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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

This is a supplement to my construction articles. Like most "indoor" railroaders, most outdoor railroaders start with a circle or oval of track sections that include preformed curves. But once they get a vision for what is really possible in their back yards, many outdoor railroaders start thinking "outside the circle." Eventually, many demand track plans and installation techniques that serve their vision, and not the other way around.

The worst example of the limitations of preformed curves is probably when a train coming off a straight section lurches into a curve like a toy. Real trains ease into curves through "easements;" in an easement, the curve is barely perceptible at first, then becomes greater once the train has "eased into" the curve. Now it is possible to create something like easements using sectional track, if you want to mix and match preformed curves. In fact my article on Planning Your Garden Railroad for High Reliability offers suggestions for doing this on a small loop. But for larger railroads, it is generally more cost-effective, less frustrating, and more attractive and reliable in the long run to use long pieces of "flex track" that are bent to suit the planned right-of-way.

On my dad's HO railroad, the answer was simple, buy a bunch of "flex track," wrap it anywhere you wanted track, and tack it down. But garden railroad track (depending on what kind of track you use) will have from 9 to 27 times the "cross section" of HO train track. All of it seems to want to "spring back." The most common track (which uses code 332 brass rail) is just about impossible to curve the way you want it to without special tools.

This is where railbenders come in. These are tools that keep pressure on all the right parts of the rail as you pull it through a series of rollers. This even pressure is important because if you accidentally bend the top of the rail (the "head") more than you bend the bottom (the "foot"), you'll wind up with rail that's skewed, bent in three dimensions instead of two, and just about impossible to straighten back out. But before we go into too much detail, we'll fill in the gaps about so-called "flexible" track, usually called "flextrack" for short.

The following topics will be discussed in the article:

What is flextrack?

In many cases, "flextrack" consists of pieces of track 36" or longer on which the "tie strips" are attached loosely, so they have lots of lateral "give." For smaller scales, that's all you need to know. You can wiggle N or HO flex track into almost any shape, then tack it to your table, snip off the extra rail, and have a "working railroad." But the rails on Large Scale flex track (the kind used in garden railroads) are much thicker; a better name for some of it might be "straight pieces with give."

Why Use Flextrack?

Some of the advantages have already been discussed, but here is a more complete list:
  • Flextrack conforms to your plans, your environment, and your roadbed; in contrast, pre-formed curves force your plans and your roadbed to conform to the limitations of your track.
  • You can order flextrack before you have your railroad completely designed; with pre-formed curves, your plans have to be pretty far along before you order your track so you know how many of each kind of piece to get.
  • Code 250 flextrack is less expensive by the foot than most pre-curved track (which is code 332 and uses more material).
  • Because flextrack rails are longer (up to ten feet), you have fewer chances for electrical connectivity to break down between track sections.
  • With flextrack you don't have to go "back to the drawing board" if you discover that you miscalculated the radius of your roadbed or where to put your supports. You just straighten or bend your track appropriately and keep going.
  • Best of all, if you know you're going to be using flextrack, the "sky is the limit" as far as planning goes. For some reason flexible track seems to encourage garden railroaders to think more creatively, with sometimes awesome results.

True, some Large Scale flextrack has more "give" than others, depending on the size of the rail and the material used.

  • The most popular Large Scale rail sizes are known as code 250 rail (which is 1/4" high), and Code 332 rail (which is just under 1/3" high). Code 215 rail is also made, but not all Large Scale trains run on it properly, because the wheel flanges are too deep.
    • Code 332 rail is the kind popularized by LGB. It's the kind that still comes with most Large Scale train sets. Some people use it by "default" and some people use it because:
      • Code 332, once properly bent, is structurally very rigid - it stands up better to kids and deer walking on the track, sagging roadbed, and other mechanical problems that would cause problems with smaller rails. Professional installers who don't want to be called back frequently for minor repairs due to soccer balls, errant toddlers, etc., prefer to use code 332 track for a more "bulletproof" installation.
      • Many more kinds of turnouts (switches), crossings, and other track accessories are available for code 332 track. If you want a large switchyard, examine the cost of the turnouts you'll need in both code 332 and 250 before you settle on a track size.
    • Code 250 rail is more in scale with Large Scale trains, so it looks more realistic. It's also less expensive per foot than track made with code 332 track, unless you want to use a lot of turnouts and crossovers and don't feel up to making them yourself. Llagas Creek also makes track with code 215 rail, which looks even better, but some Large Scale trains won't run on it because the flanges on their wheels are too deep.

