Little Creek Mine: Benchwork from Scrap

Benchwork is the foundation of any good model railroad and without the stability of good bench work reliable operations are nearly impossible. Admittedly, I’ve got a love-hate relationship with benchwork because it is difficult to get just right. Ideally, good benchwork uses a minimum of materials to achieve it’s strength, is easy to cut and assemble, and looks good after a bit of sanding and staining/painting.

While benchwork is usually made out of wood, it’s not uncommon to use metal as well. Benchwork can either be freestanding, shelves anchored to walls, or a combination of the two. Benchwork can also be a single deck or multiple decks.

For the Little Creek Mine, I’ve got a couple of unique requirements for the benchwork. First, I need the entire layout to be enclosed. This not only protects the scenery and structures when moving the layout around, but it limits the viewing angles to just the front, like a stage. Second, I want to have built in lighting so that the layout has consistent, even illumination no matter where it might be set up. Third, built-in storage is a great feature to include in a train layout that needs to travel around. Being able to store rolling stock and basic tools out of the way eliminates extra boxes or bags.

All of the pieces I used to complete this project layout’s benchwork.

Another unique feature of this benchwork is that I only paid for two things, the shelf guide rails and the tempered hardboard sheet. Together, these materials cost about $40, everything else used in the construction of Little Creek’s benchwork is scrap pieces that have been collected. The materials used for this build include:

  • 1×2 dimensional lumber
  • 1/2 inch ‘B’ grade plywood that came from a 24×48 inch piece
  • 2×2 dimensional lumber chunks used for the stubby legs under the layout
  • a 24×48 inch piece of Luan plywood, either 1/4 inch or 6mm thickness
  • Scrap chunks of tongue and groove interior pine that make up the brackets holding the rear shelf in place.
  • A 24×48 inch piece of 3/8ths inch ‘A’ grade plywood for the drawers
  • a 24×48 inch piece of 1/8ths inch hardboard for the backdrop
  • Short deck screws, wood glue, and trip nails from a nail gun
  • Slim profile, ball bearing drawer glides.

Someone who goes to the hardware store to buy materials for a similar product will probably want to combine a few of these materials to make things simpler. 3/8ths A grade plywood, hardboard, and 1×2’s would probably do the job along with some glue and trim nails. However, I like the novelty of building something out of pieces most people would either throw out or put in storage and forget about. The best part is that by using scrap materials, there was very little left over to throw in the trash. I don’t think I threw out anything larger than a few inches in any dimension.

Assemblies

While I’m not going to get into the gritty details of building the benchwork yet, as I’ve got a couple hours of video to process which will show my methods a lot better than I could explain, I can go through the different assemblies required to build benchwork that looks similar to what I’ve created. The assemblies are as follows:

  1. Three dimensional lumber frames composed of 1×2 lumber precisely cut to form 13.5×47 inch boxes.
  2. Two plywood drawers composed of ‘A’ grade plywood sides and bottoms and ‘B’ grade plywood faces
  3. A torsion box with plywood making up the left and right sides, luan and hardboard making up the front and back of the box, and frames forming the top, bottom, and interior.
  4. Drawer pockets composed of spacers and rails that precisely align the drawers.
  5. Feet which are made up of 2×2 pieces connected to the bottom and middle frames

These different assemblies are all glued together, every single joint. Wood glue is stronger than the wood iteself, meaning these joints may as well be welded together. To support the glue and directly transfer stress from one piece to another, I used a combination of screws and trim nails from a nail gun. Thick pieces received screws in pre-drilled holes to minimize splitting. Thinner pieces got the nail gun treatment. Joining pieces in this manner eliminated the need to do a lot of clamping and sped up the process considerably.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but the result is a very strong, compact benchwork that only weights about 35lbs. I imagine the final weight will be roughly double this, which is still a pretty light load for two people to handle. One option that I chose not to pursue was making the layout roll like a piece of luggage. However, it wouldn’t be a big trick to install a pair of removable casters and a telescoping handle. I’ll save that idea for a different project down the road.

Why not a shelf layout?

I decided early on that this layout should take up a minimum of space. The natural answer to a lack of floorspace is a shelf layout. This approach has it’s merits, but it isn’t without issues. So far most of my rental history has been in studio apartments or sharing an apartment with a private room. While I’d love to have more space, it could be a while before I can afford an extra bedroom with no roommate. The absolute minimum footprint for a train layout would be a long, narrow shelf. However, such a layout is not so easy to take to train shows since it requires breaking it down into several pieces.

Another problem with shelf layouts and apartments is that it’s often a violation of the lease to screw shelf brackets into the wall. Freestanding shelf layouts are possible, but the best stability is achieved with one or two wall anchors. So, should I violate my lease and have fees deducted from my deposit all because of a train layout? I think not. Instead I opted to go with a design that can be either placed on a table or plugged into a set of freestanding shelves. My ballast for these shelves will be all of my railroad books and magazines.

