Barriers to Model Railroading: Layout construction…what wood?

A note on measurements: Having always measured wood etc in imperial units, I’m prone to just write these measurements making it a little difficult for the majority of those readers outside my country whom are accustomed to metric measurements. Below is a table for comparing measurements. Also, thickness of wood is great misnomer everywhere industrial sawmills cut wood. Commonly labeled 1″ thick wood is really 3/4 inch thick.

1/4”(inch)= about 6mm

1/2″= 12mm

3/4″= 19mm

1″= 25mm

Have you ever started a layout and wondered what wood should I use to make the benchwork? Should I go to the hardware store and buy the #1 or #2 pine, use 1/2” thick plywood or some other thickness. I would like to share my layout building experiences over the years and how I arrived at where I am today and my thoughts on the next layout. Now for those who do not know me, I also do a fair amount of woodworking so I’ll put that disclaimer out right away.

Twelve inch deep C with On2,Sn3, and N scale cars

My past model railroads have been built using pine and plywood. Back in my “L girder” modeling days, pine boards of 3/4 inch by a variety of widths and length cut to needed were the norm. My first “C modules”, which I discussed in previous posts ( Introducing the C and The C’s have it), were built using 1/2 inch plywood. My current two C modules are 3/4 inch luan with 1/2 inch as the top. One of them is pictured below when I was building it.

Why did I migrate from pine to plywood? Two reasons, wood stability and use of modules. Let’s talk about wood stability first. Most people will go to their local lumber yard, whether it is the Home Depot or Lowe’s, or a small local business and buy the cheaper pine. The number two pine has issues when used to build model railroads. In my experience the 1 inch by 2 inch and 1 inch by 4 inch boards that most modelers purchase are full of knots and already slightly warped at the time of purchase. I would try to buy wider boards, 8 inch or 10inch ( really 7 1/2 and 9 1/2 inches wide) and rip them to the sizes I needed on a table saw. I realize not everyone has a table saw to be able to do this process. I tried to let the wood acclimate a few weeks before I used it so if it did warp I could figure out how I would cut the boards.

When I decided to go to modules, plywood became my wood of choice. My first modules where made with any plywood that I had as left overs from building my house. It did not take long to change to using better grades than the basic construction grade plywood for module construction! At first the C modules used 1/2 inch thick plywood, but my last two were made from 3/4 inch thick plywood and constructed differently.

Photograph from several year ago of first Beckleysville module under construction

Leg pocket that also helps keep module square

Why the change to 3/4 inch plywood? I wanted to design a model railroad that could be moved and set up in a variety of places such as my basement or even outside on nice days on my driveway. Working outdoors, especially when one works inside and overnight, is enjoyable. The modules therefore would have to be rigid enough to survive moving on a frequent basis

The problem with the 3/4 inch ply is the weight of the module. Moving forward, for my non C modules, I will use 3/4 inch end pieces for certain and for modules wider than 18 inches, the front and back pieces will also be 3/4 inch. I’m still debating about using 1/2 inch plywood for the front and back because 3/4 inch makes for a stable module when moving it around.

Beckleysville’s trackplan is getting a slight redesign to include a slightly longer passing siding, so it will now be a three module layout not including its two staging modules. That gives it a total length of around 18 feet (~5 1/2 meters). The width will be no more than 24 inches and I would like to have it taper to narrower ends.

Barriers to Model Railroading: Layout construction…what wood?

@ January 2021

By: H. Mathews

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