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
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.
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.
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.