A Primer On Model Train Benchwork

When I built my first model railroad, I didn’t even know what model train benchwork was. I bought a cheap door at the local lumber yard and attached some makeshift legs. Since I was working with N scale, the door provided plenty of room for a relatively interesting layout and it was pretty solid. I’m sure many other model railroaders have used similar solutions, including unused ping-pong and pool tables.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those kinds of solutions, especially for a first attempt at a layout and if one is on a budget. But if you are going build something larger and more elaborate, then the old door or ping-pong table isn’t going to work. You’re going to want to build something a little bit more “deluxe” for your model train. Benchwork is what we call the foundation of your model railroad.

There are several types of benchwork and no doubt many hobbyists have come up with completely unique solutions for their layout. Before we get into an introduction of the types of construction, a word of advice. It’s best to plan your benchwork around your layout. In other words, your design, including any special features such as mountains or valleys, should dictate the construction of your benchwork. It’s important that you have at least a basic vision of your completed model railroad. You don’t want to have finished building your foundation and then realize that you’d really like to incorporate a feature such as a dramatic bridge over a canyon that it can’t accommodate. So, don’t feel like you have to plan your layout down to the very last detail, but spend enough time on that phase so that you know at least the major parts of your layout design. This way you’ll be in a much better position to build your benchwork to serve the layout you really want.

Your benchwork needs to be:

  • Solid and stable. It can’t be shaky in any part and should be able to support your weight if you climb on top of it.

  • Accessible. You should be able to reach even the deepest parts of your layout without too much effort. You may have to fix something on your layout or reset a train that’s derailed. Generally this means nothing more than three feet deep.

  • User friendly. This means that you and your fellow model railroaders can move to different viewing points on your railroad with relative ease and also the height of the benchwork should be designed for the best sight-lines in order to provide maximum enjoyment.

Benchwork Types:

There are two main ways of constructing model train benchwork, Open Grid or L Girder. Think of Open Grid as a box frame. Ever seen a house in construction as they put up the framing for the walls? Well imagine those wall frames laid horizontally and you’ll have a good idea of what Open Grid construction is. Open Grid construction is very solid and comparatively more simple to build but it’s not quite as versatile as L Girder. Whereas Open Grid is fine for a layout that is flat and will have nothing but straight edges and right angles, L Girder is much better for a layout design that has curved, irregular edges and multiple levels. The L Girder is an L-shaped (hence, the name) construction typically made with a 1 x 2 attached on the edge of a 1 x 3 or 1 x 4 forming the L shape, except in this case the “L” is upside-down.

L Girder construction is employed by more model railroaders today because of it’s flexibility in working with their layout design, but there’s nothing to say you can’t use both methods or even another custom construction if you need to. Again, just remember that

  • your layout design determines the type(s) of benchwork that you build
  • it needs to be solid, accessible and user friendly

If you approach the project this way, you’ll stand a great chance of building model train benchwork that you’ll be happy with.