Installing Kato Unitrack
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Ok, so I started by assembling all the Kato Unitrack on each level of the layout, and then using a carpenter's pencil, I traced out the track locations on the plywood bases. Once I marked the track locations, I marked out all the locations where I needed to drill holes for the power leads. I had initially forgotten to mark out the holes for the turnout wires, so l later went back and drilled those holes as well.
After removing all the track from the layout, I used a half-inch bit to drill holes for the power leads on the bottom level. I didn’t drill all the way through, just through the top layer of plywood into the middle foam layer.
Then I took a 12” long 3/8” drill bit and drilled a hole through the back of the layout such that it would line up with the holes where the power leads were on that side of the layout. But, somehow, I completely botched up my measuring, so I had to drill a second hole about an inch over from the first one. I’ll eventually use both holes in the back for plugs for power cables, so I don’t think I’ll need to fill in the extra hole. But, just one more example of why it is helpful to use the measure twice and cut once rule of thumb.
I then used a 3/4” step drill bit that is used for drilling holes in metal plates but which makes very clean holes in wood. With that drill bit, I drilled a hole in the interior box of the lower level in line with the hole that I drilled from the back. This way, I could send the power leads from the track up through that hole into the interior box section of the layout. A quick vacuum removed the sawdust and some of the foam bits from inside the hole so it would be ready for wires.
Before attaching and wiring the track on the lower level, I painted the interior a flat black. This way, when you look in the tunnel portals, the interior will look dark, and not like bare wood. I painted over the pencil marks for the track locations, but left a stripe in the middle of each track loop, so I would know where the track would be centered. I used brown paint on the front of the layout, so any missing bits of scenery wouldn’t show exposed wood.
To attach the track on the bottom level, I poured some white glue from a jug and painted that along the track lines. Since the paint wasn’t completely dry, the glue mixed with the paint, but that wasn’t a problem. Painting on the glue smeared most of the track location markings, but that wasn’t too important on the bottom loops since they are just simple ovals.
Next, I fed the power feeders through the holes in the layout base, through the channels in the foam, and then pulled them out into the interior bay of the layout. Sometimes the wires needed some help, so in one case I used my long drill bit to help push the wires through into the interior of the layout.
With the wires in place, I attached the feeders to the Unitrack and set those track sections in place. Once I had the straight sections with the feeders in place on the front and back of the layout, I worked on attaching the curved ends of each loop to the straight sections, making sure all the joints were lined up properly.
The nice thing about using white glue to attach the track was that I was able to easily make adjustments. That allowed me to make sure the spacing between each track loop was even all the way around the layout. You can’t adjust the track easily when using hot glue or even latex caulk, so white glue works great in situations where you know you will need to make some adjustments.
With the track in place, I took an alcohol wipe and cleaned off the rail surfaces since I figured there was likely a little glue here and there on the rails during installation.
Then, I tested the inner and outer loops by pushing some freight cars at high speed around both loops. Pushing cars is usually a good way to find any spots where track imperfections are causing problems. I did this before the glue dried so I could still easily adjust the track if needed.
To ensure the track didn’t shift while the glue dried, I used various weights on the track, including the tried-and-true method of canned soups and vegetables.
Once everything dried on the first level, it was time to start the track installation on the second level. I again used a 1/2” drill bit to drill holes for all the feeder wires on this level. After drilling out those holes, I switched to my 3/4” step drill bit and cleaned up the holes from both sides so I wouldn’t have any rough edges. A sanding block helped to finish the job of smoothing all the holes out. While it probably wouldn’t be an issue, I didn’t want any rough edges that might wear through the insulation on the wires, eventually causing a short. Since this level can swing up and down, the wires might move a little more than on the bottom level.
After a quick vacuum, I decided to paint the top of the box on the lower level so when I closed the lid it would leave a mark on the underside, showing me where I shouldn’t run wires. And…that didn’t work at all…
So, while I had the black paint out, I painted the tunnel portion of the middle level, and then the remaining base area brown, leaving the middle of the track areas unpainted so I would know where to place the track.
I then opened up the middle level, masked off the edges of the sides, which I wanted to be stained and not painted, and then painted the bottom side black. While painting or staining everything isn’t strictly needed, I like doing that to help seal the wood so it won’t swell or contract much with moisture changes. I also painted the interior box section of the lowest level black, as well as the back corners to finish up the job.
Finally, it was time to attach the track to the middle level. I started in the back right corner, and ran the wire for that turnout through the hole, and then one of the power feeder wires through its hole. I proceeded around the layout, attaching terminal rail joiners and pulling those wires through the hole. But, I quickly realized that the hole for that first turnout was not in quite the right spot. I shaved off some wood around the hole to allow a place for the wire to pass, and then proceeded around the layout with attaching more wires. The key here is to make sure you remain consistent with the wiring. So, I made sure the blue wire was used on the inside rail and the white wire on the outside rail all the way around the loop.
