Simple Control Panel

Sometimes ideas come from the most unexpected places. I was browsing around The Works, a shop that sells art marterials, when I saw this wooden box.

I thought the base of the box might make a good control panel. At only two pounds it was hard to resist. I brought it, took it home and disassembled it.

I painted it white, added some black lines to represent the track, drilled some holes and fitted the ‘push to make’ switches. I wired the switches to a ‘Plug and Socket Terminal Strip’ connector and, ta da, here’s my control panel.

Some modellers have raised making control panels to an art form. Mine isn’t in that league, but it’s was quick to make, it will do the job and it will allow me to start running some trains!


Like Layout ‘lectrics

If you like high quality electrics, look away now.

If you can tolerate a bit of bodging, read on.

I have given all of the electrics a bit of a tidy up using small black clips and pieces of electrical tape.

Additionally, I’ve added the wires for the point switches to the layout. These are the yellow wires. I’ve tried to keep them neat and tidy by running them down one side of the layout.

I want to build a detachable point control panel that I can easily connect/disconnect from the layout and I needed a connector for this. On the NGRM forum ‘Dave’ recommended these ‘Plug and Socket Terminal Strip’.

I liked the idea. They are simple, easy to wire and quick to connect / disconnect. I will use these to connect the control panel and I’ve added one half of the connector to the underside of the layout.

Now I just need to build the point control panel !

It’s A Cover Up

Recently, someone asked “Why does your controller have a cover over one of the buttons?”. Well, there’s a story behind that.

I want my locos to run on DCC and DC layouts and I fitted them with DCC chips that will work with both (Digitrax DZ126 for those who are interested). But I didn’t have a controller. I wanted something simple and I didn’t want to spend a fortune, so I opted for a Bachmann EZ Command  controller which was £58 from Hattons. Perfect.

Being new to DCC, when the controller arrived I actually read the instructions. Twice. They are very clear and easy to understand. Press a button from 1 to 9 to address a loco, select forward or reverse and turn the dial. Simple.

If you want to run DC you can use button 10. This sends DC to the track. The instructions clearly state you should not use this with N gauge locos as the current will burn out the motors.

I connected the controller to my oval test track and gave it a go. Did the loco run using the default DCC address for loco chips, number 3? Yes, it did. It worked first go. Could I change the loco chip to another address, say number 1? I tried. Did the loco run with number 3, no. Did it work with number 1, yes. Success! Could I reprogram the locos direction (forward / reverse)? Yes.

With everything working well I was becoming quite excited, rather like a kid in a toy shop.

I kept playing. What happens if I try running the loco on DC? I pressed button 10 and turned the dial… there was a ‘Pfutt’ sound… the smell of smoke filled the air… and the loco didn’t move anymore. Ah!

Now, I knew that would happen. I’d read the instructions (twice), but I did it anyway.

Luckily the chassis was a Kato 103 and it was not too expensive to replace.

To avoid the risk of burning out more motors I’ve covered button 10 with a homemade cover made from plasticard and I’ve araldited it in place.

Rather elegant, don’t you think? No. Well, at least I can’t burn out any more motors.

Laying the Passing Loop

The track laying is progressing slowly but surely. I have extended the track from the head shunt. The passing loop, the point leading to the sidings and the track leading to the next baseboard are all in place.

I had quite a few problems soldering the dropper wires onto the points (called switches in the USA). I managed to melt the plastic sleepers on two more points (bringing the total number I’ve melted to three!). This was proving to be an expensive business and I decided I had to change my approach. In the end I made three changes that have made a big difference.

  1. Use single core wire rather than multi-core wire. The multi-core wire is thicker and required more heat to get a good joint. (At least in my hands). Single core wire seems to heat up more quickly and the risk of melting the sleepers is reduced.
  2. Changing my solder. I thought the solder I was using was good quality, but an internet search showed it was an ‘el cheapo’ brand. So I invested in decent quality solder.
  3. Using flux on the rails. The old solder I was using claimed it was self fluxing but it didn’t spread well over the nickel-silver rails. Now, I add a thin coating of flux to the rails and the solder flows really well. The only downside of this approach is that I need to give the points a good wash with water to remove any residue.

