Building a Train Platform – Basic Benchwork

Building a model railroad can be a daunting undertaking. Often the hardest part is just getting started. You can build a basic platform in a few days however and be running trains before you know it.

The photos you’ll see here are all part of the construction of a rather large test layout here in Lionel’s North Carolina office. You don’t need to have a big space like this to enjoy the hobby or to make use of these construction techniques. They will work just as well on any layout. The tools and materials are all easy to come by at your local home center and the techniques are easy to learn so let’s get started!

Starting with a Plan

plans

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

braces

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

corner

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!

Wiring

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.

wiring

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.

lights

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.

Platform

platform

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.

curves

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. Read on for the second part of this series and see how we finished the layout.

3 responses

17 01 2014
Mike McLintock

Is it it really necessary to use MDF for the top if you are using Homosote on top of it? Will regular 1/2 plywood be just as good?

21 01 2014
lionelllc

You can use either. We went with MDF for appearance since no Homasote was used and this platform was only going to be painted.

14 04 2014
lee grey

I found it very interesting being that hammering a nail gives me a problem thanks

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