Author Topic: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con  (Read 4748 times)

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basementcalling

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Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« on: June 04, 2013, 10:08:42 PM »
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Foam or plywood, that's my question.

I have a LOT of foam on hand, but am worried about using it as extensively for a top for the benchwork primarily because of the thickness. I am also concerned about my ability to mount turnout control mechanisms (micro DPDT switches, Tortises, Blue Point, or other mechanisms) above or below deck with precision. I am currently testing, but not thrilled with results. I can make use of the foam I have for scenery, and will do so even if it's not the material of choice for the subroadbed. I really like how fast I can build that and get track down when working with foam and appropriate glues.

3/4 inch plywood would is heavy and awkward to cut solo. It's also expensive, especially compared to the free supplies currently in stock. However, it is thinner and stronger than foam, and mounting turnout controls above or below subroadbed is more secure. It's also probably easier to get consistent grades with vertical transition curves in plywood with proper supports than with foam. Woodland Scenics riser system is getting a test run on foam, and might be used even on top of plywood in some places, but transitioning from flat towns to the 2% ruling grade on my mainline is a problem to be solved to prevent unwanted uncouplings or derailments.

Any plusses or minuses I am overlooking?

Peter
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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #1 on: June 04, 2013, 11:27:45 PM »
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For my modules, I usually use a base of 1/4" plywood,  with a 3/4" layer of foam glued solidly on top.

This combination offers both the solidity of plywood and the easy workability of foam, while being thinner than a foam-only structural base, and easier to work with than thick plywood.
Rob M., a.k.a. Zox
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kelticsylk

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #2 on: June 05, 2013, 12:04:48 AM »
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On the Allegheny Eastern I tried several different materials as the layout was under development. Today the roadbed is made from splines constructed of laminated 1/2" thk. blue extruded styrofoam. At the yard, where I needed a huge flat area I used a slab of 2" thk. pink extruded styrofoam. I use 1/4" plywood for the roadbed of my helix. All these materials work great but require supports every 12". The 2" thk foam doesn't need as much support because most of it is sitting on a solid top bookcase.

Switch machines, when I get them, will probably be held in place temporarily with short coarse thread drywall screws until they are lined up properly, then glued in place on the bottom of the foam.

robert3985

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #3 on: June 05, 2013, 09:04:10 PM »
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Sometimes I hop into this topic because I do it differently than a lot of modelers.  On the other hand, I do it very similar to other modelers so I'm going to venture a guess that there are two schools of thought about how to build benchwork.

(1) The "Tabletop School": This is where model railroaders build or find a tabletop to build their empires on.  The positive aspects of this school are (a) it's quick, (b) it's easy, (c) it's relatively inexpensive, and (d) it's flexible.

Model railroaders who use sectional track use this method a lot because it allows them to move their trackwork around and play with it.  It's fun to build an empire out of Kato Unitrack, run it for a while, then change it...with all of the pieces being reusable. 

Some model railroaders, after they get deeper into the hobby, decide that modeling an empire on a tabletop doesn't fit their needs.  The reasons for this are many and include (a) Grades are difficult to include, especially those that are below median track level. (b) Below median track level scenery aspects are difficult to incorporate without destroying the structural integrity of the tabletop...extra bracing and supports are usually needed for this. (c) Tabletops are not the best way to support tracks on layouts that depict prototypical scenes which are usually long and narrow, or wide and squarish. (d) Tabletops don't lend themselves well to flowing layout fascias which are not parallel to the trackage on top.  (e) It's more difficult to work on tabletops when there is a lot of under-layout wiring, switch motor installations and adjustments and acts as a barrier when laying track and doing wiring.

The second school of thought is the "Open Benchwork School", which is usually where more advanced model railroaders gravitate to.  The Open Benchwork School builds an open supportive structure to place their subroadbed on, and there are only "tabletops" where there's a yard, a town or large industrial area...and their "tabletops" are supported by risers, attached to the benchwork underneath, just like the subroadbed is.

The advantages of open benchwork include these points: (a) Structurally very stable and strong (built properly) (b) Access to under-layout wiring and supportive structures is excellent until the scenery base is installed (c) different types of subroadbed lend themselves excellently to grades, both above and below median track level  (d) Scenery is not restricted by a structural surface in between tracks.  (d) Attaching flowing layout fascias is very easy. (e) Odd sizes of "layout territory" are easy to achieve, such as whatever you need, long and narrow, wide and bulbuous, anything in-between.