      Note: Unlike code 332 track, in which the ties and rails are pretty interchangeable among brands, some brands of code 250 ties will not work with other brands of code 250 rails and vice versa. My friends with the all-Llagas Creek railroads never noticed this so I wouldn't have had all the information I needed about this except that Darrel "Stretch" Manley of California & Oregon Coast Railway sent me a detailed e-mail on this subject.

  • Materials use for Large Scale rails include brass, aluminum, and stainless steel.
    • Brass is the most common material. Some folks complain that it is hard to keep clean, but most folks who put all metal wheels on their rolling stock find that they only need to clean their track a time or two a year. It bends relatively easy, especially in smaller profiles. As an example, brass, code 250 flextrack, such as that made by AMS, can be installed without a railbender if you are careful and your curves are not too tight. (One friend who recently build a railroad with AMS track and without a railbender recently told me that he'd use a railbender next time if he had to do it over again, though.) Track made with brass code 332 rail, though, is too stiff to bend properly without a railbender.
    • Aluminum is even softer than brass, so aluminum code 250 flextrack, such as that made by Llagas Creek, can also be installed without a railbender if you are careful and your curves are not too tight. That said, I've seen some spectacular effects when Llagas Creek track was run through a railbender.

      Although some people say that aluminum track is marginally less conductive than clean brass track, others point out that aluminum oxide (which forms on the surface when aluminum corrodes) conducts electricity anyway, so it requires less cleaning than brass track to give the same quality service.

      Because of the lower costs, aluminum is the track of choice for most battery power users. Many of my friends who use track power also use aluminum, though most of them run huge locomotives with lots of power pickup wheels - so I can't vouch 100% for its performance with 4-wheel locomotives.

    • Stainless Steel is the "mother of all track materials," in that it doesn't rust or corrode and that once it's installed, it's extremely rigid. Code 332 stainless steel track is probably the best possible track for permanent public installations where a train expert will not always be on hand to protect and maintain the railroad. The AristoCraft rail bender comes with a huge crank to make bending stainless steel track relatively painless.
    • A fourth option, Nickel Silver is about as corrosion resistant as stainless steel and almost as flexible and conductive as brass, so it's a good choice when available.
The following table summarizes the major choices facing a person shopping for Large Scale flextrack in the spring of 2006:

ProductRequires a
cost per
linear foot
cost of
turnouts and
Manufacturer Support
Code 250 BrassNot critical for wide curves and lumber roadbed.
Llagas Creek
Code 250 AluminumNot critical for wide curves and lumber roadbed.
LLagas Creek
Llagas Creek also offers code 215 aluminum track.
Code 250 Nickel SilverNot critical for wide curves and lumber roadbed.
LLagas Creek
Llagas Creek also offers code 215 nickel silver track.
Code 332 Brass
LGB (comes as separate rail and tie strips. LGB also offers Nickel Silver code 332 rails.
Code 332 Stainless Steel
Most Definitely Yes
Very High
Aristocraft used to manufacture this. No longer available new.


As you can see, using a railbender is recommended for any Large Scale flextrack, and required for most. Most track is too stiff to bend very far while the rails are installed in the tie strips, but if you take the rails out and try to bend them by hand, you can't really keep the rails from bending in three dimensions instead of two, a problem that is almost impossible to fix.

Railbenders work by gripping and applying pressure on the center, thin part of the rail, known as the "web," at the same time holding the rail on a level plane.

The principle of a railbender is simple. Three or more appropriately shaped rollers, or "capstans," apply pressure to the web of the rail from two different directions. One capstan has a crank attached to pull the rail through the device. To increase the amount of curve, there is a mechanism for moving one of the capstans (usually the middle one) in and out.

Most railbenders bend one rail at a time. If you buy "flex track" that had the rails and ties already assembled together, you'll have to slide the rails out of the ties, bend each of them, then slide the rails back into the tie strips. Some companies will sell you the rails and tie strips unassembled to save you having to take the track apart to bend it. That said, most people seem to agree that the biggest hassle of railbending is putting the tie strips back onto the track after it is bent.

There is one railbender that bends rails properly while they're still in the tie strips, but it currently costs more than the other kind, so it's mostly being used by professionals and people with really big railroads to build.

Using a Single-Rail Railbender

Because most railbenders work about the same, I've combined and "averaged out" tips from several people who've used different kinds but all had similar advice. If the manufacturer's instructions say to do something differently, follow them closely, of course - this is just to fill in the gaps.

