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Track Braiding Overview

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dickie Pearson, Steve Sawtelle - All Rights Reserved.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Slot Car Corner LLC - All Rights Reserved.

 

Introduction

Here in the northeastern United States and southern Quebec, we are very fortunate to have a wide variety of 1/32 tracks to race on. Ask any racer which are their favorites and you'll get a variety of responses; however, there are a handful of tracks that nearly everyone seems to enjoy. Once such track is Marc Gosselin's 4 lane routed track in southern New Hampshire. Built in April, 2006, this is a challenging 78' layout which includes some interesting elevation changes including a "corkscrew" section similar to Laguna Seca. Marc has also done a great job landscaping the layout. When I recently asked Marc if he still enjoyed the layout, he replied, "I love this track! The comments from people that have never seen a setup like mine make it all worth while. Wood is the only way to go." I remember racing on Marc's track for the first time - the first few laps were very intimidating but with a little practice, the track was a blast to race on!

The track is located in a spacious heated basement; however, after a couple of years of regular use the copper tape was ready for replacement. The copper tape also required frequent repairs - particularly where supporting table sections met and expanded / contracted depending on the time of year. Dickie Pearson, who races regularly with Marc, had suggested braiding the layout instead of replacing the copper tape. Marc's initial reaction was like most other track owners when braiding a track is discussed - very difficult ("I don't have the tools or skills...") and a time-consuming project ("I don't want to be without my track any longer than I have to be..."). Over the past several months, Slot Car Corner has worked closely with several northeast track owners to braid their layouts - both new tracks and existing tracks which originally used copper tape. While braiding a track does involve some additional effort, it is NOT difficult. Rest assured, if you can route a track and tape it you can also braid it. In the end, Marc agreed to braid his layout - this article briefly describes the steps involved.

To Braid or Not to Braid...
Before we get into a description of the steps involved with braiding a layout, let's take a minute to review several factors to consider when deciding between tape and braid. Note there are always exceptions and the lists are not exhaustive.
 
When Copper Tape May Be The Way to Go...
  • You're uncertain about the layout design
  • This is a "test" track or the first routed track you have ever routed/built
  • You plan to change your layout frequently
  • Cost is an overriding concern
  • You run 1/32 cars with stock (or nearly stock...) motors
  • You don't plan to run magnet cars
  • You do not plan to transport the track
  • The track sees limited use
 
When Braid May Be The Way to Go...
  • The layout is not likely to change
  • You run 1/32 or 1/24 cars with "hotter" (higher current draw) motors
  • You want to run (or have the option to run...) magnet cars
  • You expect the track to see a lot of use (e.g. club track)
  • You want to ensure the best possible electrical connectivity
  • You want to minimize maintenance (e.g. tape pulling up, tape breaks, etc.)
  • You plan to transport the track
 
Braiding Marc's Track - An Overview

*** Warning *** Working with hand and power tools can be dangerous. Be sure to read and follow all tool manufacturer usage and safety guidelines. Always wear safety glasses when working with tools.

*** Note *** The high-quality track braiding supplies shown in this article (tinned copper braid, special router bits to route the "gain" or 3M two-sided tape), are available for purchase at the end of this article or by visting the "Track Braiding" section of the online store.
 

Disassembling the existing layout to route the gains was not an option so Marc setup some temporary plastic walls to help contain MDF dust to the immediate track area.

 

One of the most important tools for this project is a shop vacuum. It is very important to keep the track surface as clean as possible - particularly when routing. MDF dust on the track surface will prevent the router base from sitting perfectly flush which in turn will affect the depth of the gain. The MDF dust will also build-up on most vacuum's filters so periodically clean the filter to ensure the vacuum is working efficiently.

Some routers have built-in ports or connections to connect a vacuum to. For this project, a compact router was used (more on this later). One person would route while a second person would keep the vacuum hose positioned at the base of the router as shown. While not very high-tech or elaborate, it did a very good job of capturing the MDF dust generated by the routing operation.

These pictures show Marc (dark shirt) and Dickie working together to route the gains. Marc is using the compact router to route the gain which will accept the braid. Dickie is positioning the hose from the vacuum to catch the MDF dust. Again, this setup worked very well - most MDF dust was captured by the vacuum.

There were a couple of sections of the existing layout Marc rerouted to improve the overall track flow. Here Marc is shown filling in an area where the old slots were. After letting the filler (Durhams Rock Hard Water Putty) dry completely, the gains were routed.

