Baseboard construction – an alternative technique

Most modellers make their layout baseboards from wood. But there’s an alternative, easier, more flexible and arguably cheaper material.

Longtime readers of ModelRailwayEngineer will know I usually construct my baseboards from wood. I use a variety of wood for the surface depending on what I have available but the wood I usually prefer recommend is good old ply. Underpinning this and supporting it are numerous joists and supports to support it.

I then use either wood or polystyrene to build up the terrain where hills are needed; or lay track on it if I can want to go below track level for cuttings, rivers or valleys.

Just recently, however, I’ve seen a number of modellers use foam for the entire baseboard. This isn’t something I’d considered and although I’ve covered the advantages of different baseboard designs previously I’d never covered foam so lets correct this omission.

The advantages of foam baseboards

Firstly, if built correctly foam baseboards have all the advantages of normal wooden boards. They’re rigid, stable (I couldn’t bring myself to say strong and stable!) and will last years.

But unlike pure wood constructed boards, foam baseboards are also very lightweight which means the baseboard can be moved around (and important consideration highlighted by Toby previously).

More usefully, the material can be cut, shaped, sanded and smoothed really easily and can be worked with using common household tools. You lay track on one part and where you want a river etc, just cut out the river bed. Easy.

If you want to raise the terrain above the track, for hills etc, additional insulating or polystyrene foam can just be glued to the base, building it up where needed.

How to make a strong foam baseboard

Construction is very simple.

Firstly, create a wooden box-frame to the size of your baseboard. This can be done with strips of timber (from a DIY hardware store such as Wicks and B&Q in the UK), offcuts or strips of plywood or even MDF.

Secondly, fix strips of wood across the frame (so they make a cross in the middle).

Thirdly, take insulating form and fix it within the frame; obviously cutting it to fit where necessary. No More Nails Foam Board glue is ideal for this.

A video (by ULC35) of this, but using Polystyrene instead of insulating foam, is shown below.

And that’s it, a rigid but lightweight base for a layout and on to which you can easily place your track, cut and shape ravines, rivers and valleys and easily add more form to create height for hill

Being lightweight it can be stored away when not in use if you’re just experimenting with model railways. If you want a more permanent arrangement screwing on timber legs with some supports is a simple job. It’s a great technique I wish I’d thought of years ago and will certainly try on a future project.

I’d love to hear suggestions for other material that can be used for baseboards or how to improve this design. Leave a comment with your ideas.

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.

Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.

When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here,
  1. I’m just getting started in the hobby and just got a large piece of insulating foam to sit on a table for my baseboard. I’m looking to start terrain work and was wondering what you would suggest as a cover of the foam to paint and adhere ground cover to?

    I’ve read of people using paper towels soaked in a plaster mix for mountain cover but I’m not sure if that’s a good way to go for the entire base or not.

    • Hi Blake, You can apply ground cover direct to the foam, just coat it in PVA (wood glue). Paper towel or plaster cloth is only used when need to smooth over landscape features made from foam or the foam has been carved. Most of my layouts have a foam base which I carve or build up with more foam for the basic shape and then I use plaster or paper to cover these. Hope that makes sense, please ask if it doesn’t. Cheers, Andy

  2. Thanks for your Reply Andy.
    When I reread my posting, I wasn’t really clear about what I was intending. I am mounting servos on a small aluminium bracket that I wish to secure to the board. I also want the opportunity to remove the servo when things go wrong. I’ve done a bit more experimenting. I didn’t really want to use Superglue as I thought that was a bit aggressive. However, using a tiny spot secures the bracket but will break free without too much damage to the styrofoam. Although care needs to be taken when using hot glue gun, I found this to be the best. It didn’t melt the styrofoam, held securely, breaks free if required without damage done to the styrofoam, peel off the old glue and reseal. I can’t tell you much about the provenance of the glue gun, I pinched it out of my wife’s arsenal, it is girlie pink in colour.

  3. I’m looking at using this insulating board for a layout and am currently doing some experiments with it. What do you suggest using to fix things to it. I am making small aluminium brackets to hold servos. The only adhesive I can find that works so far is super glue. Same for track work. I was hoping to use a PVA glue but it doesn’t stick to the foam. Any help here would be appreciated. Greg

    • Hi Greg, that’s a really good question, I don’t know off the top of my head, as I said I usually use Plywood – have you tried No More Nails glue? Andy

  4. For the past 10 years I have taken a 20 foot x 10 foot G scale layout to charity meetings for children on the autistic spectrum. The boards are approx 2 mm plastic sheets with a 1 inch foam sandwich bonded in between. The layout consists of 4 ovals. It’s very basic really but amazingly robust, the boards 10×4 sit on tables for support. But I often have a scarcity of tables available so often have unsupported areas exceeding 300mm. The boards are stored in my van so take loads of abuse. The boards are available from PVC door manufacturers or outlets. They cut them to size and fit them into the lower half of external PVC doors in lieu of a glass panel.(to facilitate cat flaps etc). Has amazing rigidity and light.

  5. B&Q sell it. I’m considering trying out a small 4×2 N gauge layout. I’m not too handy when it comes to building the frame though. I never was very useful with tools or wiring etc so I have a lot to learn at 63. I’m new to model railways having just returned to it after 45 years away. I purchased a Graham Farish Highlander set DCC great fun. I’m trying to get my head around a permanent layout wiring etc.

    • Thanks Len! DCC is a lot of fun, all my future layouts are likely to be digital (apart from the simple one track builds I make for fun). Cheers, Andy

    • Hi Martin, are you in the UK? If so, it can be purchased in most large DIY stores – insulating foam. I’m guessing DIY stores in other countries will also do it. Let me know if you can’t find any. Thanks, Andy

  6. Hi Andy, The area I climb on is a flat townscape and I remove all the buildings when I work on the track and I have to watch where I put my feet. If I had undulating scenery on the board it would have to be removeable for servicing purposes. I strongly believe that you must have access to every part of the layout.
    I sometimes have to stand on anothother one of my boards as it runs under a window sill and I have to climb out of the window to clean them. Additionally I need to put my weight on the board on occasion when rolling stock derails at the furthest part of the layout. Paul

    • Hi Paul, totally agree – every area should be accessible. I always try to design in under-board access areas (holes) for rear sections rather than climbing over the layout but it’s personal preference. The golden rule: it’s your layout, do what you want. I’ve never heard of climbing out of a window however – that’s a new one! I have enough trouble going up and down loft stairs LOL. Andy

  7. Foam may be OK for small baseboards. Occasionally I need to work on the far side of my 4ft x 5ft main board (which is against the wall). I sometimes need to kneel or sit in the middle of the baseboard to work on points or track. I use the standard 9mm or 12mm ply with 2 x 1 inch batons laid on Ikea trestles. This is very sturdy and will take my 10.5 stone weight. I imagine that you wouldn’t be able to do this with Foam Board.

    • Hi Paul, interesting question. I have seen someone climb across foam boards before but not on a layout so it could be strong enough although I wouldn’t try it. Having said this, I don’t know any other modellers who would want to put their weight on their boards even if made from wood. How did you avoid destroying the landscaping etc when resting on it? Andy

  8. This seems a really great way to construct a baseboard. But how do you fix points and motors and other cabling, maybe you can show that in a later edition? I would love to use some high density insulation board maybe 100 mm thick on my layout and carve out inclines for the track etc. but track and point wiring has me stumped! Any help greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Peter, on a layout I did something similar with the track can just be fixed down as normal. For wiring, I just pushed a hole through and glued motors to the underside. Being safety conscious I use narrow tubing for the wires to go through the foam. Andy

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