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 Model Railway Engineer 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 but when I thought about it the advantages are huge.

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 Polystryne 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.

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.

12 comments
  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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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