How to Build Better Benchwork
for Model Railroads

Sturdy benchwork supports all your design and planning. 

  • Shakiness can derail rolling stock
  • Humidity can distort dimensional lumber subroadbed
  • Ups and downs in track work (vertical displacement)  can uncouple and derail equipment
  • Aisleways can be too narrow
  • Weight can be excessive
  • Use of styrofoam may void fire insurance
  • Under layout storage can help or hinder accessibility

Choice of benchwork affects your enjoyment 

  • Do you have to crawl underneath "duck-under" benchwork to operate from a pit?
  • How tall are you? What's a comfortable working height?
  • Can you reach everything comfortably from the aisle?
  • Can you pass another operator in an aisle?  (Ahem, we usually all get heavier as we age)
  • Will you ever need to stand on your benchwork?
  • Does your layout need to be portable or modular?
  • Are you ever going to move? (This has taught me a few, hard lessons).

My experience and recommendations
for building benchwork? 

  • Plywood is more stable than dimensional lumber for benchwork
  • You don't need expensive woodworking tools. A battery-operated electric drill and a portable circular saw will get you by. You can clamp a board onto the plywood for long straight cuts if you don't own a table saw. Use an electric jig saw for curving cuts.  A battery-operated screwdriver also speeds up the work. Invest in a metal square, a long metal ruler, and some C-clamps.
  • Make a radius tool by inserting a nail in one end of a long wooden ruler at the 1" mark and drilling holes for a pencil at the radius points you want to use.  For example, for a 24" radius, drill the hole at 25" (24" from the nail). This way you can mark the center point of the track on the plywood or whatever subroadbed you're using.
  • Remember the golden rule: measure twice, cut once. 
  • Drywall screws work great. Countersunk flat head Robertson #8 used to be my choice. They work well. Avoid slotted heads because your screwdriver keeps slipping, especially when working from underneath the benchwork. It's always best to screw your track boards from underneath. It can be a pain and messy to hunt for screw heads beneath your well-laid track and cork when you need to change something. Ask me. I continue to make this mistake.
  • 2x2 legs are usually fine. Make sure to brace. Make them adjustable. There's a good tip on the modular page explaining how we do this on the traveling Nottawasaga club layout.
  • Cantilever support for shelf or narrow around-the-wall layouts. Connect to your wall studs.  This avoids kicking legs and provides good area for storage. My G-scale railroad hangs above my HO layout. I used metal shelf brackets to hold it up. Not pretty, but functional. My backdrop panels go in front of the vertical supports.
Click Here if you're looking for an easy, step-by-step guide to build the model railroad of your dreams.

Make the entrance to the layout
easy to negotiate

model railroad layout swing gate2-level entrance swing gate

As my previous layout was an around-the-wall type with a central peninsula, I wanted to avoid a duck-under this time.  Even though track crossed my entrance at two levels, I decided to build a swinging gate.  It is strongly hinged with two large garden hinges and is cut at an angle to facilitate closing.  A latch is used to secure it. The ties on either side of the opening are circuit board ties with the rails soldered to them for stability.  Humidity can change the position of the rails slightly so there is a "go slow" order for all trains.  There have never been severe derailments. Engineers must visually inspect the rail ends to make sure they line up correctly before crossing. Electrical cut-outs have not yet been installed but signals provide a warning.

Here's an example of an interlocking bridge. One of the sturdiest entrances I've seen is this swinging gate on the Otter Valley Railroad in Aylmer, Ontario, owned by Roger and Lorne James.This layout was on the tour during the Niagara Frontier Regions's (NFR) convention held in Woodstock, Ontario in April, 2009. Sturdy bolts maintain alignment. A door lock set is used for positive and secure latching. Electrical hookup through the locking mechanism guards the track approaches.

model railroad swing gate interlockingInterlocking swing bridge
model railroad swing gate constructionLocking mechanism
Swing bridge on the Otter Valley Railroad

I'm still a homasote fan for subroadbed benchwork even though it is sometimes hard to find. Some sections of my layout are built on foam. It's especially good for flat areas or to reduce weight but a problem for mounting switch machines. And never use contact cement on it unless you want a creek! You can follow along as I rebuild my layout at layout construction.

My favourite method is to use spline roadbed for mainline and curves and 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch plywood underneath yards and other flat areas. Then it's easy to build up scenery with foam layers or hydrocal over a cardboard web. See my scenery tips and techniques.

Portable layouts such as HOTrak, NTrak and free-mo deserve special consideration. If you're building a diorama or want to link up with other model railroaders' layouts, there's a ton of information on the Internet. I'll supply some good links for you in the near future.

