Get more transformer outputs by using a grounding bus bar

Train transformers have one pair of screws for each output, which is generally enough for a simple layout, but once you have more than one accessory or building with lights in it, you’ll find it’s difficult to attach all of the wires to the transformer posts.

You can get more on the cheap by repurposing ground bus bars, intended for circuit breaker panels. Read more

How to build a simple, inexpensive train table

How to build a simple, inexpensive train table

Building a train table doesn’t have to be a difficult or expensive proposition, but I realized this week I’ve never talked about how to go about doing it. Here’s how to build a simple, inexpensive train table.

I built my tables in an evening with a knowledgeable friend helping me, at a time when I knew little or nothing about tools and hardware. With the plans I’ll outline, someone with little or no knowledge could replicate those efforts in a couple of hours with no more tools than a saw, a drill, and a vehicle large enough to haul the materials.

Costs will vary, but this 4×8 table I’m describing would cost about $32 to build, using materials from your nearest home improvement center. If you’re lucky enough to live near a locally owned lumberyard, you could source materials from there as well, and probably get better quality. Read more

How to light the underside of your train table

There are few things worse than fumbling around in the dark under a train layout. So I mounted a ceiling-mount light socket underneath my train table to create a work light so that I could see when I’m working on my wiring. It’s another one of my 15-minute projects, one that pays dividends by making future 15-minute sessions more productive.

I did most of the work with stuff I had on hand. If you want to duplicate my project, you’ll be able to get everything you need at your nearest hardware or home improvement store, and the materials will cost less than $10. I provided Amazon links for everything, so you can see what these items are. Some people know what a wire nut is before they know how to read, and some people may be well into adulthood before they undertake any kind of electrical project. Yes, this is an electrical project. As long as you check and double-check all your connections and don’t plug it into an outlet until after it’s done, it’s safe. Respect electricity, and you’ll find there’s less reason to be afraid of it.

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Finding a connection to my Dad in a suburban St. Louis estate

Yesterday I wrote about my greatest estate sale find ever. Well, the very same month as that one, I found another estate sale featuring a Lionel 1110 locomotive, which happened to be my Dad’s first train. So of course I put that sale on my list. The 1110 wasn’t among Lionel’s finest moments, but I’ll note that in 1986 when Dad and I pulled his postwar Lionels out of storage, it was the first of Dad’s locomotives that we got running, and in 2003 when I got them out again, it was the only one that still ran.

Well, this 1110 didn’t run. The motor assembly was cracked and it wasn’t worth the asking price. But behind the locomotive, I found some paperwork. “Build these realistic models!” it urged. It was marked $4. The tag warned it was very delicate. I took it out of the plastic bag it was in, decided against trying to unfold it, and bought it unseen. Read more

How to move a train table on an unfinished, concrete basement floor

I had to move my train table recently. No, I didn’t have the foresight to put wheels on it. So I had to resort to using furniture movers.

After putting the fuzzy protectors on them, they glide fine on the concrete, without fear of damaging the plastic sliding surface. They might slide alone on concrete too, but I don’t want to scratch the movers up, because I intend to use them elsewhere too. Some online reviewers reported that scratched movers scratch wood floors.

I just lifted each leg of the table, kicked a mover under it, then went around to the next leg. A pair of 4×8 tables is still awkward for one person to move, but if you’re not moving too far, you can do it. If you have help, you can get more ambitious.

How to lower your train accessories into your table

One of the first articles I remember reading in a train magazine (I don’t remember if it was Classic Toy Trains or a competing rag) was titled “Put your accessories in pockets.” Basically, it advocated cutting holes in your table, putting a board beneath the hole, and putting the accessory in the hole to even it up with the ground level on your layout.

It’s a great idea–more on that in a minute–but it really didn’t go into much detail about how to do the cutting part.

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Buy wooden trains cheap

Buy wooden trains cheap

My son likes wooden trains. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since I like the bigger metal (and sometimes plastic) trains that run on O gauge track. The downside to Brio and Learning Curve (Thomas) trains is that sometimes they seem to cost nearly as much as Lionel, even though they’re essentially carved blocks of wood. But I learned how to buy wooden trains cheap.