I was still having issues with the turnout wire on that first turnout, so I cut off some of the metal backing on the bottom of the turnout, and then covered the edge with some electrical tape. Then I nipped off a bit of the plastic on the bottom as well so the wires could run to the hole without being crimped by anything. That was the first track piece I attached, using some hot glue to hold everything firmly in place. I then worked my way around that part of the layout, glueing down sections of track. Before gluing anything else, I attached the remaining track pieces so I wouldn’t get myself in trouble and end up with track sections that didn’t align.
I got the remaining track pieces attached and then started working on glueing those pieces down. I quickly noticed that one of the first pieces I glued wasn’t sitting flush against the plywood so I had to use one of my utility knifes with a long break off blade to cut out all the hot glue in that area. Once I was able to remove the glue and get that track section to sit flush with the plywood I made sure all the other pieces in that area were sitting flush and joining up evenly. Then I continued with applying hot glue to attach these remaining sections. Just using white glue on this level would have actually been a lot easier since I could have made adjustments easily like I did on the lower level. But, in the end, I managed to get all the track installed securely and flush with the plywood.
With the track attached, it was time to organize the rats nest of wires on the bottom of the middle level. I wasn’t trying to complete the wiring here, but just get the wires secured and out of the way. I used a staple gun and staples that are designed for securing wires. I bundled wires together and secured them in place every few inches with the staples. The key here was to make sure I ran the wires in places where they wouldn’t be crushed against the wood supoorts. Most of the wires were actually within the interior box section, and the others I ran such that I would only need to cut out one part of the wood on the bottom level to allow them to pass into the middle section.
I wanted all the power leads to connect to a single power cable, so I cut the feeder wires in one section to the same length, stripped off the insulation, and then twisted those wires together, ensuring all the blue and white wires were kept separate. I did the same for the second group of feeder wires and then ran a short section of wire between those two groups. I was just twisting wires together at this point for a temporary connection to make sure everything worked and I hadn’t installed one of the feeders backwards. I then connected a single power feeder with a plug attached and connected that to one of my Rokuhan throttles and happily found out that the wiring was done correctly. With power going to all the feeder wires I ran a locomotive around the layout, testing out the different turnouts. The 6-axle locomotive I was initially using for testing didn’t like the 8.5” radius curves much, so I switched to a four-axle diesel to continue testing the track work. Everything was running smoothly, so I attached some freight cars and ran those around the layout for a while as well, looking for any spots where the cars might be bouncing or not tracking smoothly. Everything looked good, so I proceeded to working on the top level loop of track.
I only wanted to use one feeder wire on this loop, so I decided to solder all the track connections together, except for the one with the feeder wire. I needed to keep one section of track unsoldered to allow me to install it back on the layout. I worked my way around the track loop, soldering the outside of the rails of each section, making sure I had a good solder joint across both sections of track without getting any o,n top of the rail.
Once the soldering was done, I tested the track loop with the Kato tram unit to make sure things ran well in both directions with no issues at any of the rail joints.
With the tests going well, it was time to install the track on the top base section of the layout. I marked where the power leads were going to go and then drilled a hole through the plywood base. I ran the power lead through the hole and connected the track sections back together. I used white glue again to install the track, painting it where the track was to be attached. I then used several clamps to ensure the track didn’t move while the glue dried.
I had never finished the front fascia piece for the layout, so I took a piece of 6” by 48” long half inch thick poplar and marked out where I wanted to cut it out. If left uncut, it would block the tracks on the lower loop from view, so I had to cut about three inches off the board, but leaving the ends the full height to cover the enclosed ends of the lower level. I did all the cuts with my circular saw, simply dropping the blade down through the board on the marked line, and then cutting steadily down the line. I find I get much straighter cuts like this than using a jig saw. I could have used a guide to make sure I had a straight cut, but I don’t usually have too much trouble keeping the saw going straight down a line. Since the cut portion of the fascia wasn’t going to be adjoining any other piece of wood, some slight variations wouldn’t matter. I did have to clean up the corners, and used a coping saw for that since it was handy at the time.
The fascia piece fit snuggly, so I didn’t screw it in place, and still haven’t actually, since I will need to remove it frequently to work on the wiring anyway. Eventually I’ll secure it with a few screws, but I won’t worry about that yet since it stays in place by itself pretty well.
In order to dress up the plywood edge of the middle level, I cut a couple of pieces of 1x2 pine. While that resulted in those pieces sticking out a little past the lower level fascia section, I planned to sand them flush later on. I glued on both of those sections and then secured them with a few brad nails both from the front and from the side. Sadly, one of my brad nails from the side ended up protruding from the front a bit. So, I took a screw driver and a hammer and made it go back to its home inside the wood.
