How to Build Benchwork for a Model Railroad


As a model train enthusiast, you will eventually want to build benchwork for your model railroad. If you are wondering how to build the model railroad benchwork, we will help you through the process.

Benchwork is a base to hold the tracks of your model train. It can be simple or elaborate. In this how to guide, we will take you step by step through the process of making your benchwork. We’ll also give instruction on building some different types of benchwork.

Determine Your Skill Level and Budget

Everyone has different ideas and skill levels. This will play an important part in what you are able to build. Another is the cost of materials. 

Are you an experienced woodworker or just starting? Having some carpentry skills is definitely beneficial. If you are just learning, you may want to start with a smaller and more basic project. Perhaps a rectangular table that you can later build off of. 

Another idea is to have the benchwork attach to the walls making shelves. This route uses less lumber and costs less money. However, your completed benchwork must fit on the shelf brackets precisely and be completely level.

train on model railroad benchwork
Jonathan Lee

Designing the Benchwork

There are three main types of model railroad benchwork:

  • LGirder
  • Cantilevered
  • Shelf

The very first step in building the benchwork for your model train is to decide what you want it to look like and draw it out. You may already have an idea in mind, but if you do not, there are plenty of photos online to help you with ideas.

Somethings to think about while you are in your design phase are:

  • Where will you have your benchwork? 
  • How large do you want your benchwork to be? You will need to make sure your plans will fit in the required space.
  • Will your benchwork be flexible or permanent? Deciding if you want to be able to remove the benchwork later or add to it at another time should be contemplated while in the design phase.

It may be helpful to lay your track out in the area you are going to have the benchwork. Take photos and measurements as you go.

Once you have your space picked out and your idea sketched, you can begin a more detailed design. To do this, you could use graph paper and draw your sketch to scale. Each square could represent 6 inches or even a foot in the finished design. 

Do be aware that when free drawing, it is common to try to squeeze things in, which just won’t work with the actual space you have. Using computer software to help draw your design to scale may be in your best interest. There are quite a few sources online.

AnyRail is one such source. It is free to use software that you can use to design your benchwork to scale. It can be used with almost any model railroad track. BA Rail Systems video is very informative in showing how to use Anyrail software. In the video, he explains that the software really helps determine if your plans will fit in your space. Once your design on anyrail is completed, you can print out your plans.

trains on model railroad benchwork

Planning the Supporting Structure

Your plans for your finished benchwork are complete. Now it’s time to work on the supporting structure. Again you need to plan and design the framework to scale. This will create a map for you to follow as you begin to build the structure. 

You will need measurements of the dimensions. These include length, width, and height. There are free furniture cad programs you can utilize, such as CADPRO, to help you in the design process.

Gather the Materials and Tools 

The designs of the supporting structure are finished. Now time to collect the tools and materials necessary to work on building the structural support. Make a list of what you will need.

  • Tools
    • Cargo straps to secure your lumber while driving it home. You do not want your sheets of plywood to break, or fly out of your vehicle and possibly cause an accident. Always properly secure your load. 
    • Safety Goggles
    • Sawhorses 
    • Chop saw 
    • Skill saw
    • 2 to 3 Drills
    • Rotary tool
    • Drill bits and screwdriver bits
    • Finish nailer or pneumatic nail gun
    • Carpenters square
    • Tape measure
    • Chalkline
    • Carpenters pencils
    • Wrench
    • Sander 
    • Clamps
    • Stud finder if using existing walls for support
    • Shelf brackets
    • Rubber malott 
    • Level 
  • Hardware
    • Sawblade(s) 
      • A 40 tooth carbide trim blade is recommended for ripping the plywood
    • Bolts
    • Nuts
    • Washers
    • Carpenters glue
    • Brackets 
  • Lumber
    • Plywood for the tabletop. Plywood typically comes in 4×8 sheets and can easily be ripped down to your desired widths and lengths.
    • 2×4’s
    • 1x4x8’s
    • 1x4x10’s

Your list may look something like this pin from Richard Wood. It was originally published in Model Railroader magazine.

