Is cork underlay needed for track?

model railway track wiring

This is question that comes up frequently, here are my thoughts.

A commonly asked question on the ModelRailwayEngineer community is whether cork should be used for laying track and if it’s not needed, what benefits does it have?

Laying track on top of cork on a layout is a traditional technique that has been done for longer than I’ve been building layouts (too many years LOL).

And a quick, unscientific poll of the nearly 9,000 or so members of the MRE community found the majority do you use it, with over 60 percent of those answering my question about it saying they still use Cork track beds.

There are two common of arguments as to why it’s used.

It reduces noise

Noise is one of the most commonly cited reasons. Putting spongy cork under your track cushions the track and reduces the vibration that would otherwise travel to the baseboard and be echoed around the layout.

But as I’ve covered here before, tests on noise levels from different track underlays and glues prove that this isn’t the case. The choice of glue is more important if you’re worried about noise.

It makes ballast look more realistic

The next argument of cork is that that it provides a raised bed for the track and creates a shoulder that helps the ballast look better.

But this isn’t dependent on cork and can be achieved through a number of other materials, Peco foam underlay for example.

It’s also worth noting that depending on the era and location of railway you’re modelling the ballast may not even have a raised shoulder. Many industrial era narrow gauge railways for example don’t have this for example.


In conclusion, then, it’s not necessary to use cork underlay on a layout and the few benefits it is claimed to have are arguable.

Personally, I no longer use it and don’t miss it. What’s your experience?

> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.



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, eBay 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. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
  1. Whether to use it or not depends on how realistic you want it to be. To achieve the correct Profile (of what Real Track looks like), you really need to use Cork. Not only does it help to absorb noise (which can also be achieved anyway, by using Compressed Foam Base instead of just Timber Sheets, such as Plywood), but it represents the Ballast that is actually Under The Sleepers/Ties. Real Railroad Track sits on a Bed of Ballast; but it’s not practical to actually lay your (Model Railroad) Track on Ballast, because you would get an uneven surface, and you couldn’t pin the Track in place. If you don’t use Cork, and just spread Ballast on Top of he Track, it would be like Real Track sitting directly on the ground: Which isn’t how it really is. So yes, Use Cork.

  2. I’m a newcomer to model Railroading. I use cork under the track because I thought everyone else did and that it was the way to go. However if I had my time over again I wouldn’t use it. My reason is this, if you go with DCC as we have done you need a lot of the plastic fish plates on the turnouts to alleviate the possibility of shorting. The plastic fish plates are not rigid enough like the metal ones when used in conjunction of cork. In this instance you could have a fraction of a millimetre difference in height. As we’re working on a scale of 1:76 for OO gauge, that discrepancy is multiplied 76 times. If however you don’t use cork the track will lay flat on the board with no difference in height and in addition will be held in position on the bends more securely when using Flexy Track. Remember if you don’t get the track right you will always have problems with derailments. I might even remove my cork.

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