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.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. 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.