The disadvantages of open benchwork are these: (a) Trackplan flexibility is restricted (b) Involves advance planning as to layout theme, operating protocols, scenery, etc. (c) Building open benchwork involves carpentry skills and tools. (d) Open Benchwork will make you work more before you can run trains.

All that said, I am an open benchwork proponent for those who want to build prototypical scenes (Layout Design Elements...LDE's) for their layouts.  I buid simple, strong benchwork using twin L-girder construction, with risers supporting subroadbed, with all carpentry joints glued and screwed.  Front fascias are composed of laminated 1/8" Masonite with dimensional lumber supports attached to the L-girders.  Subroadbed is composed of splined Masonite, which mean it's made of several strips of 1" X 1/8 or 1/4" glued and clamped together...which is a very cheap, flexible way of making strong, dimensionally stable subroadbed.

When I'm attaching my subroadbed and track to the benchwork, it is extremely easy for me to wire things up, since everything is open all around the trackwork.  I can do just about everything by simply standing and working on it all.  I test it thoroughly before installing my scenery base (composed of extruded Styrofoam), so my under-the-layout time is minimal.

Mounting under-track hardware, particularly switch motors is very easy using the 1" thick laminated Masonite splined subroadbed, and involves making a small square platform out of aircraft quality plywood 1/8" thick, pre-drilling mounting holes for both the Tortoises I use and to attach the plywood mount to the underside of the subroadbed. I've had to replace a couple of Tortoises over the years, and although it's not particularly comfortable to get under the layout (even though it's 53" tall under there), replacing the switch motors is easy as the mount stays on, the switch motor just comes off and the new one simply gets screwed on, the activation wire fished up, and the leads soldered on.

When I'm building a new section, my DCC wiring is really really easy because I can get at everything from above before my scenery base is installed.

However, I have built some modules using 2" extruded Styrofoam as both the subroadbed and scenery base.  The idea seemed good at the time, but even 2" foam was "saggy" and finally involved adding a supportive structure underneath out of dimensional lumber.  I also had problems with that extra 1" of depth when mounting my Tortoises underneath as opposed to my home layout's 1" subroadbed depth.  Although I'm comfortable with glue, I had a couple of Tortoises and their mounts become separated from the bottom surface of the Styrofoam...the glue and mounts were all there...but the Styrofoam popped.

I know lots of guys build their layouts on Styrofoam and have not had problems with it, but that has not been my experience.  That's probably because I unplug my layout sections from the layout and take them to shows three times a year, which I am sure induces a lot of stress into the structural equation, which non-portable, stay-at-home layouts don't have to be built to endure.

I would retain the Styrofoam as a scenery base, but make my subroadbed out of laminated, splined Masonite.  It's strong, cheap, easy to work with and sheets of it are readily available.  I use 1/8" strips for curved subroadbed, and 1/4" for longer, straighter sections.  Although I have a nice table saw, I take the Masonite sheets to a local cabinet mill to have them precisely cut them into 1" strips for me.  I have the 4X8 sheets cut at The Home Depot lengthwise down the middle for ease of handling...which they do for free.  My cabinet mill appreciates the reduced size also.

Some guys (I'm not the only one who uses splined Masonite subroadbed) use yellow carpenter's hot glue as the prime adhesive, then clamp it up and slather liquid yellow carpenter's glue on the tops and bottoms after the hot glue has cooled and solidified. But, I've decided to use yellow carpenter's liquid glue for this instead, which produces a highly monolithic and stable structure.  Some guys laminate Masonite up using 2" spacers, spaced 4" apart every other laminate layer between long solid splines, which reduces weight and material usage.

Over the years, I've found several advantages to the Splined Masonite Subroadbed method which include (a) Low cost (b) excellent structural and dimensional stability (c) easily handled by one person when constructing (d) material is readily available at home improvement super stores (e) curves naturally assume a spiral easement coming from straight sections (f) Splined Masonite is extremely quiet, in fact, it's the quietest material/method I've ever heard which is particularly useful if you're running trains equipped with sound, (g) the top surface is easily sanded to ensure extra smooth, level subroadbed to mount your cork and track on (h) adhesives are common woodworking glues, and work very well with this material  (i) Splined Masonite subroabed is very efficient, as the only thing wasted when you cut the strips is the sawblade kerf. (j) Joints are much stronger than either Styrofoam or plywood joints...like exponentially stronger (k) If you were considering using plywood as your subroadbed, splined Masonite subroadbed is attached by gluing and screwing, just like plywood would have been.