Start Building

When you have gathered your tools and lumber, you can begin work on your project. Study your plans closely. Any carpenter will tell you, “measure twice, cut once.” If you measure your lumber twice before cutting it helps ensure you are cutting to the correct length. 

train running on model railroad benchwork
Jeff Carlson Photo

How to Build an L Girder Benchwork

In Model Railroader, they show a diagram of a simple 4 foot x 8 foot train table to build. There is also a video  You can see in the diagram that the legs are each made from two pieces of wood joined together to make an L, as is the outside framework of the tabletop. The L framing is what gives the L-girder benchwork its name. To make a table that will stand approximately 3 feet in height you will need: 

  • One sheet of ¼  inch plywood (they recommend birch)
  • One sheet ½ inch plywood ripped into 3 inch by 8 foot sections. These will become the legs and the table top frame. 

  • One 8 foot 2×2 cut into four 8 inch lengths for leg bracing and for the adjustable feet

  • Wood glue
  • Four ¼ inch T-bolts
  • SIxteen ¼ inch by 2 inch  Carriage bolts 
  • Sixteen ¼ inch washers
  • Four ¼ inch lock nuts
  • Twelve ¼ in wing nuts
  • One box of panel nails
  • Four ¼ inch leg levelers

* Please note that for this project they are using nails. The Plywood article says that nails are not usually the best choice when it comes to plywood. However, there are many cases where they are more practical than screws. If you are going to use nails in the construction of your benchwork, they recommend using a pneumatic nail gun with brads as they have a smaller diameter and are less likely to split the wood.

If you would like, you can have the lumber yard rip the ½ inch plywood into the 3 inches by 8-foot strips. Otherwise, this can be done at home with a skill saw and chalk line.

Be sure to build this on a level surface, as anything out of level will cause warping. Once the warp is built-in, you will not be able to remove it.  

Cut Your Lumber

Cut your lumber to the desired dimensions using your chop saw. For the tabletop frame, you will need 

  • Two 8 foot x 3-inch pieces of ½ inch plywood
  • Six 47 inch x 3-inch pieces of ½ inch plywood

For the legs and bracing

  • Eight 40 inch x 3-inch plywood strips are needed
  • Four 8 foot 1/4x 1 ¼ wood moulding
  • Four 8 inch 2×2’s
train running on model railroad benchwork
Jeff Carlson Photo

Assemble the L-Girder Benchwork

Layout your tabletop framework on a level surface. Measure and mark where your pieces will be joined together. Glue the ends and clamp them. Then, using your nail gun, tac them together for a better bond. Wipe off any oozing glue with a damp paper towel. Once this is pieced together, allow the glue to dry. 

Make the legs of the benchwork in the same manner by laying them out next to each other. Run glue along one board edge, and fit to make a corner. Again, clamp and nail these two boards together and allow them to dry. This video, hosted by Michel Gross, will be useful while making the legs.

While waiting for the glue to dry, pre-drill the holes in the 8 inch 2×2’s for the leveling feet and put the leveling bolts in them. 

Take your table legs and attach the 8 inch 2×2’s with the levellers to the ends by adding a bit of glue and nailing them in place. Create the bracing by using the 1 ¼ inch by ¼ inch by 8 foot wood moulding and attach to two of the legs forming an X. Pre-drill the legs and the cross bracing for the ¼ inch bolts and attach them. Do the same with the other two legs. 

Then use the two 35 inch by 3 inch pieces to form the end braces of the legs. Again, pre-drill for the ¼ inch bolts and attach all legs together.

Now lay your 4×8 foot sheet of plywood and your 4×8 foot framework on a level surface. Run glue along the top edge of your framework and carefully place your sheet of plywood on top of the framework. Tac into place with your nail gun. Once the glue is dry on the tabletop, attach the legs using the ¼ inch bolts and washers.

Your L-Girder benchwork is complete and ready for you to add your details. 

Building Cantilevered Benchwork

I highly recommend Ron’s Trains and Things video if you are building cantilevered style model railroad benchwork. He takes you step by step through the process while giving great tips on types of wood to use and tools to use.

In Ron’s video, he suggests clear white pine, if you can find and afford it; as a second choice, he recommends #2 pine boards. They are not as perfect as white pine, but they are easier to find and less expensive. He also recommends ½ inch SOS (sanded on one side) plywood.

