Building our layout on top of a piece of plywood is the way that most of us got started in model railroading. But that piece of plywood can be awfully floppy if it is not supported adequately!
So let's stiffen it up a bit. First install a frame of 1x4" lumber around the bottom edge of your plywood sheet.
If you don't have the tools to cut your lumber yourself, most lumber yards will cut it for you for a small fee. You will need two side pieces each 8 feet long plus two end pieces each 4 feet long LESS twice the width of your lumber (typically ¾" each or 1-1/2" for the two) for the ends. These can be nailed together, but nails are not the best way to go here for the long pull. They tend to work their way back out with the vibration of your moving trains and occasional moving of the train table. It is much better to screw and glue things together. I like "carpenter's" glue sometimes called "yellow" glue . This is a resin based glue that is water-proof when dry. The white glues are a little bit cheaper, are almost as strong, but are not waterproof. A lot of the scenery techniques used nowadays involve a good deal of water, so waterproofness is important.
Rub glue into the end grain of the end piece with your finger until it is pretty well saturated and then also run a bead of glue along it. Screw through the side piece into the end of the end piece. This is one place where it would be a good idea to drill a couple of 'pilot holes' first at each end of each side piece. Make the holes just large enough to pass each screw (to keep the end of the side piece from splitting). Drywall screws will start themselves and make their own holes in the wood. Just be sure to hold or clamp the two pieces of wood firmly together while driving the screws. Modern glues are strong enough so that some people remove the screws after the glue has dried (I believe in wearing both a belt and suspenders, so I leave mine in!). Screw through from the top of the plywood down into the 1x4s. Dont glue the top to the frame as you may want to be able to remove it later to build a lake and change the levels of your track.
You can use conventional wood screws to do your assembly, but that requires you to pre-drill holes for them. If you decide to go that route buy a "pilot drill" for the screw size you are using. This will drill the hole for the shank of your screw in the 1x4, the clearance hole through the plywood and counter sink the hole in the top of the plywood so the screw sits flush with the top of the table - all in one operation. I used to use No 8 x 1-3/4 flat-head wood screws for most of my benchwork. Now I use dry-wall screws. Stay with the 1-¾" length. They are cheap, readily available, and you don't have to predrill your holes (except possibly at the very end of a piece of wood where it may tend to split if you don't). You will need a 3/8" reversable drill with a bit to fit the head of the screws you are using - either slotted or phillips head. (You can drill holes and drive screws by hand, but it will take you a very long time and wear you out - an investment in an electric drill is well worth the money!).
At this point, your plywood sheet will have been stiffened up considerably, but the center will still be able to flex an annoying amount. So split a 1x4 lengthwise to make 1x2 lumber. Your lumber yard can do this for you. Ask them to "rip" the 1x4s into 1x2s. We will call these pieces joists. Cut the 1x2s to the same length as your end pieces. Turn the table over and make five of them and screw them to the side pieces so they are bearing up against the underside of the plywood. Do not glue or screw the table top to the joists at this time.
For legs, I would have the lumber yard split a 2x4 into 2x2 stock. There is a great deal of argument as to what the proper height for a layout is. Most experienced model railroaders tend to put their layouts at relatively high levels nowadays. Typically a minimum of 42" (and often considerably higher). This is because our models look better when viewed near eye level. The problem with a higher layout is that it is harder to reach into the center of it for construction and maintenance. You should also consider who will be viewing (and maybe working on) your layout. If you have children, you may want to build the layout quite a bit lower (perhaps as low as 30-36") so they can see it easily. There is no one correct height, so decide what will work for you and go for it!
Cut 4 legs to the length you decide upon. At first it would seem obvious that the legs should be mounted at the corners of the layout but that is not so. If you mount them about 20% of the length of your table in from each end you will have a much stiffer top with much less flex in the middle when you lean on it. So mount your legs about 19" from each end along the long edge of the your table. With the table upside down, drill one 5/16" hole through the long side piece and a leg about 3/4" to 1" up from the plywood. Push a 1/4"x3" carriage bolt through from the outside and place a washer and then a nut on the bolt. Tighten the nut down finger tight. Use a carpenter's square to get the leg at right angles to the table and then drill a second hole through both the side and the leg about 3/4" to 1" down from the bottom (temporarily facing up) edge. Install a second bolt-washer-nut. Tighten both bolts. Install the other three legs in the same manner. Make sure that all four legs are perpendicular to the table in both plains. You could stop here but your table will be a bit wobbly.
I would brace the legs at each end with two 1x2's in an "X" form, each as fastened as close to the floor as possible at one end and as close to the table at the other. Then brace the legs lengthwise from as near to the floor as possible on each leg to a point at the end of the table and again to the middle of the table (eight braces in all). All this bracing may look rather ugly, but you can always fasten a cloth curtain around the bottom of the layout to make it look better if it really bothers you. If your floor is not level and even, you can drill a 5/16" hole into the center of the bottom end of each leg and then hammer in a ¼" "t-nut" (available at hardware stores) into the hole. You can now thread a ¼" bolt into the t-nut about half of its length. This will allow you to adjust the length of each leg to compensate for any uneveness in your floor.
You now have an enormously strong and steady platform upon which to build your model empire.
Bill of Materials (based on 48" legs)
Tools needed for this part of the project
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Page last updated January 9, 2015