A special router bit was used to route the "gains" on either side of the slot. This is a 3/4" carbide straight-cut bit which has been modified to include a 1/8" diameter pin in the center of the bit. The pin rides in the slot keeping the bit perfectly centered. The bit cuts both gains with a single pass - each gain is 5/16" wide. When installed in the gain, the edge of the 1/4" braid closest to the slot will be set back 1/16". This slight set back is very important to ensure the car's guide does not interfere with the braid.

Setting the depth of the bit is very important - the goal is to have the top surface of the braid just slightly below the racing surface. Use some scrap MDF to route some test gains - a short piece of braid can then be used to test the depth and adjust the router bit accordingly. Our router bit was set to about .040" (40/1,000th's).

*** Note *** The high-quality track braiding supplies shown in this article (tinned copper braid, special router bits to route the "gain" or 3M two-sided tape), are available for purchase at the end of this article or by visting the "Track Braiding" section of the online store.

As mentioned previously, Marc's layout includes a variety of elevation changes - some very subtle and some quite pronounced. There is also a banked turn. A traditional router base was too large to lie flat on these irregular surfaces - the result was gain depths which were inconsistent (and in some cases, non-existent!!). To deal with this, a compact router (Dewalt D26670) was used instead. Even with the smaller router base, there were still some areas of the track where the gain depth was too shallow (again, because the base was not perfectly flush with the uneven track surface). To overcome this, the stock router sub-base was modified as shown. Two passes of the router with the router/base turned 90 degrees (see pictures) were then made. The results exceeded our expectations - gains were clean and crisp with consistent depth everywhere. As a result, there was no need for planing or sanding.

Note: We were so impressed with this compact router, we plan to use it for all of our tracking routing needs in the future. Highly recommended!

Here are several shots of the track with the gains routed.

 

 

The exposed MDF in the gains must be painted before installing the special two-sided tape. This will seal out moisture which will help ensure the MDF does not expand/swell. Painting will also prevent damage to the MDF should the braid ever have to be removed in the future (the tape has a very strong bond which can damage the MDF if applied directly to it and subsequently removed). Marc took the opportunity to redo his lane colors so both the slots and gains were painted at the same time. Be sure to let the paint dry completely before installing the two-sided tape.

Marc's track is about 78' in length. Because braid has excellent electrical connectivity, a single power tap would suffice. However, Marc decided to add a second power tap for good measure. The taps require the braid to be "dropped" beneath the table where wiring connections will eventually be made. Marc drilled 1/4" holes in each gain being careful to ensure the outside edge of each hole was touching the edge of the gain. This will prevent the inside of the slot from being compromised. For each lane, the holes are also slightly offset (see picture). Again, the helps ensure the integrity of the slot and makes for a smoother transition when cars pass over the braid "joints". When the braid is installed in a later step, braid ends will be passed down through the holes - the ends of the braids can then be easily connected to the track wiring.

Marc is using the Trakmate for Windows race management system. Sensors were originally installed in the track surface with an overhead light bridge. These are being replaced with deadstrips which are located roughly halfway down the main straight. Here holes have been drilled to accomodate the deadstrips. Unlike holes for the power drops/taps, these holes are drilled in straight lines. Again, be sure to drill the holes so they touch the back (ridge) of the gain to prevent compromising the slot.

At this point, there are a couple of choices with respect to adhesive used to secure the braid to the track. Traditionally contact cement has been used; however, there are some downsides including:
  • Toxic fumes are unhealthy and require special breathing masks and adequate ventilation when working indoors
  • Spreading the contact cement on the "gain" and one side of the braid is time consuming and can be messy. Care must also be taken not to get contact cement into the slot.
  • Contact cement has a limited working time. Once applied to the gain and one side of the briad, you must wait until the contact cement sets up (typically about 10 minutes); however, if you wait too long, the contact cement will not adhere properly when the braid is pressed into the gain.

 

A more recent alternative is the use of special 3M two-sided tape. As the tape is unrolled one side of the tape/adhesive is exposed and pressed into the gain. Installation of the tape is very similar to applying copper tape except a backing will remain on the "upper" side of the tape. Once the "lower" side of the tape has been installed in the gain, the upper backing is removed and the braid is installed. The tape is very thin and incredibly sticky. The tape's adhesive is also very strong - it will continue to strengthen over several days once installed. The two-sided tape has none of the disadvantages of contact cement - installation is odorless and clean with no worries about working time. We have now used the two-sided tape on several tracks - once you use it, there is no going back to contact cement.

