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.

World’s Greatest Hobby!

27 12 2012

Christmas may have passed, but there is no reason to put those trains away yet! Trains and model railroads are a hobby that can be enjoyed all year-long. In fact, they’re the World’s Greatest Hobby!

Why? There is much more to building a train layout than putting together a circle of track and watching the train run ’round and ’round. The hobby has many different facets, and can develop many talents you never knew you had. It gives you a chance to express your creative side, and study the world around us. It’s a hobby that can be shared by the entire family and brings out the kid in all of us.


New product displays are just the beginning!

Every year, the World’s Greatest Hobby Show goes on tour to new cities across the United States to showcase the best of what this hobby has to offer. This is more than just a train show. It is a chance to meet the manufacturers, learn new skills, connect with local model clubs and groups in your area and just have fun! There will be operating layouts, clinics and lots of things for kids to enjoy.

modular railroad

Our Modular Railroad will be a learning experience for all.

And of course we’ll be there too! This year, we’ll be doing something new in our booth. In addition to displays of our new products and an operating layout, we’ll be conducting some demonstrations of our own using our new FasTrack Modular Layout. At each show, we’ll be completing the scenery on one of our unfinished modules so you can see first hand how easy it is to transform your train platform into whatever you desire.

These modules are a great way to get started in the hobby. But you can use the skills we’ll be showing on any layout. We’ll take lots of pictures too so after the shows we can post instructions here on the blog for those who can’t make it.

Here are the five stops on the 2013 tour. Don’t see one near you? Don’t worry, we’ll be on the road again to different cities next year! For more information, see the World’s Greatest Hobby Show website.


One of our operating display layouts will be on hand too.

  • January 5-6, Fort Worth, Texas  Will Rogers Memorial Center
  • January 12-13, St. Louis, Missouri  America’s Center
  • February 9-10, San Diego, California  Del Mar Fairgrounds
  • February 22-23, Sacramento, California  Cal-Expo
  • March 2-3, San Francisco, California  San Mateo County Event Center

Whether you’re a seasoned model railroader or have never been to a show before, these are great events. We hope to see you there!

New Product Spotlight – Command Control Speeders

5 11 2012

“Speeders,” self-propelled cars used by track gangs, have come in many shapes and sizes. Today, they are as popular to preserve full-scale as they are in models.


6-37066 Maintenance of Way

The speeder, or track car, replaced the hand-powered pumpcars and velocipedes, beginning in the 1920s. The first cars were not much more than a small engine, four wheels and a bench. Often they were home-built in railroad shops. Crude as they may have seemed, compared to pumping your way several miles just to get to the work site, these were a welcome relief to those who used them.

6-37064 CSX

Over time, the speeders evolved into larger and more elaborate vehicles. Roofs, windshields, and eventually side walls enclosed the passenger compartments. Larger cars could carry six or more men. Some speeders had top speeds of more than 40 mph and were often powerful enough to tow an extra cart or two with tools, spikes, etc.

6-37065 BNSF

Starting in the 1950s, the traditional rail-only speeder began to be replaced by larger and more-versatile hi-rail vehicles which could run on both rails and roads. By the mid 1980s, most had been replaced on the larger lines. Today, hundreds of the little speeders have been preserved in museums and tourist lines and by private owners who often gather for excursions.

They are one of the most affordable ways to get into 1:1 scale railroading as a hobby. And while some have carefully restored their cars to the original appearance, others have applied unique paint schemes based on favorite prototypes or complete fancy.

6-37067 New York Central

There are lots of uses for these little cars on your layout. Whether you want to have one for your section gangs to inspect your railroad, or gather a fleet and model a modern excursion, the new Lionel command control speeders will add a fun element to any model railroad. They’ll even look great sitting beside the tracks on a set-out when not in use.

For small cars, these critters are packed with features:

  • 6-37063 Pennsylvania

    Run with Command Control or Conventional

  • Forward and Reverse operation
  • Directional headlights
  • Blinking strobe light
  • Interior light
  • Die-cast metal frame
  • Maintenance-free motor
  • Traction tire
  • Detailed Interior
  • Driver figure

The speeders will negotiate an O-27 curve and come decorated for seven popular railroads past and present and a generic Maintenance of Way scheme.

