Thursday, 27 September 2012

Building a N-Scale Layout – Stable Benchwork

For any model railroad, a stable, well thought out foundation is extremely important.  I found this out the hard way when I rushed into using something new on my last N-scale layout. I made some snap decisions building the foundation of the layout that in part led to me tearing up that layout and starting anew. 

I wanted to ensure that my layout could be disassembled and moved without being destroyed so the benchwork needed to be built in modules and be as lightweight and easy to move as possible. I decided to keep the roughly the same dimensions as the last layout (L-shaped approx 10x7 feet) as it worked well in the room and I also wanted to reuse the old staging yard (along one wall) if possible. I decided on dividing the layout into three modules, one 6x3 foot and two roughly 4x3. There are many resources on the internet and books that cover benchwork construction so I am not going to get into detail but I will highlight a couple of the techniques I used help make my benchwork work for me.


Strong and Lightweight
I choose the tried-and-true open grid method to build my benchwork.  Open grid benchwork at its simplest is a wood frame (although other materials can be used) with a number of cross braces to add strength and support.  In North America the cross braces generally are built to run across the full width of the frame while in Europe it is common to build an inside lattice or grid of cross braces.  The roadbed for track can then be laid directly onto the frame/grid at lower levels or you can use risers to raise the roadbed to different levels.

For the frame and cross members I used 1x4 select SPF wood. 1x4 wood is generally enough for most small to medium layouts and modules. SPF (spruce/pine/fir) is white softwood that is lightweight, fairly cheap to buy, and fairly strong, making it easy to work with and perfect for layout benchwork.  I used 'Select' quality wood which is a better grade and free of large knots. You still need to watch for warped, twisted or cupped boards though. Even select quality wood can vary greatly in quality so it worth looking around for good lumber rather than just grabbing whatever happens to be in stock at the home store.

To maximize the strength of the modules I used both screws and wood glue to build the module frames.  If the layout was going to be moved regularly to shows etc I probably would have used a few more cross braces on each module but for my purposes 1 cross brace every 14-16 inches balanced off strength and weight. I did not want loose wiring hanging down under the layout to snag so before assembling everything I used a 1 3/4 inch hole saw in my drill to create pass-throughs in each cross-brace (and between modules) for wires and cables. 

Loose Table Alignment Pins
Module Alignment
An important consideration with any kind of modular layout is how to keep the modules aligned correctly. This is doubly important when you have hidden track connecting between modules and are working in a smaller scale such as N. Even a slight misalignment of of tracks lead to derailments in N and even a 1/16th of an inch can be trouble in HO. Some use simple bolts/wing nuts but my favorite method is to use table/shelf alignment pins. These are inexpensive and are available at many woodworking or hardware stores. Once they are hammered into pre-drilled holes on each module they provide very accurate alignment and do not require any fiddling around under modules like bolts would. I use 2-3 on each module frame as well as on any risers where tracks cross between modules.

A Firm Foundation
As I needed the layout to be easily removed though a 29" inch doorway and down a narrow hall, I decided against attaching legs permanently to the 3 modules. I still needed to raise them to the correct height and and I wanted to be able to pull out the layout from the wall so I could work from both the front and back of the layout as needed. I had some 2x4 lumber I had used to build a couple of sawhorses and beams to support my old layout so I decided to reuse some of that to build a simple support table with casters. The table will need to be disassembled to leave the room but it could be easily rebuilt it need be.

The nearly completed benchwork and support table. At this point the modules are held together with clamps.











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