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Last Updated on 03/18/07

Homemade Tables

I have been building quite a few tables. Here is what I recommend.

Use a good grade of plywood for the table surface. I typically use Birch plywood with a B-B finish. Don't use cheap plywood. It won't be flat. It won't be solid. You can waste lots of time trying to repair garbage. In the end you would have been better off spending $20 more for decent material.

I use 3/4 inch for my banked ovals, because I need that much thickness for the screws I use to secure the banking. For most purposes 1/2 inch will do.

But remember, plastic track doesn't take well to flexing. If plastic is what you are going to use, consider carefully how much rigidity you need. If the track is going to be moved, 3/4 inch plywood may be worth the extra money and weight.

With a good sheet of plywood all you have to do is frame the edge with 1 x 3 boards, glued and screwed. The edges of the boards go against the underside of the plywood. Reinforce the corners where the boards meet on the inside, either with wood blocks or metal angles.

Avoid screwing into the ends of the boards or the edge of the plywood. Pilot drill and countersink all holes for your screws. You will save a lot of split wood, and a lot of weeping and cursing. (The pilot drill diameter should be about the same size as the diameter of the screw at the base of the threads. No larger, and not much smaller.)

I use folding table legs (also called banquet table legs) exclusively. A pair sells for about $18 at Home Depot, and they work just fine. For some projects I have popped casters into the ends of the legs.

I have had cheap sets of table legs that were only stitch welded. I got them at a bargain price and now I know why. The brand sold at Home Depot are welded all around the tubing at the joints. Much better.

Assemble your table, starting by screwing the legs onto the plywood. Once you have the plywood standing on its own legs, the work becomes so much easier. Measure and mark the locations for the screws that will go from the top surface of the plywood down into the 1 x 3 framing. Pilot drill the screw locations and countersink them. Attach the 1 x 3 framing using carpenter's glue and drywall screws. Bar clamps make this job a lot easier. Start by fastening a board at one end, then work your way down its length. You'll find that you can straighten the board as you go -- chances are it will need SOME straightening. Clean up excess glue with a damp sponge.

After the framing is screwed on, fill the countersinks in the top of the plywood with auto body putty (Bondo). Patch any other imperfections in the top surface while you are at it.

Be VERY sparing with the red hardener that comes with the auto body putty. A small dab goes a LONG way. It is better to use too little than too much. Too much hardener and the putty will start to harden before you can get it worked into the divots. Properly mixed putty should look very slightly reddish gray. Once the putty gets grainy and hard to spread, it's time to scrap it and make a new batch. That's one good reason to make SMALL batches.

Slightly overfill with the putty, then sand smooth with 100 grit sandpaper. Sand in the direction of the wood grain.

Auto body putty shrinks very, very little, and sets quickly, hard and strong. I don't even think about using conventional wood fillers these days. It doesn't hurt that is very reasonably priced. Especially the large cans. And since the stuff keeps, why buy small cans? It's so handy to have around.

Once the table surface is smooth, prime it with an oil or alkyd wood primer. DO NOT USE LATEX for the primer coat. The water in the latex paint will make the wood grain swell -- but it won't swell evenly. You'll end up with grain patterns that show through the paint.

Once the primer coat is dry, finish with whatever paint suits your fancy. The primer will protect the wood.

It's not a bad idea to do a light sanding with 100 grit sandpaper before applying the finish coat. You don't want to remove much material, just knock off the high points. Make sure the primer is thoroughly dry before doing this. A light sanding also improves the 'tooth' of the primer coat, giving the finish coat a better surface to stick to.

I am using 3/16 inch white ABS plastic for the retaining walls on my tracks these days. Again, I am trading material cost against the cost of putty, paint and labor. The plastic needs no finishing. Just bolt it on and go. I buy the stuff in 4 x 8 sheets and have it cut to my specification.

Black ABS is considerably cheaper than white, and some people would probably think it looks cooler. But I prefer white and I'm willing to pay the difference.

For a cheaper retaining wall, that is almost as easy to use (but not as flexible), I use 4 x 8 sheets of particle board that are finished with thin coats of melamine on both sides. Again, I get the lumber yard to cut the stuff to my specification.

The cut edges of the particle board need to be filled, but here I use drywall taping compound. I spread the drywall compound onto the cut edges and let it dry, then lightly sand it smooth. Any drywall compound that gets on the melamine surfaces can be wiped off with a damp sponge. I paint the filled edges with a paint color that matches the melamine.

It's more work, but it produces very nice results and is substantially cheaper

[One of the Pfankuchs <pfankuch@cybrzn.com>]
Oh boy . . . where to start?

Is this track set up going to be up all the time?

