Any commercial products mentioned here are purely bona fide indications of what I have been using myself.
I have no connection to any manufacturing companies nor do I profit from listing any products or brands.

Before the advent of the internet, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the hobby press would often try to paint an almost educational image of railway modelling as a hobby, by praising and stressing the multifunctionality of it all which led you to acquiring all kinds of different skills. And woodworking always got mentioned.

Which is certainly a valid point. The general tone of both modelling press and dedicated hobby websites has changed completely (and for the better no doubt, leaving behind the classroom approach), but it is a fact that even with botched up and aborted layout projects you usually get to the stage of becoming - or at least trying hard to be - a carpenter. In fact I would tend to think that many a faltering layout project met its premature fate during or just after the woodworking stage. When things don't line up the way they should. Or that neat small pile of pieces of plywood turns into a giant 3D monster once fully assembled. So even if you'll never get to run trains - chances are you'll always get to do the woodworking.

Back in those aforementioned 20th century days, the common advice from experts and publications alike was to use start out with baseboard frame made from solid timber, such as the classic 1" x 2"). But all this really does is leave you with extremely heavy baseboards.

The actual goal here is to have structural integrity: a stable and secure frame for your layout which won't warp or come apart at the slightest mishap. Achieving this requires no timber framing at all.

A great way to build sturdy yet still lightweight frames for a layout or modules is to use softwood plywood.

Plywood is made by bonding several layers of wood veneer together with glue to form one piece - which actually makes it stronger than one single thick layer of wood. For most purposes (including building a layout or module) plywood made from softwood is an excellent choice as it's also easily workable (e.g. with a jig saw) and available at good prices.
  Plywood is available in a wide range of thicknesses, but the thinner ones should be avoided. I have settled on 10mm (usually poplar or birch); it's somewhat stronger than really required but makes calculations much easier when working out the dimensions of a framework skeleton.

Making sure that all calculations and measurements are correct is essential to getting the pieces of plywood you need cut to the correct shape and size at your DIY store. That may sound trivial, but be assured - it is not.

Depending on how much cutting of the plywood is needed to conform to scenery contours, assembling the individual pieces is a mess-free job.

Rather than using glue and nails to put the individual pieces of plywood together, I mostly use only screws in drilled guiding holes with just a drop of glue here and there for extra strength at certain joints.
  Frames need to be perfectly square and flat in order to provide the structural stability required of a layout or module base. Depending on the actual setup and personal preferences, this can be achieved e.g. by adding internal bracing (left) or using a mitre clamp during assembly (right); the first option provides added stability while the second ensures true right angles.

At this stage of construction even the best quality softwood plywood can display a slight bend, especially in larger pieces.

This is due to a certain inherent flexibility of plywood - which is actually a good thing and allows pieces to be aligned perfectly. Once the assembly is complete (and assuming a sound design of the structure) it will all be square and straight.

Regardless of the shape and size of the final construction, using good quality plywood and applying care and double-checks during assembly will result in sturdy layout framework or modules which are still lightweight enough to be handled with ease.


Both "open top frames" and "flat top baseboards" can be built this way; even using plywood to simply frame a styrofoam core provides all the benefits mentioned.


Once completed, a coat of paint provides added protection by acting as a seal to humididty and also adds a touch of class by framing the layout almost the way a proscenium or theatrical stage frame does.



page created 6 January 2016
last updated 31 July 2021