Questions About Catenary

Concerning the trackside structure of the catenary kind... Tried searching this forum but only found a couple discussions that really didn't address my need. Thanks in advance for any assistance.

**Q1: ** Does anyone here build their own catenary? Saw some kits (although I have no idea where to start) but thought it would be more cost effective and intriguing to make my own.

**Q2: **What's the process like to run non-operational wire from mast to mast? Just don't quite know where to begin.



  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC

    All of the major model catenary suppliers -- Viessmann, Sommerfeldt, etc. -- publish books on their catenary systems. This is in addition to the catalogs that list the catenary components.

    I'm not sure how many of these books are available in English. (Many independent model railroad publishers in Europe have also produced books on model catenary. This is not a subject that can easily be covered in a few pages.)

    These books look at prototype catenary practices -- and how to translate these to your model layout, using the catenary components the manufacturer supplies. (Sometimes it is not possible to exactly follow prototype practice, as model layouts have sharper curves and some other factors not found in the prototype. Of necessity, the model catenary consists of somewhat stiff wire that proportionally much thicker than scale prototype catenary.)

    Be aware that catenary varies substantially by country and era. And, for example, the catenary used on high-speed lines is quite different from that used on a lower-speed electrified branch line, even in the same country. And, then there's interurban and streetcar catenary, which may also follow different practices.

    Europe-based modelers are much more aware of catenary, as they see it on a daily basis. For someone in the U.S. modeling European practice, it takes some study and research. You are not going to feel comfortable with this topic overnight.

    While you could theoretically make your own catenary pieces, this would probably take a lot of trial and error -- which these manufacturers have already figured out. Consider also that the pre-fabricated catenary segments are not just soldered, but actually spot welded for stability. This would require some really specialized equipment. (You may still need to do some soldering during assembly to provide stability.)

    You will still need to adapt some pre-fabricated pieces to your particular situation. And, for that, you will also need to acquire specialized tools, such as clippers specifically made for cutting hard wire and pliers for bending wire into the loops that go over the mast outriggers.

    Different model manufacturers use different methods of attaching their masts to layout surface. Some of these methods will work better in some situations than others

    You do not have to stick with a single supplier of model catenary. You can combine products from different manufacturers, once you understand what these items represent and how they are used. (On my layout, I am using components from Viessmann, Sommerfeldt, Hobbex, Maerklin, and Kleinbahn -- the latter only in tunnel areas with close clearances. Yes, you can use Maerklin catenary components on DC layouts; they make a component for catenary over double-slip switches that matches Sommerfeldt catenary, which Sommerfeldt itself does not supply.)

    Model catenary suppliers provide starter sets, which will help you get a feel for how these items go together. But, keep in mind that you first need to figure out which country and what era you are modeling.

    -- Ernest

  • el Gato Gordoel Gato Gordo Colorado Spring

    Hi, Steve

    I have installed catenary on two small layouts. My current layout is 4 x 9.5 ft,with a double track main line and a branch line going up to a small town.

    I used Viessmann cat on the branch line. The masts have separate bases which screw to the subroadbed; then the masts slide in and are adjustable for distance from the rails. The cat wires snap onto the arms of the masts.

    The negative for Viessmann masts is that the arms can break off the masts.

    On my mainline I used Sommerfeldt cat. The masts are sturdier and longer spans of wire are available, which is good in stations and yards. The wires need to be soldered to the mast arms. The masts either bolt to the subroadbed or are pressed into pre-drilled holes.

    The wires are a bright copper color, so I recommend spray painting with a light gray before installation. The hanger wires between the upper catenary wire and the lower contact wire have tiny nubs which protrude minutely below the contact wire. One should polish these off with a Dremel before painting.

    I also have a unique method of tensioning the wires so I can run trains with the pans up. I'll post a photo of that later.

    I always found it best to start in a yard or multi track Bahnhof and work outwards.

  • Thanks Ernest & Gordo. Lots to digest here. I'll post some specifics of what I want to create and get with y'all about how I can best approach it.

  • el Gato Gordoel Gato Gordo Colorado Spring

    If you are going to run trains with pantographs raised, the catenary wires need to be tensioned somewhat, especially with the longer Sommerfeldt wires. They are a bit more flimsy than the Viessmann cat wires, but that just makes them more prototypically sized.

    I only run catenary in the open, visible areas. Where the tracks enter a tunnel I gradually raise the height of the cat wire to a bit higher than my tallest pantograph. Think of the pan with no tension on it at all, sitting on a track with no cat wire.

    I build a frame of wood, with a hole drilled so a #6 screw fits loosely. Insert the screw, the screw it into the end of a small spring, and glue the spring and screw so they don't come loose. Then I twist the screw counter clockwise and screw the spring onto the end of the cat wire. Note that I created a hook on the end of the wire:

    Screwing the spring counterclockwise tightens the cat wire. Be careful not to pull the masts out of alignment when you do this. It is good to have this at both ends of an open track so that you can balance the tension.