Note: - At this time (June, 2020), most of the single railbenders I recommended or referred to have been discontinued. If you find one by Aristocraft, Lindsay (Llagas Creek), or Sunset Valley, or if you build your own, the instructions for a single rail railbender will remain about the same.

  1. Find a place to work where you'll have room for the longest piece of track on either side of your work place. If this is a work table out of doors that shouldn't be a problem.
  2. Mount the railbender to your work table according to the manufacturer's instructions. Several railbenders, are made to be mounted in a vise. Others are meant to be bolted right to your work table. If possible, mount the railbender so that the rail is supported after (preferably before and after) it goes through the railbender. If for some reason you can't do this, you'll need someone to support the long pieces of rail - otherwise their own weight can cause them to bend vertically of their own accord. And a vertical bend is much harder to straighten than a horizontal bend.
  3. Decide the radius of the first piece you are going to curve. Dick Friedman, a friend in California says that he draws the radius on a big piece of cardboard, so he could keep comparing the curved track against that.
  4. Find the doohickey that adjusts the amount of curve. On most railbenders, this is some sort of mechanism that allows the center capstan to slide in and out. Set it to what looks like a slight curve to start, until you get used to the device.
  5. Slide a piece of rail unto the railbender (most of these don't care if you use it "left-handed" or "right-handed." The capstans should be putting pressure onto the web of the wheel, not the head or foot. (See the drawing above). Note: the rail goes into the Sunset Valley railbender "upside-down." Please follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  6. Turn the crank or handle gently, watching to make certain the rail stays in line with the capstans as it travels through the device. Actually, this is almost never a problem but it pays to be careful until you've figured the thing out completely. Be certain long lengths of rail are properly supported.
  7. Look at your newly curved rail.
    • If it is curved too much, turn the rail 180 degrees, back off of the adjustment, and feed the rail back through.
    • If the rail isn't curved enough, tighten the adjustment up and feed the rail through in the same direction again.
  8. Once you have that rail bent to the setting you need, send the next one through. You'll notice that, even with the same settings, the next rail will never be quite the same as the one you just did. There are many reasons for this, most of which have to do with the elastic properties of the material. If you have two rails that are pretty close going into the same tie strips, the tie strips will help the track stay in gauge and will "average out" the two pieces. Dick Friedman also tells me that he has made minor adjustments by bending it around his tummy (a trick we Gargraves users used to use a generation ago). But if you try this, make certain you don't introduce any "skewing" into the rail (in which the rail head is bent more than the rail foot or vice versa) - that's very difficult to fix.
  9. Most users report that the last inch or two of track doesn't get bent at all, due to the placement of the rails. Wil Davis says he can usually get that last bit bent properly by judicious application of a large pair of pliers. Kevin Strong and others mentioned that some folks simply cut off that last bit.
  10. Once you have the "hang" of the railbender, you'll realize that the most time-consuming part of the whole process is sliding the tie strips back onto the rails.

Using a Double-Rail Railbender

At this time, only one mass-produced railbender bends both rails at once while the ties are still installed. Train-Li's Easy-Bend DuoTrack also functions as a track gauge and level. In fact it offers so many features that buying it would be a no-brainer, except for the price difference. Even then, if you're planning on installing a couple hundred feet of track or more, you may find that the amount of labor it saves is worth the cost difference. For landscapers and professional installers, this will save enough man-hours to pay for itself on the first job. (That said, some folks who are always tweaking things find that they occasionally need to bend a rail at a time, so they wind up with both.)

According to the Train-Li web site and several user comments, it seems that you find a place to work (a bit of driveway, or a solid roadbed, if you already have it installed).

Then you slide the railbender onto one end of the track. If the track is already installed and you are just trying to "tweak" it, you can even "wiggle it" to get it onto installed track without an open end.

Adjust the DuoTrack it for the curve you want, and roll it back and forth until you have the amount of bend you need.

Kevin Strong also mentioned that you can get around the "last straight inch" problem by attaching the "next" piece of track with a rail joiner or rail clamp that attaches to the foot of the rail only (this wouldn't work with Aristo rail joiners, which also fasten to the web).

When you're satisfied with the curve, and the track is in place, double-check the levels and move on.