Laying the track was quite straightforward. I drilled holes in the baseboards to pass the droppers through and used a small quantity of super glue to hold the track in place.

Next, the point motors were screwed into position under the baseboard. The droppers from the rails, the wires powering the point motors and the wires to the frogs were soldered to the bus wire. I’m definitely not a ‘sparky’ so I took my time and double checked everything. Then, I connected the push to make switches that will operate the points. These are the yellow wires poking out from undernearth the baseboard – a temporary installation during testing.

I connected the controller and tested the track. Amazingly, everything worked and I spent a very happy 30 minutes running a couple of locos up and down the track. Playing trains is great fun!

* Sparky = English slang for an electrician

Testing the Point Motor and the Track

With the track in place, I was keen to test it.

Wiring up the point motor is quite easy. Cobalt point motors can be powered from the DCC power supply used to power the track. All I had to do was run two wires (black and red) from the power bus to the point motor. I soldered the wires to the power bus and connected them to the spring loaded terminals on the point motor.

You can use DCC commands to change the point, however I like control panels with switches to control points. (Call me old fashioned…) Cobalt provide built in terminals for ‘manual’ point operation. I connected two wires (yellow) to a ‘push to make’ switch and connected these to the terminals on the motor.

I decided to remove the point motor from the baseboard and test to see whether it worked.

As you can see from the video, it worked well.


I mounted the point motor back on the baseboard and completed the wiring.

To power the frog I connected the wire from the frog (green) to the purpose built spring loaded terminal on the point. That was easy.

Finally, to power the track in the head shunt, I soldered the dropper wires from the headshunt to the DCC power bus.

Now for a real test with a loco!

Again, I’m really pleased to say it worked!

I am definitely no electrician, I’ve never used Cobalt point motors or DCC before, and everything worked first go.

I’ve earned a beer 🙂

Fixing the First Track to the Baseboard

This week I’ve made a start on track laying.

To fit the points I needed to drill eight holes:

  • a hole for the throw arm from the point motor
  • four small pilot holes for the screws to mount the point motor to the baseboard
  • three holes for the wires connecting the point to the electrics (the two wires to power the rails and the wire to power the frog).

The photo at the start of the blog shows all the holes.

Drilling holes is easy, but it wasn’t a quick job. I must admit I spent ages measuring the positions to make sure I drilled the holes in the right places!

Cobalt provide very good instructions with their point motors. However, they don’t supply a template for where to drill the holes with the point motor (although they do provide one at extra cost). I made my own template from a scrap of paper, and it was a really useful to position the holes correctly.

After the measuring and drilling it was a straightforward job. I fitted the point motor underneath the baseboard.

The throw arm pointed up through the hole in the baseboard.

It was easy to lower the point into place, feeding the throw arm into the tie bar of the point and feeding the three electrical wires down into the other holes.

When I was happy everything was in the right place I glued the point, and the track for the head shunt, in position with a few blobs of superglue.

Creating a DCC Power Bus

We like beans in our family!

The beans are tasty and the tins make great weights to hold things in place while you are waiting for glue to dry.

This week I’ve been making the main ‘power bus’ for my layout. Essentially it is two wires running the length of the layout to carry power to all the track, points (called switches in the USA) etc. Smaller wires (called ‘droppers’) are soldered to each piece of track and each point, then connected to the power bus. This provides a direct power supply to each piece of track, ideal for DCC.

I started by cutting several small wooden blocks and drilling two small holes through each block.

I glued these to the underside of the baseboard and I waited while the cans of beans did their magic. Then I threaded two wires through each block. This gave me a (primitive) power bus.

It’s definitely not rocket science 🙂