Model railway baseboards: the complete guide

Everything you need to know about model railway baseboards. The complete guide including modular, open frame and flat top boards for model trains, construction advice and where to buy them.

The three main types of model railway baseboards

Modular

modular model railway baseboardWhat are they: These are the new kids on the block in model railways and provide ready made boards that allow you to focus on building the layout and operating trains rather than wood work.

Typically made from laser cut plywood or MDF, they come ready-made in assorted sizes and shapes that are easily connected together to form pretty much any arrangement required.

Advantages: Affordable and offer the quickest and easiest way to create a layout. Ready-made they just need quick assembly.

Disadvantages: The layout is flat, if you want large hills, deep valleys, etc they’re a bit limited.

Recommended for: Smaller layouts or where portability is required, can easily sit on a table top or wall papering table. The individual modules can also fit into plastic storage boxes to keep them safe when not in use. Ideal for town/industrial settings, branch lines and shunting settings.

> Buy modular baseboards here.

Open Frame or Open Frame

What are they: The old-school approach to creating model railways where the trackbed sits within a timber frame and the landscape elements are built around it as seen in this illustration from Iain Rice’s Railway Modelling The Realistic Way.

open frame baseboard illustration

And this drawing from John H. Ahern’s Miniature Landscape Modelling.

Illustration of an open top model train baseboard

From these images, you can hopefully see how a substructure supports vertical battens on which the track bed and higher and lower sections sits. Card or chicken wire then spans the gaps to create the landscape around the track.

Advantages: Lightweight, cheaper for large layouts – eg longer than 10ft – and rewarding to build.

Disadvantages: Complex to make, require considerable planning and detailed track plans before construction.

Recommended for: Complex larger layouts with hills, valleys and wide variations in height. Countryside branch lines, long end-to-end layouts.

Flat top

What are they: The most common approach for creating model railway layouts, essentially, a piece of flat wood on which the track, scenery and buildings are placed. Hills are made from card, packaging material or foam and glued to the surface and covered with plaster cloth.

Advantages: Almost anything can be used as the top surface with varying degrees of success and it’s easy to build largish layouts.

Disadvantages: Heavy as a lot of wood is wasted compared to open top variety and landscapes features that fall below the railway line will need cutting into the wood. If you want to have underboard electrics the thickness of the board will also need to be considered – 9mm to 12mm is a maximum really.

Recommended for: Great for beginners, suites almost any layout that has flat track configuration and level topology of landscape.

Where to buy ready-made modular baseboards

Ready-made modular baseboards can be purchased from a number of suppliers and are easily the preferred option for smaller layouts, portability and for those wanting to get on with building and operating their railways. It’s just a matter of gluing and assembling the various parts.

One of my most recent products is built on these from Justin at Scale Model Scenery. These use 4mm thick MDF and so are strong, stable and best of all modular so they can be extended with add-on sections for fiddle yards etc.

With prices starting at around £10, it’s hard to beat on price, I’ve been very impressed by them and will most likely be using them for future layouts and projects for MRE.

Step-by-step construction guide

While building the baseboards for your model railway may seem challenging it needn’t be. It’s actually pretty straight forward with a little forethought and the right tools and materials.

The first thing is to equip yourself with the right tools.

The tools you’ll need

For baseboard construction, these are the basics you should have; these are nothing special and will be familiar to any DIY aficionado.

  • Square
  • Spirit Level
  • Drill, a power drill / electric screw driver will save time
  • Jigsaw and Padsaw
  • PVA Wood Glue
  • Screw drivers and hammer

With the tools, in place the first thing is to decide the kind of layout you want; if you want a largely flat landscape, a flat top board is ideal and the easiest to construct.

Flat Top Baseboard Construction

Making this entails getting a sheet of wood, 9mm or 12mm plywood is recommended, cutting it to the size required and then fixing support 44mm x 34mm battens underneath and using 44mm x 44mm PSE timber legs. (The plywood and timber is available at B&Q on click and collect or delivery; most B&Q stores can also cut it to your required size).

Cut the battens to run along the sides and across the plywood of your plywood and use PVA and nails to secure them in place. Use cross-lap joints where the battens cross one another.

Next legs are attached to raise the flat board to an appropriate height. As a rule of thumb is that for comfort the board should stand between 85cm to 132cm (2.7ft to 4.3ft or 33.4 to and 52 inches) high.

The most important element when attaching the legs is to make sure that the legs hold the baseboard absolutely level. (Even a slight inline with the board will cause problems when operating your trains later).

Cut the legs to the required hight using the set square to ensure the ends are at 90 degrees and square. Place these in the corners of the frame and temporarily nail them in place and use the spirit level to check the board is level along the length and depth. If not, check the ends are square and try again.

Once you know baseboard sits level at the right height, fix the legs in place using a but joint. Nails and PVA will work fine but I prefer the strength and stability of screws using a counter sink drill bit so the screws sit flush in the plywood and don’t protrude that could cause problems later.

For extra dimensional stability, diagonal supports can be added between the legs.

This YouTube video gives a great overview of the above, including fitting the support battens under the surface, the diagonal support between the legs and how the legs fit into the corners of the legs.

Making an open top board

So named because unlike flat board on open top or open frame the only boarding used is where the track lies. The surrounding area is vacant to be covered later with a flexible material to provides a terrain that  rises and falls in relation to the track.

To create these, an outer frame substructure as seen below in a drawing from Miniature Landscape Modelling, is first constructed.

baseboard substructure

Open top or open frame baseboards start as a substructure on which vertical supports are added for track.

For this, use thick longitudinal and horizontal timbers, 50m x 25mm aka 2×1″ available here would be my choice.

To this, vertical stilts of 38mm x 19mm, 1.4″ x .7″ construction timber are attached and secured with screws before Plywood or MDF is then fixed to the top to create a track bed and higher and lower sections.

As seen in in the drawing above chicken wire, card, paper and plaster cloth is then used to cover the spaces between and provide terrain covering.

They’re the most complicated to construct and you also need to have a detailed track plan worked out before hand.

Other model train baseboard materials

If your plan is for a large layout but are put off by the thought of working with wood, there are other materials you can use.

An increasingly common approach is to use insulating foam. This is light weight, easy to work with but results in stable baseboards.

I covered these in more my post on an alternative material for baseboards.

Guide to baseboards, summary

  • Pre-made modular baseboards are the easiest and quickest to get started with and, if I had my time over again, I’d have built but the largest of my layouts with them. They can also be expanded as needed and allow for almost any shape of layout to be created. See the range from Scale Model Scenery.
  • Flat baseboards are great for beginners and aren’t difficult to construct, requiring just a few common DIY tools, plywood, battens and legs for baseboards from B&Q. Easy to get started with.
  • Open frame boards are perhaps the most flexible and best for large layouts but are time consuming and challenging to make.


Affiliate notice: Some links on this page will take you to carefully selected businesses, including B&Q, Rapid Online, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, through which you can buy products mentioned. These links are made under their affiliate schemes which means that although the price to you doesn't change I get a small commission on the orders you place. Please see the disclaimer for more details.

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