About Train-Li's EasyBend Duo Track

(Available from Train-LI)

The EasyBend DuoTrack has twice as many capstans as the single-rail benders described above, so it works on track that is assembled, curving both rails at the same time. The built-in levels make it easy to check your work as you go. Train-Li also claims the following advantages:

  • Because you work with the track on the ground, you don't have to worry about unsupported rail twisting.
  • You can "tweak" track that is already installed without have to remove and disassemble it.
  • Train Li also claims that this bender gives more consistent radii than single-rail benders.
Probably the single biggest advantage is that, after you bend the rails, you don't have to spend several minutes reinstalling the tie strips.

The DuoTrack has been tested on AristoCraft code 332 stainless steel track - the "stiffest" large scale track you can buy, with very good results, although they say it takes a little more strength to tighten the adjustment knob. Train-Li also offers wheelsets to convert a code 332 DuoTrack to a code 250 DuoTrack and vice versa.

Home-Made Railbenders

You can see by now that it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to recreate a single-rail railbender. All it really takes is precise measuring skills and access to a good lathe and drill press. In fact, I know of two people who have built their own railbenders after looking at the commercially-available ones and saying "Is that all there is to that?" One fellow used wheels from an inline skate for his capstans.

I have seen photos of one home-made railbender with a hardwood base that replaced the idler capstans with stacks of carefully selected washers instead of solid rollers. The washers were mounted on "sleeves" through which bolts were fastened to the board, so that the washers could spin freely but would have enough vertical pressure to keep the footer down on the board where it belonged to avoid rail twisting. I'm not sure how he constructed the "drive" capstan (the one with the crank). The advantage of trying something like this is that it would cost very little to experiment with (except for any rails you ruined in the process, if you weren't careful). The disadvantage is that you could spend a lot of time "tweaking" a homemade railbender that you "ought to" spend building your railroad.

I have yet to see a home-made two-rail railbender that would replace the Train-Li DuoTrack.

User Reports on Railbenders

As part of my research for this project, I asked several friends about their experience. Here are their comments, edited in some cases for brevity:

Ray Turner (of Mystic Mountain Arts) writes:

  • I have a bender for Llagas Creek code 250 NS rail (not sure who actually makes the bender). I also have an Aristocraft bender for code 332 rail. They both perform fine as intended. A couple of usage points.
  • You must support the rail as it is run thru the bender and not let it hang freely down. Else it will take a partial vertical curve as well and be twisted.
  • Assembling rail on ties is a PAIN!!!
  • You can adjust the resulting radius slightly if you have a way to anchor the track - like to a plastic stake in the roadbed.
  • I'm excited about the new bender that can be used on assembled track. I've read the good test/review of it, but am a bit skeptical (too good to be true?) because I don't see how it can provide the force for bending to the rail's foot (the stiffest part of the rail).
  • Bending is not repeatable - don't know why. Run two pieces of rail thru a bender and you'll get somewhat different radii. This is doubly true when adjusting and re-bending several times to get the radius desired and then running several more pieces thru to get the same radius.
  • Both rails to be assembled into a track piece don't have to have the exactly the same radius. The ties provide enough stiffness to allow some adjustment of final radius and hold it in place.

Track bent just right to fit the landscape looks so much better than sectional track that it's worth all the trouble.

The Aristo bender has a good handle to turn - provides the leverage needed for code 332 rail. The Llagas Creek one has a coupling for an electric screwdriver to power it, but I've never felt the need for it. I can just run the rail thru it by hand.

Kevin Strong, frequent Garden Railways contributor, says:

Single-rail railbenders:

I've used Llagas Creek, Sunset Valley, Aristo, and a few others. All work identically, and have the same bugs. They're certainly adequate for bending rail, and if you're going to be handlaying your own track, or working with rail that can easily be threaded onto the tie-strips, then they'll work very nicely. The advantage they offer is the ability to stagger your rail joints--that is, one joint falls in the middle of the section of the opposite rail. This results in a stronger joint, as the opposite rail helps stiffen the joint to prevent sagging or peaking.

Compound or reverse curves can be done, but you need to onthread the rail or unclamp the bender and re-attach it. It's hard to gauge exactly where these curves have to be, but it's possible with a bit of practice.

[Kevin also warns about the "last straight inch" and the dangers of unsupported rail twisting as it leaves the railbender. These warnings, which were echoed by several other contributors, have been "embedded" in the directions above. - ed]

Dual-rail benders:

If you saw my review of the Train-li [DuoTrack] railbender in the April GR, you know how much I love this concept. "The greatest thing since sliced bread" about covers it. For pre-assembled flex track, there's no better way to work. You clamp this hummer on top, and glide it back and forth along the section of track until you get the radius you want.

