Chapter 4 : Benchwork

Nothing less than the literal foundation of model railroading. Whether created from scratch, salvaged from odds and ends, or converted from tables used for other means, your benchwork deserves your attention.

Benchwork? Just what you mean by that, you ask? Why it's the very foundation of your railroad. It's the table upon which the railroad sits. It's the groundwork of your scenery.

So what are you going to use to hold the layout for your new railroad set? Oh, sure, the floor will work for a while. Especially if you have your train running under the Christmas tree or around some other fixture of your room, like a floor lamp or between legs of a coffee or end table.

But soon, you'll want to consider either buying some type of benchwork or building a custom bench for yourself. Let's start with the less intimidating option: buying something.

Buying the benchwork

I know some hobbyists who boost their first layout was designed and created on a sheet of plywood placed between two sawhorses. Oh yes, this is the cheap…er ... inexpensive alternative. But it really isn't a very sturdy alternative.

Some individuals have great luck in buying used (you're going to love this . . . ) pool tables.  Some of these people then covered that with plywood or even cork.

What about a benchwork kit?

If you're unsure of your skills as a carpenter, then consider purchasing a modular, precut, and predrilled wooden kit. Complete with instructions, you really only need to assemble all the parts provided and in no time at all, you have benchwork.

The beauty of this is that just as easily as you assembled it, you can disassemble it for moving or transporting to another room in your house.

These options may suit you well for a while. However, as you travel to the shows and you find yourself more interested in the hobby, you may find yourself thinking about building your own benchwork. In other words, creating the perfect table to hold your individually designed layout.

No, it's really not as difficult as it seems. Chances are you'll be piecing the benchwork together bit by bit. For example you'll buy the legs of the table from a do it yourself home improvement store (Unless you have a lathe at home and feel like creating your own. Then you are indeed a creative and woodworking genius).

Once you decide to create your own table, you'll realize it's not nearly as intimidating as it sounds. Let's examine, first, what "parts" go into a table (sounds rather silly that way, doesn't it?).

A table is a very simple structure. It consists of a minimum of four legs, braces of some kind and a top. That's it. As I said earlier, the legs you can already buy in the height you desire at just about any home supply store. You can even purchase these on line.

You'll find the most common height for legs are 28 inches. But you can also customize these to fit your specific needs. From here, you'll need to get a top and the braces. Voila! Before you know it, people are going to recognize it as a table -- guaranteed!

Got your interest piqued yet? Is your confidence level up? Good. Then I'll go into a little more detail here.

The first step in benchworking (yep, that's what model railroaders call it!) is to decide on the shape of your table. Will it be square or rectangular? Or maybe even circular?

Next, you need to decide how large you want this to be. Seriously give some thought to how you expect to expand your layout in the future. And give equal thought to the room you have for the structure. Don't envision a huge table only to discover you don't have room in your house.

Here's an idea for a "table top" used by many newcomers to the hobby. They simply use a door for the table top. That's right! The hinged things that open and close that get you through rooms.

The door has the additional advantage of being more solid than most structures. And if you just happen to have an extra one or can find one at a local garage sale -- at a reasonable price -- bingo!

Then you need to decide "style" of legs you want. You may want to surf the web looking at some before you make your decision, but I normally go with the basic square "farmstyle" legs. After all, I'm focused on the train operations itself. And I'm really counting on my visitors being just as focused on that aspect too. I don't expect anyone to seriously examine the legs of my table.

Your final decision is if you're going to use an apron. Providing a mounting point as well as cross bracing for the legs, this is placed on the underside edge of the table. It also helps to hide a lot of the hardware as well.

But, if you'd like you can have this serve one more purpose. You can include a drawer to store some of your most used pieces or other instruments or tools.

Now that you've given this some thought, all you really need to do is go pick up the supplies. You'll probably need an extra set of hands to help you hold the material in place while you either nail or screw it together. But that can be easily remedied by the bribing . . . I mean recruiting of a son -- or daughter -- or a willing and loving spouse.

Digging deeper into benchwork

I mentioned the need for braces. You definitely need to give this some thought. It's not the area you really want to try to save money on. After all, braces do help to undergird your railroad -- and you have money invested in your train line.

