely to undergo minor variations as the stringers and track are installed, anyway, and there's no sense cutting track until you're certain of the final measurements.

    Mark the Post Holes

    By now you've already decided how far apart your posts are going to be. If you have laid out your track on the ground, the easiest way to "spec" where the posts will go is to stick a stick or stake in the ground every place you think there should be a post, before you take the track up again. If you have used a less hands-on method to verify your post locations, the whole measuring thing is up to you. When you're certain where each post should be, use a can of spray paint or some such to make a big cross-mark around each location large enough to keep you from losing your exact location once the post-hole digger starts tearing things up.

    Dig the Post Holes

    This task can also be done while someone else is cutting the post holes or the roadbed. Dig your post holes at least as deep as the frost line in your area, without getting the hole so wide that you lose your markings (this is why a post hole digger is very handy). Try to keep the dirt together to one side, since you'll use some of it to backfill once you set your post.

    Cut the Posts

    To figure the length of each post, add the depth of the frost line to the height you want your roadbed to be elevated, plus a few inches to compensate for uneven ground. For example, in my area the frost line is generally considered to be 18". If I want my roadbed to be 24" above ground, my posts need to be at least 42" long. Since I can get 4"x4"x8' pieces of pressure-treated lumber pretty cheap, I'll probably just saw them in half, which will give me 6" of "fudge factor."

    Note" Do not cut your posts at an angle under the impression that you can pound them into the ground more easily. When frost surrounds a post that is "squared off, the horizontal presure on the sides helps overcome the vertical pressure that might other wise cause the post to rise. But when frost surrounds a post that is cut at an angle, the horizontal pressure is converted to vertical pressure, the way squeezing a watermelon seed makes it shoot out (but slower).

    Set the Posts

    Setting a post is best done by two people working together. Wear old pants and shoes you don't mind getting muddy. Bring a level with a "sideways" bubble, a bag or partial bag of concrete, plus your water source, to the hole, along with your precut post. Pop the post into the ground, making certain that its final location is centered in the "crosshairs" you sprayed on the ground earlier. If you're using concrete mix, you'll have to hold the post in place while your helper pours a quarter to a third of a bag of concrete mix into the hole. If you wish, your helper may splash some water into the hole after it (loosely following the manufacturer's instructions for the mix). Some folks just leave the concrete dry and let it get wet and "set up" later when it rains or the water table raises. Then, using the level, keep the post vertical as your partner scoops the dirt back into the hole and begins packing it in place. You'll need to keep checking the level against two adjacent sides of the post to make certain it is vertical "front to back" as well as "left to right." Not all of the dirt will go back into the hole, but get as much packed back in as you can. Use a 2x2 to tamp the backfill in as firmly as you can. Then move on to the next post. You'll be surprised how fast the whole process goes once you've done a couple.

    To be on the "safe side," some folks (especially those counting on concrete really hold things in place) like to do the posts one day and the stringers (horizontal pieces) the next day. But if your posts are well set, there's no reason the the stringer team can't follow the posthole team fairly closely.

    Making the Final Cut

    When your posts (or at least a segment of your railroad) are solid, figure out which post is "shortest," then get out your laser level and mark all the other posts to the same level (unless you are planning on a grade of some kind). You may discover that, though you planned to raise your railroad to 24", the shortest post now is 28" above the ground. You may choose to leave it that height and bring all of your other posts to that level, but remember that you may need extra backfill, retaining wall blocks, or other materials to make up the difference. You also need to keep in mind that the 2x6" stringers and the 1x6" "plates" will add about an additional 2.3" to the height of the project. Personally, I think a railroad that's 30" off the ground is easier on the knees and back, but don't bust your overall budget or build a railroad your grandchildren can't see just because you have enough "extra" height to add six inches to your railroad.

    Note: If you didn't use concrete to set the posts, or if you think you may want to adjust the grade later for some reason, consider attaching 2x6" blocks to the posts and using those to support the roadbed. The "Horizontal Support" alternative method described in Appendix 1 provides more informaton on this alternative.

    Measure and Cut the 2x6 Stringers

    The horizontal boards that connect bridge or trestle piers and support the track are called "stringers." The stringers that will support straight pieces of track are easy - a five-foot stringer supports a five-foot piece of track.