The disadvantages are: (a) Assembling subroadbed is more time consuming than simply cutting it, gluing and screwing it (b) if you elect to cut the strips yourself, you'll be blowing Masonite dust out of your nose for three days, and it'll be ALL OVER your shop/garage, and it'll dull your carbide blade if you cut half a dozen 4X8 sheets (c) a few "special techniques" are needed to properly take advantage of this material and method (d) it's heavier than plywood or Styrofoam.

Here are some photos of my benchwork on my portable layout sections:

This one show double track mainlines blending into a center siding (3 parallel tracks) which is why the splined Masonite is so wide here on the Emory Center Siding LDE.


Here's a photo of my Taggarts LDE, which has double tunnels and bridges spanning the Weber River.  This is the attaching to the benchwork/risers stage using yellow carpenter's glue, clamps and some improvised "clamps" consisting of pieces of 1X2's and long grabber screws.


Here's an old L-girder module being updated to DCC wiring (its folding legs are removed).  You can see the splined 1/4" Masonite subroadbed in the yard area, and you can also see how the Tortoises are attached.


I know this method isn't for everybody, but it's by far the best method for my use (permanent trackplan, LDE's, portable modules) as I want to take NO chance my benchwork will warp, come unglued, or be damaged in transport because it's fragile.



« Last Edit: June 05, 2013, 09:18:21 PM by robert3985 »

eja

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #4 on: June 06, 2013, 01:43:15 AM »
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robert3985

Well written and insightful reply .... thanks

eja

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #5 on: June 06, 2013, 04:11:28 AM »
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Mine has a little bit of everything:
Foam
Plywood
Ceiling tile over plywood
Foam over plywood
1x lumber (under prefabbed dual-gauge turnouts)
and, in one area, cardboard under bedsheet-reinforced plaster under real dirt.

Whatever worked in that spot, and seemed stable enough to use, was used.

The mainline, on the other hand, is all on balsa-strip roadbed, except for a few sections of 1/4 inch lumber under the dual gauge turnouts, so it doesn't matter what the base is.

The foam and tile are easy to cut ditches in, the plywood is ideal for urban areas with streets and sidewalks, and the plaster is a cheap way to fill an area that doesn't have to support anything except "natural" scenery.
N Kalanaga
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DKS

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #6 on: June 06, 2013, 08:51:46 AM »
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Once I started using foam, there was no going back for me. I've always explored using new materials and techniques, as there are often benefits over more traditional approaches. Living in the Northeast, I have learned that wood and wood products can cause problems; also, I tend to build small portable layouts, and I prefer using materials that combine light weight and strength.

I have two styles of construction, depending on size/portability.

For small portable layouts, I begin with a base of Gatorfoam. It's a bit pricey, but IMO it's well worth it. The base is usually two layers of 1/2-inch Gatorfoam laminated together with heavy-duty spray cement. If grades are involved, I use Gatorfoam cut cookie-cutter style and mounted to the base with Gatorfoam risers, all glued together with carpenter's glue. Scenery may be carved extruded foam (pink or blue), hardshell, laminated Foamcore, or any combination thereof. The result of this approach is a very lightweight, very strong assembly.

Some photo illustrations...

Cutting the subroadbed:


Making risers:




Subroadbed assembled to base with risers:


Building scenery using layers of Foamcore:


For permanent home layouts (golly, it's been such a long time), I use steel two-by-fours, assembled into a grid, bolted to the wall with heavy-duty steel L-brackets, and topped with two-inch extruded foam to create the main layout surface. From there, I'll just pile on more foam, using it for everything including the roadbed. The result of this approach is lightning-quick assembly and an extremely stable layout surface. It also has the advantage that alterations are far less painful than with traditional techniques such as L-girder benchwork and plywood or spline roadbed. I have long since stopped using any wood or wood products owing to their dimensional instability from changes in humidity (this is not as much an issue for folks in the Southwest).

