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Building a Control Panel

There isn't any one particular way to build a control panel nor is there any one particular material to build one out of. Control panels can be very plane or ornate, depending on the wants and desires of the person who is building the panel. Here is a description of a relatively easy control panel to build and some techniques to follow in building it.

The first thing you will need to do is decide how large of a panel you need to build so that it will be understandable and hold all of the electrical switches and/or indicator lights you may need to put on it. If your layout is small, one control panel may be all you need. If you layout is large, you will want to build a control panel for each town/area of the railroad. My layout is large, and I have 11 control panels around the layout. You don't want the panel to be so small that every thing is pushed together and you can't understand it, nor do you want it to be too large. This decision is up to you.

Once you have decided on the size, get a piece of paper the size of the control panel and draw a schematic of your layout on it and mark the schematic as to where all of the holes for the switches etc. will be placed. A schematic is a drawing that represents the track work of the layout and does not need to include curves nor the exact shape of the layout. For the basic beginners layout we talk about here, the schematic can be drawn as a single line with the sidings coming off that line, as long as you remember the spot on the layout where both ends of this line actually join together. You could also draw the schematic as a rectangle, representing the oval, with the sidings shown in roughly their real world position and the block boundaries indicated where they actually are.

When you have your schematic drawn to your satisfaction to the size of control panel you want, build a frame to mount the control panel to in the location you want the panel. Most frames are built out of 1 inch thick wood, so you will need to make your control panel about 1 ½ inches wider on each side so you can fasten it to the wood frame and so none of the electrical switches strike the wooden frame.

Now purchase a sheet of sheet metal, the type used for heating ducts, cut to the size you need for the finished control panel to fit over the mounting frame. File off any sharp edges and slightly round the corners with the file so you don't have any spots where you could cut yourself on the finished panel. Lay your schematic on top of the sheet metal and drill all of the holes for the electrical switches right through the paper drawing so they will be in the proper place. Wash the panel in hot soapy water and let dry completely. Then paint the panel the color you want the track representation to be, yellow is used quite often. You may need to paint it with two coats.

When the base color paint has had a couple of days to dry completely place ¼ inch wide masking tape on the panel in the same place as the lines of your schematic drawing.. Then repaint the entire panel with a flat black paint. You will probably need to apply two coats of black paint to completely cover the lighter color you chose for the track color. One the final coat of black paint is dry, remove the masking tape and your schematic will show up very nicely. Flat black paint will not glare or reflect light from any overhead lights you may have. Of course you can use any color of flat paint you desire too.

Other materials other than sheet metal can be used, but you must be sure it isn't so thick that the mountings for the electrical switches to pass through and enough length left for the washer and locking nut to fit. For example, you can use 1/8 inch plexiglas (not the real flimsy version), paint it black (or color of your choice) and use chart tape available at office supply stores for the lines. This isn't quite as permanent as the above method but does offer the possibility of making changes without repainting the entire panel.

Now mount all of the electrical apparatus to the panel, do your wiring and install the finished panel on to the frame you built. Again as an example, mini switches such as those should be Radio Shack are very good for power control and reversing. Both metal and plexiglas both will handle the mini switches and small push buttons with ease.

Another method is to use either material and mount a computer printed template over the supporting panel. Then cover it with a thin clear plastic. All holes and mounts would be made right through the entire panel.

That's it, you now have a control panel for your model railroad.


Page last updated November 17, 2004