For his benchwork, he is using the existing open framework on the walls of his garage. Ron measures the lengths he needs to cut and pre-cuts his boards to the proper lengths. To help him remember where the boards go, he will write the measurements on each cut board in a carpenter’s pencil.

Once the boards are cut, he uses his drill and pre drills where the screws will be sunk. Pre-drilling ensures your wood will not split. Use a drill bit about the same size as the shaft (the threaded part of the screw) but smaller than the screw itself. Drill all the way through the first piece of wood and a bit into the attaching wood. Don’t drill as deep as the screw will go.

Build the Framework

Build the framework of your model railroadbenchwork. In this case, it is just the framing to hold the deck. Space the supports about 16 inches apart. Once this is complete, pick it up and tac it to your wall near the center of the framework. Use your level to make sure it is level by gently tapping it into place using a rubber mallet. Complete attaching it to the wall, checking for level, and adjusting where it needs to be.

Measure and cut your supporting braces. Pre-drill through the braces, wall joist, and benchwork frame, then screw together. You can use a countersink on any areas you will be covering with facia or other material that you do not want to have the screw head visible behind.

Rip the Plywood

Next, measure the cuts you will make on your ½ inch plywood. It is very handy to use a chalk line at this point. To use a chalk line measure the depth on either side of the board mark these. Take your chalk line and attach it to one marked end carefully pull the string to the other marked end. Make sure it is straight and taunt, then snap it by pulling up on the string and letting it go. 

This will create a nice straight line for you to follow with the skill saw. Before you begin to cut make sure the depth of the skill saw blade is correct. You want it just a bit deeper than the board, but not so deep it tears the other side up. If you are using a corded skill saw, make sure your cord is out of the way. Make a steady cut across the sheet of plywood.

Attach the cut sheets of plywood to your framework. After this, you can begin making riserers, and adding to your cantilevered benchwork.

Building Shelf Benchwork

Building shelf model railroad benchwork requires wall space instead of floor space. It is very similar to the cantilever style, but here you are working with a finished, drywall covered, wall. 

Institute of Model Railroad Operations Video, hosted by Eric Hall, has a quick and easy strategy for shelf style benchwork. In this video Eric gives tips on using a skill saw as a chop saw by using a guide and clamping it to the board to be cut. He also uses a homemade drill guide to ensure his spacing is correct. 

To build this shelf benchwork you will need

*Note this will make 3 8 foot long sections of benchwork.

  • Stud finder
  • Double Slotted Shelf Brackets and Runners
  • ¼ inch 4x 8 foot plywood ripped to 12 inch by 8 foot sections
  • Six 1×4 inch 8 foot boards
  • (Measure your table structure before cutting these to make sure this measurement is correct.) Nine 1×4 x 10 ¾ inch wood pieces
  •  1 sheet ⅛ inch masonite board to cover the exposed shelf runners.
  • Skill saw
  • Drywall screws
  • Drill
  • Clamps 
  • Glue

Hang the bracket runners

Using your stud finder, run it across the drywall until you find the stud. Mark the stud and measure the height you would like the runner to be at. Attach the runners to the wall using drywall screws and your drill with a phillips head bit.

Build Your Shelf Benchwork 

Put your 12 foot by 8-foot plywood on a raised level surface, such as a table or sawhorses. Take an 8 foot board and run glue along its edge. Then fit this board against the edge of the plywood. Clamp the plywood and board together. Using the drill jig with pre-measured spacing, mark the plywood with the drill. Remove the jig and continue drilling all the way through and slightly into the 1x4x8. Grab your drywall screws and drill with the Phillips head bit and screw the boards together. Do the same on the far side of the plywood. 

Once these frame pieces are in place, flip the tabletop face side down. Measure between the 1x4x8’s to ensure that the end pieces and middle brace pieces will fit snugly. Take a 1×4 inch x 8-foot board, measure your dimensions and mark where you will cut, then measure again to make sure you have the correct measurements. Cut the boards.

Fit the middle brace into the middle of your table frame. Do the same on either end, pre-drill and screw the framework together using the drywall screws.

Attach the Benchwork to the Shelf Brackets

Cut cleats and attach them to the shelf brackets. This will give your model railroad benchwork something to rest on. 