What I’ve ended up with is sort of a shelf layout, if you consider a bookshelf or a wardrobe to be a set of shelves. However, at 16 inches deep and 48 inches wide this layout can be placed almost anywhere in a home, even in a studio apartment. Once I have the custom bookcase built that this layout plugs into it will be completely free-standing and another piece of furniture. Currently I’ve got the benchwork resting in my kitchen on temporary shelves and despite the room only being about 7×10 feet it doesn’t take up too much space.

Speaking of furniture, another common option is to build a coffee table with the train layout inside of it. There are dozens of examples on the internet so I won’t elaborate further, but the main problem with this design is that the layout is at the wrong height to be realistically operated. Yes, people can watch the train(s) go in circles and it’s a nice novelty to have in the living room compared to the boring coffee tables people usually get at Walmart or a thrift store. But as a model railroader, miniature trains should be more engaging than an aquarium or a table, and a lot less frustrating to maintain.

Shortcomings in the Design

Now that I’ve rambled enough about the advantages to the design I chose, as an honest person I need to go over the disadvantages as well. After all, no design is perfect and there’s rarely a silver bullet to a problem. The first issue is that a home layout is designed to operate from the ‘front’ while an exhibition layout is designed to operate from the ‘rear’ or the side. At a train show, I’ll usually be behind a table making sure the trains are operating well (and collecting money from sales), but at home I want to be able to operate this layout as if it were part of the home.

That means where the staging and controls are placed needs to be considered. I’ve got a workaround for each of these issues. For the staging, my plan is to have a spur that wraps around to the side of the layout from the back. This will involve a single turnout and a ‘fiddle track’ where cars can be added and subtracted from the train. To access this spur, an elongated hole will be cut in the left side of the layout. This fiddle track will be hidden underneath a steep hillside on the inside of the ‘box’. Considering all my rolling stock will be short, two axle cars, a 6 or 7 inch stretch of straight track will be more than enough to add and subtract rail cars.

As for control, one option I considered was a control panel on the front and the back of the layout with a pair of three way switches being used to decide which panel has control over the layout. However, the wiring for this is more complicated than I’d like to tackle and it effectively doubles the cost of wiring up the layout. Instead I opted for a more elegant solution, BlueRailDCC. BlueRail allows a small layout like this to be controlled via a cell-phone. I can still use basic DCC functions if I want to, but I won’t need a command station.

Even though that solution is promising, there needs to be a set of manual override controls if the phone connection goes down for some reason. I’m opting to include a small, basic DC control panel on the side of the layout underneath where I’ll have the fiddle track. If done correctly, I’ll be able to operate DC and dual mode DCC-equipped locomotives either through my cell phone or a small control panel on the side of the layout. I’ve already determined that there is enough of a gap between the side of the layout and the drawer that I an have a small, 3D printed enclosure holding most of the wiring in place.

The one other problem I still need to figure out is powering the layout. I originally thought about including a PC power supply somewhere inside the layout. The advantage of this design is I get the voltage I want, and it’s clean DC to boot, and all that’s required is a short power cord that can be quickly removed when transporting the layout. However, lately I’ve been thinking of having a battery-powered option. This would allow the layout to be operated even if away from any usable outlet. With enough battery capacity, that would eliminate the need to pack power cords. to every train show.

But at home the battery power option is unnecessary. Residential homes generally require an outlet every 12 feet with a minimum of one outlet per wall in a bedroom. That means this layout will never be more than a few feet from a powered outlet while in an apartment or house. On this issue I remain uncertain of which solution to pursue.

Finishing Touches

At this point, my bench work is 90% complete. The only cutting I have left to do is making the openings and access holes for the trains and wiring. That will be done once I know what my track plan will be and what power solutions I’ll go with. Once those holes are drilled, I can go ahead with some final sanding and then move on to painting the bench work. I want to have several thin layers of paint forming a protective boundary along with a topcoat that prevents nicks and scratches.

Other things I still want to include are adjustable feet pads so the layout can be leveled at train shows, handles to aid in carrying the layout, and a dust cover on top of the layout that also blocks out the LED illumination that will eventually be installed. This dust cover has to be removable so that I can see what the trains are doing while at an exhibition, and so that I can maintain or fix the scenery and structures.

Moving Forward

At this point I’ve got us up to speed on the progress made so far with the Little Creek Mine project. My motive power, a little 0-4-0 porter, will be arriving at some point early next week, and once I have that I can start designing a track plan. I may also 3D print a rough draft of a wagon or two so that I can get an idea of how much space each siding and spur will require, plus to make sure that any holes I drill will have sufficient clearance.

After that, the next step will be preparing the benchwork and doing those finishing touches I described above.

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