Building a Train Platform – Part 2: A Proper Finish

20 11 2013

If you followed along with the steps we outlined last week, you now have a very functional train platform. We could have left things go at this point with no harm to the operation of the trains. However, even though it will rarely be seen by the public, we wanted to dress the layout to make it feel more like part of the room and have a finished look. It’s amazing how a little trim on the platform also makes everything you put on it look that much better!

Support Walls


Basic drywall closes in the support walls. There is plenty of room here for storage shelves if desired.

Begin by sheathing the support walls with drywall. We used 1/2″ drywall, but you could easily get away with 3/8″ here to save a little money and a lot of weight. Install this just like you would on a wall in your home. Eventually these walls will receive some display shelves, perhaps even with some lighting tucked up behind the fascia.

Since the back edge of the layout is only two feet from storage shelves along the back wall of the room, we left this wall open. The wall can’t be seen from a normal vantage point and this allows easy access under the layout.

Adding a Fascia


Support the fascia with blocks flush with the edge of the layout. If your braces aren’t flush, you can add these blocks right to them for a perfect fit.

A fascia is simply a thin panel running around the perimeter of the layout. Nothing does more to finish a platform than installing one. You can also go further and use the fascia to install your control panels, push-buttons for accessories, and anything else you choose (like cup holders to keep drinks off the layout!)

We used 1/8″ Masonite for our fascia. It comes in 4×8 sheets. To save time and a tremendous amount of dust, we had the home center rip the sheets into 8 inch wide strips for us. Since they only have to set up for one cut and can cut several sheets at once, most will make these cuts for just a few dollars – or even less. The savings in time and clean up are well worth it here even if you have the tools to do this at home.

The fascia will be attached to the ends of the 2×4 braces under the platform. Particularly on the corners, you’ll want even more support to keep the Masonite from bowing. Chances are, you have a bunch of small scraps left over from cutting the 2x4s for all of the benchwork. These will make great supports for the fascia.


Once installed, the screws are covered with putty and sanded. Even before paint the improvement is dramatic. Where possible, avoid putting a seem between strips on a curve.

Mount blocks around the perimeter of the platform, flush with the edge. The blocks don’t need to be very big – about 6″ length on a 2×4 will give you plenty to work with without splitting. These can be screwed to the platform itself. On curves, you’ll want the blocks only a few inches apart. On straight sections you can go much further – all the way out to 24 inches if desired.

Next screw the Masonite to the blocks. Keep the tempered side on the outside. We put about a 1/8″ lip above the top of the platform. This helps keep small parts from rolling off the table but more importantly it prevents people from leaning on the layout. By using 8″ wide strips, enough fascia hangs below the 2×4’s that you won’t see the top of the support walls or any other wiring, lighting, etc. that may hang down under the layout. Another option would be to keep that bottom edge straight but contour the top of the fascia to match the profile of your scenery on the layout. (See our display diorama project.) Of course this means you’ll have to cut all of the Masonite by yourself without the help of the lumber yard.

Keep the fascia level as you work around the platform. When screwing into the supports, just like with drywall you don’t want to go too far with the screw. That tempered surface gives the Masonite most of its strength. You want to have just a slight divot in that surface, not tear all the way through. Also just like with drywall, a little plaster and some sanding will hide those screws when you’re done.



With the top and fascia painted, the railroad has a nice finish that pulls your attention to the trains.

Here is another one of those perpetual topics without an answer. What color should I paint my platform, fascia, etc? Just like the height of the layout, there is no single “right” answer.

If you are going to add scenery to your platform, then painting the tabletop is not really an issue. We weren’t so we went the traditional toy-train platform route and painted the MDF a light green.

For the fascia, we went with good old black. At first we used the same wall color used for the room itself. This looked good enough and we will also use it for the support walls below. Changing the color to black however offers a bit more contrast and helps define the layout itself. Also, it should show dirt a lot less than the light gray.

In the end, the perfect fascia color is really up to you. Whichever color you choose, simply having this finished edge is one of the biggest improvements you can make to any train layout.

That’s it!  We’re ready to install the track, connect our feeders and power supplies and start testing trains. You don’t need to build a 14×40 foot layout to enjoy the hobby. These techniques will work just as well on a 4×8. We hope this gives you the courage to go out and get some lumber and get started for yourself. Building the platform takes only a few days. Finishing and enjoying the model railroad can last a lifetime.

Building a Train Platform – Part 1

13 11 2013

Something has been severely lacking from our Concord, North Carolina office… a layout! While we don’t get paid to “play with trains all day” (that’s our story and we’re sticking to it!) we did  need a place to put product samples through their paces to help ensure things are right when they make it to the most important layout – yours.