I use the cookie-cutter method to cut two-inch foam strips for roadbed, supporting it every few inches with scraps of foam. For switch machines, I would assemble the machine on a scrap of thick styrene and glue the styrene to the foam with caulk. This allowed me to make fine adjustments to the position before the caulk set, then I'd pin it in place with large T-pins until the caulk set. For layout fascia, I used Gatorfoam, cut much like Masonite, and glued in place with caulk; then I'd apply vinyl shelf liner (black, brown or woodgrain) to the surface to create an attractive and durable finish.

Frank Musick is perfecting a method of using foam insulation board for spline subroadbed, and it's worth checking out.

I'm sorry I don't have photos illustrating the assembly of steel benchwork and foam roadbed, but I'm not the only one who uses these two techniques, so there ought to be some online resources. But the finished effect looks like this:


The black stripe running along the fascia is a strip of Velcro, which allowed me to hang my throttles anywhere that was convenient.

Incidentally, for both layout types, I use double-sided foam tape to lay the track. Here is a sequence showing how I laid track on my latest layout.

I'm know this didn't answer your question directly; I thought you might like to see some non-traditional approaches, in case you'd like to explore more options.
« Last Edit: June 06, 2013, 09:16:26 AM by David K. Smith »
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basementcalling

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #7 on: June 06, 2013, 11:16:21 AM »
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David, I think your experimental methods can have the experimental removed. I've seen you work and it's outstanding. I can see using foam based products for small layouts, especially for those designed to be portable or ones needing to be lightweight for other reasons.

My big foam concerns are thickness and attaching turnout mechanisms. I'll have to play with the styrene attachment methods you described, and would love to hear more details to your method. I like having adjustment time, but have lingering questions about how easy it would be to move a tortise or other machine attached that way if you needed to do repairs or modifications to the wiring. My experience with glue and turnout motors was not good. Foam also doesn't seem to hold micro DPDT switches well either.

Of course right now to get to some basic switching on the layout, I am using small sewing push pins to hold the Atlas throwbar in place. Need to throw the turnout, pull the pin and move the points, then repin it to the foam. Works remarkably well, but looks pretty unprototypical. I could probably design a realistic looking head for the pin, but worry about operators constantly having to reach into scenes to repin the turnouts. Eventually someone would damage the scenery, either with a stray elbow or sleeve, or from the pins constantly pushing new holes in the foam subroadbed.

Robert, is there anything you do that is not top notch?  Spine roadbed made your way sounds very efficient, though cutting that much masonite makes my nose twitch just thinking about it. Without a table saw, it would be a hard method to duplicate as I know no cabinet makers. I am trying to avoid Masonite ANYWHERE on my layout, even in the backdrop of fascia.

I plan to use styrene for backdrops, and I need to reread an old Model Railroad Planning to find the name of the material Alan McClellend used on fascias on the V&O later in its existence. Whatever it was, it had a hook and loop nature that allowed it to hold velcro on throttles and clipboards making the entire fascia useful for holding objects and eliminating some of the clutter we create with car card boxes and such. I want a nice clean look to the layout, and am trying to avoid sacrificing any aisle width to obstructions. I saw an idea for using sliding drawer tracks to make retractable shelves that I plan to incorporate into the design.

I am sure I will incorporate some mix of many types of subroadbed into the layout. 2 yard modules aready are totally foam topped, but the turnout control issue may result in rebuilding. I think foam can be used in rural areas very well, especially on my sections with grades. Woodland Scenic risers are a viable option when making a layout this way, and I have had good luck with them on smaller test beds.

Towns, probably plywood, perhaps with a thin foan topping to make drainage features easier to include.

Yards or heavy industrial areas will undoubtedly have plywood under them, at least as part of a layer cake.

Peter
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mmagliaro

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #8 on: June 06, 2013, 12:04:05 PM »
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I'm not an "old hand" at using foam, but I have used it on 2 layouts, including my current one, and would never
use anything else because of the flexibility to carve features below track level and to simply make
terrain.
I used a 2" base.  It is very strong (although of course, I would never stand on it, and I have been able to
do that on layouts I actually built with a 3/4" thick plywood base!)