Here's a simple way to build a basic train table 

Check this out.

There are excellent "how to" books from Kalmbach and other publishers. One I have used many times that covers most of the phases of building a model railroad was a two-volume book by Robert H Schleicher called the  Model Railroading Handbook , Chilton Book Company, Radnor, Pennsylvania, 1975 (ISBN 0-8019-6167-X). 

 This was pre-DCC so you'll have to look elsewhere for current electronic information.

My most important tip?

  • Remember, whatever you do, sooner or later you are going to have to "get at it".
  • Plan accordingly as best you can. Murphy is always lurking around the corner!
train scenery constructionValleyview on the former UNRR

To the right is a picture on my layout. Note plywood triangular bracket in background supporting upper G scale corner curve and metal shelf bracket in right foreground. The backdrop has not been added. The stone wall behind the Finescale building Rollin Sawyer Chemical still needed to be painted and installed in front of the foam when I took this photo.


Looking in the opposite direction to Valleyview is Youngstown. This area of mines is partially finished. You can see the bottom of the upper deck that carries the G-scale layout. The wires hanging down are for the G-scale control panel.

model train layout benchwork constructionBenchwork construction at Youngstown
g scale shelf constructionG scale on the shelf above the HO layout

There are some very good ideas for sturdy benchwork on the  modular layout page describing the Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club's portable layout and ideas from other pikes.

Benchwork ideas from other modellers

The aisles in the photo below are on Tom Hood's layout that I visited during the Niagara Frontier Region (NFR) 2008 convention in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


Nicely-finished aisleway double-deck benchwork

In the aisle Tom has incorporated a sliding drawer for car storage.


Storage drawer for overflow of cars

I used a similar idea for overflow during operations. My solution was to buy a set of drawers from Home Depot and line one of them with felt. The others are used for basic storage of supplies. On that same layout tour I photographed some novel benchwork solutions on John Mitchell's Canada Southern layout.


Rails across the laundry tubs with painted backdrop

John disguised pipes between these double decks by creating the illusion that they are part of the industrial complex.


Disguised pipes between decks.

Sector plates are common on British and European layouts where space is at a premium. John puts the concept to good use here.


Sector plate

Another idea is John's sliding transfer table to stage trains.


Sliding transfer table for staging

Dave Smith built a sector plate for his ON30 Ontario and Eastern layout. He demonstrated it for me during the Muskoka 2009 layout tour.

ON30 sector plate
Sturdy sector plate

In the photo you can see how the track ends curve at the edge of the sector plate so that each will line up perfectly as the plate is moved.

Sector plate wheels sector plate wheels

The front end of the plate uses chair castor wheels that rotate along a board underneath the plate.

Sector plate pivot sector plate pivot

Dave used an aircraft bolt and nut for a secure pivot at the center of the sector plate at the far end. The bolt simply passes perpendicularly through the sub roadbed cross member. Drilling the hole correctly is critical.

Building a transfere table

I discovered this simple, yet effective method of building a transfer table on Roger Chrysler's layout during the NFR's Woodstock Turn convention in April, 2009. Roger used a couple of drawer slides to make the table for staging trains.  

You could make this table any length by adding more drawer slides.


closeup of drawer slide
Roger's transfer table in action

Under deck lighting

Here's an ideaI borrowed for use on my Utopia Northern RR — the use of Christmas light bulbs hung from the upper deck to illuminate the lower deck.


Christmas incandescent lightbulbs

More photos from the Ottawa convention can be found at the Bytown Bobber layout tour page.

Hiding benchwork with skirting

We usually have an unsightly mess underneath our layouts--bits of wood, boxes, track, scenery stuff and just plain junk we are reluctant to throw out in case we ever have a need for it. I've seen some pretty fancy cabinet work below some layouts. On the other hand, if you're looking for a cheap, effective skirting, check out this idea that I saw during the Muskoka Layout tour, 2009 on Scott Reid's HO scale Great Northern Mesabi Division layout. This is an impressive layout. You'll find other photos on the Muskoka Layout tour page.

Clothespin to hold skirting benchwork skirting

Notice on the left side of the photo that Scott has hot-glued a wooden clothespin to the back of the masonite fascia.

An inexpensive black cloth skirting is held by the clothespin. It's easy to unhook the skirting when you need to and it is forgiving if you bump into it because it has some "give".  

This is not a new idea, but I'd never seen it in action. Some modelers accomplish the same thing with velcro. Scott's method is less expensive and works just as well. 

On the right in the photo you can also see the blank maintenance record sheets that are clipped underneath the layout. Another good idea!



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