Our new 14 x 42 foot train platform occupies a balcony overlooking our archives in a newly-renovated portion of our warehouse. Built for the needs of testing new products, there are certainly criteria for our design that you won’t worry with at home. But the basic platform is constructed in such a way that would work for anyone’s layout. So if you’ve been looking to get started on a train platform, follow along and see how it’s done.

Starting with a Plan


In addition to the track plan, take time to draft plans for the platform as well.

We won’t go into great details here on how you design your trackplan. That’s a topic that could fill many articles. What is important here is that once you have that plan, it will shape (literally) everything you do going forward with the platform.

For our layout, we chose an “E” shaped plan. All of the corners of the platform are rounded to match the track curvature. This not only provides a very nice finished edge, it also makes it easier to walk around the layout.

Once you’ve created a track plan and general outline of the layout, it’s important to plan the construction of the platform as well. Like blueprints for a house, these plans will help guide your project and help calculate the materials you’ll need. You will probably make some changes as you go, but these plans are an essential guide. There are computer programs available, but graph paper, a ruler and pencil will still get the job done.

In addition to the shape and size of the platform, it is also important to establish its height. This is another hot topic for discussion. What is the best height? The height that is best for you. (In case you’re wondering, 42 inches was best for us!)

Building the Legs

support walls

With the support walls in place, the basic shape of the layout can be seen.

Begin construction with a set of legs to support the platform. Actually these are more like low walls than legs. These walls will run parallel to the edges of the layout, set back about 18 inches from the edge.

Our support walls are made from 2x4s, with the studs on 24″ centers. The length of each wall will be determined by your platform. For the height, take the final height of the platform and subtract four inches.

Position the support walls where necessary. In our installation, we were able to screw the walls directly to the floor. You could substitute some “X” bracing between parallel walls if desired.

Platform Support


Here’s a quick tip: cut a spacer block to help layout your braces for speed and consistency.

With the support walls in place, you’ll need to install some braces to provide a more even support bed, To do this, lay 2x4s across and perpendicular to the walls. The braces can be cantilevered over the walls providing room for storage, display shelves, or simply your feet under the edge of the platform.

Cut the 2x4s to length and screw them to the walls. Two-foot centers are again adequate, but you can reduce this to 16 inches if you feel more comfortable. If you are supporting more than one sheet of plywood or mdf for the platform itself, plan ahead to make sure you have a support under the seams.



Corners require a little more work, but it’s worth it. Note how the cantilevered braces are supported by both the walls and the other braces.

Since we wanted rounded corners, the supports for these required a little more work. The photo shows the positions of the braces in an arc.

For tighter curves, you can get away with only a single 45 degree brace between the 90 degree braces at the beginning and end of the arc. For our 3 and 4 foot radius curves, braces were installed every 22.5 degrees. A miter saw is big help here!


Before you screw your platform to the benchwork, take some time to begin your wiring. A little advanced planning and work now will make life a LOT easier when you start wiring the layout.


Running your bus wires and pre-wiring terminal blocks for connection to the layout at this stage is so much easier and faster.

First, drill holes through all of your braces to carry the bus wires which will provide power to track, switches and accessories. A large spade bit in a drill will give you holes large enough to thread multiple wires without binding.

Next, you can go ahead and install terminal strips at regular intervals around the layout and connect them with bus wires. When the time comes, you can simply connect your feeders from track, switches, etc. to the bus at these terminal strips.

You’ll find that it is much more comfortable (and efficient) to get this electrical distribution grid installed while you can stand up and work from almost any angle than it will be when you have to crawl under the layout.


Christmas lights provide an easy solution to lighting the work area under your layout. Avoid the temptation to fill this “empty space” with clutter.

Speaking of crawling under the layout, we knew that eventually that would have to happen as well. To make life easier, we installed a very inexpensive lighting system in the three peninsulas. The solution – Christmas Lights.  A single strand of LED Christmas lights was just right to wrap around the three sides of each peninsula.

They are plugged into outlets we installed, along with a regular 110 V power line, down the length of the layout. The other outlet can be used for tools, the vacuum, etc. The lights and outlets are controlled by an on/off switch near the entrance to the layout. Wiring like this is not difficult, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, have an electrician do the work, especially the connection to your home’s breaker box. An alternative here would be to install the Christmas lights and simply power them with an extension cord from an existing wall outlet when you need to use them – which hopefully won’t be often.

For more on layout wiring, you can refer to our many reference pages.



Once the platform goes down, everything starts to take shape. Notice how the seems are supported.

