How to Build Strong Model Railroad Benchwork

Blog and Photos by Dale Parsons

Benchwork support structure including leg support and arms.

Strong model railroad benchwork will guarantee stress-free HO scale, or your favorite scale, railroading for years to come.

Linn Westcott’s magazine-style book, “How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork” is a great resource for information about a solid structure for your trains and scenery. Whether you plan to use an open-grid style, or a table-top layout, Westcott’s book will be helpful to you.

Magazine by Linn Westcott, "How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork."

Since my plywood sub-roadbed was only about a 1/4 inch wider on either side of my cork roadbed, it didn’t leave enough room for attaching the strips of cardboard for the foundation of my ground and rock scenery. I made it work, but I wished I had built it differently. I have not used open grid since then.

In my opinion, no model railroad is ever finished. At least not for me. There is always something more to do. I find that scenery and detail is just as fun as running trains. On this my third layout, I plan to use more detail than I ever have before.

Model railroading is a great learning experience. I have already made several mistakes on my third layout, but I’m not starting over. The most important mistake I made is the narrowest part of my benchwork is 36 inches. The ends are 54 inches. My original braces weren’t long enough so I had to attach additional 1×3 pieces to both sides so the brace arms to extend them to the edge of the bench. Leveling everything was a challenge. The two sides of the arm had to be level, and the brace itself had to be level with the next brace arm, and so on.

Keeping in mind that model railroad benchwork is the foundation of future enjoyment will carry you through the tedious tasks.

Attaching the braces to the cement block wall was tough. But they’re not going anywhere. I used an impact driver and 1/4 inch cement screws that are 3 1/2 inches long. I went through several drill bits. I drilled through the 2×2 inch leg brace with a wood bit that made a mark on the white cement block. I then used the cement drill bit to make the hole. The impact driver fastened the legs to the wall very easily.

Close up photo of lengthened wall bracket arms with fascia attached for additional support.

To accommodate my choice of 26 inch radius curves on each end of the layout, the benchwork is 54 inches deep. I am pleased with my progress so far, but the benchwork really is too deep. Reaching across to work on scenery is going to be difficult, but I will manage.

When I was satisfied with the benchwork framing, it was time to put on the plywood sub-roadbed. I had some plywood pieces from my previous layout so I used them, plus some additional new 3/8 inch plywood. I measured and cut the plywood so the ends come together between the two sides of the 1×3 inch brace arms. I then drew lines on the plywood indicating the brace arms. After drilling counter-sink pilot holes I used 1 1/2 inch screws to fasten the plywood to the brace arms.

These are photos from my first shelf layout. It was only 24 inches wide in the middle, and just wide enough on the ends to hold a 22 inch radius curve. I run parallel mainlines so I can operate two trains simultaneously.

My next post will include details about applying sheets of foam to the plywood.

Thanks for reading.

Dale

How I Created My Own Backdrop Factory

Backdrop Factory pieces leaning against the wall

I started working on my backdrop factory two years ago. I don’t have enough space on my layout to use the factory as a free-standing kit. I started by cutting the pieces down so they could be glued together side-by-side. I have four inches of space between the wall and the rail siding.

I was not satisfied with making the factory a totally flat backdrop, so I brought the center portion out three inches for depth and so I could put lights inside the building. Gluing the pieces together was the easy part, especially because of the terrific industrial backdrop painting I purchased to go behind the factory.

Building the backdrop factory included a lot of starts and stops. I stood the pieces up against the wall so I could imagine how the factory should look. The most obvious feature of the factory is windows. I decided to block many of them.

Collection of 6v and 12v lights

I finally decided to tackle the backdrop factory job once and for all. I glued the remaining pieces together, leaving the factory at a whopping fifty inches long. My decision to include an array of lights meant I had to figure out how to display them from various windows offering separate views. I didn’t want to just put a light bulb behind the facade and hope for the best.

I have lots of wires and lights from my previous layout. I first had to refresh my understanding of wiring lights in series or parallel. I have a few bulbs that are 6v, most are 12v. My accessory power supply is 12v, so I wired 6v bulbs in a series of two, dividing the voltage in half. All the other bulbs are wired parallel.

Here’s an over-simplified explanation. Light fixtures have a positive and negative lead. In series, the fixtures are wired lead to lead, the beginning wire and the last wire are connected to negative and positive leads from the power source. Every light bulb drops the power feed by the voltage of the bulb, saving 6v bulbs from being burned out by a 12v feed.

In parallel, all negative and positive leads from each bulb are connected to the negative and positive feeds from the power source. Hint: That doesn’t mean if you have twelve bulbs you have twenty-four feeds going to the power source. The negative wires can be connected together, and the positive, then connected by two feeds to the power source. This is still parallel wiring. When wired parallel, each of the 12v bulbs will receive the same power from the source.

I love foam board! I pondered ways to make the light sources appear different so the windows don’t all look the same. I decided to make small boxes out of foam board and glue them to the back of the factory backdrop.

I still was not satisfied with just putting lights in different size white boxes. I thought about painting the inside with varying colors. Nope, not good enough. I decided to print color pictures of factory and workshop interiors and glue them to the inside of the boxes. So, the entire box interior is colorful.

It wasn’t until after I glued the boxes in place that I realized I blocked too many of the windows and it was almost impossible to see the beautiful interiors of the lighted boxes. So, I cut open the boxes from the back and took out some of the material covering the windows.

After taping light fixtures and wiring in place on the back of the factory boxes, it was time to test the lights for the first time. I was pleased to see every bulb working perfectly. I stood the backdrop factory up and looked in the windows. Beautiful! Granted, the windows have small panes, and the backdrop factory will stand against the wall on the back of the layout, so it will be difficult to see detail, but I know it’s there.

I securely taped all the wiring connections and also connected two long leads to the positive and negative feeds to the lighting system. I fed the two leads through the layout bench surface to be connected to the power source below.

One area of the factory backdrop has a blank brick wall that needed something. I printed some 1:87 scale signs. I rubbed the color print with sand paper to “weather” the signs. I cut several of them out and glued them to the wall.

The top of the boxes glued to the back of the facade provided nice support for the foam board roof that I made for the backdrop factory. I mixed some light gray and black acrylic paint with some matte medium and painted the rooftop. It was now time to permanently place the backdrop factory on the layout.

The Maple Valley Short Line Railroad is coming together. I still have a long way to go, but when I look back at all the photos from the beginning, it’s amazing how good the layout looks. The addition of the backdrop factory is an important accomplishment.