26 September 2022
At the heart of every successful model railway lies a baseboard. Here's a guide to your options...
At the heart of every successful model railway lies a baseboard. In this latest guide, we provide an overview of the layout baseboard options available, and initial considerations for best results.
The baseboard and its support are fundamental parts of a model railway and a good layout baseboard gives model trains the best chance of running well.
Model railway baseboards are one of the most important elements of a layout. Successful running and viewing of models is influenced by the boards on which they run, how level these are, the size of the joints between them, their viewing height, their size, shape, ease of transportability and presentation.
Model railways – as with most hobbies – should be enjoyable, yet many modellers dislike, perhaps even despise, this critical first step of construction.
What material should I use for a model railway baseboard?
The choice of the model railway baseboard top is a personal choice. The top surface can use plywood, MDF, chipboard or, Sundeala sheets. These can usually be cut to size at your local DIY store. A visit to the local DIY store shows what's available. Aim for lightness with strength, a smooth top surface and something that will accept pins such as those that hold the track onto the baseboard.
Plywood has been widely adopted as the material of choice for the construction of model baseboards for its high strength relative to its thickness. Available in common thicknesses of 5, 9, 12 and 15mm – 9mm being the most-used for baseboards – it is easily cut with a circular saw or jigsaw. The material works best when braced underneath for strength, and thinner thicknesses are more easily bent to form curves, if needed. Ply is available in different qualities, varying in price. Opt for a longer-lasting, denser hardwood with closer grain if a smooth visible surface is desired, though this will be more expensive. Some baseboard manufacturers use more dense medium density fibreboard (MDF), which creates a heavier baseboard, but one that withstands damage a little better, without splintering. More recent developments include using dense foam as a lightweight, but strong material, framed with ply. Plain Square Edge (PSE) timber is often used for legs and internal corner bracing, providing something for strong screws to bite into.
It is best to use planed timber for the framework. Timber measuring 2in x 1in is suitable for this purpose. This can usually be cut to length at your DIY store or timber merchant. Though this timber is more expensive than rougher timber, it will look nicer and is safer on hands as you move and work with it because it has fewer splinters. Planed timber makes the final layout look more professional.
What glue do you use for a layout baseboard?
Use PVA woodworking glue – we recommend a aliphatic resin glue – in addition to screws and nails to assemble the baseboard and its framework. This is important if you intend to move the baseboard around a lot (for example, a portable exhibition layout). The glue will provide secondary rigidity to the baseboard.
Can I buy a ready-made model railway baseboard?
Model railway baseboards can be ordered from the shelf from a number of UK-based manufacturers in a variety of sizes. If desired, some of these suppliers will manufacture custom-shaped boards to match your requirements – that swooping curve to the front of your layout, a lifting access hatch, even an odd-shaped board because your corner wall isn’t square.
A number of specialists offer ready-to-assemble or assembled items to your door. Most are supplied with legs – even control panels – and they provide the fastest route to model railway construction. Captive nuts and alignment dowels are often used by these professionals, and laser-cut components with tab and slot construction offer strength and accuracy. Through testing and experience, manufacturers can analyse your trackplan and advise on the best route to take if you’re unsure.
Unphased by split-level or complex designs, integrating space-saving double helix spirals to access under-baseboard hidden storage sidings, their off-the-shelf solutions can often save many headaches. Most baseboards from these manufacturers are available in standard sizes, custom designs being provided on a case-by-case basis. Suppliers include Modula Layouts, Model Rail Baseboards, White Rose, Model Railway Solutions and Scale Model Scenery.
Should I design a trackplan first?
Whether outsourcing or making your own baseboards, their size and shape will be determined by a plan, ideally the more-detailed, the better. The location of points, cross-overs and signals are best kept away from the edges of baseboards allowing motors to fit underneath more easily. Trackplan software such as Anyrail can be used to plot your layout, creating custom baseboards to suit accordingly. With sufficient planning, and a little more time, rectangular flat-fronted boards can be replaced with boards featuring smooth, curved transitions for a better visual appearance, perhaps even integrated proscenium arches. Board sides made of 9mm ply should ideally feature sides with a depth of around 6in for strength while being sufficient to hide most slow-action point motors. Underboard ply cross-bracing every half metre too is ideal. Consider the maximum width of your boards – you’ll need to reach models should they derail!
How high should my model railway baseboard be?
Viewing height of a model is subjective. If your layout is purely for home viewing, you can select a height that best suits your preference, but for exhibition viewing, other factors should be considered. A closer to eye-level viewing height can provide a more immersive – hence more realistic – experience, but our heights vary, so consider a best average height. Smaller scales like 1:148 (N) are sometimes best viewed from an ‘eye in the sky’ position if more landscape is on display.
Floors can vary in height, particularly in older houses. Dips in baseboards can cause problems, potentially with rolling stock wanting to ‘free-roll’ out of a siding onto your main line, or trains accelerating or slowing as they circulate. Checking your floors with a spirit level is recommended. Installing adjustable feet on the legs of your baseboards will remove irregularities at floor level. For exhibition layout builders, though most sports halls and exhibition centres have level floors, some events held on heritage railway sites with concrete floors or under temporary marquees, can be uneven.
Layout baseboard construction
Building baseboards is a skill that can be learned. Read our step-by-step guide on how to build a model railway baseboard.
Model railway baseboard top tips
- Begin by building a small test baseboard first. This will provide the experience and confidence to tackle a full layout later. You will learn how to cut out the baseboard surface and the framework and how to assemble all of the component parts together using a variety of techniques including glue, nails and screws.
- As you plan to build the baseboards, consider their size and weight. The bigger the baseboard the more difficult it is to carry and to store. The heavier the baseboard the more difficult it will be to move. Baseboards measuring 4ft x 2ft are generally perceived to be the maximum size that is suitable for regular movement.
- Consider how you'll get the baseboard top and framework parts home from the DIY store. Will it fit in your car? Do you know someone with a large van who might be able to move it for you?
- It’s better to over-engineer a baseboard than to encounter problems later. Often, baseboards that are well-constructed outlast the models that sit above, their owners changing scale, re-using boards where possible for a new project.
Micro layout baseboards
Phil Parker built 'Ferness Quay' – a micro layout only 30in long which shows all the techniques you'd use on a full-size project.
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