For the platform itself, you can use plywood or MDF. Both offer plenty of strength, cut with ease and are available at any home store. We used 1/2″ thick MDF. Some modelers prefer 3/4″ thickness for added strength. Our experience has shown this adds weight and makes adjustments for grades (if you build these into your benchwork) more difficult while the 1/2″ provides ample strength to support not only the model trains but us as well when working on top of the platform provided it is properly and evenly supported underneath.

Many modelers also prefer to add a second sheathing to the platform made of 1/2″ Homasote board. This is a pressed-paper board which is easy to nail into and helps deaden the sound. Since we were building a basic test layout in a warehouse, noise control was not really a priority. So we omitted that expense here – but for a home layout it is certainly an option with merit.

Cutting the Corners

cutting corners

A RotoZip in a home-made jig makes cutting the rounded corners much easier. You can also use a jigsaw.

To cut the rounded corners in the MDF, we used two different tools. For the ends of the peninsulas where we could anchor the tool from a fixed point, we used a Roto-Zip saw on a home-made radius jig. this was made by modifying a radius attachment designed for the tool. The attachment works well on curves up to 12 inches in diameter. We needed 96. The attachment was cut in half and spliced into a 1×4.

With the jig anchored at the center point of the diameter, the Roto-Zip simply has to be pulled around the arc. It helps to have a second person on hand to hold a vacuum as you cut the material. And you’ll want a few extra cutting bits too.


Curved platforms may be more work, but the results speak for themselves.

For the inside curves we took an even easier path. We marked the curve in pencil and then simply traced the line with a jig saw. If you can follow the line, you can create a very smooth cut. While your cuts don’t have to be perfect, the closer you get now the less work you’ll have to do later when you add the fascia.

At this point you have a fully-functional train platform. You can stop right here and start laying track, adding accessories, etc. But while it’s functional, we can do a lot more to improve its looks. Join us next week for the second part of this series and see how we finished the layout.

Freight Car Friday – Detailing Boxcar Interiors

25 10 2013

When we think of interesting freight car loads, open cars like gondolas, hoppers and flatcars are generally the first that come to mind. But a look into the normally-closed interior of a boxcar, reefer or stock car can offer a real treat too – even if the car is empty.

open door

Although the doors are supposed to be closed and locked to prevent damage, occasionally an open boxcar gives you a view into the interior.

These doors are normally closed during shipment. Even if the car is empty it is much safer for the doors to be closed. But every once and awhile you’ll catch a car with an open door passing by. Of course these techniques will work well for detailing cars parked on sidings for loading / unloading as well.

Painting the Interior

Many of our Lionel boxcars have opening doors, making it easy to add as much or as little interior detailing as you may like. The first step is to separate the carbody from the floor. On traditional boxcars like the one shown here, simply spread the sides of the car slightly and the floor should drop out. You’ll have to look closely at the particular car you want to work on – or check our parts diagram pages for a “dissected” view.


Before painting, mask the exterior of the car. Painter’s tape and a paper towel make a quick safety net.

With the carbody removed, mask off the entire exterior of the car. If you are painting the floor, mask the trucks and couplers as well. Most steel boxcar interiors are painted a light gray. A cheap spray can of primer will work well to duplicate the look.

If you are modeling a car with wood interior sides, use scribed styrene or basswood panels to fashion new interior walls or floors. For a simple interior, just painting the inside of the carbody will get you started.

Weathering, Writing and Rubish


Grey primer makes a fast and inexpensive paint. You only need to paint the areas that can be seen from the open doors.

With the interior painted, it’s time to add some extra details. It doesn’t take long for the walls and floor of a boxcar to be scuffed and abused by the loads and the people moving them. Scratches on the walls and floor are easy to add using the same techniques you would use to weather the outside of the car.

A small brush and some rust-colored acrylic or oil paints will do well to add this detail. Think of where and how a hand-truck, pallet or forklift might rub against the walls and apply your weathering accordingly.


Paints and chalks can be used to weather the inside of the boxcar. A little goes a long way.

In addition to the wear and tear, workers often chalk notes on the car walls to accompany the load. Unlike the graffiti you may find on the outside of the car, these markings have a purpose (although the occasional unprofessional comment has certainly been scribed as well!) A fine point pen or brush with white ink / paint can easily mimic these marks. Since the interior walls don’t get washed often, you may see several “layers” of old markings built up on the car walls. Express cars with multiple shipments per car are apt to have dozens of these.

Lastly, don’t assume that just because a car is “empty” that it doesn’t have anything in it. Workers are often less than thorough when it comes to removing old packing materials, pallets, etc. from the car when unloaded. An outbound empty may even make a convenient trash can as well. A few little details like this can add a very nice touch to a model.

