Foam Risers or Not? Cork Roadbed or Not?

Photos and Blog by Dale Parsons


My first layout was a learning experience, as I guess they all are. There was a lot of “what not to do.” I planned carefully, and even had trains running on sub-roadbed and track that was tacked temporarily. It was not until after the track was permanent that I realized some important mistakes.

The most costly mistake I made on my first layout was that my inclines were too steep. I created them by estimating the space I had and how quickly I wanted the train to return to ground level. That’s fine if you have a ton of space, but it will mean steep inclines, as it did for me, if your space is limited. My layout was a “L” shaped reverse dog bone design. I like watching trains going over and under each other. My steep inclines meant my engines could only pull a small handful of cars.

That layout was never completed because we moved. I completely dismantled it. The only parts I kept were the track, buildings, and trees.

My second layout was single-level. No climbing or descending. No hills or tunnels. No inclines to worry about. It was basically a switching layout with a full loop so I could run trains constantly, which I prefer.

When I dismantled that layout because we were moving again, it was a much easier task. Virtually everything was salvageable. Even though I glued and nailed the track down, it came up very easily. I kept all of the pieces.

The track has been through the mill. When I took the first layout apart, we moved to a house where there was no room for any railroading. All of my track was in a box in our barn. After a few years, I took it out. Most of it was covered with everything mice leave behind. I considered tossing it, but then I thought about how much nickel-silver track costs. I bought a couple of track cleaning blocks and started scrubbing. I’m still using that same track with no problems.

We moved to the house where we presently live. Hopefully, the last time we will move. My new layout is basic, no clever design schemes, just two mainlines for simultaneous train operation and some sidings. There is a long branch line that runs from one end of the layout to the other. The destination is Maple Valley. The train running the line will be a vintage model engine like “The General” and a few cars. Passengers will board the train at “Little Town” on the opposite end of the layout for the ride to Maple Valley.

My first big decision was whether or not to use Woodland Scenics risers. As you can see, I did, and I am so happy I chose to use the 2% incline/decline. A 2% incline means I need 16 feet of space for the track to be lifted four inches. In the middle of the photo, you can see where the incline and decline comes together with about two feet to spare. It’s just enough room for turnouts from both directions so I can choose to move trains to or from the longer outside mainline.

My next question was how to attach the styrofoam risers to the extruded foam base. I chose undiluted white glue which I bought in a gallon jug. I pinned the riser where I wanted it and drew a line on either side of the riser with a black marker. I removed the pins and the riser. I brushed white glue on the foam base the length of the first riser. I then replaced the riser, pinned it in place, and weighted it down with anything I could find. I left it overnight to dry.

I have seen some videos where modelers put masking tape over the riser before installing the final roadbed. I started to do the same but removed it because I was afraid if the tape came loose the roadbed would be loose as well.

The next question was whether or not to use cork roadbed, and as you can see I chose the cork. I didn’t use it on my last shelf layout. I ballasted the track without cork and it turned out alright. I’m glad I chose to use cork this time as it looks more realistic to me.

I used undiluted white glue to attach the roadbed, using the same method I used with the foam risers. I first drew my track plan directly on the pink foam using exact radius templates for the curves, and a yard-stick for the mostly-straight areas. I lined the inside of the cork against the track line mark and made another mark on the outside of the cork, and also marked the end of the cork piece. I removed the cork and applied glue to the foam. I pinned the cork down with 1-1/2 inch “T-pins” on the bevel. Once I had both sides in place, I weighted the cork. I laid as much cork at one time as I had weights for. I then left it overnight.

I didn’t buy turnout foam, instead choosing to cut the cork to fit the turnouts. I might regret that, we’ll see.

My next task was making a curvy 4 inch riser to meet the ends of the two 2% inclines on either end of the layout. I chose to make my own rather than buy an additional package of risers from the hobby shop. It was a lot of work but I’m confident it will work fine. Since I took this photo, I have cut two tunnels through my homemade riser.

The riser is two pieces of 1-1/2 inch foam plus a 1 inch piece between. I drew the design on a large piece of paper, cut it out 2 inches wide. I placed my paper template on the foam and cut it with a razor utility knife. I then glued the three pieces of foam together with white glue, weighting them heavily.

When I was happy with the way the risers turned out, I glued them to the foam surface and pinned them in place. I weighted them and left it for a couple of days.

I have about ten or fifteen more feet of cork to apply, then I will be ready to start laying track. I have to decide where my blocks are going to be and plan my wiring lines accordingly.

Model railroading is a fantastic hobby. It is especially fun to take photos and videos as steps are taken so it’s easy to see how much progress is being made. I’m learning that slow and steady is best. Now that I’m retired, slow has taken on a whole new meaning.

I need more coffee.

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