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methods of model railway baseboard building

Once one has graduated from operating the train on the kitchen floor, thoughts must turn towards building baseboards to support your model railway. Baseboards may be installed permanently in a room or loft or may be designed to be portable. I would always advise that your layout be designed to be portable should you wish to preserve your work.  Whatever you may think at the time, circumstances can change and a new home for your layout may be required. Sadly, the most common reason for such a move is divorce! (Could be that you spend too long with the trains!).

I advise you build your layout on a series of baseboards which can be unplugged and transported. This means that from the start, you should design each board to fit through any difficult aperture you may have (such as a loft door) and that the joints are placed in the best possible positions. Wiring should pass from one board to the next using multi-pin plugs and consideration given to stable rail joints.

The baseboards needs to be as light as possible, dimensionally stable and sufficiently rigid to prevent twisting. Sadly, most baseboards do not conform to these requirements. The layout may be subjected to changes in humidity which will affect timber. The conventional baseboard is made of a softwood frame with plywood or some other material applied to one side.

typical conventional baseboard

Such a baseboard can distort considerably as the timber swells or contracts and it is only too easy to twist resulting in the destruction of your miniature world. Unless you are making a model of the Fens or Belgium, a flat board will not be really what you want. It is far better that the sides of your board follow the contours of your topography. Do not forget that you will need sufficient space underneath to house things like point motors, transformers etc..

suitable materials

In my view, the best material for baseboard construction is plywood. Softwood can, of course, be used for packing pieces. For most needs, plywood supplied by your local DIY shop will suffice. Some plywood types are more dense and as a consequence weigh hugely more. Unless you intend to float your model on a pond, waterproof ply, apart from its extra weight, is far more expensive and unnecessary. Birch plywood is the best quality for thin sheets.

There are other timber composites but  they are much much heavier and can be difficult to work. These include MDF, chipboard, hardboard and block board which should always be avoided.

As far as I am concerned, trackbed should always be built out of thin plywood. This allows a vibrator system to be installed that can be most useful in 'unsticking' stalled locos. Any form of pulpboard, (and that includes Sundeala) should be avoided at all costs as these can move around all over the place if they become a bit damp.

The simplest method was used on County Gate. It works well but the result, while stiff and transportable, is not the lightest. The deep 1/4" cross members prevent any twisting of the board while the sides follow the contours of the land.

the baseboard for our station module

A lighter solution has been found by John Chivers of the Barry and Penarth Model Railway club. Here, the side members are fabricated from thin ply (could be 3 or 4mm) which are made into a cellular structure using 1" pine spacers. The depth of the sides should be dictated by the required topography and the correct shape can be cut with a jigsaw once the board is constructed.

images by John Chivers

Immensely strong structures can be fabricated using very thin ply indeed. An example is the system supplied by Brilliant Baseboards which uses thin birch ply. This modular system can be adapted to almost anything required. It is quite possible to fabricate such a system from scratch although some woodworking skill is required.

Brilliant Baseboards modular system

Now we move on to more hi tech solutions. The most promising is sandwich foam boards which are supplied for insulation in DIY shops such as B&Q. These are rigid and very light but do need to be set into a frame of thin ply, say 1/4". The best foam for modelling contours is the blue closed cell foam which can be supplied by the composite aviation industry. It can be hot wired to size for you. In my opinion, this type of construction offers the best strength to weight ratio. The 3" foam board must be set on battens leaving enough space below to accommodate all the 'fancy bits'. Do not forget to provide suitable flat areas for mounting any buildings you wish to include.

However you build your baseboards, do not forget to incorporate sufficient holes to allow wiring to be passed down from one end to the other and from front to back. Places where motors need to be fitted need to have enough space to work on the motors. I generally make the trackbed much wider at these locations to cover the hole.

Some may prefer to incorporate the backdrop into the baseboard design. Remember, there are no corners in skies and one on your layout will ruin the overall effect. In H0/00 scale, a radius of 6" is sufficient. I make my backdrops in sheet aluminium as the material is completely smooth and is lightweight. Most sheet metal shops are happy to cut and roll sheets at very economical prices. See backdrops for more information. Backdrops made in plywood will always show grain and those made in hardboard or MDF will weigh a ton!

The image below shows a lightweight solution for a small diorama with overhead lighting.

My new 'vertical' layout, Cliffhanger is based on a plywood frame with 5" insulating foam built up to form the topography.

Cliffhanger under construction


Civil engineering structures need to be installed fairly early on. You will find it much easier this way. The viaduct on our layout was completed and fully painted and detailed before the baseboard was constructed. It was then built into the baseboard. it would have been really hard doing it any other way.

 Do not forget to provide mounting points for any buildings that may be fitted to the module.

Buildings should be constructed on lightweight sub-boards, such as foam board. This enables fine detailing around the building to be completed on the workbench. Buildings that are to be presented on sloping ground need special consideration. In such cases, it is preferable to build these models on a larger sub-base and even include the road, if one exists, alongside. In such cases, I build the structures with with a foam board 'pillar' which is attached to a baseboard cross member. If you are modelling, say a village or a farm complex, there is a lot to be said in constructing the entire thing on a sub board on the workbench.

Do not forget The plywood track base should be wide enough to accommodate such things as platforms, station buildings, engine shed etc. where necessary.


There are numerous solutions to supporting your baseboards, from the conventional wood trestle to more sophisticated concepts.

built in trestle system

conventional home made trestles (plan here)

commercial metal trestles

some even use photographic tripods!

At County Gate, our boards are large and heavy and we prefer to support them on our own steel demountable stands.  See here

joining boards

I recommend mould makers' register pins and sockets which are often advertised in the magazines to align boards.


To fix the boards together, we first opted for Securit toggle catches which attach one board to the next. When erecting at an exhibition, each stand is first assembled, (about 2 minutes each), the lights are then added before the baseboards are fitted. The stands can then be easily rolled into the hall and the railway joined together in situ.

We found that  the Securit toggles were not sufficiently strong to completely pull the boards together. They were also not adjustable.

We have now installed heavy duty adjustable toggles which do an amazing job. They can be obtained from Wixroyd



There are many possibilities when selecting the plugs and sockets to join one baseboard to the next. We use 'D' connectors and DIN plugs/sockets and have been pleased with the results. Such animals can be purchased at Maplins or other specialist suppliers.