Some people have hung them in their garages from the ceiling and raise and lower them when they want to use them. Some people fold them up against the wall, etc. All these special requirements may change how you build it and what you build it with!

In general I suggest the following guidelines as I too am building a new set up after a long, long absence from HO racing!

  1. Always use screws and thru bolts as they can be removed!
  2. 1/2" plywood seems to be adequate as long as it is properly supported.
    3/8" warps easily and 3/4" is rather heavy!
  3. Measure twice cut once.
  4. Working with standard sizes requires less cutting and waste.
    (so use 4' by 8' sheets of plywood).
  5. Build it with the idea that someday you may want to move it to another location.
    Not suggesting that it be made portable but people do sell houses, etc.
  6. Look at how other people have built their table setups. Pay attention to the little things like the   controller hookups, etc. they have. Copy any that you like. Take a camera and tape measure along.
  7. An extra controller station or two perhaps on each end will make for less marshalling trips when you are racing alone or with one friend!
  8. Buy a model railroad construction type book with good table building pictures.
  9. I don't like commercial type folding legs.
  10. Plan, plan, plan saves rework and scrap!

Also, check out Joe Aquino's The Dragons Lair for more table building ideas.

Track Aprons


I did mine a little differently. I found 4x8 plywood sheet that is 1/4" thick.  It was labeled 17/32" at HOME DEPOT.  Remember 1/4" labeled plywood is too thin. I put my layout on top of the plywood, traced the layout with a magic marker, and then cut it out with a jig saw. Fits real nice!! For some of the areas where there is a little space, you can fill it with plastic wood, or formica or somthing to make it smooth.

Homemade Tracks

Routing your track

All right, I'm saying it one more time -- now listen up!

Start small. Make a circular skid pad. You can do it on a board only 16 inches square.

All you can do is make it one TINY royal screwed up mess.

What we are into here is CONFIDENCE BUILDING.

Confidence building is an art you can learn, just like anything else. The idea is to attempt something that will be necessary to achieving your goal, without taking a big risk.

In this case, routing a serviceable slot that a car can go around.

Prove to yourself it can be done, without putting a lot on the line. And give yourself an opportunity to learn. Damn! How can you expect to learn if you never TRY!?!

So what if the slot is only a circle, and it is only 3 feet around? If you make one that works, you have gained something. And if your first one isn't so hot, well, figure out what went wrong and try again.

Even the most hopeless klutz should be able to make a skid-pad in one evening, assuming they have painted material ready. And a 4 x 8 sheet of material can make 18 16-inch squares. You have a lot of chances to get it right.

What to use for rails

Copper tape works well, but not with standard HO pickups. That's why I sell Slide Guides. I also sell the copper tape.

You want a narrow copper tape, to get it to lie flat around HO radius curves. You have to get down to 1/8 inch wide before the stuff lays decently.

Copper tape lasts for years. My test track still has its original copper tape, which has gotta be 4 years old by now. It is still in fine shape.

If you want to take the step up to braid, well, braid lasts almost forever. And it never needs to be cleaned. (Copper tape will need cleaning if it sits for a week or two unused. Rubbing down with a cloth or paper towel is usually enough to get it working.)

Braid costs ten times what copper tape does. What's it worth to you? I sell the braid too.

If you want steel rails, for magnetic downforce, you are going to have to talk to 21st Century Tracks. They sell the materials. Not simple. Good luck.

Homemade Scenery

[Ed Penland edpenland@netreach.net]
I have some photos of my layout at http://www.netreach.net/~edpenland/ho_mine.htm. The easiest way I've found to "make mountains" is to cut corragated cardboard (cardboard boxes) into strips and to glue together a framework for the mountain. After creating the framework you can bend and shape it into different forms until you have a frame to your liking. Then, I mixed up plaster (quick drying stuff) in small batches using the bottom half of a gallon milk jug. I got several rolls of the real cheap paper towels, folded them into quarters and dipped them into the plaster and laid it onto the frame work. After the plaster dried, I gave it 4 or 5 coats of spray paint (which soaked into the plaster and kept the plaster dust to a minumum.

As far as trees go, I bought some HO scale trees but I found that it's cheaper (and just as enjoyable making) to find something in nature that can be used in place of the plastic tree frame (we have a vegetable garden and I've found that after the string beans are done for the year that what's left of the plant looks pretty good. They have to be dried and painted, then you can glue on "tree" material that you can get at your local train shop. Buildings can be purchased there too, and if you can get into kit bashing (mixing parts from kits) you can come up with some very interesting stuff.


