|Building simple, sturdy benchwork following a repetitive pattern of
component parts (elements) makes for a nicely done railroad. Most
of what you need to know is shown in the graphic above and described in
the narrative below. Develop a basic set of "parts" or
basic elements and use them over and over again and you will do fine.
One "prime directive", if you can manage it, is DO NOT saw
lumber/plywood/homasote in the layout area, if you are able to avoid
it. It makes for a far cleaner layout area for the life of the
railroad. If your layout is in the garage, do your sawing in the
driveway wiht the door closed, if at all possible.
This graphic shows the basic benchwork elements
using L-girders. The railroad is essentially free
standing, using 2 x 2's for legs, and 1 x 2's for diagonal
bracing. L-girders are generally 1 x 4 webs (vertical
part) and 1 x 2 flange, (horizontal part). Use L-girders
and NOT T-girders. The "bents" (legs and diagonals) are
spaced as far apart as the L-girder will allow comfortably. Our bents
are about 8' maximum spacing. The joists are 1 x 3's
which were readily available at Lowe's or Home Depot.
I am a proponent of this open grid style benchwork. Note that
yards or other flat spaces, like a large industry, may perfectly well
have flat areas made from plywood sheet and homasote. You don't
have to use trackboards everywhere. I tend to put cork down in
yards for appearance and less likely in a large industrial area like my
steel works. I could likely have used more "cookie
cutter" construction in some areas of the railroad, but once I
started making trackboard/roadbed I pretty much used it everywhere.
I have been using extruded "blue" foam to fill in areas
around the open trackboards if the terrain is going to be in small
components. On my big Red Mountain, I used cardboard grid to fill
in the terrain since most of it is NOT flat. So, use what works
best for the space you are working on. My scenery is FAR from
complete and we are running trains with formal operations. So, I
am not necessarily a good example to follow.
Note that I am 6'-4" tall and the layout is built for me.
Track height above the floor ranges from about 51" to
61". It is not so convenient for operators who are not as
tall as I am, but I have sturdy foot stools for them to use. If
the layout has a fault it is that there are switching locations that are
more than 2 feet from the edge of the layout. That is not a good
thing, but needed to be done - try to minimize it if you can. And
the layout height adds to the problem or "reach" for shorter
operators. I do find that well planned switching moves, using the
Kadee delayed action can simplify many of these problems. End of
Roadbed is built up of 5/8" plywood, try to use 5 ply
(B/C surface is adequate), with 1/2" Homasote for a
subroadbed and cork roadbed under the track. Riser
spacing doesn't generally exceed about 12". Note how you may
add joists in the corners to keep the riser spacing to 12"
maximum. We are able to buy Homasote in Birmingham, AL but only a
commercial supply house carries it. It was about $38 per sheet in
2010. I honestly don't understand the layout owners who buy 3/4
birch plywood that is very expensive as well as expensive dimensional
lumber. I use the least expensive clear lumber I can find at the
home center, generally what they call "whiteboard"
lumber. Pick your own that is straight and free of knots and
defects - Lowes calls it "whitewood softwood board"
lumber. Consider humidity vs. wood quality - the more humidity
variation, the better quality lumber you should buy: clear kiln- dried
lumber is the goal, not oak or poplar species which is expensive.
Note that if you are fortunate enough to have air conditioned space
the quality of plywood and lumber is less important - air conditioning
also means that the layout will be cleaner. Homasote is VERY
humidity conscious. If you are not air conditioned and use
homasote (a really good sound deadener) then I WOULD paint it to seal it
before you lay track. I didn't paint it, I have A/C and it is a
very minor issue that I didn't paint it.
The only part of the benchwork that is glued is the L-girders, which
are generally glued and screwed. All screws are common
"drywall screws", generally using 1 1/4" for joining
"1 by" material and 1" screws for joining the Homasote to
the plywood. Many people want to glue the Homasote to the roadbed
but I did not. Instead the Homasote is screwed to the plywood
about every 6" for single track. Yes, these screws are hidden
under the cork.
We did use a pilot bit for the drywall screws. In other
words, the piece of wood closest to the screw head has a pilot hole
drilled through it; the receiving member generally does not. This
helps make good tight connections with a minimum of work.
