PC&N Controls and Benchwork

Considering the Builder’s Age

Lets face it.  I’m old.  As I write this I’m 70 1/2.  I’m not going to get any younger.  I don’t want to build a layout then be unable to operate it because of physical problems.


While I considered radio control battery power for this layout, the HOn3 engines are just too small.  In addition, some are brass.  These are my thoughts in implementing DCC.

  • Traditional block control is complicated to implement and wire.  Furthermore, it is a non-prototypical form of operation.
  • Wiring a layout this size is something I would prefer not to take on.  The thought of crawling around below benchwork to do soldering is inconsistent with my age.  However, with some creativity, I believe I can beat this problem.
  •  Some of my locomotives are DCC ready.  The decoders are in place and some have DCC controlled sound boards.  Others are not DCC ready.

Starting Point System – DCC

The decision on what digital command control system to use in controlling the PC&N was relatively easy.  My research kept leading me back to the same system, the DCC system developed by NCE.

NCE PowerCab

Of course this basic setup will work fine with a small switching pike, but not so well with a large layout for two reasons.

  1. There isn’t enough power.
  2. Walk around control is not easily implemented with this setup.  Ideally, the walk around control would be radio controlled.

NCE System Evolution

A clear evolutionary path is to the PH-Pro 5 amp system.  The version that supports radio control is the NCE ProCab 5R.

NCE ProCab R

The “5” means 5 amps.  The “R” means radio control.  A base unit holds the DCC transmission capabilities.  The hand held unit communicates with its base.  My existing PowerCab transmitter can be retrofitted for radio control.  That would give me a decent amount of power and would provide cabs to support two operators.

Track Heights

This layout will contain two decks.  Tony Koester’s  “Designing and Building Multi-Deck Model Railroads” was extremely helpful in thinking through the track height issue.  One of his illustrations shows layout crew running trains sitting in swivel chairs with rollers.  That makes sense to me as wheelchair access and the ability to sit rather than stand needs to be part of the plan.  That would put the lower deck at roughly 30″ to 32″ over the floor.  Add 20″ and you have at the upper level at 50″ to 52″, below arm pit height for me.

Building it To Take it Back Down

This is another consideration when you are 70 years old building a layout.  The decking supporting the layout needs to be removable with as little damage to the underlying structure as possible.  I already have 28″ high tables in place in a portion of the layout area.  I’ve committed to my spouse to create as much storage as possible in my design as I am taking over a storage area.

The Sandwich

I’m going to focus on placing the layout on a sandwich that is 3″ to 4 1/4″ high.  That sandwich will be light in weight so I can flip it to do the wiring.  It will rest on cabinets or tables that will look good if the sandwich is removed.  This is a cross section of the sandwich.

The Sandwich

Top Layer – 1 1/2″ to 2 3/4″ Polystyrene – The yard section of the layout on the bottom level will be a sandwich of two 3/4″ sheets of polystyrene.  Why two sheets?  So I can cut and drop 3/4″ board in place in the top sheet under the turnouts to allow ground throws to be secured.  The majority of the rest of the layout will be 2 3/4″ polystyrene (A 2″ piece with a 3/4″ piece on top).  Track and structures will go above this level.  Where switch machines need to be mounted, 3/4″ board will be dropped into a hole cut in the 3/4″ polystyrene.

2″ x 2″ Frame – The polystyrene will be supported by a frame of nominal 2″ x 2″ lumber (actually 1 1/2″ x 1 1/2″).  The frame will have a full length 2″x2″ front and back with perpindicular strips joining the front and back that are 16″ on center.  The above image is a cross section in the center of the sandwich showing the connecting 2″x2″ as well as various components mounted below the top layer.  It is my hope that an 8 foot section of this sandwich will be light enough to be flipped onto its other side for track wiring, mounting switch machines, installing lighting, etc.

Lighting – I’ve picked up and tested a couple of LED under counter strips.  Tony Koester’s book indicates LEDs offer inadequate power and a high expense.  But his book was written in 2008.  Things have changed a lot in 8 years.  LEDs are brighter now.  LEDs are also also light and thin.  I’m going to use them below the top deck and below the storage cabinets above the top deck.

Wiring – The cross section makes it look like the lighting, switch machines, and wiring bus are running through each other.  What I want to avoid on the lower level is wiring connections below the expanded polystyrene foam in the lower level as it will be difficult to get at the connections to fix any problems later.  So I’ll run my track bus wires in a groove on the front 2×2 facing out with the track wires drilled through the 2×2 and soldered to the bus wires.