Measure your ⅛ inch masonite board to fit the wall area above your shelf benchwork. Mark the masonite with a pencil. Using a straightedge clamped to the masonite on either end, cut the hardboard with a utility knife. Once your cut is made, gently but firmly snap the cut piece from the clamped board.

Use the ½ inch trim to back the masonite and attract to the frame of the benchwork. This covers the visible runners and makes a nice smooth surface for a background mural. Place your benchwork with the backboard on the pre-hung shelf brackets.  

locomotive on model railroad benchwork
Jeff Carlson Photo

Transfer Your Model Railroad Design to Your Benchwork

With your model railroad benchwork completed, it is time to take the design you drew and lay it out on the benchwork so you can visualize where everything is going to go. Ron’s Trains and Things has a video to walk you through the process. You will need

  • Printout of your plan. Take this one section at a time. There is no need to print your entire track plan at once.
  • Pencil. Only use pencil as sharpies and pens can bleed through and stain your finished work.
  • Tape measure
  • Straight edge, ruler, yardstick
  • Homemade compass
  • Have the track you are going to use handy.
  • Chalkline

Begin by sketching out a grid on the deck of your benchwork. If your printed plan is on a one-inch grid you might expand that to a 6-inch grid, or whatever your spacing configurations were. Using your tape measure mark where the vertical lines will go, then use the chalk line to snap them into place. Use the yardstick and straightedge to draw in the horizontal lines.

Use the grid to begin marking out your track line. Follow what you planned on your printed track plan. Using your straightedge, draw in the mainline and mark it as “Main Line.” 

Ron also shows how to draw out a radiant curve in the track by marking the center point, and using the homemade compass, he is able to draw out an 18 inch curve where his track will go.  To make a compass use a thin, straight, long piece of cut wood. Drill a hole in one end and measure to desired marks on the other end, where you will drill through the wood again.

Screw the compass to your center point and use a pencil in the desired end to sketch the arc of your track curve. Next, draw in the curve easements using a thin dowel rod you have secured from slipping with screws on either side and bending the free end to match the curve of the line you made with the compass. Erase unwanted lines. 

Now draw in the industrial siding and mark out the lead from the switch. Mark any turn outs. Use parts of your train track to help you with this. Continue drawing your plans directly onto the benchwork.

Time for You to Complete Your Model Railroad

Now that you have built your model railroad benchwork, it is ready for you to lay your track and personalize it with scenery. You can do this with a variety of materials and mediums. 

Model Railroad Channel shows how you can use foam insulation boards over your model railroad benchwork. Just cut off the tongue edge and then cut to fit your plans. Measure how much you need to cut and mark it. Use a straightedge and a utility knife to make your cuts. 

Over the foam, you can begin adding your chosen scenery such as: 

Add the Roadbed

The roadbed or track bed is made from cork or foam. The purpose is to reduce vibration and noise while your model trains are running. Lay the roadbed out on your drawn plan. The roadbed can be cut using a foam knife

As you cut the roadbed, you will use foam glue on your benchwork where you want the track. Place your pre-cut roadbed over the glue and tac in place with foam nails. Once you have completed laying out the roadbed, you can lay your track on top of it. Woodland Scenics video recommends gluing the track in place on the roadbed and using the foam nails to hold the track in place while it dries.

Background Scenery

Many of the shelf and cantilever benchworks have murals or photographs as backdrop scenery. Depending on how much time you have and your skill levels, you could make the background a bit more 3D by using a paper mache technique. DIY Craftopedia’s video shows the basics of creating embossed paper mache wall art.  Make your paper mache by:

  • soaking  newspaper in water for 2 days
  •  Grind it and remove some of the water
  •  Add chalk and mix with the paper mache
  •  Take some linen cloth and lay flat on a board
  • Begin building your art on the cloth. For a model train backdrop, this could be mountains and trees, or a cityscape.
  • As you build up the scene, go over it with a paste made of chalk and water
  • Use a sponge dipped in chalk past to go over the background
  • Continue building the artwork in this way, layer upon layer, until the desired effect is created
  • Allow to dry for at least 2 days. 
  • Use acrylic paint to finish your background scenery.

Follow the Tracks of Your Imagination

Though there are basic rules in the construction of your benchwork to ensure it is strong, the end result comes from you and your imagination. This is a functioning form of art and engineering. Take your time and have fun with your model train designs.

Josef

Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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