*** Note *** The high-quality track braiding supplies shown in this article (tinned copper braid, special router bits to route the "gain" or 3M two-sided tape), are available for purchase at the end of this article or by visting the "Track Braiding" section of the online store.

Once all gains have been routed and painted, the special two-sided tape can be installed. Carefully unroll the tape to expose one side side of the adhesive and press it into the gain. Try to keep one edge of the tape against the "back" of the gain so there is a small (approx. 1/16") gap between the slot and other tape edge. This is very similar to installing copper tape; however, the tape backing is more forgiving and less prone to accidently breaking. Use care not to touch the adhesive - the film is very thin and will pull completely away from the backing. Should this happen, you will have to "splice" the tape (described later).

On straight sections, you can work with 2-3" sections of tape to position and press it into place. Corners require a different technique - working with 1/2" to 3/4" sections makes it much easier to position the tape for smooth corners. Again, try to keep one edge of the tape as close to the "back" (ridge) of the gain as possible. Take your time!

One side of the gain for this lane has already been taped. Here Marc is carefully installing the two-sided tape into the second gain. Be sure to leave the adhesive backing which protects the top surface of the tape/adhesive in place for now.

 

Once the tape has been installed for a given lane, SLOWLY and CAREFULLY roll the tape to ensure the bottom layer of adhesive is making good contact with the gain surface. Here Dickie is using a homemade roller for this task.

 

If you encounter a break in the tape, adhesive which gets stuck to your fingers, reach the end of a tape roll or any other "problem" which might come up, you'll need to splice the tape. This is very easy to do. Start by using a pair of scissors to make a clean cut. Press the tape into the gain right to the edge of the tape. Carefully peel back 1" to 1-1/2" of the adhesive backing which will expose the upper layer of adhesive (see circled area - it's very difficult to see but the exposed tape is there.

Ensure there is a nice clean end/edge on the new piece of tape (use your scissors to cut the end of the tape if necessary). Position the end of the new piece of tape over the exposed adhesive from the end of the tape you are splicing to.

 

Press the end of the new piece of tape in place taking care to ensure the tape is positioned in the gain properly (one edge should be as close the the "back" (ridge) of the gain as possible.

 

The splice is complete - you're ready to continue taping. The short length of gain with doubled up adhesive does not create a "bump" in the braid. Once the braid is installed and rolled in a later step, you will not be able to detect splices.

 

Once all of the tape has been installed and rolled, use a sharp hobby knife to carefully cut the tape where is passes over holes drilled earlier for the braid drops/power taps (i.e. where the braid will be fed or "dropped" down through the table to facilitate electrical wiring later)

Start at one of the holes where the braid will be "dropped" under the table. Carefully peel back the protective backing to expose the upper layer of tape adhesive.

 

Feed about 6" of braid through the hole, bend it and then begin positioning the braid in the gain. The adhesive won't let you "slide" or "push" the braid so use your fingers to position one edge of the braid against the "back" (ridge) of the gain. You will find this comes very naturally - with just a little practice you can position the braid exactly where it needs to be before pressing it into the adhesive.

A short section of braid which has been pressed into place. Once the braid has been installed in the second gain for this lane, it will be rolled to ensure it is fully seated in the gain and making good contact with the tape adhesive.

 

When you reach the end of a braid segment (i.e. a hole where the braid will be "dropped" under the track surface), DON"T press the braid in place right up to the hole initially. Instead, stop 2-3" from the hole and pass the end of the braid through. This will give you a nice gradual bend which will not distort the width or thickness of the braid. Slowly and carefully pull the end of the braid through the hole from the underside of the table while guiding the braid into the gain.

Once the braid is installed for one gain, follow the same process for the second gain. Here the protective tape is being removed to expose the upper adhesive.

 

Once again start by feeding about 6" of braid down through the hole on one end of a track segment, bend and begin the braid installation.

 

Here you can see a short portion of the track with braid installed on either side of the slot. When you begin to see the finished product like this, it will bring a smile to your face!

 

Another example of finishing a segment of braid. Once again note the braid has not been pressed into place right up to the hole. The braid has a nice gradual bend which makes it very easy to feed through the hole without any distortion. Pull the end of the braid slowly from the underside of the table while guiding the final 2-3" of braid into place in the gain.

