Hiding Things in Plain Sight

One of the more challenging problems of building a large scale layout, outside, and unless you have acres of land – in the limited space available, you often run into the problem of backyard “stuff” winding up smack dab in the middle of your railroad.

I have a number of problems of this nature on my layout like my home’s AC heat exchanger and a bright white PVC drain pipe running across the width of the layout area. In this post I’ll show you how I hid the PVC pipe. In plain sight.


The Problem

Click to enlarge, use back button to returnHere’s an early picture of the condensation pipe running through the area in which I was building my layout.

This early layout picture shows the south end of the layout prior to a number of features being added such as the Power Curve Trestle and the Cliffs of Insanity.

But in this early shot you can clearly the see the issue with getting the AC condensation water from the outflow, back behind the AC heat exchanger, out to a suitable termination point which for me is the drain surrounded by the river rock in the lower left corner of the picture.

Having read Poe’s “Purloined Letter” I have decided to leave the pipe in plain sight and simply disguise it in a manner that blends in with the layout to the extent I’m capable of doing. To hide the pipe on its travels to the drain I’ve decided to encase the pipe in a wooden sleeve so as to make it look like a covered sluice.

The Disguise

The plan I eventually came up with had to meet several criteria.

  • The disguise had to fit over the PVC pipe, and this included connectors which are quite a bit thicker in diameter than the pipe itself.
  • The covering had to be supported in such a way as to allow for the descending nature of the pipe so water would flow downhill to the drain.
  • Finally, it had to be easily removable in case the pipe required servicing or replacing.

First step was to step down the diameter of the pipe from 3/4 inch pipe to 1/2 inch pipe. This was done back at the wall where there is a 90 degree elbow. A converter piece was adding and from there on the pipe and connectors are all 1/2 pieces.

My plan called for 18 inch sections that can be slid over the in place PVC pipe then joined together by hand so that they do not require glue or other fasteners allowing them to be easily undone and removed if necessary.

My material of choice (11/16ths thick cheapie redwood fence boards as found at Lowes or Home Depot) was then ripped down to strips 5/16ths by 5/8ths. This makes the widths exactly 1/2 the height. This is also about the smallest wood I’m comfortable cutting on my table saw as I am rather attached to all my fingers and want to keep it that way.

These strips were then cut into 18 inch lengths. Cutting was done on my low, low end portable table saw (under $200 at Loews) and my nifty hand powered miter saw.

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Next I created a simple jig and glued up pieces to make up the sluice sections. Each section will have two sides a top and a bottom. The sides are made up of two strips glued and flush on each end. The tops and bottom pieces are made up of three strips each but the ends are not flush so they can be fitted together like a puzzle piece.

Click to enlarge, use back button to returnThe center strip on the top and bottom pieces are offset the width of a strip (exactly 5/16ths). The end of the jig has a scrap piece tacked in place to keep all the offsets the same. Some care with the glue is necessary so you don’t inadvertently glue a strip to the jig.

When gluing I run a bead of glue down the first strip to go in the jig and then press the next strip in place. Then a bead of glue on the third strip and clamp. I leave it clamped about 30 minutes then carefully pry the piece up from the jig floor. A screwdriver is handy for this. Then I re-clamp the strips and let set for an hour or so. The jig will need to be scraped a bit from time to time so you don’t get a dried-glue build up.

The side that will be on the outside of the section will be seen so I take care to remove all glue runs that get squeezed to the surface when clamping. A damp rag or a small stiff brush dipped in water then blotted works very will for wiping up glue drips. Since the underside becomes the inside of the sluice, and cannot be seen, so I don’t worry about glue runs on that side.

The next step is gluing up the four fabricated pieces (top, bottom, and 2 sides) into a single 18 inch section. Each side gets a bead of glue and then gently press to the bottom piece, bringing the side pieces down on the outer edge and slowly rotating it down towards the inside of the section. This causes most of the glue that gets squeezed out to the inside of the sluice where it won’t show.

Once both sides are glued to the top and bottom pieces gently get clamps in place squeezing the top and bottom pieces together. Be sure to use some scrap pieces under the clamp surfaces where they come into contact with the wood so you don’t get indentations. Just tighten gently then check to see that the edges line up. Tighten a bit more and check the edges. Once secure clean up any glue drips then let dry about 30 minutes.

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For the frame dressing I used the same strip wood cut to 1 7/8ths lengths for the sides and 2 1/2 inch lengths for the frames going across the top and bottoms. Frames are roughly every 6 inches and aside from the tab end frame are just window dressing as they don’t structurally support anything.

Obviously you can never, and I mean never, have too many clamps. You can also see here that I favor Titebond III wood glue for anything “wood” that’s going outdoors. I glue the side pieces on first as they go flush to the edge of the top and bottom pieces. If you have one sticking up too much a bit of sandpaper will fix it. Just sand it down to be level with the top or bottom piece.

The frame pieces for the top and bottom extend flush to the outside edges of the side frame pieces. For gluing the frame pieces a small stiff brush for cleaning up the extruded glue works best.

Click to enlarge, use back button to returnThe only tricky bit is the slot end (the end is where the offset center piece tab extends out). You want the frames to extend exactly half the width of the frame piece past the end of the sluice. This is so you can join the tab end with the slot end which has not frame dressing pieces (sort like the old “insert tab A into slot B”).

The tab end is easier as there are no framing pieces to deal with. I took a small file to the edges of each tab to help the tabs slide firmly into the slots.

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Assembling the Sluice

Once I had all the sections built (6 for this project) I realized that for the straight run from the wall out towards the drain I could use 3 foot sections just as easily as 18 inch sections so I glued two of the slot and tab joints in the shop. So I wound up with only 4 separate sections to work with when doing the final assembly.

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The blue circles are joints I glued and the red circles represent joints that just are hand fitted together. Having fewer separate sections made final assembly a lot easier.

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The last two sections where the sluice makes the 90 degree turn were jointed differently from the other sections. The section that ends the straight run I adjusted by shorting the strips on once side piece exactly the width of a top piece (three 5/16ths strips side by side or 1 7/8ths inches. This allows the opening of the last section to complete the 90 degree turn.

Click to enlarge, use back button to returnThe final piece had to complete the turn and fit flush to previous section. For this section I made the inside side strips 5/16ths long and the outside side strips 1 9/16ths long. If I haven’t made any mistakes in my after the fact math it should all fit flush and snug up quite nicely.

Click to enlarge, use back button to returnYou’ll also note that the frames on this end are flush with the top and bottom pieces, NOT offset over the edge. The side pieces hold the joint together not the frame pieces.

The final piece has a top for only the first 6 inches (the PVC stops about 4 inches after the turn) and is open on top for the final 12 inches. This lets you see the water trickle down the last part of the spillway. This means the side frame pieces for the very last frame have to be cut 5/16ths shorter.

The last section is lined with styrene along the entire length. I don’t know the exact thickness as I grabbed a sheet out of a sampler pack I had laying around. The sides are lined up 5/8ths and the entire floor is lined. I used liquid nails to secure the styrene to the wood and Plastruct Plastic Weld to seal the styrene to styrene along the edges. First time I have worked with styrene, it’s pretty nifty.

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Been in place for several summers and the wood has weathered naturally to nice gray from the sun.

(Originally posted 3/25/2011, revised 3/23/2012)

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