Building a Model Railroad – Part 10: Lighting

The sun is shining and it looks like a great day to head trackside to see what’s moving.

With the backdrop fully installed and the baseboards cut to shape and temporarily in place, I decided to button up the ceiling by installing the layout lighting and valance. I wanted to do this now partly because there is anything to damage on the layout but primarily because the lighting will be essential to painting the backdrop which needs to happen relatively soon.

In this update I’ll focus on the framework that supports the lighting and valance as well as installation of the LED light fixtures (he valance will be the topic for a future post). To start I went through all my scrap lumber and pulled out anything that seemed like it might be usable, then I pieced all this together into grids that could be hung from the floor joists. As it turned out I only needed to purchase two new boards and this was a great way to utilize what was otherwise waste that had been taking up a lot of storage space.

Attaching the pre-assembled grid and making sure it lines up with the edge of the benchwork.

So as to ensure that the valance and fascia would line up with each other, I rubber-banded a small spirit level to a stick with a good, straight edge and clamped the stick to the bench work so that the level showed it to be plumb. Then I aligned the grids to the top of the stick while screwing them to the joists.

I also took this opportunity to add some bracing to the coves on the benchwork corners which will give me an attachment point when the time comes to install the fascia.

Getting back to the ceiling, now that I had the grid in place I padded out some L-brackets with short pieces of wood to provide a surface to screw the valance into and then attached the brackets to the grid every couple of feet.

Assembling the valance brackets.
A valance bracket installed.

After the valance brackets were in place I added small strips of wood to act as mounts for the lights themselves. I based the placement of these such that the lights could not be seen from a normal viewing angle but would still evenly light the layout and backdrop. They point straight down everywhere except for under the forced air duct where the light is angled a bit as it sits lower than normal and I didn’t want to leave the top of the backdrop in shadow.

The lights mount to small clips that are screwed into the wood. They’re then daisy chained together with up to 8 lights on a circuit. I have 20 lights which worked out to 3 circuits: one of 4 lights for staging, one of 8 for the mainline and one of 8 for the mill/branchline. The lights I used are 2′ long T5 4000k LED tube lights with frosted covers. I found the 4K lights to be a bit more “correct” temperature wise to my eye’s than 5K lights which would have been closer to true daylight. I also bought a few longer connector cables, because the cables included with the lights were relatively short, as well as some much longer power cables for the end of each circuit .

The final task was coming up with a way to route the lighting cables down from the ceiling to the switch panel under the layout. I also needed to run the power feed for the layout itself down from the ceiling. I dug through my scrap piles and found some vinyl C-channel that came with my basement windows that I hadn’t needed. I discovered that it was possible to place one piece inside another to create a sort of wiring tunnel that was just the right width for everything I needed to run down from the ceiling. I attached the C-channel to the peninsula backdrop extending it up to just below the floor joists. I then routed the power feed down through a piece of metal conduit to an outlet box mounted on the layout and ran the lighting cables next to it. The C-channel when closed up makes for a tidy install that can be accessed with ease from the staging side of the layout.

It always surprises me to see how much of a difference good lighting makes. The basement is like another world now, especially in the winter when it’s dark and gloomy outside. These lights are not the fanciest option on the market but they meet my current needs and the price was right.

– Chris

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