We did use longer screws (1 5/8") for connecting the L-girders
to the 2 x 2 (nominal) legs, and we did mostly drill a pilot hole at
least partway into the legs.
Nearly every other screw is accessible for removal and this is an
important rule to follow. You WILL find a need to move or
adjust benchwork components in the future.
Some parts of the layout are narrow enough, about 12" to be
supported by common pressed steel shelf brackets attached to the
studs. When this method is used, a pair of 1 x 2's spans
the shelf brackets and fills the role of the "top of the
L-girder". That is, the 1 x 2 is available to support the
short 1 x 3 joists, which in turn, support the roadbed risers. The
holes in the shelf brackets are adequate to locate the screws connecting
the 1 x 2 to the bracket.
I actually used 3rd PlanIt software to lay out the benchwork in 3D.
This may seem extreme but it paid off when developing the vertical
components - the track/roadbed risers. By setting the datum
in the design software to be the top of the joists, the track
elevation could be made to provide the length of the risers. In
other words, by setting the roadbed thickness, and measuring from the
top of the joists, the "track elevation" is given by the
software as the length of the riser.
The software enables you to set the grades of the track - that is,
the percentage rise or fall of the track as you go uphill or
downhill. The risers in turn are going to need to be cut
accurately and there are a lot of them to cut.
To make this work, use the software with the benchwork on a separate
level, so it can be turned on and off. Then when cutting risers
for a particular part of the railroad, turn on the benchwork level and
show it "behind" the track. Select a joist location, use
the "elevation" command and click on the track at the location
of the joist -- riser height is provided between the top of the joist
and the bottom of the plywood track board.
Bear in mind that the gradient, or steepness of the track,
should be a minimal amount, ESPECIALLY if you are using steam
locomotives. On the BDMRR the maximum grade is 2% on the
Red Mtn. mine branch and about 1.5% in a couple of spots on the
mainline. A two percent grade is about 1/4" rise or fall per
foot of track; one percent is about 1/8" rise per run.
Railroads spend great amounts of money to avoid grades much over 1%, and
want lower if they can manage it. Plan your layout carefully to
avoid grades over 1%.
On thing about the risers that worked well is that they are flush
with the top of the joists (that is, they "sit" on top of the
joists) and use a "standard" 5 inch "gusset plate"
to connect the riser to the joist. We kept a supply of these
gusset plates ready with pre-drilled pilot holes - 2 pairs of diagonal
pilot holes. Once the riser location was known, the gusset could
be placed, clamped and screwed to the joist. This gave a
good solid place to hold the riser and if needed clamp it and screw it
in place. It seems a bit redundant but it sure makes it easier to
built and particularly to adjust later.
One of the most useful tools we bought and used a great deal is a pocket
screw hole jig. Mine cost $30 at Home Depot and includes the
jig and a special bit. We ended up using regular drywall screws
rather than the special screws that come with the jig. I mounted
it on the work bench next to the "chop saw" (see below) so
that I could drill pocket holes in risers when I cut them.
The jig is used to connect a piece of wood end-on to another
piece. For example, the top of the riser could be screwed to the
bottom of the plywood track board by using the pocket holes. This
gives a good strong connection between the risers and the roadbed.
There were other places where these pocket hole connections were very
useful, such as the support system for the backdrop.
If there were one other tool that I would recommend very strongly for
a moderate to large size layout it would be a "chop
saw". This is a compound miter power saw. The value is
square cuts that may be quite accurate as well as angle cuts. I
doubt we used the compound miter feature much but if you are going to
get the saw might as well get a compound. This means that the saw
may be rotated horizontally as well as in a vertical plan. For the
amount of lumber you are going to need to cut, quickly and accurately, I
think that the saw is a really good investment.
I also have a table saw, and it is very useful, but if I had
to choose between the two I would get the chop saw first. Both are
tools you will use for a lifetime, although I had power hand tools early
and didn't get these table/bench saws till I started this layout at age
Well built benchwork that is neatly done will be a great asset to
your railroad. I have some lumber in the layout that is on its 3rd
layout but strive to make a good neat job of your benchwork. It
does not have to be HEAVY, it just needs to be STIFF. Stiffness
is achieved with diagonal bracing on the bents - the diagonals
may be 1 x 2's and provide all the stiffness you need.