Building Model Railroad Benchwork


What is model railroad benchwork?

Benchwork is the support structure that you build your model railroad on. It could be as simple as a piece of plywood on a table, or it could be more complex such as open grid work with "L" girder construction. Benchwork usually consists of legs, some sort of framework or structure, sub road bed which is attached to the framework, the roadbed, and track which are laid on the sub roadbed.

Why build benchwork?

Benchwork will give you a permanent structure to which you can attach your sub roadbed, track and scenery. With the proper planning it will allow you to consider future expansion right from the beginning, which will make it much easier when the time comes.

When should you build your benchwork?

As soon as you are far enough along in the design stage to know pretty much what your railroad will look like, you can begin to build your benchwork. Be sure to take into consideration your track plan and any scenery elements that may affect the placement of the girders or the cross joists.

Where should you build your benchwork?

You could precut most everything in your shop if you have one, or have the lumber yard cut it for you. You can assemble as much as possible in your shop, however the major portion of the benchwork will most likely need to be assembled in the room where the railroad will be.

How do you build model railroad benchwork?

Start by doing research to determine which type of benchwork is best suited to your situation. If your layout is a temporary or seasonal layout, you may get along just fine with a piece of plywood. If you are planning a more permanent display or are going to include scenery, you will want a more substantial structure such as "L" girder construction. The open grid work will allow more flexibility and will contribute to a more realistic looking railroad.

Visit other layouts in your area and take notes on what you did or did not like. You can learn from their mistakes and their successes as well.

You could combine some of both techniques by using what is called the cookie cutter method. This is where you use a flat board over open benchwork and cut out the sub road bed directly from the flat board and leave the rest of the board in place. You would then raise the sub roadbed up on risers to what ever level you wanted. The risers are attached to the joists. You could also cut out areas where lakes or rivers would be. With the cookie cutter method you are still limited by the flat board. It will hinder both maintenance and wiring and also limit future expansion.

The simplest type of open grid work is the butted grid work method. This requires 1"x 4" lumber to be used both for the girders and also for the cross joists. The cross joists are glued and screwed together between the girders approximately every 24" apart. You can use this butted grid work to either fasten your flat board, cookie cutter top or you could attach the risers directly to the open grid work.

Legs can be made from 2"x 2" lumber and bolted to the girders, or what is called the keeper joists, with 1/4" carriage bolts, nuts and washers. As an alternate method you could screw the legs to the benchwork using wood screws.

The "L" girder open benchwork method is really easy and will allow the best overall support for your railroad. It will also allow for the best overall finished appearance when your railroad is completed.

The "L" girders are made by gluing and screwing a 1"x 2" piece of lumber to the edge of a 1"x 4" piece of lumber. With the "L" inverted so that the 1"x 2" is on the top. The 2"x 2" legs can be bolted to the girders. Once the legs are attached, 1"x 2" cross braces can be attached to the legs to hold the two girders up approximately parallel to each other.

An alternate method would be to bolt keeper joists to the top of the legs and then attach the cross braces to the legs. You would then stand up the legs with the keeper joists and fasten the "L" girder to the bottom of the keeper joists, from the bottom of the 1"x 2" which forms the top of the "L" girder. The rest of the joists would be attached as described below.

The joists are made of 1"x 4" lumber and are placed on top of the "L" girders. They are screwed in place from under the 1"x 2" on the top of the "L" girder, up into the bottom edge of the joists. The joists can be placed at any distance from each other as necessary for the scenery or track risers, however every 24" should be sufficient.

Next comes the sub roadbed. Probably the easiest way of determining the size and location of the sub roadbed is to lay the track out, or make a full size drawing. You can use the full size drawing to cut out paper patterns which can be transferred to the plywood or other sub roadbed material.

The sub roadbed can then be cut on a band saw or with a saber saw. The sub roadbed should be wide enough to allow for the track or multiple tracks, cork or other roadbed, and 1/2" to 1" on either side of the track to allow you to attach the scenery to the sub roadbed.

Once the sub roadbed pieces are cut they can be attached to the risers with cleats attached to them. You can splice the pieces of sub roadbed together with a scrap piece of the same width and thickness as the sub roadbed. Screws and glue can be used to attach them together. 

Materials, tools and other equipment

1) 1"x 4" lumber (for girders, joists and risers)

2) 1"x 2" lumber (for the top of the "l" girders and cross braces)

3) 2"x 2" lumber (for legs)

4) carpenters glue and wood screws

5) 1/4"x 3" carriage bolts, nuts, and washers

6) pencil and paper, and drawing equipment such as a scale ruler, compass or string and pencil, framing square, etc.

7) carpentry tools including a hand saw, saber saw, screw driver, "c" clamps, etc.


Reference materials

1) Beginners Guide to N Scale Model Railroading by Russ Larson ( Kalmbach Books)

2) How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork by Linn H. Westcott (Kalmbach Books)

3) LGB Track Planning and Technical Guide by Robert Munzing (Ernst Paul Lehmann Patentwerk )

4) The ABC's of Model Railroading (Kalmbach Books)

5) Building an HO Railroad with Personality by John Olson (Kalmbach Books)

6) Small Railroads You Can Build (Kalmbach Books)

7) Fun with Electric Trains by Jim Kelly (Kalmbach Books)

8) HO Narrow Gauge Railroad You Can Build by Malcolm Furlow (Kalmbach Books)

9) 6 HO Railroads You Can Build (Kalmbach Books)

© 2005 HR Trains & Toys, Inc. - Don Morris