How to cut Lionel tubular track

Sometimes you need to fill a space on your layout that no off-the-shelf length of track will fit. The advantage of tubular track is that you can cut custom lengths with little to no difficulty. Here’s how to cut Lionel tubular track.

Lionel tubular track, both O and O27 varieties, cuts relatively easily with a hacksaw. If you have a lot of track sections to cut, you can use a miniature chop saw as well.

How to cut Lionel tubular track with a hacksaw

How to cut Lionel tubular track
I cut this length of O31 profile Lionel tubular track with common household tools in less than three minutes. It’s easier to cut the track upside down, rather than the way I cut it in this photo.

In the old days, using a hacksaw was about the only way. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I cut one myself and timed it. It took less than three minutes.

Now, the prep work took almost as long, but it goes faster for subsequent pieces.

The hardest thing about cutting small, lightweight pieces like a tubular track section is their tendency to move when cutting. In holding the piece still, you end up fighting yourself. If you’ve struggled to cut track sections by hand, try clamping it down. The difference it makes will surprise you.

If you have a workbench with a clamping surface, such as the famous Black and Decker Workmate, simply clamp the track section into the bench to hold it steady. You can clamp another board to the edge of the bench to help you hold the saw perpendicular to the track. A length of 1×2 board secured with a pair of C clamps works just well. Finally, clamp the piece upside down so you’re cutting on a flat surface, rather than a curved one. The blade is less prone to wander when you do that. For some reason I tend to forget to do that.

Metal isn’t as hard to cut as it may seem. Just cut with long strokes and be patient, and you’ll be surprised how quickly the saw digs into the track. Cutting also gets easier after the first few strokes, when you have a groove in the track for the saw to follow.

If you don’t have a Workmate or similar bench, you can improvise with any board. Take a length of board longer than the track. Secure the track with at least two screws. If you have extra long screws so you can mount the track upside down to the board, so much the better. If not, you can still cut the track right side up.

Then secure the board to your workbench surface with a couple of C clamps. You can clamp a carpenter’s square to the track where you want to cut to help hold the saw steady while you get your initial cuts. Once you have a groove in the track, you probably won’t need the square.

Once you cut through the tubular top of the track, there’s a trick. You can take the track section out, then bend back and forth along the cut and let metal fatigue break the track the rest of the way. It only takes a few bends.

Cutting Lionel tubular track with a power saw

Harbor Freight sells a mini chop saw that’s popular with layout builders. It’s a light duty tool, but unless you build layouts for a living, you won’t wear it out. Simply place the track section in the saw, clamp it down, then turn the saw on and cut. Don’t hold the track with your hands, and wear eye protection. Safety first. And last and always, while you’re at it. The power saw cuts through track in seconds.

I don’t own one, because I’ve only needed to cut about half a dozen track sections. I’ve spent less time in my life cutting track sections than it would take to drive to Harbor Freight. But if you’re physically unable to cut track by hand, or have a lot of it to cut, this tool makes it possible. And it’s usually eligible for a coupon. Here are some tips for couponing Harbor Freight.

Practicing

If you don’t want to risk a nice piece of track, you can practice on older, poor condition track. Most train shops sell used track very inexpensively–50 cents per section or less. And if you’ve accumulated a few rusty track sections from bulk purchases, this is a good use for them. Cut a couple of sections from track pieces you don’t care about to get a feel for it, then you’ll be ready for the track you want to use on your layout.

Don’t be too quick to discard the offcuts. At the very least you can add track ties from your offcuts to other pieces. You may also be able to assemble useful pieces from your offcuts and the extra ties.

Dressing the ends

After you cut the track section, you’ll probably have some sharp metal burrs on the edge. You don’t want that. A metal file will make quick work of them. Clamp the track down if you cut it with a power saw, or leave it clamped down if you cut it by hand. Then run a file along the edge a few times. File in one direction, not back and forth like a saw. Five or six passes perpendicular along the edge is usually enough. If any burrs remain on the top, two or three more passes at a 45-degree angle should knock those off. You don’t want a sharp edge. It should be smooth and flat. That way you don’t cut yourself on it when you’re cleaning your track, and it doesn’t chew up the wheels on your locomotives and rolling stock.

And yes, house brand tools like Home Depot’s Husky or Lowe’s Kobalt brand are absolutely good enough for a job like this.

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