6-37061 Union Pacific

  • Union Pacific (6-37061)
  • Norfolk Southern (6–37062)
  • Pennsylvania (6-37063)
  • CSX (6-37064)
  • BNSF (6-37065)
  • Maint. of Way (6-37066)
  • New York Central (6-37067)
  • Canadian National (6-37068)

The speeders retail for $149.99 and should ship next month. Pick one up and tour your layout in style!

6-37062 Norfolk Southern

6-37068 Canadian National

Modeling a Railroad Bone Yard – Scratchbuild a Fence

17 10 2012

With all the value and danger in the bone yard, it’s no wonder it has to be protected by a good fence. Of course this is a simple detail that you can use in many other places around your layout as well.

Fences come in many styles. For this project, we’ll build some common chain link fencing and top it off with a coil of barbed wire. To build your fence, you’ll need a few simple materials and tools:


A simple chain link fence provides security for our bone yard. You can make one for industries on your layout from simple materials.

  • Wire (14 gauge solid, 24 gauge solid, thin filament (use stranded))
  • Screen
  • Spray paint
  • CA Glue
  • Soldering Iron
  • Wire cutters
  • Utility knife
  • Nail

The skills needed to build these fences are not difficult, though you may find it takes some practice to get the look you’re after.


fence posts

The posts are nothing more than wire. You can either build the frame in place on the layout, or on a jig at the workbench.

The fence posts are made from 14 gauge solid wire. Strip the insulation off of the wire and use pliers to make it as straight as possible. Cut the wire to a length of about 3 inches. You’ll want the wire a little longer than the height of the fence so that it can be anchored in the ground.

If you are adding the barbed wire to the top of the fence, make a bend about 3/8″ from the top.


Add the rest of the frame for the fence from thinner No. 22 wire. This will be used to make the gates as well.


The rest of the frame is soldered into place. Use alligator clips to help hold everything in line while you work.

You can either glue or solder the wires to the posts. In either case, you may find it helpful to cut a small notch in the post so that the frame is seated before it is fastened.

You can assemble this flat on a workbench in a jig, or build in place. Alligator clips help hold everything in place while you solder or glue.

To make the gates, the horizontal fence rails were simply extended past the last post. Additional vertical and diagonal frame posts were added from the same wire. Once the fence is complete, it can be bent into final position.


Ordinary window screen makes a good material for chain link fencing in O scale. The best source is an old window screen that needs replaced as the material is already stretched and it’s free! If you don’t have one lying around in the shed, a new roll of the material can be found in any hardware store for a few dollars.


Window screen makes a great fence. Use a straight edge and sharp utility knife to cut it to shape.

Lay out the mesh and cut it to size with a straight edge and a utility knife. The size of your fence is up to you, just remember that 1/4″ equals 1′. So an 8′ tall fence would be 2″ tall. Length of course is also completely optional.

Adhere the mesh to the frame with CA (cyanoacrylate adhesive). If you are using a fresh roll of screen, you may have some trouble getting it to lay flat. I found the best solution to this problem in my pockets – a little spare change is the perfect weight to keep the screen flat without pressing it too hard.

Barbed Wire

coiling wire

Winding thin wire around a nail is a fast way to create realistic barbed wire.

Now for a detail that is really sharp, a coil of barbed wire for the top of the fence. To make the wire you’ll need very fine wire. You can find what you need in many places – phone cable or individual strands of stranded wire will both work well and are easy to find.

Strip the wire and cut it to lengths that are easy to work with. You can always piece multiple sections together if necessary.

To create the coil, simply wrap the wire around a nail or dowel. Then pull the coil off and stretch it out to the desired length.

Attach the coil to the top of the fence with glue or solder.



A double coat of rust and silver creates a nice aged look on the final fence.

Put the finished fence sections in a scrap of insulation foam to hold it while you paint. Spray paint is the only way to go with a fence like this. Try not to spray the paint directly on the foam as it will melt.

Fences come in a variety of colors. Some are coated with vinyl and are often a dark green. Others are unpainted. Silver works well for new fencing. For an older look, spray the fence first with a rust colored primer. Then apply a light coat of silver over top.



The finished fence adds a lot of detail to overall scene. The “NO TRESPASSING” sign by the gate warns, “Survivors will be Prosecuted”

Carefully press the finished fence into the foam scenery base. Apply a little more ground cover to blend everything in and then lock it all in place with some diluted white glue.

Once the glue has set, gently bend the gates into the open position. Add signs or any other details and your yard is secure!