model buildings



How To Make Train Tables and
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.  model railroad benchwork

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.

Construction Methods

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 time.

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 retrieve it.

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.


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