Introduction: Ledge Train

About: Mad scientist, woodworker, creative evil, artist, tinkerer, father of five creative hooligans.

About six months ago we moved into a new house. From the time I first saw the ledge running around the great room 9-feet off the floor I said to my wife, "You know what would be awesome? A train." Naturally, she resisted at first but as I continued to plan and socialize the idea it grew on her and she finally relented. The goal: finish the train in time for Christmas.

In this Instructable I share the trials and tribulations of the project and hopefully inspire some of you to undertake a train project of your own!

Step 1: Planning

I cannot stress enough the importance of planning and prototyping. If you identify potential problems ahead of time, it will save your sanity (and your wallet.)

Upon measuring the room, I determined that I would take about 78 feet worth of track to make the loop. Additionally, the ledge was 3.5 inches wide -- plenty of room for the train to clear the wall.

I visited a local hobby shop and talked to "the train guy" to get some insight into what type of train I would need, what kind of track, and how to power the whole thing. Talking to the expert really helped shape the design of this project. He said that a basic HO train set would suffice, the transformer was more than enough to handle that much track. However, a separate bus line would be required to carry consistent voltage along the entire length. He recommended soldering feeder lines from the bus to the track every 3 to 6 feet.

To facilitate the feeder line, some type of roadbed would be required. The hobby shop carried pieces of track (snap lock) that had an attached roadbed, but cost around $3.00 per 36 inch section which was way over my budget. I decided instead to use 1/2 inch plywood.

I opted for Atlas code 100 flex track in 36 inch lengths. Flex track has one fixed rail which allows you to bend it however you want. This came in handy for the 90 degree and 140 degree corners. "Code 100" refers to how tall the rail section of the track is.

With the basic plan complete, it was time to build some prototypes.

Step 2: Prototyping

Now that I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, I set about building prototypes to confirm that everything was going to work.

I purchased an Athearn HO Scale train set which included:

  - 1 HO scale engine
  - 4 HO scale cars (caboose, box car, etc.)
  - Powerpack (transformer)
  - Oval snap lock track

I bought 5 pieces of flex-track and a 2 x 4 foot piece of sanded pine at the hardware store to prototype the roadbed. Using my tablesaw set to 3 and 1/8 inches wide (leaving room on the ledge in case I needed it), I cut out all of the roadbed sections. Leaving the edge flat just didn't look right so I used my router with different bits to select the edge design.

I also determined that the minimum turning radius for an HO scale train was 15 inches. Using that measurement, I cut out what I thought a corner would look like.

In order to run the bus-line, I decided to cut two 1/8 inch wide channels under each section of track. In that channel, I ran 14 gauge wire with connectors on each end; This allowed each section to plug into the next. I also drilled holes through the roadbed so I could solder the feeder lines between the bus and the track.  Initially, I soldered the feeder lines to the inside of the track -- thankfully I tested this before I went into full production, the train wheels run in between the rails! Soldering to the inside would have caused some major problems.

Step 3: Testing

Having built several prototypes, I tested them by linking them together and attaching the power supply with alligator clips. The train ran down the track but derailed at each section. To hold each section of track together, I used "rail joiners" purchased at the hobby store. Another lesson learned.

After testing on the ground, I decided to try to test it on the ledge. My 6 foot stepladder only brought me eye-level with the ledge (standing on a stable level). For this job, I had to break of the extension ladder.

Lesson learned: putting this thing together 9 feet above the floor would prove difficult.

Step 4: Manufacturing

With the plan, prototypes, and testing complete it was time to go into full manufacturing mode. I used a whiteboard to write down all of the steps necessary to build a complete rail section. This started as a 10 step process that evolved as it went. I also made note of the measurements of the channels and the position of the connectors.

In short, this was a long tedious process. I had to build roughly 20 rail sections to the same specifications. And to top it off, delays in the completion of my shop pushed this phase into early December which didn't leave much time to finish the project.

Step 5: Installation

Installing the rail sections on the ledge turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. Working at that level required an extension ladder which meant that I had to balance on the ladder while connecting the rail joiners and connectors.

I installed a section of track with power connectors and ran speaker wire between it and the transformer on the floor below. This allowed for the train to be controlled from the ground.

During the last few days of the project, my Dad was on hand to help with the project. Having another set of hands was a huge help and he set me straight on the bridge. In fact, the bridge ended up being the easiest section.

After we had installed all of the track, the engine didn't run. In fact, it required a push to get it going and slowly at that. This was disheartening considering the work I had put into the project. Thankfully, a little sanding to the rails solved the problem and soon the train was running flawlessly.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with the outcome of this project. I mean, I have a train running around a ledge 9 feet above our living room! I've posted a couple of videos at the end of this Instructable.

Step 6: Future Enhancements

Originally, I had planned to make a bridge modelled after the C&O railroad bridge that spans the Ohio River here in Cincinnati. Unfortunately I ran out of time to complete it before Christmas. I've attached the Google Sketchup file if anyone wants to make one of their own. I do plan to complete it -- perhaps that will be a future Instructable.

Since the train went up, I've had a ton of ideas and a ton of suggestions to improve it. Some of those enhancements include a town above the fireplace, trees, mountains, a tunnel, a covered bridge, a suspension bridge -- the list goes on. I'm really excited. A project that spawns other projects. Excellent!

Step 7: Lessons Learned

I think one of the most important things about Instructables is the ability to learn from others mistakes. Fortunately for you, I made a ton of them during this project. Here are a few tips that I learned:

- Corners are complicated. Even though I made the turn roughly a 15 inch radius, I still had to re-do them several times to prevent the train from derailing. Fortunately derailing did not involve the train crashing to the floor below as I had feared.

- The connectors and rail joiners were difficult to connect. It would have been better to make less sections and thus less connections.

- Take lots of pictures during the construction -- we all want to see what you've done!

- Don't be afraid of complicated projects. Spend some time planning and break them down into smaller components. If you stick to the project, you will complete it. It will be awesome.

Step 8: Completion

Epilog Challenge

Participated in the
Epilog Challenge