    On the other hand, the stringers that support the curved pieces of track have to be cut at the correct angles. The angle you use depends on whether the track you are using comes 12 pieces to a circle, 16 pieces to a circle or, in the cast of many O gauge trains, 8 to a circles. Once you're sure how many pieces of your track make a circle, download and print the appropriate template. That will help you cut your roadbed appropriately. Do not resize or allow your software to resize the template, as the angle must stay the same to be accurate. Print the templates in "landscape" (sideways) mode on your printer. (If you you want to check your printout against an actual protractor, please do so.)
    Most garden railroad track comes twelve to a circle. This includes most track that makes a 4' circle, a 5' circle, and a 10' circle.

    Note: Though it isn't recommended for outdoor use, traditional American Flyer S gauge track and much of the track that comes with HO train sets, also take 12 curves to a circle. So if you are building a temporary railroad for those trains, you will probably use this template as well.

    Download the template for track that comes 12 to a circle
    Most garden railroad track that makes an 8' circle comes 16 to a circle. This requires a different template.

    Note: Though it isn't recommended for outdoor use, Lionel's O-72 FasTrack "half-pieces" also take 16 curves to a circle. So if you are building a temporary O72 railroad using FasTrack, you will probably use this template as well.

    Download the template for track that comes 16 to a circle
    Lionel's standard track, including O, O27, and FasTrack, comes 8 to a circle. If you are building a temporary Lionel railroad, you will probably find this template useful.Download the template for track that comes 8 to a circle

    Using the template you printed earlier, measure and cut the horizontal pieces you need from the 2x6s. The examples shown below use the smallest curved track pieces, which make 48" circles. However the principle applies to any track circle you buy, as long as you are using the correct template.
    1. Use the template to measure and cut the appropriate angle at the end of the board. If you absolutely have to do the math yourself, see the appendix.

    2. Remove the template temporarily and align the piece of track you are cutting for along the 2x6 as evenly as you can, lining one end up with the end that you cut.

    3. Flop the template over, slide it underneath the track, and use the template to measure the other end of the board.
    4. Cut the other end of the board appropriately. You may use the board you have cut as your template now. Mark it somehow so you don't accidentally pick up another one and start using it. Even very small differences between pieces can cause problems if they're multiplied across several pieces. Rotate your new template board 180 degrees to mark the next piece. Then do the same again. You should have three even-sized pieces.
    5. To check your work, lay the three pieces you have cut so far together and fasten three pieces of track together on top of them. You'll see that you have some "give" in either direction, but you want the curves to be reasonably centered on all three pieces and about the same length. If your pieces seem a tad short or long, make the appropriate adjustments on the next three boards you cut.

    Once you're certain you're "doing it right," feel free to cut the rest of the pieces you need in this size, and move on to the next size. If you're not sure how to measure the pieces to go underneath the straight track, I'm afraid I can't help you.

    6. When you are done cutting the stringers, start on the 1x6" boards. Cut one 10" board for every piece of roadbed you have cut so far. These will be used as "plates" to join the roadbed.

    Determine the "bottom" of each stringer.

    Look at one end of each piece of 2x6 you have cut. If the grain of the piece simply looks like a series of parallel lines, simply lable the least attractive side "B" or some similar indicator that means something to you. On the other hand, if the grain makes a "bowl" pattern on one or both ends of the board, you want to make certain that, in the final installation, the pattern resembles an upturned bowl instead of a right-side-up bowl. That way the grain of the wood will shed moisture instead of capturing it. Again, once you've decided which side needs to be on the bottom, mark it clearly. Why do we mark the bottom and not the top? Because in the final assembly, the top will be visible, but the bottom will not.

    Prepare Subassemblies

    Some folks who use this method simply take the pieces out to the posts and start screwing them down. Others fasten a few pieces together at a time and install them in sections. This gives you another chance to make certain your roadbed is going together exactly as planned, and helps you get the plates right where they need to be. To start this process on a segment with curved sections, lay 2 to 4 cut pieces of 2x6" together on a flat, hard surface like a driveway or patio, with the "B" side up. To check the position of the boards, fasten a few curved pieces of track together and lay them on top.

    Update from 2009: - When I built my first railroad this way, I used the "upside-down-method to reduce the number of screw-holes visible from the top when the roadbed is assembled and to make it easier to center the "plates" where they needed to be. Since then, I've learned that most folks don't use an up-side-down assembly, and their finished roadbed looks as good and holds up as well as mine - after all, these 2x6 boards were designed to have screws shot through them from the top. So you can do it right-side-up if it's easier or makes more sense to you this way.

