Benchwork

Benchwork

There are a number of approaches that you can take towards benchwork for your model railroad. And the approach that is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for someone else. This time I’m going to walk through some of the basic benchwork terminology and skills that might be needed for model railroading.

What is Benchwork?

What are we talking about when we refer to benchwork. In general, the term describes the foundation of your model railroad. In its simplest form, the benchwork for a small railroad could refer to the door or sheet of plywood that the railroad sits on. That sheet may or may not have legs on it depending on your preferences. For a shelf layout, it would refer to the shelf the railroad is built on and the brackets that hold the shelf up on the wall.

In larger and more complex model railroads, benchwork will typically refer to boxes of lumber put together into blocks of various sizes, with legs attached and a structure on top that could be various combinations of plywood, foam, homasote or other materials to create the bed your track and scenery will be attached to.

It can be as simple or complex as you want or need it to be, but it’s just the base that everything else is built upon. Let’s start with some of the basics for a small railroad.

Shelf Layout

The simplest of model railroads sits on a shelf. It can be any type of shelf and bracket system you want. Keep in mind a few details as you make your shelving choices:

  • Weight: The shelf must support not only the weight of equipment and scenery, but it must also support frequent downward pushing as the railroad is built. There will also be occasional downward pressure from operators once the railroad is finished as you add and remove locomotives, rolling stock and other components. Some of this can be avoided by building the layout on the shelf while it’s sitting on a table or workbench and then hanging it on the wall when it’s done (or nearly so).
  • Style: Don’t spend a lot of money on a fancy shelf or expensive stained wood. Remember, most of it is going to be hidden and covered by your railroad. I would recommend instead getting a cheaper, unstained shelf board and then attaching a fascia of some sort to the front when you’re done building to hide any remaining wood from the shelf.
  • Brackets: Make certain that the brackets will support the weight you are putting on the shelf. Standard stamped metal L brackets are typically not recommended. I would recommend heavy duty shelf brackets spaced 12″-18″ apart. Remember, you can use the fascia or other decoration to hide them the same as you can the shelf itself.
  • Wire shelves: These can be used in place of wood shelves. Just remember that you’ll need to attach something to the top of them such as wood or foam to place your railroad on.

Door or Sheet Layout

The next simplest form of benchwork is for a simple door or plywood base railroad without legs. This type of railroad is great for temporary or portable railroads. It is commonplace to build a small layout on a door or sheet of plywood that can be stored upright when not in use and can brought out and set on a table when you want to run it. If desired, simple folding or detachable legs can be added to make a free-standing portable layout.

If you’re using a door, a foam core interior door is the best to use. Avoid the hollow core doors as this can cause your layout to sag and warp more easily once the weight of track and scenery is attached. 

If you’re using a plywood sheet, there are a couple of routes you can take. If your are using thin plywood such as 1/4″ or 3/8″, I would recommend screwing a framework of 1″ x 2″ or 2″ x 2″ boards to the underside to support it and help avoid the board warping. In general, plywood sheets are fairly heavy and do not make the best for quick set up and tear down. There are some scenarios where they shine, though. 

The first is with fold out layouts. This is a scenario where your layout board is attached to the wall and folds out into a large “shelf” when you want to use it. This works best with relatively flat layouts. And most of the time you wouldn’t permanently attach buildings or other tall scenery items, but rather store them separate and place them out whenever you want to run.

The second area is with ceiling hanging layouts. In this scenario, you hang the layout from the ceiling, raise it up with not in use and lower it when you want to run it. Usually, this will include using legs of some sort that you place below the layout to drop them on to. It’s a popular scenario for garage layouts.

Wood Frame

Most larger layouts are of a more permanent and freestanding nature. These layouts require a support framework to help them support the weight of the layout. There are a number of different methods for building a full benchwork. There is not any one “right” method. Whatever works best for you is the “right” method.

Before getting into more complex benchwork, a note about tools and skills. Anything beyond putting your layout on a board will require power tools and at least basic woodworking knowledge. At the very least, working with drills, screwdrivers and saws will be required. If woodworking skills are not your thing, I suggest getting involved in your local model railroading club. You can probably find someone that might be willing to trade work. There are also those who hire out their skills and will build your benchwork for money.

In general, your framework should be broken apart into smaller sections. Review your track plan and determine how to break that plan apart into multiple sections of roughly rectangular shape. Try not to make these sections larger than 4′ x 6′ in size. When you assemble these sections, you will bolt the various boxes together into your framework. The reason for this is that if you ever want to rework or move your benchwork, there’s a better chance you can separate it into these sections for easier moving without having to completely destroy everything. 

L-Girder/T-Girder

The most common form of frame is an l-girder structure. Generally this involves building a box of 1″ x 4″ boards with 1″ x 2″ boards nailed on top to form a T-shape or inverted L-shape. Depending on how big the box is you will want to add a number of crossbeams inside the structure to help strengthen it. Sometimes another layer of 1″ x 2″ or 1″ x 3″ boards across the opposite direction will be added on top of that. On top of that goes plywood, foam and/or homosote boards that serve as the bed for your layout.

For legs under this framework there are two methods generally used. The first is to use 2″ x 2″ boards. These are screwed into the corners and at regular intervals along each box as needed. When using 2×2 legs, a common practice is to attach cross braces between the legs for extra support. The second leg style is to nail or screw together 1″ x 3″ boards into L-shaped legs attached at each corner. 

Open Grid

Open grid is similar to L-Girder, but without the cross beams above the main “box”. It’s essentially a simpler version of L-Girder that is a little more lightweight in nature. This is a good choice for narrower framework or framework that runs along a wall. It can either be freestanding with legs, or wall mounted into the studs. 

Modular

Modular style frameworks work well for layouts that go around the outside of the room. That style consists of several modules of the same size and shape. They are connected end to end around the room with a corner shaped module in each corner. These modules have track entering the module at the same position at each end. This makes it easy for your to move modules around in different orders whenever you feel like changing this around. This also makes it easy to replace small sections without having to rebuild major portions of your layout. This is the style of layout you’ll see if you visit traveling train shows.

What about my uneven floor?

Most basement floors can be somewhat uneven. The best way to address this is to use heavy duty adjustable leveling glides such as these:

You attach these into the bottom of each of the legs you add to your frame. Then you can screw them up and down as needed to adjust the height of each leg of your framework.

 

I’ll go into other benchwork concepts in the future, but this should get you started.