I felt like installing the mounting plate with the DCC throttle plugs to the fascia next, so I drilled a hole in each of the four corners of the rectangle I needed to cut out. Then, because I’m a lazy woodworker, I cut the rectangle out with my jigsaw while holding the board in place with my foot on one end and my free hand on the other. Luckily it came out ok and I didn’t ruin the fascia board.
I test fit the fascia board with the DCC plug board on the layout, realized I had installed it upside down, flipped it over, and then searched for a few screws to attach it. But, before attaching the DCC panel face plate, I got the power supply and track wires ready to attach first. For the track power, NCE gives you a plug with some screw terminals to attach your wires to the back of the panel. I attached a section of wire to those screw terminals, and then fed the wire through the channel in the foam into the interior of the layout. Then I fed the NCE power cable through the hole in the back of the layout into the interior box, and then from there through the hole that goes to the control panel. I plugged everything into the panel and then discovered I didn’t have enough clearance for everything to fit, so I grabbed a pair of wire cutters, since that was the first tool my eyes landed on, and used that to chip away more of the foam from behind the control panel. I did that until everything fit easily with some room to spare for the wires. Then, I finally screwed the panel to the fascia and moved on to working on the interior wiring.
So, while there were only four power leads for the lower level tracks, I didn’t know which ones to connect together in order to keep the power supplies to each loop of track independent. So I put one of my steeple cab locomotives on each track and hooked up a wire to a Rokuhan unit and then connected power leads to that wire to see which track they powered.
Once I identified which of the front wires powered the outer loop, I had to figure out which of the back wires connected to the outer loop. Which locomotive started moving determined which wire went to which loop of track. Then it was just a matter of connecting the two wires for the outer track together and the two wires for the inner track loop together. I took two more sets of power leads that still had their plugs on the end, stripped the insulation off the other end of the wires and then slid on a piece of heat shrink tubing onto each wire.
I was then ready to twist the wires together, making sure I had a good physical connection between all the wires and then soldered the connections. After soldering each connection I took a pair of nippers and trimmed off any stray wires or sharp areas on the soldered connection so nothing would poke through the heat shrink tubing. With that done I slid the tubing over the connection and shrunk down the first tube with the heat from the soldering iron. This works fine but is a little slower than using a heat gun or lighter. So, for the second connection I grabbed a lighter to shrink the tubing faster.
With the connections done on the outer loop wires I did the same for the inner loop wires. I then secured the wires to the layout base with a few staples. This left me with two plugs, one for each loop that I could attach to my Rokuhan throttles for testing and initial runs.
With the lower level wiring complete for now, I worked on soldering the previous temporary connections on the middle level, insulating each of the joints with heat shrink tubing as I went. I attached a longer power lead to the middle level since that level was to temporarily connect to the DCC panel on the fascia. I just wrapped up all the turnout control wires in a bundle and tucked them under another wire to keep them in place for now since I didn’t plan on wiring those up until later.
I wanted to get the layout exterior stained at this point so I used some wood putty to fill in all the nail holes, joints, and other imperfections. Sometimes people comment that they are impressed with my wood working skills when they see my layouts, but the reality is that I’m a rather sub-par wood worker but a pretty good mistake fixer. It is amazing what wood filler and an orbital sander can do in terms of improving the appearance of your wood projects. Some of my wood joints needed a lot of sanding to be flush and look good, but I eventually smoothed everything out. I also sanded off the corners on all the top and bottom edges of the side boards so they would feel and look nicer. I also had to sand a lot off those 1x2 pieces on the front so they would be even with the adjacent wood pieces.
Once I finished sanding I took the leaf blower and blew all the dust off the layout and out the garage door in order to get it ready for staining. I used cherry colored wood stain on this layout project again since I like that color a lot. I applied the stain with a cheap brush, fully coating one side at a time before wiping off the excess stain with some paper towels. I proceeded to stain the sides, inside edges, inside of the top section, and basically all the remaining exposed wood areas including both the front and back of the fascia board. I still have to go back and stain the bottom of the layout at some point. Again, the normally non-visible portions don’t have to be stained or painted, but doing so helps prevent expansion and contraction of the wood with moisture changes. Also, I just think projects look a lot more professional when even the hidden areas look nice.
Anyway, with that staining done, this chapter of the layout build has come to a close. I was able to get trains running on all of the track loops at the same time for testing, which marked a big step in the building of this layout project. With the track installed and trains running, I was able to confirm in my mind that this layout project would end up looking really good once it was completed. Once the structures and scenery are in place, this should be a visually interesting layout and one that is fun to both watch and operate. In the next couple of videos in this series I’ll be completing the wiring of the layout, including all of the controls for the turnouts, as well as working on the retaining walls and tunnel portals.
You can watch the full video of the track installation and initial wiring below: