Building a Model Railroad – Part 6: Benchwork

If you’ve been following along since I began this series on my layout build, it probably appears as though I spent three years dawdling over the basement remodel then magically had the benchwork built and installed over the course of a month while simultaneously caring for a new baby.

Though this benchwork system is pretty quick to build, it didn’t quite happen like that. In fact the components have been complete (but un-assembled) for well over a year now and the main tables were in use as a flat surface to build the basement wall panels on. All I really needed to do was screw the various tables and modules together.

At it’s most basic, this system consists of 8′ long I-beams made from 2 types of plywood. The flanges are 23/32″ cabinet grade plywood which I get from Home Depot. The web is whatever 15/32″ sheathing is cheapest when I’m shopping. The flanges are ripped down to 1 3/4″ so if you account for the width of the saw blade you get about 24 out of a single sheet. The web is ripped to 3 7/8″ and one sheet yields around 11 of those. Each flange has an approximately 3/8″ deep dado ripped lengthwise to accommodate the 15/32″ web. When the three components are glued together this results in an I-beam that is 4 1/2″ tall. High enough to accommodate a Tortoise switch machine hanging off the bottom of the layout and provide a firm mounting surface for the legs.

A cross section of an I-beam. The dado on mine was offset slightly from center to allow a wider edge on one side of each flange.This is to allow more surface area when screwing up into the next level of the layout (more on that in a future post).

Once the I-beams are assembled they can be cut to whatever length is desired and connected with blocking against the webs. A full 8′ beam only needs legs at each end and can easily support the weight of an average adult.

This same system was used in a much more complex fashion on my friend Tom Murray’s Springfield Line layout (see below).

Another friend who happens to be a carpenter developed this system and all the components were cut and partially assembled at his shop. I then brought everything home (it only took one trip, even with the tiny 6′ bed in my Toyota pickup) and attached the legs to the four corner tables.

As I mentioned earlier, the tables were then used as a flat surface to build the basement wall panels. Once the walls were done I stacked the tables along with all the other parts in one half of the basement while I finished the trim and floor.

Here’s the entire layout. If the ceilings were higher it could have been condensed even more.

With basement renovations finally complete, I vacuumed up all the sawdust and spent a few days putting the benchwork together.

The first step in assembling the layout was to locate and level each of the four corners.
Unfortunately after I had assembled everything else, I discovered that the small peninsula at the front of the layout (which will be connected to the opposite side by a swing bridge to allow access for 1:1 people) sat over a part of the floor that was too high even with the feet retracted all the way up. Fortunately I was able to move the brackets up on the legs which gave just enough clearance.
With the tables leveled I began joining them together with additional sections. These blocks are cut to fit perfectly between two I-beams and provide a place to screw the sections together.
You can never have too many clamps…
These are the screws I use. 1 1/2″ would probably have been better but 1 1/4 worked fine. They’re square drive cabinet screws, with nibs and a t-17 point and are far superior to anything you can find at a regular hardware store. I get mine online:
One side of the layout fully assembled.
Connecting the two sides and making sure everything is square.
I originally designed the layout before the wall panels went in and though I designed it with that additional width in mind the benchwork just barely clears the hatchway door. Got lucky I guess.

About 4′ of the staging yard is designed to be removable near the furnace for better access. I had to take some care in designing and building that module so that it would lift in and out easily. My furnace guys will still probably be annoyed but oh well. It’s an efficient unit that only needs servicing every few years, plus I’m pretty sure that my basement is otherwise cleaner and more comfortable than 99% of the places they normally work in.

The only major error I discovered in my plan was that the staging yard/mill side of the layout was 3 3/4″ too short. I had some scrap I-beam and other plywood sitting around so I built an extension on that side. It doesn’t look great but it will support the foam top and provide an attachment surface for fascia. The only issue may be with a couple of Tortoise switch machines, but since it’s in staging I can always mount them on the surface if they can’t be set up for remote throw.

After a couple of days of monkeying around for 30 minutes or so at a time between feedings and diaper changes, the benchwork was up and ready for the next phase.

Here’s the completed layout looking towards the back. The branch to the mill will run across the front module and the staging tracks will be along the back.
And the front. I’m not sure what I’ll do about the swing/lift bridge over the opening. It will have a visible (scenery, detail, etc.) crossover on it which adds to the complexity a bit…

I’m really glad to be at this point. Getting the benchwork fully assembled and in place was a major goal for this year and I’ve done it with time to spare. Next up will be attaching the backdrop that runs along the wall followed by lighting and valance. Then I’ll paint the backdrop. That’s all going to take a bit of time and I think I’m going to take a break to focus on some other projects for the rest of 2020. The next layout update will hopefully be sometime in early Spring of 2021.


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