As for switch machines, I cut out a small rectangle of model aircraft plywood, 1/8" thick, mount the machine to it with screws,
and then glue it to the underside of the foam base with the same caulk adhesive I use to stick down the foam and mount
the track.  I have tried this with tortoise, bluepoint, and switchcraft, and it works well.  I have never had to replace a machine,
but if I did, I could unscrew it from the plywood from underneath and replace it without losing my alignment (assuming
the new unit has its mounting holes in exactly the same place as the old one).


robert3985

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #9 on: June 06, 2013, 01:53:43 PM »
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I'm not an "old hand" at using foam, but I have used it on 2 layouts, including my current one, and would never
use anything else because of the flexibility to carve features below track level and to simply make
terrain.
I used a 2" base.  It is very strong (although of course, I would never stand on it, and I have been able to
do that on layouts I actually built with a 3/4" thick plywood base!)

As for switch machines, I cut out a small rectangle of model aircraft plywood, 1/8" thick, mount the machine to it with screws,
and then glue it to the underside of the foam base with the same caulk adhesive I use to stick down the foam and mount
the track.  I have tried this with tortoise, bluepoint, and switchcraft, and it works well.  I have never had to replace a machine,
but if I did, I could unscrew it from the plywood from underneath and replace it without losing my alignment (assuming
the new unit has its mounting holes in exactly the same place as the old one).

This is exactly what I was going to suggest  :)
« Last Edit: June 06, 2013, 01:58:06 PM by robert3985 »

davefoxx

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #10 on: June 06, 2013, 02:13:03 PM »
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I use 2" foam, which I cookie cutter and shim with small foam blocks to create the grade (similar to what DKS described above).  I don't foresee me ever going back to stick framing benchwork topped with plywood.  My current layout, of course, is built on a HCD.  Carving foam for scenery above and below track level is no problem and repairs/modifications are easy.

Before:


After:


DFF

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Dave V

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #11 on: June 06, 2013, 02:21:39 PM »
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Dave,

Your layout looks really great.  I love how precise the trackwork is.

I do think, however (and please take no offense) that we need Tom Mann to do one of those DIY Network "crashers" type shows where Tom comes in and weathers the crap out of your stuff while you're on a 3-day vacation.

'And now, the reveal..."

Just sayin'.   :trollface:
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davefoxx

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #12 on: June 06, 2013, 02:32:16 PM »
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Dave,

Your layout looks really great.  I love how precise the trackwork is.

I do think, however (and please take no offense) that we need Tom Mann to do one of those DIY Network "crashers" type shows where Tom comes in and weathers the crap out of your stuff while you're on a 3-day vacation.

'And now, the reveal..."

Just sayin'.   :trollface:

No offense taken, 'cause it's true.  Weathering is just down towards the bottom of my very long to do list, but I will get around to it someday.  At this point, I just don't own an airbrush, and there's not enough hours in the day with a little one in the house.  That's why it's been a year since I started the Seaboard Central and this is only as far as I have gotten.  I certainly wouldn't mind it if my layout got :tommann:-ed.

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delamaize

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #13 on: June 06, 2013, 03:42:56 PM »
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Dave,

Your layout looks really great.  I love how precise the trackwork is.

I do think, however (and please take no offense) that we need Tom Mann to do one of those DIY Network "crashers" type shows where Tom comes in and weathers the crap out of your stuff while you're on a 3-day vacation.

'And now, the reveal..."

Just sayin'.   :trollface:

THIS

Also, I'd love to see what he'd to to my NP A4, or better yet the climax.....dear god, the dirtyness......
« Last Edit: June 06, 2013, 08:29:00 PM by delamaize »
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bill pearce

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Re: Benchwork toppers Pro and Con
« Reply #14 on: June 06, 2013, 04:53:36 PM »
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When  I start my next layout, it will be very different, based on my previous experience. Last layout used wood. Lots and lots of it. Little did I know how much wood can expand and contract with changes in humidity. My last one had 2x legs with L girders supporting 1/2" plywood roadbed, and plaster over screenwire scenery. Next one will be Micore on top of a steel stud framework and legs. Let's see that stuff shrink and swell. I might decide to use Masonite spline roadbed, but you can be sure it will be covered with several coats of primer. I will return to using yellow carpenter's glue to hold down track and a thin plaster shell on screenwire. Turnouts shouldn't be a problem if the hole for the actuating wire is also primed.