    Also, too much tension will make masts on curves lean into the bend.

    However I always run trains with pans raised, even at train shows. I'll be doing that tomorrow at a small one day show in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

    Here is a shot with a BR 442 exiting the tunnel, as it approaches the point where the pan contacts the cat wire:

    I hope this helps!

  • edited September 2021

    Useful information. I have long yearned to install cat, but getting it right looks to be most difficult. I might have to learn how to use a ruler, for starters. I am also of the impression that wire needs to be zig-zagged, as in the prototype, to avoid running a groove into the pan. If one attempt to scratch this, what might be useful for HO insulators?

  • As Gordon said, running with pantos on the wire can be done, but requires careful adjustment of the catenary. The zig-zag with Sommerfeldt or Viessmann/Marklin is created if one follows the instructions. I am using the old catenary from Marklin which officially does not have a zig-zag (similar to the one from Electrotren), but never had a problem due to the zig-zags which arise naturally in curves and due to small, unavoidable irredularities in positioning the masts on the straight. I did not use the fasteners Marklin packaged with the masts.


  • edited November 2021

    ******The cat is out of the bag.****** Some people like flowers. Some like breeding pigeons. I like electrical overhead catenary on trains. My various forays into the dark realm of catenary has been a mixed bag, from trolleys to mainlines and even an operating trolley bus (that has worked out well), and one of the challenges is that I like to model 1827 to 1967, and thus installing a fixed overhead is problematic, to say the least. Not to mention, the commercial grade of catenary is frightfully expensive and does not lend itself to being installed and removed repeatedly.

    I settled on a series of cheap Bachmann double track signal gantries. With the signals removed, they resemble electrical gantries well enough, and with the addition of some insulators they should look fairly convincing. As for wire, I have yet to decide on using some brass wire or just some black elastic thread. The pantographs will necessarily have to be adjusted down, a little, to prevent them from tangling, but the effect will be close enough to be rid of my "air catenary," which is supremely disappointing.
    I am leaning towards brass, as with the assist of a simple wooden jig, even I should be able to fashion lengths of the main and support wires in that graceful arcing manner.

    In such a manner, I should be able to lay out a decent section of cat and be able to simply lift it off and stow it when the Stephenson's Rocket rides the rails. Now all I need is some spare time, a very precious commodity.

    I am guessing about a foot between the gantries, this being OO, should be about right?

  • As in the prototype, on model layouts, the mast spacing will vary with local conditions. Mast spacing is most uniform on long straight sections, but, there also, it may have to be adjusted to local factors, such as the location of a turnout. Mast spacing will be much closer on curves. The tighter the curve, the closer the mast spacing needed to keep the contact wire close to the centerline of the track.

    I would use as many commercially available components as possible, as trying to make your own components to close tolerances can be very difficult. Again, there is a vast variety of catenary components available, representing the types of hardware used in many different countries over various eras.

    One good way to learn about catenary is to watch cab-ride videos from various European countries. There are a lot of them available online.

    -- Ernest

  • Seems obvious, but it didn't occur to me until you mentioned it that the masts will need to be closer on curves. Thank you for that. For years I've combed over the availability of catenary, from knitting needles to high end Marklin stuff. I am less interested in creating miniature duplicates than I am in creating something that captures the general ambiance of the thing. My latest experiment is promising,

    if it fails, then I will have an armload of useless Bachmann signal gantries. The latest development was that a search on feeBay turned up fifty HO scale insulators for $15. This is good, because I can't really see making something and having it look right. I've seen some of MichealE's cat, and it makes we swoon with envy. I will post some photos when I can get some time to actually work on this project.

    The two main objectives are to make it look convincing and also be easily removed for when I want to time travel to pre-1910ish.
    As such, it is entirely a prop.

  • @Chops said:
    The two main objectives are to make it look convincing and also be easily removed for when I want to time travel to pre-1910ish.
    As such, it is entirely a prop.

    This might be difficult to achieve. Catenary is a fixed installation, too much will be bent while removing. The removal is not the problem, but reinstallation will be a total pain.


  • This is the gantry I will be trying. Signals removed, insulators installed, either relative stiff brass wire or stretchy black
    thread, pantographs, reach, but will not touch the actual wire. Better than "air catenary." Installation and removal, as
    a prop, will be seen... Just need some spare time.

  • Hello:

    If I were to use these bridges, I would put metal pins in the feeds with matching holes in the layout so that the bridges can be anchored easily. Black thread would not work since the bridges and thread would end up being all untangled while storing off the layout. I would hunt some old Marklin catenary, attach the pieces to one of the bridges, and put two small hooks on the next to put the catenary on.


  • Good idea.

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