Wooden ties for electric train track

Someone asked me the other day about the dimensions of the metal ties on vintage electric train track, presumably to cut some wooden ties to match. So I pulled some track out of my stash, got out my caliper, and took some measurements.

Vintage electric train track from American Flyer, Lionel and Marx had large gaps in between the ties. Filling those gaps makes the track look more finished and a bit more realistic.

Matching them exactly using the wood and the tools available to you may be difficult, but you don’t have to be exact. I have some tips for that as well.

But first, here are the measurements:

Lionel/Marx O27 postwar black ties: 1 31/32 inches/50mm long, 1/16 inches/3mm thick, 1/2 inch/12mm wide

Lionel/K-Line O27 modern brown ties: 1 31/32 inches/50mm long, 3/32 in./4mm thick, 9/16 inches/14mm wide (1/2 inch/12mm excluding the flange)

Lionel/K-Line/American Flyer O31 black ties: 2 1/4 inches/57mm long, 1/4 inch/7mm thick, 31/32 inch/24mm wide (or 5/8 inch/15mm wide excluding the flange)

American Flyer S gauge: 1 13/16 inches/47mm long, 1/4 inch/7mm thick, 31/32 inch/24mm wide (or 5/8 inch/15mm wide excluding the flange)

I did note some variance, so feel free to round measurements to the nearest millimeter or 1/8 inch, or whatever precision you’re comfortable working with. Remember, these were toys, and the ties on the track are nowhere near scale to begin with.

Popsicle sticks are a popular choice for O27 ties. They’re not as tall as the metal ties and they aren’t as wide either, but they’re readily available and cheap. After you cut off the rounded ends, you can get two ties out of each stick. And the nice thing about using popsicle sticks is that you can cut them pretty easily using hand tools–even just a utility knife, although a miniature miter box does make the job go a bit easier.

I’ve also heard of people cutting extra ties from 1/8-inch hardboard. The color is reasonably close to the color of the ties so you don’t really have to paint it, but the price will be higher and you’ll have to cut the hardboard into half-inch strips using a table saw or circular saw before cutting them to length.

If you don’t have tools or a budget, what if I told you that you could make ties out of cardboard? It looks better than it sounds. Cut some clean, double-walled cardboard in good condition into strips 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, then paint them brown or black to match the existing ties. The cardboard is thick enough that after you slide the ties under the track and screw the track down, they even stay in place without glue.

For O31 or S gauge track, 3/4″ x 1/4″ window screen molding is a reasonably close match and economical. The same stuff will work well on Flyer S gauge track. For around $3, you can get an 8-foot length, which is enough to make about 42 O gauge ties or 51 S gauge ties. A cheaper but more labor-intensive option is to cut them from lengths of 1×4–cut off quarter-inch widths, then trim them to 2 1/4″ long. Or you can cut pieces of 3/4-inch plywood to the correct length and width. If you happen to have scraps of 3/4-inch plywood or 1×4 available, this can be a very inexpensive option.

Another approach I’ve seen people take is putting narrower ties in between the factory ties. In that case you could use coffee stirrer sticks for O27 track and 1/4-inch square dowel for O31 or S gauge track. The narrower ties look more realistic than the oversized factory ties. With this approach you’ll end up with three ties per track section that are approximately twice as wide as the rest, which may or may not bother you. Then again, if you glue the wooden ties into place securely, you can replace the metal ties afterward if you wish.

Always observe safety precautions when using power tools. You can save a lot of money by cutting your own ties but an injury will completely negate the savings. Don’t get in a hurry. Getting into a hurry is what causes injury. Chances are you can cut, paint, and place ties for one track section per day and get it done this year. Pace yourself, get help from a knowledgeable friend if you don’t have formal training in the safety of any power tools you might use, remind yourself that this is supposed to be therapeutic and fun, and move on to something else if it stops being either.

After cutting your ties, paint them to match. Black is easy; the only real question is whether the sheen on the ties is flat, matte, or gloss. New track tends to have a glossy finish. Older or worn track will have a flatter finish.

For brown you’ll have to eyeball it a bit because the color has varied some over the years. Your most economical option is to take a piece of track to a paint store, compare the tie color to a paint chip, and get a quart of a reasonably close match.

After your paint is dry, then glue the ties to the track. A drop of cheap, ordinary super glue where the tie meets two of the rails will suffice. You’ll want to add about 2-4 ties in between each of the factory ties. Play with the spacing a bit before gluing them in to make them look right to you.

If you prefer, you can also make ties out of foamcore board and avoid using power tools. I don’t like the look as much, but being able to use a knife or even scissors is nice.

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