What’s The Best Wood To Use For Model Railway Baseboard?

14 Intermediate 14 Comments

Thinking of building your first real model railway? Arguably one of the biggest jobs you’ll face will be building the baseboard for your layout. Once you’ve decided on size and shape, the next question on most hobbyists to-do lists is what’s the best wood to use for a model railway baseboard? Check out these answers from gurus at the top railway forums.

There are stages hobbyists go through with their model railways.

There’s the excitement of getting their first railway set and building their first simple layout often on the floor or table (see How To Look After Your Model Railway: Tips For Floor Based Train Sets) then comes building a sophisticated layout on a table dedicated to their new hobby before going all out to build a permanent layout.

If you’re at the first two stages, either working on the floor or table life is pretty easy. You just need a spare corner of floor or an old table. But if you’re thinking of moving up to a dedicated baseboard this post if for you.

Model Railway Baseboard and track construction

Model Railway Baseboard and track construction at Miniatur Wunderland. Picture, (c) Model Railway Engineer.com

You want something sturdy enough to support not just the track, but also the electrics, buildings, maybe hills and mountains while also being soft and flexible enough to push track pins into it and drill small holes for wiring yet sturdy enough not to distort.

Questions, questions, questions.

But what about answers?

Here’s what the experienced folks over at the websites modelrailwayforum.co.uknewrailwaymodellers.co.uk and rmweb came up with for benchwork choices.

Legs and Framework Construction

For legs and framework of your railway baseboard you’ll need good old fashioned timber.

The overall opinion being that these parts should be 2″ x 1″ (44 x 21mm) Plain Squared Edged (PSE) to the length you require for your height.  This wood has the strength required without the weight of other materials.

Extra: Baseboards are the foundations of your railway, it took me a long time and a lot of costly mistakes for me to learn how to make them correctly. Avoid the mistakes I made with Designing and Building Model Railway Baseboards.  

Top / Surface Layer

Multiple conversations on all the above forums recommend Sundeala or Ply board for the top surface on which your track, buildings and scenery. Sundeala is essentially recycled paper but both boards are soft enough to let track pins be pushed into them and strong enough to hold them in place.

Although tempting, MDF is not recommended on the forums (as covered at length a topic post on newrailwaymodellers.co.uk). It can be hard to drive pins into, creates dust and is vulnerable to moisture/humidity.  It’s also not good if you have accidental spillages – not that anyone would ever rest a cup of tea on their layout would they…

A word of advice from the forums is that both these board types can sag so make sure you don’t have large expanses of the board without support beams underneath (see modelrailwayforum.co.uk).

All the forums and experienced railway builders agree that you’ll want a minimum thickness of 9mm or 12mm.  Less than this and it won’t be strong enough to support the layout, any thicker and it’ll difficult to cut through for wires etc.

For both timber and surface board, Jewson and Wickes can supply PSE; some model railway shops will be able to supply surface board cut to standard sizes but again your local branch of one of the national DIY chains will also be able to help.

Footnote: This post focuses on wood model railway baseboards as that’s what I’ve used in the past but it’s also possible to use Styrofoam as a base and this will be covered in a future post.

This is one of my super series collection of posts of model railway beginners guides. If you’re looking for more tips and information on building a model railway, there are also several great books available to help you. Finally, if you found this post useful, you might also be interested in Tools You’ll Need To Successfully Build A Model Railway Baseboard.

For more advice on building baseboards I recommend, Designing and Building Model Railway Baseboards.  Helpful illustrations, instructions and plans on making different types of board keep this on my shelf and I still refer to it when starting any new layout. Helpful illustrations, instructions and plans on making different types of board keep this on my shelf and I still refer to it when starting any new layout.



