Utility Poles (Or… bringing Power to the Masses)

| Apr. 9, 11

This project originally appeared in O Scale Trains Issue #23, Nov/Dec 2005

By Gary Woodard

Building telephone, utility, or telegraph poles is the perfect first scratchbuilding project for the beginner, as well as an enjoyable project for more experienced modelers.

I believe that, if one is going to build a diorama or a scene on a model railroad, one should do their level best to make it as realistic as possible. Utility poles seem to be missing from so many model railroads. HO and N Scale have telephone poles available, in quantity no doubt, and can be detail painted and have wires strung on them. In O Scale, it’s been difficult. Poles have been available from Lionel, Marx, and a couple of other firms, always looking toy-like since that is the market they are made for. K&L House of Wood did make some nice craftsmen-type kits for telephone poles, but those were both expensive and tedious to build. Weaver Models has just introduced a new telephone/telegraph pole. They look pretty nice though they, like their HO and N scale counterparts, are plastic. The nice thing about the Weaver poles is that the insulators look right, but this article isn’t about buying Weaver poles. Those will be left to the reviewers.

I start with 1/4” dowels. These are very close to the size that a telephone pole should be in O Scale. I like using real wood to make models of wooden things. For me, nothing looks more like wood than, well, wood. They are too long out of the display, of course, but a typical dowel will make several poles. At the craft department in Wal-Mart, you can also find suitable material to make the crossarms. Since I don’t have a decent hobby shop close to where I live, I look elsewhere. I found some wood matchstick-type wood; its about eight and one half scale feet long, and is perfect for the crossarms of any scale telephone poles built for six wires per arm. If you want eight wires per crossarm, you will need about ten scale feet, which most should be able to find at their local hobby shop. Also in the Craft Department, you will find the brown, green, and clear beads we’ll use to make insulators.

Some materials to gather

First, notch the main pole depending on how many crossarms your pole will need. In areas where there are large cities, you will need up to eight crossarms per pole. In more rural areas, you would only need perhaps two or four crossarms. Cut each notch just big enough to allow the crossarm to fit in snugly. I usually go down a 5/16” from the top of my pole to make my first notch, about 1.25 scale feet below the top. The other notches are about 1/2” in between the arms, or a scale two feet.

You can add some grain to the pole by dragging a snap saw, or X-acto saw down the dowel. Next, use that saw to cut an angled pitch at the very top of the pole. Then, when it rains, you won’t have water puddling at the top and degrading the wooden pole. I know it doesn’t rain in the train room, but realism is what we are striving for here, isn’t it?

Let’s talk about crossarms for a minute. Crossarms can range in length from eight to twelve feet, depending on how much the crossarm has to support. In some instances, they can be shorter. There are all different kinds of poles out in the real world used for power, telephone lines, or railroad telegraph systems. Our model worlds shouldn’t be any different. If you model the Pennsy, along the four-track main around Horseshoe Curve, then you will want to have up to eight crossarms with ten wires each per telegraph pole, on both sides of the track. If, on the other hand, you’re modeling the Southern Pacific running through parts of Texas, you may want only two or four crossarms with eight wires per arm. In rural counties in Iowa, you may want to have poles with only two or three crossarms. Rural power and phone poles sometimes have no crossarms at all. Whatever prototype your modeling, this variety is what your going to strive for. On the other hand, you can also use modelers license and do anything you want; just make it look realistic, even if it isn’t.

Notched and ready for some cross arms

After putting the notches in your poles, drill a hole in the center of each notch, put a straight piece of wire into the hole, and glue it in with CA. This will provide the crossarms with something to cling to while the glue sets up. You can use CA to do the complete assembly of the poles, as I do, but many will choose to use either white glue or carpenters glue.

One cross arm ready for insulators

Next it’s time to put in the wires that will hold the insulators, or insulator armatures. I usually use some cheap florist wire, but brass wire can also be used. It should be of sufficient gauge to hold the beads that we will be using to represent the insulators on the crossarm. I usually space my insulators about 1/4” apart (one scale foot). Come in 1/4” from each end of your crossarm and mark that point with a Sharpie or a pen. Then, about every scale foot, do likewise for three or four insulators. Do the other side the same way. This will give you an even balance between each side of the crossarm. You should have two scale feet of clear space, in the middle of the crossarm, where there is no insulator. Use a twist drill to drill out all the marked holes. Some like to use a thumbtack or push pin to open up the holes, and I’m sure it works fine. I’ve just never done that; I use a drill.

