How To Make Train Tables
Model Railroad Benchwork
One key feature that distinguishes a toy train
set from a real model railroad is the supporting structure. A semi-permanent toy train set could
have some oval track with a one or two turnouts secured to a flat plywood base or a piece of
particle board panel.
A true model railway,
on the other hand, will have an underlying structure, called the benchwork that
will not only support the track, but also provides a method of constructing terrain
through which the trains can move.
Some hobbyists also use the term “train table”
to describe the framework. This is because the benchwork can be constructed from almost anything
from a discarded old kitchen table to a shelf securely mounted on around a wall.
However before we discuss construction methods,
I need to mention one important mistake to avoid. Unfortunately, many new-comers to the hobby are
in such a rush to get the track laid, they often don't pay enough attention to the surface and
structure the track is sitting on. The track work needs to be level without any kinks both
horizontally and vertically. Everything needs to be built properly from the bottom up providing a
sound base to build a layout.
Building Benchwork To Withstand Weight
Another critical thing is that the construction
must be extremely sturdy as it will need to comfortable carry a heavy weight. It is not just the
weight of the trains, but also the weight of the all the track, scenery (mountains, resin lakes,
roads etc), buildings and structures (bridges etc), and wiring. On top of all this load is the
potential for someone to lean heavily on the layout and add additional weight to one area. Model
railroad benchwork needs to be strong enough to comfortably take the required weight WITHOUT
collasping – the consequences of which could be not only expensive, but also extremely
disappointing and time-wasting.
There various methods for constructing
benchwork, many startout with four legs and a basic horizontal supporting framework just like the
kitchen table mentioned earlier. A basic framework can work well for many layouts especially
smaller ones, but a medium to larger size railroad will often require more versatility to properly
incorporate all the wiring, track configurations and scenery requirements.
One popular method utilizes an open grid
arrangement with the track being anchored to wood splines which are supported by elevating
longitudinal and cross members of small cross section wood. Constructing this can be reasonably
labor intensive, but it has the advantage of being an extremely flexible arrangement for benchwork.
Any configuration of valleys, hills, mountains, and plains can easily be created within the open
framework of the benchwork. Altering the height of the risers can provide additional versatility
and stretch the scenery options beyond accepted parameters.
Another method commonly called the cookie
cutter approach, starts with a flat baseboard, and continues with track being either directly
attached or possibly elevated. The remaining sections of flat board are then cut out in the shapes
of the terrain features.
A third method which incidentally has become
more popular over recent years is to begin with a large sheet of extruded foam insulation board
contained within a wood framework. The foam board can easily be cut and worked with knives, or a
hot wire, or similar tools. Extruded foam can be cut out much more easily with this cookie cutter
approach than you could of using a plywood base. The extruded foam board can also be utilized to
elevate the track, or to form inclines, and it can be built up into hills and mountains, or cut out
to shape riverbeds and stream channels. Joining the foam board is easily when using a construction
adhesive such as Liquid Nails. It is fair to say this benchwork construction method has really
revolutionized the process of building and laying model railroad scenery.
Whether you are building an “L girder” design
with open framework where the cross sections of the strip wood girders resemble the letter “L”, or
using another method of construction, the strength and functionality needs to be paramount.
Everything from the legs, to the joists and risers need to be sturdy and not bend or break over
How high should the benchwork be?
A final thing to carefully consider is the best
height for the railroad based on how tall you are and whether you will be sitting or standing when
operating it. There is no point in building the benchwork only to find the height is impractical
for running your trains from a comfortable position. Layouts typically range from as low as 42
inches up to 55 inches above the floor which suits many single level railroads.
Much will depend on how tall you are. The
average height for American males according to internet research is 5 foot 10 inches, so in a
sitting position (with rolling wheels on the chair), the layout could be as low as 30 inches off
the floor. However in a sitting position it is not as easy to reach distances as it is when
standing, so removing a derailed car would require getting out of your seat and leaning across to
For some who is 5'10” chest height would be
approximately 52 inches above the floor. So the range between 42 inches to 48 inches above floor
level would be right for most people when standing. Taller people might prefer 50 to 55 inches.
Decide the best height for watching your trains.