There are several ways to save money on them, it turns out.

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A more permanent home for Dad’s Lionel

Gatermann and I spent the afternoon building a train table. I started building one about a month ago but got too busy to finish it. Today was the day I’d set aside to get some work done on it.
It’s slightly larger than 3’x5′, which is pretty much the minimum size you can do in O gauge if you want anything more than a big circle. I built it using lumber that was sitting in a corner of the basement, left by the people who sold me my house. It was a bit warped, and we had to do some piecing together, but the price was right, and it’s certainly good enough for now.

A proper O gauge layout really ought to be 4’x8′, minimum, and a lot of people believe a more realistic minimum is two 4’x8’s. But I don’t have enough track or buildings to fill a 4’x8′ table.

It’s hard to put together a layout in such a small space like mine without a plan. Fortunately, there are lots of free plans available at, for a variety of sizes.

As we prepared to screw down the track (the trick is to screw it down just enough to hold it in place, but not enough to make it buckle), Gatermann experimented. I had a couple of hold turnouts I pulled out to measure with. They were Dad’s, way back when. We hooked them up once, probably more than 15 years ago. One of them worked but the other didn’t. As it was riveted together and so far as we knew impossible to take apart, we put the turnouts and the control panel back in the box. As this layout required some turnouts, I bought two pair of secondhand manual Marx turnouts from Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. A third pair of turnouts would have allowed me to do one of the more complex layouts, but, alas, Marty’s didn’t have any more manual ones when I bought my set.

The disadvantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them, and you have to get the order right. The advantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them so you get a little exercise, they cost about 1/3 as much as remote turnouts, and unless you do something stupid like back over them with your car, they won’t break.

At one point I flipped one of Dad’s turnouts over and spotted the Marx logo. I’d figured he was a Lionel partisan. As it turns out, maybe not.

Marx made toy trains in the 1950s as well. Lionel and American Flyer were the big names, and they were what kids asked for. Marx made trains that looked a lot like Lionel, and the tracks and transformers and accessories were all compatible with one another, but an entire Marx set sold for about what a Lionel locomotive would cost all alone. The saying was that if your dad had a good job, you had a Lionel or a Flyer. If your dad didn’t have a good job, you had a Marx.

Since Dad’s dad was something of an aristocrat, you can imagine my surprise at finding Marx gear in Dad’s stash. Either Dad bought those turnouts with his own money, or Dad’s dad, a notorious cheapskate, tried to get the best of both worlds by buying a Lionel starter set and expanding it with Marx track.

Well, now knowing that I had one working and one non-working Marx turnout, I searched the Net for information. There is no advice on troubleshooting Marx turnouts. They’re basically two electromagnets. Pushing a button deactivates the active electromagnet and activates the other. There isn’t much of anything to troubleshoot.

I did find a wiring diagram and a copy of the original instructions. I don’t remember much about how Dad and I wired the turnouts, but I’m pretty sure we tried to power them off the track, the same way you normally power Lionel accessories. The instructions explicitly say they have to run straight off the transformer. The wiring was a bit less than intuitive–the markings that are supposed to be on the turnouts aren’t–so for all I know, we didn’t wire them right either. Either reason may be why only one switch worked.

Since these turnouts would cost $30 a pop to replace (maybe $20 if I can find used ones), I’m definitely hoping that with proper wiring, they’ll start working again.

Meanwhile, my search turned up The Girard and Oak Park Railroad, a site by a hobbyist who got bored with his HO scale layout and replaced it with a large Marx O27 layout, largely by buying junkers on eBay and repairing and/or repainting them.

My layout doesn’t look as impressive as that one, but it runs. My Marx locomotive (a recent eBay find) ran fine on it once we added some weight to its front. The Lionel 1110 that must have been Dad’s first locomotive also runs fine. It takes a little time to figure out the right speed to run the trains on track with turnouts–something we found out the hard way, when my Marx 490 derailed and embarked on a four-foot tumble at high speed onto my basement’s concrete floor. Ouch. It survived without damage–certainly, its designers must have anticipated four-foot drops–but still made me nervous.