Now its time to put on the insulators. The type of beads that you’ll want to use for insulators are commonly referred to as Indian beads, or Rochaille. These can be found in the Craft Department of any Wal-Mart, or at Michael’s Arts and Crafts stores. You’ll need clear, clear green, white and brown beads. These are common colors of insulators on telegraph/telephone/ utility poles. Clear green and clear are common insulator colors on railroad telegraph poles, for example, while brown insulators are common on roadside utility poles. Take your floral wire and start cutting small pieces about a quarter inch long, and glue them into the holes you drilled out. Then, trim them down to size. They don’t need to be very long, maybe 1/8” or a little longer, but the initial 1/4” size is easier to handle during assembly. They can also be trimmed up after the insulators are glued on.

What the insulators look like when installed

Next, place your beads, (insulators) over the wires sticking out of the crossarm. In essence, what your doing is making a very short bead necklace by putting the wire through the bead. Each insulator is represented by two beads. Be careful not to mix the colors on one insulator, as that would look suspect at best, but you can certainly mix different colors on the same utility pole.

The utility pole is taking shape

The next order of business is to put the crossarms on the pole. If you did things right, you should have a blank space in the center of your crossarms where there are no insulators. Lay the crossarm sideways and drill a hole in the center of the blank space. You should already have a piece of wire in the notch of the pole; put a little glue into the notch, either CA or white glue, and push the crossarm in place. If you use CA, then you should be able to handle the telephone pole within a few minutes. If you used white or carpenter’s glue, then set the assembly aside to dry. When you can handle the nearly complete pole, it will be time to put on the crossarm supports.

Now it looks good painted; use any shade of brown that looks good

Crossarm supports are fairly easy to make. I use simple florist wire to make mine. Cut a piece about 1/2” long. Make a ninetydegree bend at the middle, to make a nice “V”. Then, use some CA and glue it down, two ends on the cross arm, and the point of the “V” on the pole.

Now all that remains is to add the V braces

Painting the finished pole is fairly easy. You can use any color of brown, or a mixture of green/brown, to make it look like creosoted wood. If you can still find it, tie stain from the old Campbell line is a great choice for this. Minwax is a brand that is fairly easy to find at any Wal-Mart or any home improvement superstore. You can paint or stain the pole at any point during construction. I know mine look great, however, because they actually sat outside in a can for over a year before I found where I had stuck them. They actually weathered pretty nicely, something I can’t say about most of my stuff that was left outside when I lived in a trailer.

Since my poles are about 8-1/4” in length, I don’t want to bury them too deeply. Nothing looks worse than a pole that is too short. The only reason my poles are only 8-1/4” tall is because these were my dad’s dowels. He used them for his model ships. I kind of inherited them after he went to the great shipyard in the sky, so when I got these dowels, they were already cut. Different areas of the country do have different standards, so these poles don’t have to be nine inches tall. In some instances, the poles on our layouts might only be six inches tall. I choose to use a taller one, so I’m at 8-1/4”. Now that I have thoroughly confused everyone reading this, lets move onto the next step.

As I was about to say, till I got sidetracked, there are a couple of ways of mounting the poles. You can either drill out the bottom of the pole for a small nail, or use a smaller drill and put a piece of wire in the hole. Then, drill a matching hole in the position required on the layout, and mount the pole using CA cement (love that Super Glue!) Another way, especially if you used brand new dowels, and cut them long enough, is to drill a 1/4” hole in the layout, and mount it using Super Glue or white glue.

At this point, if you’ve been building poles along with me, then you may feel you’re finished. This would be true of a lot of folks who don’t care to take that extra step and make power, phone or telegraph lines. Making power lines is somewhat tedious. I used an elastic sewing thread, which can be found at any sewing center, or in the sewing department of any Wal-Mart store. Mine (found at, you guessed it, Wal-Mart) was made by a company called Stretchrite. When I got my supply of this stuff over a year ago, it was on clearance, but I’m betting it can be found at any sewing supply place, or maybe even at Michael’s Arts and Crafts stores.

As you can see by the photographs, I haven’t done this yet (it scares me, too!) Once I do this, then I will never again be satisfied with bare power poles, and I will always have to re-pull wire whenever I build anything, or rebuild anything. However, if you must know, you start at one end, get one end glued on, and you go from pole to pole. Don’t forget to check that the wire, or thread, is glued to the same insulator from one pole to the next. Repeat for every insulator on the crossarms, one at a time. There is no other way to do it, so be sure you really ready to do the whole job. For most of us, we can imagine the wires are there and be happy.

When doing a smaller customer power pole, I use a shishkabob stick. You can also use a shorter piece of 1/4” dowel, or even a little smaller size, but you don’t want it really any taller than about fifteen feet. That would be about standard for a customer pole. You can also use a short piece of dowel to represent the transformer. Remember to paint them gray. Some mainline power poles will require a transformer also; in fact, you may want two transformers on a main power pole. As always, they are gray.

A completed pole installed on the layout

I hope you enjoyed making utility poles, with the shortage we’ve had of this one item in O Scale over the years, its nice when a layout has them, as it adds a completeness to any scene. Now, if we can only get true O Scale automobiles, then life would be perfect. ◆

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