Building reliable model railroad track doesn't take a lot of expertise or fancy tools, but it does require care and patience.
Train sets traditionally include an oval of sectional track that's fine for getting a quick start. However, most modelers choose flextrack when they begin building a permanent layout. Flextrack is supplied in 36-inch or meter lengths that can be cut to length and bent to the radius desired.
Good track requires a smooth foundation, so ½" or ¾" plywood is the proven choice here. Use the five-ply exterior grade with plugged and machine sanded surfaces. This grade has five veneer layers held together with waterproof resin glue to resist warping and moisture; it won't be affected by water when you begin scenery construction.
An electric saber saw does a fine job of cutting track boards. Remember to allow enough width along each side of the roadbed to attach scenery materials. In HO use a minimum 3" width for single track or 6" for a double track. Half these sizes works well for N scale. Use a solid sheet under the yards and town areas.
Splices in the track boards deserve special attention or you'll have difficulty laying track over them. See fig. 1-2.
Lay out and mark the track center lines and then install the roadbed. In critical areas, it's best to fit the track components together first and then mark the appropriate center lines between the ties. Allow more space between curved track centers to provide clearance between trains on adjacent tracks.
Cork is the most popular roadbed and it's sold in 36-inch lengths. Each length has a 45-degree split down the middle so it can be separated easily. Tack the roadbed halves down with ½" wire nails to produce the ballast cross section. Take care to stagger the roadbed joints so they don't fall directly over the track board joints. Use a sharp hobby knife to trim the cork and a Stanley Surform block plane to smooth the joints and shape the ballast.
Once the foundation is ready, it's time to begin laying the track. Start at a group of switches or a crossing where several different track alignments come together and then work out in all directions, blending the approach tracks as smoothly as possible.
Most track components are made with spike holes next to the rails. Some brands also have small depressions cored into the underside of the plastic ties so you may use a small drill to easily open a few extra holes to secure the track exactly as you want it. Use long-nose pliers to drive the spikes as shown in fig. 1-3.
As you join the track sections, lean down and sight along the rails to check the alignment at the joints.
Test-fit each track section and trim it to fit. You can cut rail with a fine-tooth razor saw, a cut-off disk in a motor tool, or a pair of rail nippers. The rail nippers are the quickest of the three, but be sure to wear safety glasses.
Cutting leaves a small burr that interferes with the rail joiner slipping on easily. Smooth the cut rail ends with a file before you add the joiners. You may also need to notch or remove a couple of ties to clear the joiner.
Soldering rail joints
Spike the track section leading into the curve, but let the last few inches straighten out. Slip the next section into the rail joiners, carefully align the rails, and then solder both joints. After the joint cools, bend the flextrack and continue spiking around the curve. Trim off the inside rail before you make the next joint. Use a small jeweler's file to remove any excess solder and smooth the tops and insides of the railheads.
The wood in most layouts expands and contracts with seasonal changes in temperature and humidity while the rails remain static. If all the joints are soldered, the rails will kink as the wood dries out and shrink during the heating season. On my Ohio Southern RR, I solder the joints on curves but rely on the normal mechanical joints in the straightaways. As I lay these straight sections, I use the metal rail joiners for alignment but leave a.020" gap between the rail ends. Temporarily slipping a small piece of .020" styrene between the rail ends will maintain the gap while you spike down the track. These small gaps allow the track to shift a little to prevent kinking as the layout contracts.