I’m always on the look out for new, cheaper or better materials to build model railways with so when someone wrote in suggesting fibreboard I had to give it a go. Here’s how I got on.
Baseboards are the fundamental building block for model train layouts. They impact just about every aspect of the layout creation and even the operating of your trains.
You want something that’s stable, that’s a given. And something that has a long life, naturally. But you also need something that’s easy to work with, to drill through for wires and cuts easily for carving landscape features. That takes glue well and ideally is lightweight.
A flat surface is also critical for the rolling stock to run smoothly.
The de-facto standard is now plywood as I explained here but I also like to add additional layers to this to create height that can be cut into easily for rivers, ponds and dips in the landscape.
Expanded polystyrene foam packaging is my go-to material — I have a stock pile of bits that have come as packaging in deliveries. I’ve also built the odd layout just just the expanded foam held in place by a timber frame.
Both work well and tick all the boxes above but I’m always looking for alternative ideas.
I recently heard from someone using fibreboard — used under wood flooring. As it it happens I had a load lying around that was left over when several rooms in my house were re-floored (where it proved an excellent underlay) and wondered if it could be used this could form the basis of a pending layout.
The description said it was made from wood fibre, and provides a level surface and stable support so it sounded promising.
Rather than potentially ruin a layout in construction, I took a few pieces and ran some experiments on it.
Firstly, glue. How well does it take and hold glue used for fixing timber (for support), track and scenic materials?
I applied a thin coat of raw PVA (wood glue) and some that has been watered down – as is commonly down with PVA for track work and scatter.
The glue soaked right into the fibrous boards. This could be a good thing but turned out not to be. Once dried the board went rock hard and became difficult to cut through. Not impossible but it diminished its attraction.
More problematically, where it dried it pooled in places and created bubbles and an even surface. It would never be usable for laying track onto.
Not a great start.
Polystyrene can be easily cut and is really easy to shape and while I didn’t expect to use the same tool, I was expecting it to be relatively trouble-free.
This turned out not to be the case.
I tried cutting straight and curved lines through the material. But even with a sharp, brand-new, knife, the material tore at the edge. Maybe it’s the material the fibreboard is made from fibres glued together and these separate when the knife is drawn through them but whatever the reason it left horrid cuts.
I simply wouldn’t be usable if you wanted to cut vertical edges such as harbour or canal banks.
Perhaps more troubling, once cut lots of dust continued to come off it. Admittedly, top coats of paint and glue would counter much of this but I was surprised how much was produced and continued to appear days later. This could prove very problematic should it get into the small wheels and motors of the trains.
Lastly, I checked the sheets of the material for evenness. As mentioned, a flat even surface is vital on which to lay track. Even the slightest undulation can create problems for trains and lead to derailments or stalling.
Here too, the fibreboard just isn’t good enough. While they’re good enough to lay flat under flooring, they’re just not smooth enough for track with the board bending and rising across its surface area.
And this became worse after glueing to timber, with the glue causing odd ripples and bubbles under the surface to form creating a very uneven finish.
After these trials, the conclusion was clear. While fibreboard is great for a wooden floor underlay and I recommend it, I’d stick with Polystyrene and plywood for your model railways baseboards.
Got any other materials, you’d like to see tested as a material for baseboards? Drop a comment below and I’ll try and review them here.
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.