How to Build Train Table

By Lee Grayson
How to Build Train Table
Public Domain, Library of Congress

The first mass-produced model train was made by Marklin in 1891 and since that time the hobby has grown to include millions of fans, including musicians Rod Stewart and Neil Young, newscaster Tom Brokaw, and actor Tom Hanks. The first step in creating a model railroad layout is to build a quality train table.

How to Build A Train Table

Step 1

Determine Correct Size:
The size of the train table will depend on the scale used. In HO scale, a 4-foot x 8-foot table is wide enough to use curves of 18-inch and 22-inch radius, the two most common sizes; 027, the scale of Lionel trains, may also fit on a 4x8 because the curves in this scale are proportionally much tighter. In the smaller N scale, a layout of almost the same type will be able to run on a 2-foot x 4-foot table. Tiny Z scale needs half the space of N scale.

Step 2

Lumber and Hardware Needed:
The table needs to be strong and rigid. Plywood for the top should be no thinner than ½ inch since thinner plywood is prone to warping. The supporting frame can be built from 1x3 lumber. For a 4x8 table, purchase one 4x8 sheet of plywood and a total of four pieces of 1x3. 1½-inch-long flat-headed screws will be used (it helps to drill a shallow starter hole, smaller in diameter, for each screw).

Step 3

Support: Decide first how to support the train table. For many first layouts, it's desirable to be able to take the table down and store it vertically. Some people rest their table on two sawhorses, a folding table, or cinder blocks. If the train space is permanent, build and attach legs.

Step 4

Cut the Lumber:
Two 8-foot pieces of 1x3 should be left uncut to form the sides of the frame. Four cross-braces are needed, one on each end and two inside. The cross-braces need to be cut precisely. Keep in mind that the narrow side of a 1x3 is actually closer to 3/4 inch. To fit between the side pieces, the cross-braces should be cut to approximately 46½ inches, but measure this carefully to be sure it is a good fit. If saws or a workspace aren't handy, many hardware stores will cut your lumber after it is purchased---but carefully plan out how you'll need each piece cut, and to write it down, before asking to have the materials cut.

Step 5

Assemble the Framework: Lay out the plywood sheet on the floor, right side up (don't attach anything yet). Place the two 8' side pieces of 1x3 along the long edges of the plywood, narrow edge up. Then, insert a 46½-inch cross-brace at each end and attach them (using two screws per joint) to the side pieces so that the dimensions exactly match the outside of the plywood. Next, attach the two inside cross-braces in the same way, measuring on each side to be sure they are square and equally spaced (c. 31 to 32 inches apart). Match the framework to the plywood squarely.

Step 6

Attach Plywood: Before lifting the completed framework, square it up with the edges of the plywood and lightly trace on the plywood along the edges of the internal braces with a pencil. Next, put the framework on the floor and rest the plywood on top of it (it's important not to flip the plywood or switch the ends). Match up the edges and attach the side pieces and cross-braces with two screws on each end. For the internal cross-braces, drill between the pencil marks at a perfectly vertical angle. Side pieces should be attached with at least five equally spaced screws each, and cross-braces with three each. Keep 2 inches away from the exact corners along the short sides so that you won't strike the nails or screws already there.

Step 7

Level the Table: Place the tabletop on the supports. It is important to level the table carefully since trains will run unsteadily otherwise. Using a level, insert spacers under the corners of the frame until the tabletop is perfectly level. Also, experiment with height until you are satisfied. Some people prefer an "aerial view" of the trains, but a higher table with a nearly eye-level view can appear much more realistic.

About the Author

*I have written chapters and articles for Oxford and Harvard University Presses, ABC-CLIO, and others. Arcadia Press published two of my local history texts and I have also written for numerous "article sites," including Pagewise in 2002. My "How to become a...real estate agent" is available as an online text from a Canadian publisher. *I taught writing courses at a branch campus of Indiana University. *I held a California real estate license and have remodeled four of my own homes and advised others on financing homes, repairing credit to qualify for loans, and managing construction (including meeting local, state, and federal regulations for restoration and development grants). *I served as an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer and wrote nearly $75,000 in small education grants (under $1,000). *My travels include frequent road trips in Canada, Mexico, U.S., and Europe. I attended school at Cambridge University and used this as a base to explore the UK and Europe.