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  1. w j garwood - January 9, 2016

    I, as a rank beginner find a lot of inspiration on u tube,but I use loft flooring as a base board,giving it a coat of varnish as a sealant It will take track pins and screws and can be drilled.Congrat on all of your articles

  2. Keith Gibson - February 12, 2016

    I have an O gauge layout using 6mm MDF as a baseboard. Each 8ftx2ft baseboard is built as a box section with cross bracing so that it is both reasonably light but strong. Each 8ft section can be tilted on its side to get to the underside. Each section also acts as a district for DCC. The layout is in a garage and has not warped or twisted and there is no dust as I have sealed the MDF with dilute PVA. Finally, MDF is cheaper than ply. I can provide a picture of its construction. 39KA

    • Hi Keith, this article is a roundup of views from not just me but other modellers and the general consensus is that MDF isn’t the best material to use. Having said this it certainly can be used. I use it without problem on one of my layouts and if it works for you that’s great! I’d love to see pictures of your layout – could you email them – andy @ modelrailwayengineer . com (spaces added).

      Andy

  3. rayferpi - February 26, 2016

    Excellent article once again. Thank you;)

  4. Richard Hammerton - April 26, 2016

    I have built my most recent n gauge layout using a baseboard of 22mm bathroom grade flooring board. Why bathroom grade? It’s moisture resistant therefore very stable which really helps for n gauge trackwork. The rear of the baseboard is fitted to a 100mm by 50mm wallplate that runs the entire length of the layout supported at 400mm centres. From one end to another the layout is 7400mm long so stability is everything. Bathroom grade chipboard is not expensive and takes away a lot of pain further down the build. How else do you have an 8 platform station with a further 2 through roads? Richard H. 

    • Hi Richard, that’s a nice size layout, especially for N gauge! As said, I do use a variety of material and mix and match as needed. For an 8 platform station I’d agree a lot of support is needed either with thick board or board under-board structs. Do you mount the point motors under the boards? Just wandering if the 22mm board isn’t too thick to the rods from the motors to the points?

  5. Laurie Fergusson - January 9, 2017

    Hi,
    I’m looking to have a station on the outside of a third radius curve rails,
    Can’t seem to find anything would the Metcalfe po235 stone platform kit fit.?
    Thanks
    Laurie

    • Hi Laurie, various card kits should do fine and http://www.wordsworthmodelrailway.co.uk do card kits from which you can make your own, which would be my preferred choice as you can then construct it to fit perfectly. One consideration as your station will be on the outside however is to ensure the longest carriages and loco don’t overhang and interfere with the platforms. Let me know how you get on. Andy

  6. Peter Calver - March 3, 2017

    Why doesn’t anybody use doors for layout boards?
    Modern flat core doors are very stable available in standard 78″ x 30″ sizes.
    The ones to use are the plywood faced ones in the”white” unfinished. Not the hardboard faced ones they are too hard to get the track pins in. The doors have the edges as softwood with a “Dufaylite” core interior, like egg boxes. Very strong, the edges need to take hinges and locks.
    Places like B & Q often have deals on these, buy 4 for £?.

    • Peter, many do. I guess most people don’t have spare doors lying around and if you don’t it makes more sense to create a baseboard that fits your needs rather than buying a door. Thanks for the reminder though.

  7. Richard. Baldwin - May 31, 2017

    I am a 69 year old grandpa. This month my wife allowed me to buy several H O train sets at garage sales. I built a 4×8 table. The top is plywood.
    Since I have zero funds. I can wait till I money for cork or go another route. What do you think of this idea. I have 3/4×3 inch pine boards. I will uses a table saw to cut the thickness to 1/4 or 1/2 inch and the width will be the size of the track. I will nail the track to the board.

    • Thanks for your comment Richard. If you can successfully cut the boards why not? The only thing I’d add is to support it across the length and width to prevent warping over time. Let us know how it develops. Thanks, Andy

  8. Bill T. McCarter - September 8, 2017

    I have set up O gauge,HO, and N in the basement area is 15′ X 30′. Have some houses to set up yet, trains need the trainsformers set up too. I am setting up the HO trains now. The set is a (u). I have to wire everything. It is hard for me, bec ause I have all timers, and a heart that works on top only. I am 70 years old. I love my trains and will buy more stuff. Thanks, BILL

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