Model railroading is a terrific way to lose yourself in details that have absolutely nothing to do with the media, bad news, worse news, health scares, or Covid.
It’s been almost four months since I worked on my model railroading project, The Maple Valley Short Line.
Part of model railroading, at least for me, has been anticipating but not being upset by the feeling of hitting a wall. My motivation to build disappeared. Today I reactivated and found it.
Even as I stood in front of my layout, it wasn’t until I actually started measuring, cutting, and gluing that I began to feel motivated.
I discovered installing scratch-built bridges is difficult. Making sure the bridge deck is the same level as the cork roadbed which means boring holes in plaster and foam takes time. When it’s done, it will be fantastic.
I have been challenged by the need to cover my styrofoam risers and blend them into the scenery in a way that looks realistic. I’ve thought about covering crumpled paper with plaster, but wondered about mold forming on the paper from the moisture.
I thought about using cardboard strips with plaster, but with one to four inches across thirty-two feet of riser, that is a lot of cardboard to cut and cover. I’m still working on it. I think I’ll use a combination of paper towel and pieces of foam dipped in plaster.
The river I decided to dig across the middle of my layout added a tremendous amount of work, but I’m excited about how it’s going to look. This will be my first time using the epoxy mix that becomes “water”. I’ll paint the plaster first then pour the magic liquid.
Model railroading is a lot of fun. It provides a great opportunity to see what can be done. Everything is changeable, there really is no such thing as a mistake.
I can start placing my nickel-silver flex-track any time. That’s when the layout really starts looking like a railroad. I’ve been working on my model railroad for a long time already. Every step has its own rewards.
I’m looking forward to the day when I can start setting all the houses and buildings I spent last winter creating. Trees, grass, weeds, junk, sticks, fences, rocks, stones, lights, signals, backdrops, ballast, and more junk. Love it.
All this makes me want more coffee. Model railroading and coffee. Inseparable partners.
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.
In this post I’m adding some additional details and photos that will be helpful to those who read the original post, “How to Build Strong Model Railroad Benchwork.”
This is a close-up of the braces I made for my first shelf-style layout. These are the same braces but I had to adapt them a little bit for my current layout which is quite a bit larger than my first shelf.
The leg and arm brace are both 2×2 pine. The gusset size depends on how long your arm brace is going to be. I like things flush (OCD), so the bottom of the arm is flush with the bottom angle of the gusset. There are three #8 x 1 inch screws on one side, and two screws on the opposite side of the gusset holding the arm brace. There are three screws on either side of the leg into the gusset. The bottom of the leg rests on the floor.
You can’t see them in this photo, but there are two concrete screws anchoring the leg to the wall. One is just below the gusset, and one about half way between the top of the brace and the gusset.
Bosch 3/16 inch concrete impact drill bits are necessary for making screw holes in the wall. I used 1/4 x 3-1/4 inch concrete anchor screws. With these screws it is NOT necessary to put anchors in the wall before placing the screws. These are fantastic for a quick, rock-solid hold on the brace leg.
I have one brace on each of the outside walls. The braces are about 50 inches from the back wall and are perpendicular to the remaining braces. I left 4 inches of overhang across the entire front of the layout. In this photo it’s clear that I used two 1×3 inch joists on either side of the arm brace. My first shelf layout was only 24 inches deep in the middle, 48 inches on the ends. To use these braces again I had to add additional pieces of 1×3.
As I said in my previous post, this layout is 54 inches deep on the ends, 36 inches across the middle. I wouldn’t recommend building a shelf layout this wide, but I’m tall so reaching across won’t be that difficult. Using a step stool to work on scenery at the ends will work fine.
My train room is 21 feet long. My layout braces are approximately 32 inches apart. The last braces on either end are just 12 inches from the outside wall. I measured the distance between each of the braces, then cut a 2×2 inch piece to length and fastened it to the wall using the same concrete screws I used on the legs. With the braces 32 inches apart, I was concerned there might be some “give” in the surface of the layout between the braces. I used 3/8 inch plywood for the bench surface, which is not super sturdy. My bracing makes up for it.
After I was satisfied with the placement of the braces, I added facia across the front of the braces to make a solid foundation for the edge of the plywood surface. I will probably attach a piece of thin material across plywood edge for a finished look.
