And Now For Something Completely Different… But Almost the Same

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything, and here’s why: I made several “mechanical” decisions long ago that are now compromising the operational integrity of LSR.

I had been spending too much time fiddling with the Tortoise (SMAIL) under-table turnout switches because they weren’t working consistently. The remote Tortoise mounting system was complicated and required constant adjustments, and the SPDT switches weren’t powering the frogs reliably. As a result, my engine often got hung up on turnouts and I could only get it going again by turning the power off and then on again. Over time, these turnout issues would only get worse. In retrospect, I should have simply used solenoid switch machines from the start.

Also, the stepper motor that drives LSR’s turntable continually fell out of alignment and caused the deck to lean. This was probably due to the slight warping of my poorly planned mounting block. Unfortunately, I couldn’t simply re-mount the motor due to the spatial needs of track wiring. Had I planned to mount the motor separately from the turntable I would have wired the entire layout differently (you may recall that my initial plan was to use Peco’s long-promised but never-delivered DCC turntable motor, which would have mounted directly to the underside of the turntable).

So, for the past couple of months, rather than flipping the module over every time I wanted to run my engine, I decided to spend my time assessing these issues. If you know me at all, you’ll know what that means. I don’t accept change right away and I sit with new ideas for a good long time before acting on them. After much deliberation I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I need to replace all of my turnouts, which means that I also need to replace the rest of my track. In turn, this means that I also need to replace the baseboard. Essentially, I am starting over, but I intend for this rebuild to move along very quickly.

I’ve purchased nearly all of the necessary materials already. I will be using Kato Unitrack, which snaps together easily and makes the grueling act of soldering feeders obsolete. I’ve used Unitrack in the past, and  having now experienced Peco  I prefer the reliability of Kato’s turnouts despite the snappy action of solenoid switches. The most difficult part will be making Kato turnouts DCC-friendly. For that, I will rely on six NMC Switch-Kat decoders. I sold my Tortoise (SMAIL) machines on eBay and purchased the Switch-Kats with the proceeds.

The only drawback of using Unitrack is that it isn’t just rails mounted across ties   the ties are built into a rigid roadbed which is molded to look like ballast. This is what makes Kato so reliable and easy to install, and for a mainline it looks pretty good out of the box. For stations and yards, though, there’s the cosmetic problem of roadbed height. In a real railway station you won’t usually find the tracks sitting high up on a layer of ballast; rather, the ties will be level (or nearly level) with the ground. To counteract Unitrack’s roadbed height, I will use 3/16″ foam core board to raise the surrounding terrain. I will then fill the gaps between the foam and track with Woodland Scenics’ Foam Putty.

In the idle hours a couple of weeks ago, I also decided to redesign the layout a bit to cut some wasted space and add operational interest. Here is the track plan that I’ve come up with, along with a proposed extension:

LSR and extension

This module will be 12″ x 66,” so is 4″ thinner than its predecessor. You will also notice that I removed the siding in front of the station and added a siding behind it for the cattle dock and (more importantly) goods shunting.

As for the turntable: I am reusing the Arduino, motor shield, and DCC shield, but I am changing the mounting system for the motor. This time, instead of using a 14″ length of dimensional lumber with a hole drilled into it, I have 3-D printed a mount to keep the motor flush with the well of the turntable:

Nema Mount

This is designed to fit my Nema 17 motor, and it will be attached directly to the underside of the baseboard. The hole that I cut for the turntable will only be recessed halfway through the baseboard above it, except for a “through” hole for the shaft and another for the feeder wires.

Additionally, I used TinkerCAD to design a 3-D printed turntable “mounting ring” that specifically fits the Peco turntable and lifts it 1.59mm   just enough to reach the bottom of Kato’s rails. I considered using cardboard or balsa wood for this, but I was afraid that it would warp and cause alignment issues later on.

Peco Turntable Riser for Kato Unitrack

Now it’s time to get building!

I picked up a slab of 3/4″ birch plywood and asked the clerk at the shop to make a few rough cuts. Rather than purchasing dimensional lumber for the frame, I simply asked if he could rip some 3″ strips from the excess ply. The cuts aren’t perfect, but with some sanding they will suit their purpose.


I cut a rectangular notch from of one of the 3″ boards to fit the plug for the DCC throttle. Then, I used wood glue to tack the longer sides to the baseboard. After that, I cut a couple of shorter sides of 3″ board and glued them to each end. Finally, I countersunk some 1½” construction screws every ~6″ around the perimeter. Pretty simple, and the whole operation took an hour.



Here you can see it in place, with the motor mount and the turntable ring ready for service:

Tomorrow, I will sand down some edges and then add fascia, feet, etc. In 3-4 days I should already be wiring and laying track. Stay tuned!

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