    When you are satisfied with the position of the stringers, remove the track and center 1x6" plates over the junction between the pieces. Holding the pieces you are working on carefully in place, use the 2" screws to fasten the plates to the stringers. I'm told that professional installers recommend ten screws per plate, especially if you have longer stringers. Each each set of five screws is driven in an "X" pattern. The assembly may still have a little up-and-down "wiggle" when you've finished; but remember, the whole thing will be supported by posts every so many inches eventually.

    The final test of a subassembly comes when you turn it right side up and set it onto the cut posts where it is supposed to go. It is, unfortunately, normal for a piece or two not to be centered very well onto over the appropriate post, but as long as there aren't too many mismatches, and the stringer overlaps the post by at least an inch in each case, consider it a successful installation.

    As you continue to put your subassemblies together, you may wish to fasten a plate to one end of each subassembly before you start fastening them each to posts. This will give you a chance to make certain that end is properly assembled, and reduce the amount of "upward" screwing you have to do when the whole thing comes together.

    Note: Although the method above works well for a person working by himself, I've known teams of folks who've installed everything on the posts at teh same time, driving screws down through the stringer, plate, and post all at the same time. Be careful where your "help" is holding on to things when you start shooting screws, though.

    Screw Subassemblies to Posts

    When you have screwed together subassemblies as long as you or your team can reasonably handle, start fastening the subassemblies to the posts, begining with the section closest to the most common viewing position. (That way, if you have a glitch somewhere else, it won't be as noticeable to most viewers.) Generally this works better if you have three people, one to hold and fasten the piece being worked on, and two to hold the adjacent sections in place to help you make certain you're getting things exactly where you need them.

    Begin by screwing a long deck screw through the 2x6" stringer and 1x6" plate right into the post. Do not fasten the screw down as firmly as possible, until you've go the whole section (or whole railroad) fastened down loosely. Now do the next post in each direction. Again, you might consider laying the appropriate track pieces on top of each assembly as you get it fastened down to make certain things are going together as well as possible. If it turns out that part of your assembly needs to be taken back up and adjusted, it's a lot easier to do before you have the whole thing bolted down as firmly as possible. Also, some of your plates may be screwed only to one stringer. You'll have to get down and shoot some screws up through the plate into the stringer that isn't fastened yet.

    By the time your stringers and plates are attached loosely to the posts all the way around, you should be able to tell if any more adjustments need to be made. When you're certain the "fit" is as good as possible, use the level one more time to make certain the roadbed isn't rising and falling unnecessarily between posts, or that the rail height of any piece of track is uneven. If you need to slide a "shim" in between a plate and a post, this is the time to do it. Again, when you're satisfied you have everything as leveled and centered as possible, go back and add the other long screws (at least two per post) and tighten down the ones you've already installed.

    Here is Paul preparing to demonstrate a 'Simple Raised Roadbed' at a clinic in Kirtland, Ohio, in 2007. Click to see a larger photo.Install Track

    By now, you should have most of the track pieces fastened together laying where they belong. If you have AristoCraft or USA trains track, screw the track pieces together using the screw-on rail joiners that come with the track. If you are using some other manufacturer's track, follow that manufacturer's guidelines for a permanent installation. If you discover that you have to cut a piece to get something to fit properly:
    • Loosen the ties under the part to be cut and slide them out of the way.
    • Use the hacksaw to cut the rail at right angles.
    • Use the file to make certain that to top and inside surface of the track is smooth.
    • Slide the ties where they need to be, cutting the tie strip apart if necessary.
    • Use the rail clamp to fasten the cut ends of the rails to the rest of the track. (You will probably have to take one railjoiner off the track to do this; that's okay; this will make a better joint overall.)
    By now, you should have all of the track you are going to install on this loop fastened together and more or less in place. You may be tempted to screw it down. Don't. The rails will expand and contract faster than the wood stringers. If you fasten them together firmly, one or the other will suffer (usually the track). You may screw the roadbed down at one point, or, worst case, at two points opposite each other on the oval. This will give the track room to expand and contract, while keeping it from slipping completely off the roadbed. If you feel that you need more "assurance," consider getting some weatherproof wire, drilling small holes here and there next to the ties, and "wiring" ties losely down to the stringers, so that they can skootch around a little, but not enough to come off of the stringers.

    When things finally look like you hoped they would, wipe the track clean, put on a locomotive, and let it go slowly around the track. Look for places where voltage seems to drop, or the locomoitive seems to jerk or struggle. You may find yourself running jumper cables to get maximum voltage to the far end of the track. When you're satisfied with the electromechanical status of your new raised roadbed and track, you are ready to address some cosmetic issues.