[Jack Stinson <stinsonx@earthlink.net>]
Being one who generally puts my modeling where my mouth is, I took a break this afternoon to see just how difficult it would be to build bleachers from scratch.

I first looked at my 1/32 4-lane track.....I have four styles of bleachers or grandstands there. I chose an Eldon bleacher set to duplicate in HO. I measured it's seats and foot rests, the level changes and general dimensions......then divided by 2 to get 1/64.

Okay, off to Hobbyland! Once there, I headed for the "HO Race Structure" section....sure there is one...the Evergreen display!

I decide to make this easy and bought strip packs instead of cutting strips from sheet. I chose .060"x.125" for the side bits that will form the risers. Then used .060"x.188" for the foot rest portions and .040"x.188" for the seats. Also picked up .040" sheet for exterior side pieces. DO NOT beat me up over the sizes chosen....they were simply 1/2 the Eldon sizes. I did not go to Mid-Ohio Raceway and measure the seats there.

Back home, I set the 1/32 bleachers in front of my face and commenced to cut and glue. Forty-five minutes later my first set is essentially done. It looks like bleachers....foot rests, seats, etc. A 1/2 size copy basically of the Eldon set. Cost is about $3.00 for each set constructed. 6" long, 3" wide and 1.5" high with 8 seat rows. Not huge, but accurately scaled and looks very good. I will populate it with a bunch of 1/72 scale figures I have waiting for a place to sit. Oops...I am sorry, these figures are 1/64th...they are simply not all modeled after 6 foot human prototypes :-)

None of this leaped out and bit me on the butt when I walked through the door of Hobbyland. However, I chose a subject, did a small bit of measuring and chose the appropriate materials. This is what scratchbuilding is all about...and also what kit-bashing is all about. Decide what you want and then build it.

Now I should be able to build as many of these as I need in much less time. Construction is very easy. And if I want a full- blown grandstand, I need only enlarge the basic design and add exterior bits.

Yes Virginia, there are HO bleachers at the hobby store, you just have to assemble them is all. I got mine! :-)

Homemade Lap Counters

[Bill wvainds@erols.com]
As to the reed switches. I use switches that are 1/8th inch in diameter and 3/4" long and have rarely had any missed counts with ANY slot car. I have the reeds positioned between the rail and the guide slot, up close to the rail. I put in two sets of reeds on the Tomy track I race on. One set is under the track and the other set is flush with the track surface. Both sets read identically on the timer and lap counters.

I installed the second set flush because one reed under the track in lane three occasionally missed a count (once every hundred laps or more) so we thought that the reeds needed to be closer to the cars. It turned out that I had a bad reed switch, go figure.

The under track set of reeds is about two feet from the exit of a turn and the second flush mounted set are about 18" from the entrance of a turn after about an 8' straight.

[David Heilman dheilman@foxinternet.net]
Several of you wrote me with several questions about my use of photo cells.

To be honest, I can remember just where I got them. I'm thinking Radio Shack. I've had them about 3 or 4 years and I have found them to work very well.

I have them in the first section of track which is at the start of a long straight. I did this thinking the cars may be too fast if I put the Cells some where else on the track. But from what I've seen, I could have put them in the middle of my main straight and they still would detect any car, no matter its speed.

The Cells are the Break the Beam type. For now I use a small desk lamp to give the light source. But these work fine is I just open the drapes. I do use the desk lamp because if I have the drapes open and someone walks around the track to get to a wrecked car, their shadow falls across the Cells and gives everyone an extra lap. By having the lamp there, the lamp light is stronger than the light from the window and no shadows can happen.

I have the Cells set between the slot for the guide pin and the right side rail.

So far I have had zero problems with them. I chose to use Photo cells because I enjoy racing T jets and AF/X cars. I like the Super G plus's too.

If I were to choose again to use either Reed switches or Photo Cells, I'd pick the Cells.

I plan to use a small light bar which goes across the track instead of the desk lamp.

These photo cells can also detect Infared light, so if you want to get real flashy someone could put up an infared light source, which couldn't be seen by anyone racing.

For $25 or so one can buy an ancient 286 PC and for another $70 ($40 for 2 lanes) get a program such as "Racetimer" which does all  that was mentioned plus has leader boards, heat management, lane  rotation, points awarding...even turns track power on and off.  And will run like a charm on even something as pokey as my old 286,  16mhz, 40 meg hard drive freebie PC! And use most any form of  switch you prefer....reed, micro, infrared...even works great with my own sensor strip design that I've been using with calclulator counters. Racetimer took about 5 minutes to install the software and maybe 20 minutes to wire the parallel cable to my sensor strips. $10 in parts for track power on/off and another 30 minutes for building that. There are several other programs floating about the net like this.