Christopher Brimley updated October 25, 2011


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  • Steel???

    by Bob Bandy

    Graphics by Tim Freese

    This may seem like a spider web of metal to the untrained eye, but its so much more. What you see before you is the foundation for a layout that Bob knows will last a lifetime...and then some.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 26

    Was it the forest of 2x4s? Or the cost of 1x4s? Or was it the fact that the wood base on our test track had expanded and contracted to the point that there was a 1/2" hump in the track?

    Truthfully it was all these things plus some other factors that caused me to give it some serious consideration.

    I always hated the "forest" of 2x4s or 1x4s and the accompanying cross bracing that is ever present with the standard L-girder or T-girder benchwork. My sinuses hated all the sawdust. My religion suffered because of all the warped and knotty boards that cost $3.79 for an 8' board.

    By now, you're probably thinking, "What is he talking about?!" If you're thinking benchwork, what other way is there? Well, there is another way - it's STEEL! Thats right STEEL!

    Stronger is Better

    Its stronger, takes up less room, is a whole lot quicker, and its a lot cheaper! Well, now maybe I have gotten your attention. What I am talking about is 1" square 16 gauge steel tubing.

    A friend of mine, Rick Nicholson, builds race car frames for the "Pikes Peak Hill Climb" and works at the same hobby shop on weekends that I do. He has been building some portable bases for O gauge layouts, sort of large modules. After a near disaster with some typical T-girder benchwork and a very expensive "Cisco Bridge" (the benchwork shrank over 1/4" in only five hours), my wife and Rick convinced me that this investment would be better protected on a steel base.

    With formal training in mechanical engineering and as a commercial artist, the creative side of me took over. From an engineering standpoint, it made great sense. From a cost factor, it figured out to be 66% the price of wood. From a time factor, it has worked out to be incredible - 24 running feet in an hour and a half, a two-level helix in three hours (with each additional level at one hour each). The greatest thing is, with a scooter chair, I can go anywhere without hitting legs and cross braces. No forest of 2x4s, its great!

    Logistical Challenge

    Okay, you want more, lets start at the beginning. Three years ago my wife and I decided we wanted to build our dream home. We are looking at retirement in a few years, so we wanted everything on one level. Great, that makes for a larger basement. I already had a good idea of what the layout should look like, so I started designing the house and the layout simultaneously...but the basement still wasn't large enough.

    Cisco Bridge sits on its perch, impervious to the swelling and contracting of wooden benchwork.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 27

    "I know! Well excavate under the garages." The engineering side of me said it could be done. Now all I had to do was convince regional building. After paying two separate engineering firms, they agreed. Well as long as we are going for the "whole enchilada" why not have "walk unders"? And what exactly is a walk under? Its a pit to change oil on go-carts. And its the solution for a 60-year-old with bad knees that will enable me to walk instead of crawl under the layout. Okay, back to regional building!

    "You want what?"

    "It is a pit with stairs on each end."

    "Well, we've never heard of such a thing!"

    "Well, now you have!"

    "But what if you sell the house?"

    "I'll be buried in one, and the rest can be filled in!"

    "You're crazy, but okay!"

    Anyway, after 18 months of planning, nine months of building, and nine months of rock walls, riprap and landscaping, we start the layout. I know, you dont want to know about the labor, just the baby!

    The Hardware

    The benchwork is 1" square steel tube, 16-gauge thickness. It comes in 24' lengths, 100 pieces to a bundle. The cost was around $780 delivered. If 1x4s had been used, 2,400' would have cost (at that time), about $1,230 plus tax and delivery charges. Rick has donated time and the use of his mig welder. A spool of wire cost about $12 and CO2 is $25 a bottle. I already had a 46" metal cutting band saw, and I also had a chop saw with a carbide blade. A "saws all" with a metal blade has come in handy and cuts this stuff like butter. It is as fast as wood.

    In my youth I did some welding in the oil patch and have built three racecars, so welding is quiet familiar. This isn't rocket science, and anyone can learn to weld. It is like using a glue gun.

    Express Benchwork

    Engineering the benchwork is an exercise in high school physics, geometry, and mathematics. Im not exaggerating; a shelftype bench on the wall, 24" wide and 24' long can be done in 1 1/2 hours. An additional shelf for staging underneath can be done in an additional hour. Radius support for a hidden loop or helix can be done in about an hour per circle.

    The hardest thing is to stay ahead of the actual work with what comes next. A good plan, with exact dimensions is a must. Fortunately, at the time I did my plan, I really had my act together. It is tremendously satisfying when elevations and dimensions come out just like the plans.

    Proceeding as Planned

    The elbow clamps a necessary step in preparing for the nail & glue of steel benchwork - mig welding.
    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 28

    At the present time, we have completed most of the regular benchwork and have one of the major staging yards finished. We started December 12th and with approximately two weeks off for knee surgery, we had finished this phase by the February 28th. This added up to less than 100 hours of time for two people.

    To break this down, one person is taking dimensions and welding and one person is cutting. Both people set clamps and square the whole thing up. Reading plans and plotting points for placement of the free flowing plan consumed more time than welding or cutting.

    We still have to go back and weld the feet in some places and "Ram Set" them to the floor. Some bracing is necessary but only corner braces not over 9" to 12" long. That is the reason the interior remains relatively unobstructed and the joints are a lot stronger than wood.

    Walk Unders

    Okay, okay, more about the pits! Early on I decided I couldn't crawl around under a layout. I decided that with a bench height of 40" to 44", I could dig a pit 30" deep and have 70" to 74" head clearance under the benchwork. I reasoned that a "normal" person would be able to handle a width of 18", clearance of 70" and reasonably negotiate 10" steps. Steps 8" high would be better, but more steps and length would have been required. The 10 " steps are fairly easily negotiated with handrails. Its the going down, not up, thats the problem.

    To construct the pits, we built five forms to the dimensions that we wanted the finished pit to be. We dug the pit into the basement excavation to approximately 6" larger than the dimensions of the pit. Next we hung the forms with steel straps and braced the forms with 2x6s to keep them from floating out when the concrete was poured. The concrete finishers simply poured around the forms, finished the top of the stairs and the bottom of the pits. After the concrete was dry, we extracted the forms. This was a bit challenging, but my wife and I did this in about one afternoons time.

    As you can tell by now, my wife is incredible, as she has to put up with all my really far out ideas, even when others think its crazy. She simply says, "Go for it!"

    Decking the Benchwork

    It has been a great relief completing this stage. I feel like we have gained at least one year on a 10 to 15 year project! The next stage is to finish the backdrop and start the decking. This will be a combination of 1x4s, 1/2" plywood, and 1" foam. The decking will be attached by drilling 1/8" holes at 16" to 20" intervals in the steel tubing and attaching 1x4s or 1x3s to the steel tables with 1 3/4" drywall screws. Risers, plywood or foam decking can be attached as you would with any other benchwork. The plan is for Redwood spline in all the mainline roadbeds. This will be free running where no yards are present. Foam will be cut to topography elevation and will be used as a scenery base. Lots of plaster cloth and Hydrocal, but that is a subject for a future article.

    I would like to thank Mike Flanagan, Mark Kirkhuff, Nathan Zachman, Kent Dowell and other very dedicated friends, for their continuing support and help.

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