    Trim Ragged Corners

    Using your circular saw, whack off the ragged corners where either the stringers or the plates stick out. Generally, I use from one to three straight cuts to get things looking pretty even without straining my circular saw too much. (Famed display railroad designer Paul Busse has been seen using a $200 circular saw to cut smooth curves into stringers and plates, but I won't recommend that to anyone without a huge tool budget and a lot of skill.)

    Closing the Gap

    Now part or all of your railroad is a foot or more off the ground. You can backfill, build retaining walls, build rockgardens, or even put in a pond to fill in the blank between the ground and the railroad level. There's also no reason you can't add a trestle or bridge appearance to all or part of the raised section. The best part is that you can have your trains running the whole time you're working on the rest of this stuff. Options include:
    • Buying a few feet of pond liner and making an irregular shaped pond somewhere near or inside your loop.
    • Using real stones or some of those trapezoid-shaped landscaping blocks to build a retaining wall, then backfilling.
    • Using something cheap, but functional, like used concrete blocks, to hold your backfill, then using a mix of real rocks and "Bob Treat" rocks to dress it up.
    One thing you can't do right away is paint or otherwise finish your pressure-treated lumber. Generally it takes weeks or months for any excess moisture to leach out and the rest to dry up. That said, I sprayed my posts with cheap gray primer after about three dry summer months of installation, and it held through most of the following year. Several visitors took them for concrete posts, so I guess it added value. Now the posts are "dry enough" to take something more permanent.


    Click to see some ways you can help us build the hobby.Once again, this is only one approach for raising a roadbed, and many other approaches have been used successfully. (A few related approaches are described in Appendix 1 below.) However, if you are just starting out, and you want to try to single most "tried and true" method for raising a garden railroad, this is a great place to start.

    As always, I want your feeback; please let me know what is helpful, what is confusing, and what shortcuts or "gotcha's" you'd like me to pass on to our readers. In the future, I hope to add a section on variations that have been used successfully; however I didn't want to add too many of those variations in the core article; it's quite long enough.

    Best of luck, all,

    Paul D. Race

    Appendix 1: Popular Variations

    Because this method has been around so long, it has been adapted many time sto specific needs or interestes of individuals. This is simply a short list of some of the more popular variations.

    • Flextrack options - The most frequent variation is to use "Flex track" instead of preformed curves. The advantage of this method is that you don't have to be quite so paranoid about your roadbed ending up exactly the "right" shape to hold your curves. In fact, if you are using aluminum track and fairly wide curves, you can very easily adapt the track to your roadbed, even without a railbender. If you don't mind using a railbender (and especially if you can borrow one), you can use virtually any kind of flex track with this method, and you can even "rebend" or straighten out pre-curved pieces of track.

    • No Concrete - Wil Davis, in the Dayton, Ohio area (gardening zone 5.5, frost line 18"), says he has given up on using concrete to hold posts in place as it seems to hold moisture and decrease the lifespan of the posts. Instead he digs the posts in as described in this article, although he usually goes about six inches deeper than the recommended "frost line" depth. (In our area, that's 24" instead of 18"). Then Wil packs each post in with gravel and or dirt from the hole, using a 2x2 to tamp the ground. Wil doesn't worry about the posts bumping up a bit now and then and making the track uneven, because he uses horizontal supports to brace the stringers instead of fastening the stringers directly to the posts (see below).

    • Horizontal Support - Instead of fastening the stringers directly to the posts, my friend Wil Davis fastens a short block of 2x6" to each post and fastens the stringers to those. This way, if a post shifts a bit over the winter (which happens very rarely with properly buried posts) Wil simply backs out a few screws, resets the block, and fastens it all back together again.

      This method is especially useful if you are using parallel tracks on separate, but adjacent stringers; you can simply use a horizontal bit of 2x6" as a "beam" under both stringers. Wil did me the favor of going out in January to photograph an example for me. The closest post is supporting two stringers that are beginning to diverge; hence the wide horizontal structure and extra support. The farther post in the photo shows a "normal" installation using this method. Overall, this method seems much more flexible and goof-tolerant, but slightly less attractive, than fastening the stringers directly to the posts. Again, please use your own judgment.

