Should you paint a baseboard and what’s the best paint to use

painting a baseboardProgress on my shed layout has been abysmal recently. And I can’t blame the hot weather.

Actually, I can but not for the obvious reason.

For many modellers, summer time is time to retreat from their shed and lofts railway construction. It’s just too hot in most to work.

And this is true for my loft but my shed was constructed to mitigate problems of heat in the summer. It’s in shade and has insulation and is well ventilated and working on the layout there hasn’t been a problem.

No, what’s hamstrung my shed model activities is has been enjoying the glorious weather we’ve been experiencing over a glass of wine or Gin and Tonic with friends and family in the garden or local pub.

Don’t get me wrong, I love working on my railways but I enjoy socialising with friends and family fractionally more and so on these wonderful long summer evenings my railway building has taken a bit of a back seat.

Luckily, there have been a few evenings where the sun and friends haven’t called so I’ve managed to get some things done.

Specifically, the top of surface that I’m using for my model railway baseboard.

Holes have been drilled for the track and accessory wiring and the surface has now been painted.

Painting baseboards protects the wood and makes life easier

There is some discussion, such as this, around painting baseboards. Some do it and some don’t. For me however it’s a must and for three good reasons.

  1. It makes it easier to glue scenery and track
    I find some glues hold better if the surface has been painted first. Untreated some wood, like MDF, can soak up glue and not leave enough on the surface to hold heavier objects (track etc) in place. Coating it first seems to provide a stronger join to the material being fixed in place.
  2. It protects the wood work
    The most important benefit is that untreated wooden surfaces can become distorted if damp. In shed’s this is obviously important but even for indoor layouts the water in water/PVA mixes that is used heavily on layouts (ballasting etc) can seep in and cause damage. Painting the wood seals the surface and protects against such damage.
  3. It improves the look of ground cover
    There will always be places where no matter how much scatter, ballast or static grass you apply a bit gets missed and the baseboard shows through. And, even if somehow you do manage to cover the baseboard completely in time, it’s possible likely that the scatter, static grass and other ground-cover will wear off in places. Painting the board a realistic colour solves both problems with any gaps in the scatter etc just revealing a natural soil surface underneath.

But what paint to use?

Personally, I’ve settled on a home-brew combo of this water based varnish followed by an appropriately coloured emulsion paint.

There are ready made special baseboard paints available but over the years I’ve found this DIY combination just as effective and cheaper — particularly for larger layouts with big expanses of wood to treat.

The varnish I currently use is a water based compound available here.

It took a lot of false starts and ruined baseboard surfaces before I finally settled on this particular varnish. Being water-based ensures it dries a clear natural colour (others I’ve tried turned yellow and interfered with the subsequent layer of colour emulsion). It’s also a matte finish so again doesn’t doesn’t cause problems for the emulsion and lastly, and surprisingly unlike some other varnish types, it’s proven long lasting.

Anyway, after a couple of coats of this and my baseboard surface is secure.

Even in the hot weather we’re having at the time of writing, I like to wait 24 hours between coats and before I apply a final coat of emulsion for colouring. In the past, the varnish hasn’t completely dried and when the emulsion smears and ends up with a poor finish.

Extra: This tip is obviously about painting the up side of a baseboard but while you’ve got the paint out and are working on the baseboard I’d also suggest painting the underside to ease wiring. You can find out why in this post

Unlike the varnish, for which the variety and type makes a difference, I’m not overly fussed about the emulsion and use the cheapest paint I can find.

The colour, of course, depends on the type of surface I’ll be putting over it.

As a general rule for fields, grass land and woodland regions I use a brown (soil) colour. In the railway yards, I darken this with a small amount of black to reflect the coal and grime that builds up in these areas and for the track bed and roads, I use a grey colour (to disguise and blend in with the ballast or Tarmac colour).

And unlike the varnish for which a particular type used, the emulsion can be any old cheap brand you can find in DIY stores and even supermarkets. All that’s needed is the right colour.

After this, it’s just a case of waiting for it to dry before I can make a start on track and roads so time to meet up with friends again!

> 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. Hi Andy,

    Clicking on the link for the varnish I’m presented with two options:

    Clear – Matt Soft Sheen
    Clear – Satin

    Which did you use?


  2. Hi Andy. Building my first baseboard – I’m a complete newbie here as I got my first “adult” train set for my 40th b’day recently. I’ve been using this website as a great resource to get underway.

    Going to retrieve the plywood sheet tomorrow so it’s soon time to consider how to treat it as it will be out in a shed. The link to the varnish above takes me to a page where there are multiple options. Which finish varnish did you use? Satin or Matt?

    Would lacquer be unsuitable, as I have about half a tin leftover of that I could use instead?

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