Tools To Successfully Build A Model Railway Baseboard

Mitutoyo Digimatic CaliperMaking baseboards and tables for your model railway seems straight forward but the construction can often go wrong. Very wrong. The good news is that it’s usually down having the right tools and the right measuring tools in particular.

When I first started making model railway baseboards it looked pretty easy. It was only after finishing and found it wasn’t level and the trains wouldn’t run correctly up my accidental incline that I realised it’s not quite as easy as expected.

My second attempt didn’t fair much better. I drilled holes into the baseboard surface to aid screwing in the cross beams only to realise later that l’d drilled the holes way to large and now had a series of ballast swallowing holes across my abecedarian layout.

The good news is that my mistakes and many other common problems made when making baseboards can be traced back to marking and measuring errors. And the majority of marking and measuring errors come down to using the wrong tools.

Trust me when I say a standard tape measure just won’t cut it. The humble tape measure wasn’t designed for the small accurate measurements that model railway tables and baseboards require.

Here then are measuring tools I wish I’d had when starting and which will make building your model railway table or baseboard make easy and trouble free.

Straight To The Point

Cutting edges that are straight is one of key basics you have to get right when making a wooden baseboard. It’s also a task given the least attention to.

All too often I see colleagues pull out a cheap tape measure, pencil mark a few points the desired distance from one end of the wood and draw freehand through them or using a supposed flat edge to create a line and then and cut along it. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Tape measures are often inaccurate or their bending nature results in incorrect distances being marked.

Get yourself a combination square like this one. The die cast metal rule and stock will ensure it doesn’t flex and will lay straight and using the stock to hold against the wood edge will give an accurate distance measurement. Mark several points at the desired distances and then using the rule again to score a line into the wood along which you can cut.

Measuring Width and Thickness

It was misjudging depth that resulted in unsightly holes in my surface board that set me on my quest to get the right tools originally.

A way of accurately measuring depth and thickness is vital. In my case, if I’d accurately measured the depth of the cross bars and baseboard and set drill depth accordingly I’d have avoided the unsightly holes.

Traditionally, combination square and depth gauge would be used but modern tool boxes have a lot better.  Digital calipers offer precise measurement of depth and thickness. They’re perfect for setting drill length drilling holes to the precise depth required and allowing the selection of the right length of screw and nail. As with all tools, avoid the cheap models as their accuracy is questionable. The
Mitutoyo is widely regarded as one of the best makes with the Mitutoyo 500-196-20 0-150mm 6-inch Absolute Digimatic Caliper being popular on Amazon.

Extra: When using power drills, get or fit a depth stop. Setting this to the depth needed will prevent drilling too far – through the surface of the baseboard for example.

Measuring Angles

Getting angles correct is fundamental to accurate baseboard table construction. For the joinery of the basic framework for baseboard and legs it’s critical and often the most overlooked element.

It’s all too easy to do a rough cut or use a protractor to loosely mark out the angles for joints and not worry about being a few milli-meters out here and there. But these inaccuracies combine and multiple as more joints are added and before you know it you have baseboard with edges that aren’t square and legs that don’t close or stand straight.

engines squareThe most common 90 degree angles for which there’s a trusted tool no woodworker should be without is the set square.

Avoid cheap set squares as they don’t last and may even be incorrect, being fractionally off 90 degrees. Instead go for a quality square such as the engineers square set built to demanding standards (BS 939, or DIN 875 in Europe) so we can trust them.

Measuring Wood – Other Angles

While a square will work wonders for 90 degree joins for all the other angles the Bevel Setting Protractor is needed.

This one is my personal favourite. It has a 0 to 180 degree range with a clearly marked 0 to 10cm stainless steel ruler. I like this because its ruler size – 0 to 10cm – is large enough to be usable for marking corners and angles on baseboards but is also small enough to be usable for model railway building construction.

Protractor RuleAlthough not strictly necessary for making baseboards, it’s often very handy to not just mark but also measure angles during construction. And just like the bevel setting protractor above, the Silverline Easy Angle Protractor Rule is ideal for both wood work and model work. Although made from heavy duty steel and so robust enough for wood work the two 12″ rulers are small enough to be usable on model work.

By using these tools rather than guessing or using an everyday tape measure, your baseboard construction should be a lot easier. If you found this post of use, you’ll also like it’s what wood to use for model railway baseboards and tools for model railways.

> 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 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,
  1. Although I agree with the principal of this article, and the tools that you suggest are great, but please don’t rule out the humble tape measure, given the right practice and technique you can work to surprisingly tight tolerances of 0.5mm, but to do that you do need to know what you are doing and use the correct marking tools

    • Thanks Allan, I’m sure most people use a ruler. I’m not sure I’d want to measure 1mm with one though, my eyes for one thing would probably never recover 🙂 Cheers, Andy

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