Basic Model Railroad Benchwork by John Sipple

Kalmbach Books has published an extensive line of books on model railroading topics over the years, some of which are still in print. Methods and materials change over times (and yet some don't) so even topics such as benchwork need a fresh look from time to time. Veteran model railroad writer and photographer Jeff Wilson tackles the topic, providing details without doctrine and an overview without bias. This 96 page, softcover book features 250 color photos and 25 illustrations in its page-size 8-1/4 by 10 3/4 format.

The Topic

A few model railroaders do bench work really well; another group does benchwork if it has to. The rest of the modeling world regards benchwork with faint dread. If benchwork is done well, the rest of the project moves along nicely. If it isn't, problems persist, much the way a housebuilding project would be deviled by a poor foundation. And that's the nub of it: benchwork is the foundation of our hobby.

In years gone by, I have seen articles in which the author advances an attitude that "if it ain't L-girder, it ain't squat!" As relentless as church doctrine, proponents of each type sometimes sally forth to defend their territory. The fact is, each type of benchwork addresses a certain collection of problems, and each does not address some others. It is more important for the model railroader to vision in the mind what kind of layout they want, how it will look, what resources they have, and select the benchwork types they want. Did I use the plural? Am I suggesting that a model railroader might use more than one type on a layout? I am. I say that you should do what works for you and your layout.

The Book

Wilson starts off by canvassing the world of tools and materials, discussing what you might need. Nothing is more frustrating than to plunge into a project, only to find you don't have the tools to finish it. A cordless drill/screwdriver is indispensable, even though they weren't around when I first joined the hobby in the early fifties. Other power tools, such as jigsaws and circular saws are also vitally important. He then covers the non-powered, handtool offerings including miter boxes, hand saws, screwdrivers, squares, and rules. He also explores the various type of timber products, from dimensional lumber to various laminates, listing the advantages and disadvantages of each. He later discusses products such as extruded-foam insulation and drywall, as well as the fasteners which should be used.

He starts out the chapters on benchwork with a simple grid table just right for that 4 x 8 foot sheet of plywood. In this section, he also shows how to put swing-down banquet-table legs on a 3-foot wide hollow-core door, a very good foundation for a modest N-scale layout.

From there, he plumbs the depths of the L-girder. No doubt about it, if you are going to have varying levels of track, the L-girder provides the flexibility to make this happen. It also requires the most planning and takes the most time while requiring the most precision. I believe in planning, but it is hard to plan when you cannot envision what lies beneath. Here, you get a look at what you will have to do to create that mountainous wonder in your mind. After looking at this, you will either feel you can do it or give it up and retreat to a basic grid.

The Cookie-Cutter tabletop can lay on top of a grid or an L-girder support system. I've used the cookie cutter approach and found it to be very successful. Jeff doesn't mention doing this, but I laid out a miniature version of my proposed layout on poster board, made the cuts where they were planned, and then tried to vision how it would work. This led to some changes in my plans and resulted in a slightly better layout. He ends this section by showing how extruded-foam sheets can also use the cookie-cutter approach.

Jeff's next section explores using plywood for your dimensional lumber, one method for getting straight lumber for less cost. Plywood is one of the strongest, most stable building materials, and to use it this way is very smart. He shows how to use a straight board as a cutting guide for your circular saw, ensuring smooth, straight cuts.

Open-grid benchwork has been my favorite over the years and Jeff covers it next. Often part or all of it is fastened to the wall, and I like to limit myself to a maximum of a 40 inch reach, that being the most I can reach without having to have a walkway or duck-under. He also shows how to grid for a peninsula sticking out into the room and how to create multiple angles so that your layout can travel around the furnace or other fixed features. Another feature of this chapter is a sidebar on modular and section benchwork, very handy. Jump over a chapter and see how your grid can be hung from a wall while saving valuable storage space underneath.

The chapter you jumped over will need to be studied, however, when it comes time to build sub-roadbed, risers, and cleats. Once again, the power of planning comes to the fore. He suggests creating a full-size drawing on something such as brown wrapping paper and then laying this on your grid. Locate switches by using copies of them made on a copy machine or using the actual switches as templates.

Beyond the chapter on wall-mounting is a chapter on double-deck frameworks. This is all about having a second layout above your first one and then interconnecting them using something such as a helix. Fascinating stuff! Jeff then takes us into backdrops and fascia, showing how to build the infrastructure to support paintings and backdrops which give your layout a better appearance.

He then gets us into duckunders, liftouts, and swinging gates, a complicated but necessary topic. I mentioned my 40-inch reach back is this article, and if that is exceeded then I will need to arrange access. If it is occasional, then a duckunder is probably adequate. However, if I need to go into that area frequently, a liftout or swinging gate may be required.

Jeff ends up his book by looking at benchwork as furniture, which is to say finished and prepared to be seen by all who enter. This would be essential for anyone who wishes to run their trains beyond the basement or spare room. The possibilities are endless, and Jeff shows us photographs enough to get our imaginations in high gear.


In fact, that is the entire goal here, to help you get your imagination working as you create plans which will function in a superlative manner. Jeff Wilson makes it clear that plans plus know-how equals a good foundation for your layout: He's sharing his know-how; paper and pencils are cheap. Draw your dreams on grid paper, working through all the contingencies until you have a plan which does what you want to do. Then use this book to design benchwork which will stand up to your dreams.