Loaded or Empty


In addition to the details to the walls, part of a skid of cinder block can be seen just inside the door.

While most of the open boxcars you’ll see are probably empty, they don’t all have to be. Of course what you’ll put inside is completely up to you. It could be humble pallets of cinder block as seen here or brand new automobiles.

Crated loads of almost anything can be made quickly from scraps of basswood. Don’t overlook humorous or unusual loads as well – these can be great conversation starters at an open house.

open door

Open door or no door! Here’s another variation on the theme, a car en-route for repairs.

Since you don’t see these cars in every train, leaving the door(s) closed on one side of the model can help make the interior show up less frequently. Or it can be a good excuse to do twice as many models! The “now you see it, now you don’t” look adds even more interest as the cars make their way around your layout.

The possibilities and potential for these simple detailing projects are limited only by your imagination. What have you put inside your boxcars?

Freight Car Friday – Make Your Own Coal Loads

18 10 2013

Coal is still the top commodity by volume and revenue on America’s railroads. And coal loads are a common sight on our model railroads as well. Whether you want to improve the look of your existing loads or make your own, and whether you need loads of coal, iron ore, ballast, dirt or more, these simple techniques will work for you.

prototype load

Loads in a modern coal train often have a smooth profile thanks to flood loading tipples which load the cars as the train is in motion.

Study the prototype and you’ll find that coal loads take many shapes. The “mounds” found on most commercial loads are common on cars loaded from older tipples, dump trucks or other heavy equipment. Modern flood-loaders which pour in the coal as the train is moving will often leave a very smooth, flat profile on the top of the load. The size of the coal chunks will vary greatly as well. All of these effects are easy to reproduce and can give your hopper and gondola fleet some more variety and character.

Starting with a Form

The first step is to create a base for the load. There is no need to fill the entire car with coal dust (unless of course you have operating coal loaders and unloaders!)

foam block

Cut a basic block from insulating foam. A single sheet will make loads for many cars.

Many models come with a simulated plastic load. This is a good place to start. If you don’t have one of these or if you just want to start from scratch you can make your own from a piece of insulating foam. The pink or blue foam sheets are available at home centers and come in a variety of thicknesses. One inch foam will work well for most O Gauge loads. The foam is easy to cut and shape and also lightweight – this prevents the finished load from making the car top-heavy.

Cut the foam to size using the car as a template. If you are doing and entire coal train of similar cars, you can cut a group of loads quickly once you have the dimensions.


After shaping the foam is ready for coal. This load will have a more smooth profile compared to the original Lionel load.

Test fit the block before you start to shape the profile. You want a snug fit, but not something so tight that you have to work hard to remove the load. Since different cars will have different interior dimensions, it can be helpful to write the car type on the bottom of the block. That way you’ll know that the load fits in any “Lionel 3-bay hopper” without having to test each load.

Next, carve the desired profile on the top of the foam block. You can use a hobby /  utility knife, rasp or files to get the desired contours.

Coal, stone, ore, etc. come in many colors and varieties – pink and blue are not among them. Paint the foam blocks with acrylic paints (do not use solvents as they will melt the foam.) Basic flat black will work for coal.

Adding the Load

coal load

Add full covering of crushed coal, or in this case dyed sand.

You can get finely crushed coal and stone from several commercial suppliers at your local hobby shop. An inexpensive alternative used for the load shown here is colored sand, available at craft stores. The black sand works very well for finely crushed coal. You could also use it for cinders around steam locomotive service facilities, fills and ballast in secondary tracks and yards. A two-pound container costs about $2.00.

Spread a layer of white glue across the entire load and sprinkle on your coal. It helps to work over a newspaper so you can collect and recycle the overflow. Once you have the load looking the way you’d like, mist it with some isopropyl alcohol from a spray bottle and pour on a little more white glue, this time diluted about 50/50 with water. Once the glue dries you’ll have a spill-free load. Note that you can do this with the molded loads that come with cars as well if you want to make them a little different or more detailed.

loaded hopper

The finished load adds a different look to this car. Spread out over a train-load, the materials cost less than $1 per car.

You can now place the load back in the car for a test fit. You may have to trim a few lumps of coal off from around edges. To make it easier to remove the loads, consider adding a small piece of ferrous metal to the inside of the foam load. (a few small roofing nails are an easy source – just press in from the bottom.) Now you can use a magnet to pull the load out of the car and avoid taking it off the layout all together!

By carving the load profiles yourself, each load will be unique. This is a great way to add an extra touch to your cars for little cost and a few hours of enjoyable work. Next week we’ll turn our attention to one of the most common cars on our railroads but one which is often neglected when it comes to loads – the boxcar.