**Mistake alert! Be sure to use a square to assure a 90 degree angle at each of the braces before attaching the facia! This is experience speaking. It’s never fun to have to re-do something.
When I added the 3/8 inch plywood deck, I measured from the center of the brace to the next brace center, and cut the plywood accordingly. By doing that, the edges of the plywood came together in the middle of the joists, creating a solid connection.
When all of the plywood surface pieces were firmly in place, it was time to begin laying down the extruded foam. I almost decided against using foam. It was actually my wife who talked me into it because of the versatility it provides with scenery and track placement. I had also decided not to use elevated track, which meant no mountain areas, no trestles, no inclines and declines. Again, my wife helped me see the light.
I decided to use 1 1/2 inch foam rather than 2 inch. It was a minor cost savings, and I didn’t think the extra 1/2 inch would make that much difference. I measured and cut the foam to fit and made sure I was happy before I started applying glue. I used Liquid Nails to apply the foam, then, as you can see, I weighted the foam and left it overnight. It worked great. I’m very satisfied with my progress so far.
While I am working on my layout I always have music playing and a hot cup of coffee close by. There should be a coffee flavor called HO Railroad. Hey, wait a minute! That’s a good idea!
Your dream of a beautiful model railroad will ultimately be no better than the benchwork holding it in place. Any model railroad worth building is worth the time and effort it takes to build unshakable benchwork.
My first permanent HO layout was built on open-grid, I-girder and truss benchwork. I followed Lynn Wescott’s old book detailing how to build, step-by-step, open grid benchwork. His drawings, lists of materials, measurements, and photos made the work easy. I have to admit, however, I was disappointed with the way my benchwork turned out. I found the open grid design made scenery building far more difficult.
How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork, by Lynn Westcott, who was a master in model railroading and everything that goes with it, is a terrific manual for building a great layout.
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.
My new train room is twenty-one feet long, and I’m using every inch of it for my layout. The room has the same shape as the train room in our last house, which is kind of cool. This room is longer, but more narrow. The opposite side of the room is lined with shelves with mostly stuff we don’t need. Just as long as I have room to get from one end of the layout to the other, it’s fine with me. One great thing about shelf layouts is the room it creates underneath. Lots more storage area.
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.
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.
These are some track-level photos of my most recent HO scale train layout. It was a “shelf-style” layout, which simply means the room I was using was too small to have a free standing layout supported by its own benchwork legs. I used a model railroading magazine specifically for benchwork and just followed sketches to build the shelf supports along the wall.
My first obstacle was trying to figure out how much room I had for the loops on each end of the layout. I didn’t want to build a “down and back” type of track plan. I wanted to allow the trains to run continually, and wanted to be able to run two trains at the same time. So, I ended up with a detailed two-line track plan with several sidings and a couple freight yards to choose from. What I ended up with was a 22 inch outer line radius, and an 18 inch radius on the inner curve. One mistake I made was not allowing enough room through the entire curve for two trains to run side-by-side. I had to make sure the two trains did not run through the curves together. I won’t make that mistake again.
I don’t run passenger trains, so the entire layout was built for freight operation. Most of my buildings are manufacturing style, as a few can be seen in the photos. Although I enjoy operating the trains, my main focus is scenery. As you can see in the photos, the layout was not finished, as there were plenty of bare spots where there were neither roads, grass, or weeds. But, that’s just part of the hobby. The work is never finished.
I used “flex-track” which comes in 3′ sections. I used code 100 rail, which has to do with the fine detail of the rails. For my use, this code works great and it is less expensive. I only use nickle-silver track as it does not corrode as quickly as brass. I don’t know of anyone who uses brass track for serious layout construction. The flex-track works great for my layouts. I have never tried scratch-building track, either with a tie-strip and rails, or by hand laying ties. It’s too much work.
Model railroading is a great hobby. There is just something about trains that have captured my attention my entire life. I take every chance I can get to watch trains. Unfortunately, I don’t live close enough to any operational lines to allow me to watch every day. I am really looking forward to starting my next layout.
Working on trains always makes me think of coffee. Speaking of which, it’s time for more. Coffee, that is.