How To Expert Tips How to use PCB ties

How to use PCB ties

By Eric White, Senior Editor | March 31, 2022

Printed-circuit board ties can solve problems in track laying

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

The PCB tie is trimmed to length and gapped between the rails.
How to use PCB ties: An open package of printed-circuit board ties with one tie out of the bag.
Printed-circuit board ties are useful for all kinds of projects and repairs on your layout. Senior editor Eric White found these in the Model Railroader workshop and used them to fix some out-of-gauge track.

How to use PCB ties: Printed-circuit board (PCB) ties are pieces of printed-circuit board cut to railroad tie shape. They’re available for most popular scales and are great for areas where you need to ensure track stays in gauge.

A common use is for scratchbuilding turnouts. They’re used around the frog to keep the closure rails, guardrails, and frog all in position, and to hold the point rails together as a switch rod.

They also come in handy for ensuring alignment on modular or sectional layouts where tracks have to cross from one piece of benchwork to another, or for swing gates and lifts spans.

The reason they work so well in these situations is because of how they’re made. Printed-circuit board material has a thin copper cladding adhered to a non-conductive surface. The copper cladding is usually on both sides of the substrate, so this can sometimes require a little extra work. The copper cladding allows the rails to be soldered in place, ensuring they won’t move out of gauge.

Let’s take a look at a recent repair I made on the staging tracks of the Model Railroader staff’s Milwaukee, Racine & Troy layout.

How to use PCB ties: Closeup view of flex track soldered joint on curve with gap in plastic ties under joint.
This joint between code 100 rail on the left and code 83 rail on the right was the source of a derailment going into the MR&T’s lower staging yard.

While moving a train into staging, it derailed at this spot where the main line code 83 track meets the staging code 100 track. To make the transition, the builder flattened one end of a rail joiner, slipped it onto the code 100 track with the flattened end sticking out, then soldered the code 83 rail on top of the flattened rail joiner.

Since there was no support under this joint, it eventually got out of gauge. I knew a PCB tie would ensure the rails stayed where they needed to.

How to use PCB ties: A National Model Railroad Association standards gauge is placed on the track.
A National Model Railroad Association standards gauge shows the track is too narrow in gauge, causing my derailment.

The first thing to do was identify the problem. I already knew where the derailment happened, and a National Model Railroad Association standards gauge showed me the gauge was too tight at the point where the different codes of rail joined.

A piece of printed-circuit board tie is placed under the track.
I always check the fit of parts before doing anything permanent. Having a tight fit under the rail would make it easier to keep the parts in place while working.

Since PCB ties come in different thicknesses, I wanted to check how the material we had would fit. Everything looked good.

A three-point die-cast metal rail gauge sits above the rail joint.
A die-cast rail gauge is a handy tool for holding rail in place during soldering. Ours came from Micro Engineering.

I used a three-point die-cast metal rail gauge to align the rails. I had to loosen the joint with a soldering iron, then I slipped the gauge in place before the solder cooled. This kept everything in alignment for the next step.

Three-point rail gauge above joint in track with PCB tie under joint and pencil-type soldering iron tip coming in from right.
The gap between the gauge’s points allows room to solder the joint.

With the track in gauge, it was time to ensure it stayed that way. I slipped my length of PCB tie under the joint. I kept it long so it was easier to handle. Then I used a soldering iron to secure the tie to both rails under the rail joiners. I kept the gauge in position until everything cooled.

After the joint cooled, I flipped the gauge over so I could solder the other side.

A spinning motor tool with an abrasive cutoff wheel hangs above the repair.
An abrasive cutoff disk in a motor tool will make trimming the PCB tie quick and easy. I also cut a gap in the copper surface of the tie to insulate the rails from each other. A quick touch is all that’s needed to create the gap.

Once everything had cooled, it was time to trim and gap the tie. I used a motor tool with an abrasive cutoff wheel to trim the tie. Once I had an idea how quickly it would cut, I made a gap in the copper surface of the top of the tie. Don’t go too far into the substrate or you’ll weaken the tie and have to start over.

The PCB tie is trimmed to length and gapped between the rails.
You can see where the gap has been cut in the tie between the rails. A little paint could help disguise the repair if this were on a visible part of the layout.

With the PCB tie trimmed and gapped, the track was ready to be put back into service. If this were on a visible part of the layout, I would have painted the tie to match the track around it.

If this were a location where the tie was going to be nailed to the subroadbed, such as at a gap for a movable section of a layout, or for a sectional layout, I would have cut a gap in the bottom copper cladding as well, so any spike driven through the tie to secure it didn’t create a short circuit.

With the repair in place, trains now enter and leave staging without derailing.

Looking for more Expert Tips? Click here.

One thought on “How to use PCB ties

  1. This seems like an awfully lot of unnecessary work. For a lot less effort and a lot eaasier connection, try Atlas HO 551 Code 83 To Code 100 Transition Joiners.

You must login to submit a comment