A Rocket Railways Guide to Model Railway Baseboards

Each month I will offer an accessible introduction to the fundamental aspects of building and maintaining your model railway. What better place to start than the baseboard? It provides the vital foundation for the layout – the canvas on which to paint your masterpiece! 

This article provides a brief overview of the options available to you when constructing a baseboard. 

What is a Baseboard?

Most basically, a baseboard is a flat piece of wood on top of a frame. A permanent structure on which to build your railway, it protects your track from damage and offers a smoother running surface for your trains when compared with other surfaces, especially carpet.

Perhaps you’re thinking about building a new layout, or realise that it’s time to reclaim the dining room table. Whether you want to build a detailed model or simply need a base for your train set, a good baseboard is always a worthwhile investment. Integrating track and wiring, it enables you to get more from your layout. 

Though ready-made options are available, they are often expensive. Purchasing a bespoke baseboard is likely to take a large chunk from your budget. By making your own, you save money which can be spent on other things. You don’t have to be skilled in woodwork. Most timber merchants offer cutting services, so you don’t necessarily need access to your own saw. 

Photograph by Les Chatfield reproduced under CC 2.0 licence

Start with a Plan

First of all, consider the resources and space you have available. A model railway should be kept in a dry room not prone to major fluctuations in temperature. You will also need an electricity supply and a good lightsource. 

A room in a house is of course the ideal setting, but not all of us have the luxury of available space. While garages and sheds may afford spaces where you are unlikely to be disturbed (if that is your preference!), you will need to consider how best to protect your models against changes in humidity and temperature. Alternatively, a loft might be the ideal solution, provided you can gain access easily. 

Perhaps you’re thinking about building a new layout,

or realise that it’s time to reclaim the dining room table.

Once you have decided on a location for your layout, you can then start planning its design. Though it’s great to have lofty ambitions and grand schemes, I needn’t remind you of the importance of practicality. Plan for the space you have available, and you are less likely to be disappointed. 

Don’t forget you will need to be able to reach all parts of the layout without stretching. Larger layouts typically have a space cut out in the middle enabling access. In addition, it is best to leave space underneath the layout clear so you can attend to the wiring. 

When sketching track plans, don’t forget to think about landscape and scenery. The best model layouts have more than just railway lines. In particular, you should consider leaving a generous margin between the outermost line and the edge of the baseboard. This will minimise the risk of trains being knocked off by a mischievous moggie or a playful pup!

If your layout needs to be stowed away when not in use, you will also need to consider its portability. Layouts designed for exhibitions often consist of a series of modular boards, meaning they can be transported. Mobile layouts must be light and small enough to be carried easily.

Construction

Most modellers recommend a plywood surface on a frame of planed square edge (PSE) timber. This combination provides a relatively sturdy and lightweight construction, offering support without being too heavy. A basic tool kit – consisting of a square and spirit level, drill, screwdrivers, and a hammer – will suffice. You will also need screws and ideally PVA wood glue. 

A frame of 1” x 2” PSE will provide a strong but relatively light support for the baseboard. Aim to construct a grid with a spacing of about 12” to 15” between timbers. Ultimately this is YOUR baseboard and the sturdier it is the more confident you can be that it won’t collapse on you! 

Plywood is the most popular choice for baseboard tops. Though it isn’t always the cheapest option, plywood is relatively resistant to moisture and easy to cut, unlike chipboard and MDF. 

A thickness of between 9mm – 12mm is advisable to avoid sagging and warping. Larger layouts will need to use several pieces of plywood joined together. It is advisable to use pieces of identical sizes.

In terms of accessibility and comfort, a layout should be raised between 4ft and 5ft from the floor. This ensures a good working platform, reducing the risk of injury to yourself or damage to the layout. Furthermore, it is a level at which your craftsmanship can be easily admired. For legs and bracing, you can either use PSE timber or free standing trestles. 

Photograph by Phil Parker reproduced under CC 2.0 licence

Don’t worry too much about any imperfections in the basic appearance of the baseboard. Superficial blemishes are likely to disappear as soon as you start adding scenery. Concentrate on building a durable and rigid foundation – it doesn’t have to be beautiful in itself!

Other Options

Seasoned modellers sometimes choose to build their layouts using a wooden frame. This method enables the modeller to construct layouts with realistic landscapes, including hills and valleys. Though the finished article is often most impressive, this method requires skill and patience. 

If you plan to build a portable layout, you will most likely have to fabricate a number of modular baseboards so they can be carried and transported. Each module will also need additional bolts and fixtures to ensure perfect track alignment, as well as a means of connecting the wiring. 

If you’re still nervous about building your own, then ready-made and bespoke options are available. 

Summary

Planning will pay off in the long-run – don’t rush into anything. Take your time to read widely and consider your options before buying anything. 

Baseboard construction isn’t as difficult as it may appear. Though the prospect may seem daunting to anyone unfamiliar with woodwork, you certainly don’t have to be a skilled joiner. All you need is a solid surface reinforced by a sturdy frame. 

Rocket Railways now stocks OO gauge Starter Sets.

These packs contain everything you need to start building your own layout, including track, controller, locomotive, wagons, and accessories. If you’re looking for an easy starting point for a new OO gauge layout, the Rocket Railways Starter Set provides you with everything you need… apart from the baseboard!

Available NOW!

FAQs

What wood should I use for a model railway baseboard?

We recommend using plywood (9mm – 12mm) on top of a frame of planed square edge timber. This combination provides a relatively sturdy and lightweight baseboard.

What height should a model railway baseboard be?

To allow easy access for working and a comfortable viewing platform, the baseboard should be raised by about 4ft – 5ft from the floor.

How big does my baseboard need to be?

This depends entirely on the space you have available. Be realistic in your planning, and remember that a simple design often produces the best results. 

What tools do I need to construct a railway baseboard?

You will need a square and spirit level, a drill, screwdrivers, a hammer, screws and PVA wood glue.