    • Laminated Roadbed - Another variation has been introduced by Paul Busse, who for years used 2x6" stringers on 1x6" plates and 4x4" posts to build world-class garden railways in botannical gardens and many other public places. Today Paul is "fabricating" his roadbed out of laminated 1x6"s. To get a general idea of how this works, look at the "subassembly" drawings. Imagine that the "stringers" are made of 1x6"s instead of 2x6"s, and that when the "plates" are added, they butt up against each other to form a continuous surface, just as the "stringers" do. The really scarey part of this method is that, after the roadbed has been installed on the posts, Paul actually uses a very expensive and powerful circular saw to carve the roadbed into smooth curves, instead of just trimming off the rough edges. I mention this method because you may start seeing more of it, not because I think you need to rush right out and try it (unless you have a very steady hand and a very large tool budget).

    • Larabie Fuels, one of the features on Fred Mills' IPP&W railroad, near Ottowa, Canada.  Sorry I don't have a bigger photo.My old garden railroading friend Fred Mills lives near Ottowa (in Canada), where the frost line is so deep up there he would have to sink "fence posts" half way to Niagra Falls to get past it. He also likes being able to shift things around as his needs and interests change, and doesn't find sunken 4x4 posts flexible enough. So, among other approaches, Fred has used DekBlocks, concrete pier footings that have a slot that takes a 4x4 post. You can see one in the lower right corner of the photo.

      The folks sell these so people can just set their decks on the ground instead of digging a lot of post holes. Yes, they rise and fall every winter in areas that have serious freezes. But the cross-bracing on their decks keep the whole lumber structure solid enough so that it rises and falls as a unit, and possible inequalities in the amount of frost heave under individual piers, are overcome, by the sheer strength and weight of the finished deck.

      Fred doesn't exactly build decks, to support his railroad (although some of his railroad yards almost qualify). But his roadbed does use 2x6 pressure-treated wood assembled just as we described above (in fact Fred helped us with the math for this article). The combination of DekBlock footers, 4x4" posts and 2x6" stringers was solid enough to keep Fred's railroad from looking like a roller coaster each spring. (I doubt it would work as well with a more flexible roadbed such as HDPE, though).

      Since I wrote this article, Fred has revised most of his right-of-way and there are fairly few DekBlocks in evidence. You can still see a couple, if you look at his web pages, though. Just goes to show you that there are many good ways to build a railroad.

    • Click to go to articleTemporary Display Layouts - Many organizations that set up temporary display layouts use the kind of subassemblies described in this article to support the track. Instead of burying posts in the ground, though, they create some sort of framework or "bases" to support the subassemblies. When they set up their display layouts, they temporarily screw the subassemblies to the bases and to each other. Then when it's time to take the layout apart, they "back out" the screws holding the big pieces together, load each subassembly onto the trailer, and move on. The important thing in this sort of installation is to keep the public from leaning against the roadbed and toppling the whole thing. Some folks have contacted me about the best way to put a train outsided as part of a Christmas display, and I can't help thinking this is the way to go, especially if you live somewhere that may get enough snow to make a ground-level railroad invisible from a "normal" viewing location.

      For one of my temporary display railroads, I used 5/4" decking for my stringers, and 4x4" posts nailed to 12" pieces of decking to be the "stands." Click here to see an article about that railroad, built in 2007, and still set up every November.

    Appendix 2: Calculating Cutting Angles for Roadbed

    To do the math yourself:
    1. Divide the number of pieces of track that make up a circle into 360 degrees. That gives you the amount of curve in each piece of track.
    2. Divide the figure you come up with by two. This will give you the number of degrees from perpendicular that you need to make your cut.

    For example:

    • If your track comes 12 to a circle, each piece of track curves 30 degrees (360/12). So the cut at the end of each piece of track has to be 15 degrees from perpendicular (or 75 degrees from linear, which you get when you subtract 15 from 90).

    • If your track comes 16 to a circle, each piece of track curves 22 1/2 degrees (360/16). So the cut at the end of each piece of track has to be 11 1/4 degrees from perpendicular (or 78.75 degrees from linear, which you get when you subtract 11.25 from 90).

    • If your track comes 8 to a circle, each piece of track curves 45 degrees (360/8). So the cut at the end of each piece of track has to be 22.5 degrees from perpendicular (or 67.5 degrees from linear, which you get when you subtract 22.5 from 90).

    Now isn't it easier just to use the little templates?

    If you have any images of your railroad construction that you'd like to share or any tips or other things I've left out, please get in contact, and I'll publish whatever you have.

    Best of luck,

    Paul D. Race, Editor for Family Garden Trains

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