One method of ensuring your benchwork is strong and supports your layout and all the scenery is called the L-girder method. First developed by Linn Westcott, it's quite popular and amazingly easy to do.

To create this type of brace consists of a one by four board and a one-by-two or larger board. Attach the flat side of the one-by-two as a flange to the one-inch side of the one-by-four. This forms an L-shape when viewed from the one end.

This also creates a beam that is considerably strong. Two of these L-girder beams can then be fastened to the top of structures made with two by two legs with cross braces between them. This then is the frame upon which you can place your sub-roadbed.

While you're building your benchwork, you're probably already daydreaming about the hills and valleys and all the nooks and crannies your new layout can provide you. You're planning the trips your lines are taking and what their new scenery will eventually look like.

And this is a good thing. You'll want to get a feel for the lay of the land (pun intended!) because now will be the time to add those hills, valleys and any other topographic detail to your sub-road bed.

Many railroaders love to use an abundance of hills and valleys. For this reason many individuals recommend what is called a "cookie cutter" approach. It's really quite simple. Using a jigsaw, cut a sheet of plywood to the size and shapes you'd like these elevations to be.

Make sure when you do this, you leave one end of these topographical distinctions still attached to the plywood (like an odd-shaped flap). You can then elevate the free end of the cutout using wooden blocks. Are you beginning to see how the rolling hills will emerge from this. (And yes, we are sure this is NOT how God created the world, but it's as close as we can come!)

The open grid method of terrain

But this isn't the only technique you can use. You can employ something called an "open grid" of two-by-fours or even two-by-sixes. Place these in rows on top of your framework, add a one-by-four or two-by-four "risers" that are attached to the grid in specific areas that match your plans for the track layout.

From here, you'll use plywood cutouts of your plan to place on top of the risers. If you prefer though the alternative would be to use wood strips spliced together with glue. This creates curved sub-roadbed.

Your next step is to use a screen or a web of cardboard strips covered with plaster cloth or plaster-soaked paper towel to lay over this, fashioning the hills and valleys to your liking. Pretty clever, huh?

Don't forget the platform itself

That brings us now to the platform. Many hobbyists use a 3/8-inch or ½-inch thick sheet of plywood for this purpose. You'll no doubt want the plywood to extend several inches off the front edge of the support.

If you think you're going to need this platform to be portable (Planning on your spouse kicking you out because you spend more time here than . . .we won't go there!), then here's a great tip. Instead of laying down one large sheet of plywood, use several smaller sheets -- even if you have to cut them yourself.

In this way, the benchwork --at least to a degree -- is relatively portable.

They use homa-what?

Many railroaders who create their own benchwork use homasote, or cellulose based fiber wall board to place on top of the plywood for either their sub-roadbed or their platform. If you're not familiar with this, it's much like papier mache and manufactured from recycled paper compressed under very high temperatures and bond together with glue. It's about a half inch thick. You can usually buy it in sheets of four by eight feet.

While it's effective, it does have several serious disadvantages. When you cut this, you'll discover that it makes a mess. So if you do use it, don't cut it inside the house. Take it outside or in the garage. Your spouse and the rest of the family will thank you.

But as it's making its mess, it may also be infiltrating your lungs -- and that's not good. So if you do decide to go this route, please, wear a protective mask over your mouth and nose to protect your lungs.

If the prospect of using homasote doesn't appeal to you, think about using several sheets of insulating extruded foam. These pieces can easily be bought in building supply stores. You can then place them on top of the plywood and glue the two layers together.

You can still create valleys, rivers, and even lakes. Just take a knife, cut the shape of the topographical area out of the foam.

If you'd like to have mountains, simple cut out layers of the foam and shape them into your own personal mountain range.

Foam works well with your eventually wiring of your layout. It's much easier to create the channels necessary for wiring when you're dealing with form.

Well, what do you know? Stand back and look at what you just did. You've just built your first benchwork. And it doesn't even look like you broke a sweat -- at least not much of one, anyway.

"Next Stop, Tracks and Wiring!"

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