Thinking of building your first real model railway? Arguably one of the biggest jobs you’ll face will be building the baseboard for your layout. Once you’ve decided on size and shape, the next question on most hobbyists to-do lists is what’s the best wood to use? Check out these answers from gurus across the Internet.
There are stages hobbyists go through with their model railways.
There’s the excitement of getting their first railway set and building their first simple layout often on the floor or table (see How To Look After Your Model Railway: Tips For Floor Based Train Sets) then comes building a sophisticated layout on a table dedicated to their new hobby before going all out to build a permanent layout.
If you’re at the first two stages, either working on the floor or table life is pretty easy. You just need a spare corner of floor or an old table. But if you’re thinking of moving up to a dedicated baseboard and a solid top (rather than an open framed construction) this is post for you.
You want something sturdy enough to support not just the track, but also the electrics, buildings, maybe hills and mountains while also being soft and flexible enough to push track pins into it and drill small holes for wiring yet sturdy enough not to distort.
Questions, questions, questions.
But what about answers?
Legs and Framework Construction
For legs and framework of your railway baseboard you’ll need good old fashioned timber.
The overall opinion being that these parts should be 2″ x 1″ (44 x 21mm) Plain Squared Edged (PSE) to the length you require for your height and frame supporting the surface layer. I’ve previously used thinner timber only to find it crack or split later. This wood has the strength required without the weight of other materials.
Extra: Baseboards are the foundations of your railway, it took me a long time and a lot of costly mistakes for me to learn how to make them correctly. Avoid the mistakes I made with Designing and Building Model Railway Baseboards (click here to order for faster delivery if in America).
Top / Surface Layer
Multiple conversations on all the above forums recommend Sundeala or Ply-board for the top surface on which your track, buildings and scenery. Sundeala is essentially recycled paper but both boards are soft enough to let track pins be pushed into them and strong enough to hold them in place.
Although tempting, MDF is not recommended on the forums (as covered at length a topic post on newrailwaymodellers.co.uk). It can be hard to drive pins into, creates dust and is vulnerable to moisture/humidity. It’s also not good if you have accidental spillages – not that anyone would ever rest a cup of tea on their layout would they…
A word of advice from the forums is that both these board types can sag so make sure you don’t have large expanses of the board without support beams underneath (see modelrailwayforum.co.uk).
All the forums and experienced railway builders agree that you’ll want a minimum thickness of 9mm or 12mm. Less than this and it won’t be strong enough to support the layout, any thicker and it’ll difficult to cut through for wires etc.
For both timber and surface board, Jewson and Wickes can supply PSE; some model railway shops will be able to supply surface board cut to standard sizes but again your local branch of one of the national DIY chains will also be able to help.
Extra: This post focuses on wood model railway baseboards as that’s what I’ve used in the past but it’s also possible to use Styrofoam as a base.
For more advice on building baseboards I recommend, Designing and Building Model Railway Baseboards (or here for American readers) Helpful illustrations, instructions, and plans on making different types of board keep this on my shelf and I still refer to it before starting any new layout.
A final, personal, note: I spend a LOT of time testing, photographing, writing and often wrecking my own layouts researching techniques for these articles and don’t charge a penny for them. If this article is useful to you or helpful, please add a comment to say so, it gives me encouragement to continue. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
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