You can bend through the end of the rail simply by clamping another section of track onto the end of the first and continuing on. Hillman's or other rail clamps work very well for this. Since the bender grabs onto the head and web of the rail only, there are no worries about railjoiners getting in the way of the works. [Note: I'm not sure this would with rail joiners or rail clamps that use most of the web, such as AristoCraft joiners. - ed]

This tool makes laying track in place very simple. You just keep adding track and running the bender over the sections until they're bent into position. Reverse curves are a bit easier, you need only remove the bender and reverse it.

One other advantage of this railbender--it's got levels built into it, so you can check your track geometry. Also, by lightly clamping the bender to the rail, you can use it to coax the track back to level during routine spring maintenance.

It does have some shortcomings. You can't bend individual rails with it. The mechanics of the bender require the rails to be held by a tiestrip. If you're handlaying your track, this isn't the railbender for you. Also, it's expensive. It's akin to buying a power miter saw vs. a hand saw. If you've only got 50' of track to lay, then it may not be worth the expense. But for those with 300'+ of track, it's money very well spent.



Noel Arnold Says:

I use the Aristo bender and it does well, the problem is assembling the track, which is a pain. I am awaiting delivery of the new bender for both rails (supposedly is shipping today, even though I ordered it three weeks ago, apologies were sent when their supply ran out). If it works the way it is purported to, it will be wonderful, it is so much easier to put ties on straight track. It may actually work making compound curves also, I'll probably experiment.

[Editor's Note: After this comment, Noel did receive his Train Li DuoTrack rail bender. While it seems to work as promised, he hasn't had a chance to try it out properly yet. Stay tuned.]

Dick Friedman says:

I have used a railbender to make the curves on my RR. I chose to use Llagas Creek code 250 aluminum track to minimize joints, and to give me a more realistic looking track profile. It comes as 6 foot length of flex track.

More like "spring track" as it doesn't keep its set when you just bend it like you might with small scale flex track.

The plus of the bender is that the track remains at the curve you've made with the bender. I drew a curve on a big piece of cardboard, and kept bending the rail until it was on the curve. It was easy to do, and later I helped a friend bend his code 332 brass the same way.

Nice thing about benders: you can bend only a portion of a rail, so your curves don't have to start on a joint!

Only real drawbacks are that the curves are not easily repeatable. Once you've got your 5 foot radius curve, the next piece through will not be 5 foot. If you've got a lot of curves to do, it may take a while, especially if they have different radii. (I love it when I talk Latin!)

To simplify my project , I made all my curves the same: 5 feet radius. That way I only had one curve to match to.

Minor annoyances are having to take track apart, reassembling the curved rail onto straight tie sets.

Final tip. minor adjustments in curvature can be done by gently bending the curves across a tummy. Don't laugh, it works.

An unknown contributor added:

I borrowed one of unknown origin and made a copy. It works well for me. Some have complained of the rail twisting, but I have not had this problem. I find that if I bend the rail to an approximation of the curve I want, it's not hard to tweak it when I lay it after I thread on the ties. I have installed rail that I have bent on my trestle, on wood and on free floating ballast. All have worked equally well for me. I clamp the rail bender in a Black & Decker "Workmate" that my wife gave me years ago. It is perfect for that and many other purposes. I insert a section of rail and tighten the bender. If it is not the correct radius I tighten it a little more and run it back the other way. If I over bend it I simply reverse it and take out some of the bend. If it is just slightly over bent I some times do that with my bare hands.

The only drawback is that the last inch or so doesn't bend well due to the location of the rollers on the bender. I can usually tweak the end with a large pair of pliers and that seems to take care of it. You can also cut off the last inch is that is better for you. I have even bent an "S" curve by running one end through and then reversing it and running the other end through.

Train-Li, Suppliers of the EasyBend DuoTrack rail bender

Axel Tillmann, proprietor of Train-LI writes:

Thanks for the coverage of our EasyBend DuoTrak.

One thing that I find worth mentioning, that we offer a conversion kit, allowing customers that have both code 250 and 332 to use the same base unit for both track types without the need to reinvest into a another units. The conversion time is less than 5 minutes. I have also attached a picture of the rail bender which shows also the horizontal and vertical levels.

Also we offer a KeepParallel Clamp which keeps one of the rail parallel, therefore you only have to cut one rail end after the bending process.

I also would like to mention that we offer one of the more advanced rail joiner for code 332. I joiner can take over any function. I have attached a datasheet for you as well as the datasheets for the rail bender.


Axel Tillmann, Proprietor

Train-li USA

phone: 508-529-9166

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