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Lumsdonia Railway

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A guide to choosing the method of construction for your layout

Layout material and construction selection

Layout Construction

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Choosing the components is based on location, then portability, then board, then the frame and supports are interdependent.

We can list the factors as:-


There is no one solution to the "What is the best construction method" question, it is more about, not falling fowl of the pitfalls, using the best principles and personal choice! There are a few factors that will steer you, to particular methods and materials.

One of them is where the layout will be situated, which effects material selection.

Lets look at the main components, and the factors that affect their selection.








Materials are dependant on what environment the layout will reside. If it will be in a nice comfortable in-house room (temperature and moisture controlled), then your choices are open to using untreated (non-moisture resistant) materials.

If the location is outdoors (uninsulated, non temperature controlled) building like a garage or shed, then there is a danger that moisture will cause warping and ‘blowing’ or splitting of materials and a treated (moisture resistant) material should be selected.

Attic/Lofts need to be fully insulated, to be categorised as indoor (and you may still have moisture issues!).

Attic/Loft/Garage/Shed - Chipboard or Plywood, use the walls/trusses for support, with minimal frame and regular support. Use treated/moisture resistant materials.

House/External controlled environment - Chipboard or Plywood, use the walls for support, with minimal frame and regular support or medium frame with less support.

Exhibition - Plywood or Insulation, deep strong frame, readily removable legs with adjustment.

Final choice location showdown

Choosing your supplier

Shop around! A major factor will be cost, depending on your local supplier and delivery cost, the cheapest may not be the most viable source. Ring up many of your local timber/building merchants and get quotes, then compare with the DIY stores. Your decision may come down to the fact that a DIY store may saw up sheets to your dimensions for free!

Back to GUIDES

-Top surface board

-Structural support of the Board

-Brackets, legs supporting/below the frame

-Fixed (permanent), Modular (occasionally moved), Exhibition (regularly transported)

-Garage, Shed, Attic, Loft, Bedroom, External building.

-UK, Europe, USA, Australia, etc.


If you live in a dessert region, then moisture issues may not be a concern, though extremely low humidity will still warp any natural wood!

For most, outside buildings (weather dependant temperature and moisture) must be considered as a hostile environment and the use of treated timber is advised.

Board  (the top surface)

Many have used chipboard (me included) in the past, it is strong, thick (usually 3/4in) and readily available, it even comes in handy 4x2 flooring sheets that interlock, ready made to get through the loft hatch! It has two weaknesses, it is very heavy (mainly because it is usually thick) and is very susceptible to damp.

Plywood, for most, is the go to board material. Very strong, stable and available in very thin thicknesses.

OSB, very similar to plywood, but not quite as strong

MDF, similar to chipboard, strong and many thicknesses available. A dust mask must be used when cutting.

Hardboard, only available in thin sheets (6mm), weak, prone to moisture damage,  not really a contender.

Insulation board (XPS Polystyrene, PIR, Phenolic, see Terrain guide) can actually be used for the base (needs to be either 1 inch plus with a good support structure or on its own if more than 2 inches thick. Extremely light, but prone to edge breakage, so needs to be surrounded by a frame.

Sundeala, an old material that has past it's usefulness, easy to work with but expensive to buy and needs a second sheet underneath for strength, with no real advantages other than possibly quiet running.

Air or none, this method is called cellular and effectively does not have a top, it is based on there being no flat surface as the starting block and small pieces of thin ply are supported by varying heights of additional pillars to suite the track geography, with the resultant gaps being formed/filled purely by the terrain between tracks.

FRAME  (board support)

Plywood, very strong, can be relatively thin, stable and non warping. As only available in sheets, cutting into strips is an issue, it can be done with a circular saw and a long guide, but best done on a table saw or at the suppliers {ask them if the have a cutting service!} If thin section is selected, additional wood or brackets may be required for corner jointing.

Plywood cellular construction, same as above, but instead of just a surround and a few cross members (rungs), a regular grid of small squares is constructed to form an array of small boxes. This construction can yield the strongest frame possible, but is a lot of work and further effort to cut special shaped pieces of ply for the track and its supports.

PAR softwood, simple and cheap, but prone to warp over time, even if not subject to moisture.

Treated (CLS), used in the construction industry, it is not prone to moisture damage, but is more expensive than untreated pine (PAR)

Aluminium (or steel), not one that comes to mind, but ultimate strength and durability, extremely expensive and hard to work with, but if you have a cheap/readily available source and the skills to work it, possibly the ultimate frame, mega strong, lightweight (aluminium, not steel) and moisture proof.

The biggest pitfall!

Be wary, build cheap = short life, but build well = last long.

It is very tempting to use whatever is layout about to hand or what is cheap or even free!

However, this may come back and bite you in the long run!

SUPPORTS and PORTABILITY (legs or brackets)

The size and amount (number and spacing) is dictated by the frame. The stronger the frame, the less supports are needed, the weaker the frame, the more are needed. The deeper the frame, the more rigid it is, so the spans between supports can be longer.

Fixed - The option of using a wall or attic trusses as at least one (front/back) support is available. Legs and wall or a combination of the two can be used. You can also consider a leg free system using braced wood/steel brackets from the wall. The wider the layout, the more sturdy the brackets needed, seek advice for construction before attempting!

Modular - fixed or removable legs can be used, it depends how often the layout will be moved.

Exhibition - Removable or hinged leg frames can be used, or ‘A’ frame trestles are an option. A more torsionally rigid frame is needed to ensure diagonal twisting is not possible, when man handling the boards.

Board - Minimum 6mm (plywood), optimal 9mm (Plywood), 12mm strong, 12mm/19mm chipboard or OSB. Use treated/moisture resistant materials [external grade if moist environment]

Frame - Timber or Plywood, 2x1{50x25} minimum with narrow support, 3x1 is better, 4x1{100x25} is best - needs less/wider support or 9/12mm plywood 4in{100} deep or 4/6in{100-150}deep cellular.

Legs - 2x1{50x25} minimum, 1.5x1.5{40x40} optimal, 2x2{50x50} very sturdy. Aluminium box/tube or even plastic is an option for exhibition.

Final choice material showdown

Once you have chosen moisture resistance and your board/frame materials, the strength of the frame can be determined from the board thickness and the distance between supports.

The thinner the board, the more cross members will be required.

2x1{50x25} through 4x1{100x25} needs cross members every 12-18in{300-450} with 6mm board or 18-24in{450-600} with >9mm board.

The longer distance between supports, the deeper the frame needs to be.

2x1{50x25} needs support every 18-24in{450-600}, 4x1{100x25}  needs support every 36-48in{900-1200}.

Ignore the above guidance, and you may not have any problems! But if you expect your layout to have a trouble free, long life, err on the safe side and overdo it!

Final choice construction showdown

Height adjustment

Adjustable height feet are ideal for an exhibition layout, but can also be used for others. Height can be set when legs are constructed, for levelling the layout or packers can be used under feet. If the layout is to be moved or if you just don’t feel happy with packers, then add some screwed feet or adjustable feet brackets.

The final height of the layout is up to you, there is no set dimension!