Model Railroading – Step by Step

18 01 2012

Starting today, we’ll be showing model railroad building techniques one step at a time as we build a small display diorama. We’ll list all of the materials and describe the process in detail so you can build along. Of course you can expand all of these steps from a small display to a full platform, and insert your own ideas and techniques along the way as well! We’ll present a new step each week. Let’s get started!

Building the Frame

ripping plywood

Plywood is ripped into strips to make the frame for the display. 1x4's could also be used

The first step is to build a support frame for the diorama. On a layout-sized project, this is called benchwork. There are many ways to build a platform, but for most basic layouts, the same technique used on this 20″ x 20″ scene will work. We’re building what is often called open grid benchwork. We’ll start with a simple frame around the perimeter, with support brackets inserted for strength. It is like framing a wall, only horizontally.

The frame can be built from different materials. 1×4 lumber is the most common choice. For this project, we’re using 3/4″ plywood (AC grade), ripped into 2 1/2″ wide strips. Why plywood? First, to be frank, this particular project isn’t that big and the material was already on hand! More importantly, plywood offers some big advantages over dimensional lumber; it is more dimensionally stable (less likely to warp with changes in humidity), stronger, and foot-for-foot cheaper. These advantages all hold whether building a small display or a large layout. You can rip the plywood into strips using a table saw or a circular saw with a guide attached.

completed frame

The completed frame is more than strong enough to support a model train. Notice the warp-free plywood strips and the mitred corners.

Begin by building the perimeter of the frame. Cut four boards to a length of 20″. For added strength, mitre the corners to 45°. There are other techniques that can be used here as well, based on your skills and available tools. Use wood glue and nail or screw the corners together. If using screws, it is best to pre-drill and countersink the holes. For a small project like this, a pneumatic nail gun works great.

With the frame complete, attach a support to the center. This will be 18.5″ long (20″ – the width of the frame). For this project, one support is being placed on center at 10″. For a larger layout, place these supports on no greater than a 16″ center across the length of the platform.

finished base

The finished base may not look like much yet - but it's just a blank slate.

Lastly, we’ll attach the base of our platform. You can use plywood or MDF (medium density fiberboard) for this step. With the support of the frame, 1/2″ plywood will be strong enough. Glue and nail / screw the top onto the frame. For more elaborate displays with multiple elevations, you can also attach risers to the frame to support this base at any height.

For a small display module this may be overbuilt, but the techniques here can be expanded to a platform-sized display without any changes. In total, this part of the project took about an hour to complete. Now that you’ve got a blank canvas, we’ll give you a week to think about what to put on it. Next week, we’ll sketch out the plans for this display.



14 responses

10 02 2012
Glenn Hann

where’s the update?

10 02 2012

We update the modeling blog every Wednesday. Here is the most recent:

5 03 2012

When laying track side by side what spacing is required? I am laying out a three track layout running 80 ft. the curves have me hung up. I have 72, 36, and 27 curves.
Thank you,

5 03 2012


Curves can be a bit tricky. The Number of the curve indicates the diameter of a circle it would create, as measured from the center rail. In other words, an O-72 circle requires about 75 x 75 inches.

As to what that means for track spacing, the necessary space between tracks depends mostly on what you intend to run on them. Everything in our catolog will run on O-72. Most things will run on O-36, and smaller equipment will do fine on O-27. But longer locomotives and cars will have a bigger amount of overhang off the inside and outside of the track when going around these curves. Locomotives, with their swinging pilots, tend to hang over on the outside of the rail. Long passenger and freight cars have their pivot points closer to the ends of the car and will overhang on the inside of the curve. On parallel straight track, you should not have any problems.

The best way to determine what you need is to take the two pieces of equipment you own that have the greatest overhang inside and out on the curves, and test your trackplaou n before fastening everything down. I wish there was a more scientific way to calculate it, but really, if it fits it works! If the locomotive with the greatest outside swing clears the passenger car with the greatest inside dimension, then you’ll be fine with everything else you run. The same goes for positioning tunnels, buildings, etc. near the tracks. In general, I think if you center all three curves on the same point, you should not have any problems, but you may well be able to insert some small straight sections to increase the inner loops’ diameter a little without running into any trouble.

5 03 2012


9 03 2012

Ralph, I run a 54″ and 31″ radius, I have my curves 5″ apart, and have not had a problem. The passenger cars are of the Madison era and a 4-8-4 steamer.

10 04 2012

Designing a new layout table that is 8FT wide and 14ft long. The frame is made out of 3/4″ plywood, ripped at 3-1/2″ wide, with supports at 24″ on center. The top will be 3/4″ plywood also. Will this frame work be ok?? All my trains are O-31 gauge. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Just started to get all my old trains out again after 50 years for our grandchildren. Thank You.

10 04 2012

That construction should be fine. You may want to put some extra braces between the supports at 24″ centers, but your construction methods are spot on and with a 3/4″ plywood top, you shouldn’t experience any sagging. One other piece of advice… let the grandchildren help with the construction too! If not with the benchwork, I think you’ll find several of the scenery making steps included here in the blog like making rocks, groundcover and even trees, are great rainy day projects with kids. Good luck and have fun!

3 12 2012
Mr Terry

Hay what the best way to rasie the track as if I wanted a mountain and Clift the goes in. To a town kind like places in Wva? And in Maryland they got a 3000 ft dam upriver over. Under Stan I don’t want a plain flat train to play with! Looking to hear from you thanks

4 12 2012

There are a variety of ways to raise track. You can use bridge and trestle sets if you want to keep a solid table top platform, but for more realistic scenery, your best bet is to abandon the flat plywood table and build a frame of open grid or L girder benchwork. Cut plywood to match the track plan and then you can elevated the roadbed on risers attached to the benchwork grid.

To create the mountains and other scenery, you simply fill in the voids. Our display diorama blog pages give some good instructions on this starting with a base of insulating foam.

3 01 2013
Chris parham

Can you find plywood larger than 4 x 8′ In a single sheet

4 01 2013

Yes, but you’re probably going to have to special order it. Your best bet is to start at a local lumber yard and see if it is an option. I don’t know what you’re planning to build, but if you are thinking of a train platform, you are going to need to provide additional support anyway – even on a 4×8 sheet – to prevent sags. With that in mind it would be easy and less-expensive to build a frame and splice two – or more – sheets to build a larger platform.

12 09 2013
Jana Whitworth Daughter of John Whitworth

My father was born in 1930 in LeLeague City, Texas, just south of Houston. He has been collecting Lionel Toy Trains for well over half his life. Ever since I can remember as a very young girl our family traveled from train meet to train meat all over the state of Texas, my father had several tables w/complete layouts amongst all else he would buy sell or trade, at every meet. His collection is enormous many, Engines, Cars etc still inside there boxes never opened. I am needing appraisals & serious buyers for his collection.

3 05 2014
eduardo Frez

what about the 80 watts QC50-OK for europe?

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