Once both braid segments have been installed for a given lane, use a roller to press the braid firmly into the tape. This will also ensure the braid is fully seated in the gain. It is a good idea to roll the braid 1-2 times a day for several days until the adhesive is fully cured.

A second pair of hands make it much easier to manage the braid. Here Marc is installing the braid while Dickie is managing the braid roll. With two or more people, you can manage longer braid lengths/segments. If you're working by yourself, increase the number of braid drops which will result in shorter lengths of braid to work with (you can measure and precut lengths so you don't have to wrestle with the spool if desired).

A couple of shots showing the short lengths of braid which will form the deadstrips for each lane.

 

Here are a couple of shots of the finished product - pictures just don't do it any justice. The braid will provide many, many years of trouble free service. While not shown in these pictures, the inherent flex allows the braid to follow curves without kinking. The inherent flex in the braid is also much more tolerant of the track material (MDF) and underlying table expanding / contracting as conditions change in the basement.

 
So How Long Does It Take?
So just how much effort was required to complete this project? Here is a rough breakdown:
  • Routing the Gains - This task took Marc and Dickie about 4 hours to complete. This does not include the track sections where Marc filled and rerouted the slots.
  • Installing the Tape - This task also took Marc and Dickie about 4 hours to complete. Four (4) lanes at roughly 78' per lane times 2 gains per lane is about 624' of tape. The infield sections required climbing up on the table to tape which slows things down a bit.
  • Installing the Braid - The track was divided into 2 sections for braiding. The infield section was completed in about 1-1/2 hours. Marc and Dickie took turns braiding and managing the roll of braid. Working by himself, Marc completed the remaining section in about 2 hours. This section could be accessed without having to climb up on the table.
The work for each of these steps was performed at a very leisurely pace with frequent breaks (for example, the movie "LeMans" was playing on Sunday while taping so we had to stop and watch favorite scenes). Other distractions included a pesky photographer (that would be Steve...) who insisted on taking 300+ pictures over the course of the weekend.
 
Summary (So How Difficult Is This Really...)

Pictures always make these sort of project look easy - so how difficult is this really? The short answer is, "Not very difficult at all." As we stated at the outset of this article, if you are planning to route a track (or have already routed a track), you can install braid. There seems to be a myth amongst slot car racers and track owners that braiding a track requires special tools, skills and knowledge that only professional track builders possess. We respectfully disagree.

 

Let's start with a list of the tools used for this project:

  • Router - you'll need one to route your track in the first place (regardless of whether you use copper tape or braid)
  • Self-centering 3/4" straight cut router bit - while not absolutely required, the pin which rides in the slot to center the bit while routing the gains will make the job easier (you could also fashion a router base with a couple of pins 180 degrees apart on either side of the bit to ride in the slot).
  • Roller - for rolling the tape and braid (readily available at a hardware or paint store)
  • Drill with 1/4" bit - for drilling the holes where the braid will be "dropped" below the table for wiring
  • Scissors - for cutting the tape and braid
  • Vacuum - for keeping the MDF dust under control while routing

As you look at this list, none of these tools (with the possible exception of the router bit with center pin) are "special". There's a good chance you already have most of these tools (and you're probably looking for a good excuse to get any that you don't already have...). There is one other tool not included on the list which, by FAR, will be the tool you use most to complete this project - your two hands! Skeptical about the hands? Take a minute to go back and take another look at the pictures accompanying this article. Most show a pair of hands (or two pairs if you have a helper).

Next lets list skills you'll need for this project:

  • You'll will need to know how to use a router but that's hardly a "special" skill. Even if you've never used one before, you can practice on some scrap MDF and get the hang of it very quickly. Since you'll route the slots first, you'll already be an "expert" by the time you are ready to route the gains.
  • Next, you'll need to install the two-sided tape in the gain (using your "special" hands...). That takes about 30 seconds to master.
  • Finally, you'll need to install the braid (again, using those "special" hands...) which is even easier and faster than installing the tape.

Finally, let's talk about "special" knowledge. Hopefully this article has conveyed most of the knowledge you need - again, it's not rocket science! If you're going to have problems, chances are it will be when you route the slots. Once you've routed the slots, the rest just falls into place. Take your time and follow the steps outlined in this article and you'll be done before you know it. The finished product adds a professional touch to any layout which will give years and years of troublefree service.

 
Special thanks to Dickie Pearson and Marc Gosselin for their assistance (and patience...) helping me to document the steps described above.