Layout Sandwich End View

That way these connections can be repaired without lifting the foam.  The other end of the track feeder wires will be soldered to the track above the surface of the foam.  Lighting to structures will be handled in much the same way.  Wiring for the power directing turnouts will be on top rather than underneath the polystyrene.

Switch Machines

Switches that are near the front edge of the deck would be thrown by hand using Caboose Industries Power Routing Ground Throws.

Caboose Power Routing Ground throws

The wires sticking out of the bottom of the ground throws can be used to switch the polarity of the turnout frog.  Rather than route the wires below the expanded polystyrene, the wires would be routed through a groove in the top of the polystyrene covered by ballast.

For turnouts that are hard to reach I’m considering two options.  Use Caboose ground throws that are placed some distance from the turnout.  Push rods for the turnouts and wiring would run through brass tube.  The other option is an adaptation of the following approach to cable mounted turnouts. This approach is courtesy of Elmer McKay.  Gold-N-Rod cables used in radio control airplane applications would be deployed as follows.

Turnout Slide Switch 1

The Gold-N-Rod cable (yellow) runs through a sleeve (red) and turns a slide switch from one setting to the other.  Music wire extends vertically from the shift handle through the layout to move the switch machine lever.

Slide Switch Mount Block1

A mounting block attaches the switch to the layout.  This could be fabricated from aluminum L channel. wood, etc.

Turnout Slide Switch 2

This is a closeup of the Gold-N-Rod attachment to the slide switch handle.  A small hole in the top of the handle allows music wire to be inserted that runs through a hole in the expanded polystyrene.  The wires route power to the turnout frog in the same way as with the caboose ground throws.

Turnout Slide Switch 3

Example of a fully wired installation.  The white wires are routing signaling current to power LEDs on the facia of the layout.

Turnout Slide Switch 4

The Gold-N-Rods are activated by push pins.  A button attached with a threaded connector would also work here.  I need to give some thought on how to minimize under sandwich wiring using this approach.  The down side of this approach is it violates the rule of no wiring connections below the polystyrene.

I prefer the first approach (Remote Caboose ground throws) as there would be no wiring below the polystyrene.

Powering Engines

Some of my engines have DCC decoders.  Others are DC controlled and would need to be converted to DCC to use the NCE system.  Power would be via track power.  I would like to support sound on as many engines as possible.

Installing the Sandwich

Actually, these are self-contained units much like modules in a modular railroad.  I plan to float them on top of tables and cabinets, connecting them in much the same way modules are connected.

Installation Step by Step

I built these frames from 2×2 construction lumber created by ripping 2″ x 4″s.   This shot shows a portion of two frames.  The front is a 16″ x 8′ top shelf frame.  The back is a 24″ x 8′ bottom shelf frame.

Frames - Bottom and Top

The perpendicular stretcher pieces are attached using Kreg pocket screws.

Kreg Pocket Joints

A groove was milled on the front edge of the frame.  Bus wires will run through this groove.  I’ll drill holes going through the frame front – front to back to back every 8″ along this groove.

Buss Wire Groove

A sheet of 4′ x 8′ 3/4″ extruded polystyrene was cut into two 2′ x 8′ pieces.  They will be glued to the top of the bottom frame.

Poly Panels 2x8

The next step will be to cut a 16″ wide panel from a 4′ x 8′ sheet of two inch polystyrene and a 16″ wide panel from 3/4″ polystyrene for the top shelf.

This shows the 24″ frame with the first layer of polystyrene glued.  The first 3/4″ layer is barely visible as the second 3/4″ layer is loose laid on top.

Sandwich 1

The first sandwich layer was secured with Loctite PL300 Foamboard Adhesive.  It took about a tube to secure a 3/4″foam layer to the frame.  It is immediately tacky.  We’ll see how well it holds tomorrow morning.

Foam Adhesive

Track will be installed on top of cork roadbed.  It looks like N scale cork roadbed will work well for HOn3 which is a bit wider than N scale.  A turnout is loose laid on the left.  My intention is to cut a 2/3/4″ wide piece of 1″x6″ board then cut a recess in the top layer.  The board will be inserted in the recess and glued to the first layer.  That way I’ll have a wood surface to use in mounting Caboose Ground Throws.

Turnout and Cork

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