Beneath It All – Building Model Train Tables

Everything has to start somewhere, and when it comes to Model Trains the base upon which our worlds are built is normally a table of some kind. But standard tables often have some serious drawbacks – you can’t access the center of your layout, there are no holes for feeding through power cables and wiring, your wife will complain when she has no place to serve dinner – there’s always something! So the answer is simple right? Just build your own table and be done with it, but how exactly do you go about that?

The easiest solution is to purchase or make two sawhorses and throw a sheet of plywood across it. This has the advantages of being cheap, easy to do, and is quick. If you need to dress it up a bit a staple gun and some cloth can make a quick apron … the only real disadvantage is that its not as stable as a ‘real’ table even if you screw the plywood down to the sawhorses, and doesn’t look as professional as a finished edge real-legged table custom built for your scenario would.

Intrigued? I thought you would be! After all anyone who builds whole worlds in miniature should be able to handle a simple project like a table, right? Tables are basic structures – four or more legs, bracing mechanisms and a top. Table legs can be purchased in pretty much any size from your local home supply store or online in either wood or steel varieties. Common heights are about 28″ but you can customize this as you see fit to meet your needs. Add a few cross braces and a top and you’re there!

Start by picking the shape of the table you want, rectangular, round or square are common choices but you are limited only by your imagination.

Next decide how large you want it to be and what style of legs you want on it. Styles include the following with the simplest being the ’square’ farm style and the most robust the trestle:

  • Cabriole
  • Farm
  • Flared
  • Taper
  • Trestle
  • Turned

Next you will need an apron – this not only helps to ‘finish’ the underside edge of the table, but provides a mounting point and cross bracing to the legs. Some tables include a drawer in the apron which is useful if you want to keep supplies and parts near at hand but that can really complicate the woodworking necessary so unless you are an expert I’d hold off on that.

After all these decisions and picking up the supplies it’s just a matter of cutting things out and nailing or preferably screwing things together. Judicial use of wood glue will make for a MUCH stronger table by the way, and is highly recommended as is the use of squares and clamps to ensure a plumb and level table.

Another even easier solution is to purchase a used table from a garage sale or consignment store and cut or drill holes as needed to meet your needs. Often for the price of materials you can obtain a quality table in this manner that just needs a coat of paint or some light sanding to make it as good as new again. And since you’re going to want people to focus on your model train and not the table its setting on anyway what’s the difference, right? Or is that what you said when I first started off?

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

fred h May 24, 2007 at 12:18 pm

where can i find specs on how to biuld an ho model railroad modulal

Dan August 19, 2007 at 12:06 pm

i used a pool table and put plywodd on top of that

Dave September 12, 2007 at 12:40 am

I was lucky enough to get a pool table base for the table and have just been given the cork from a double dartboard base 8 by 4, almost unused.

Joy October 1, 2008 at 3:05 am

I have a Tomy Thomas & Friends battery operated railroad set it has 161 pieces with dimensions of 61″x81″. My 2yr old grandson is in love with it. We unwitting put it together on the basement floor, which is carpeted,but after a few months realize we need to move it to vacuumn and clean. Any suggestions on what to mount this on for a small kid and how do we store it. It takes some time to put together so any suggestions would be helpful.

Joe Wieckoski October 1, 2008 at 11:59 pm

I was lucky and had advice in the beginning. I took two (2) thrown out inside hollow doors. Cut them to size braced them together and then glued foam sheets (from Lowes, Home depot) One on either side. Make sure you use the caulking gun tube made for foam because any other kind will melt the foam. Cut molding and you are there.Oh yeah saw horses that are resting on some type of braces are the best for legs.

Joe W

barry October 5, 2008 at 5:23 pm

I am not particularly handy with tools, but my 14 year-old son and I want to take a stab at building a train table. We have a fairly large room in which we plan to place the set up, and we are contemplating a “L” shaped table, with room on all sides to walk around. Very ambitious. Any suggestions or ideas are appreciated.

Terry November 1, 2008 at 7:30 pm

My husband is using almost the entire basement..How can he build this train table on tiers. He is tearing the old one down and starting over. OMG..This is going to be the project for 2009. He is a cement finisher and this will be the entire winter project. I would like it half the basement and the other half a rec room finished.

Roger December 8, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Another option is the metal framework of an old school cafeteria table. It offers a sturdy, well proportioned base and mounting the plywood (or use of the original top) is simple. You also have the advantage of folding/locking legs if storage or relocation of your layout is needed.

Cole Parsons December 31, 2008 at 6:31 pm

It is a very smart idea! The tresle is the coolest part of it. I just love hearing train whistles blow.

Maureen January 4, 2009 at 3:14 am

Any suggestions for a place to buy a train table (for a reasonable price)? My son needs a large table, but not as large as a ping pong table, as he has n-scale tracks and trains.

bob January 9, 2009 at 9:33 pm

i used 8 bed frames and put plywood on those

Dave January 19, 2009 at 4:36 pm

I used wall mounted shelving with shelves 16″ wide. Then I used 24″ wide sections of MDF board and left it to be supported by the 16″ shelves. I am fastening the MDF to the shelves near the wall. This method leaves no legs to come down to the floor and open space to get underneath for wiring. Next I will fasten extruded foam board to the MDF, then proceed with the actual railroad.

Bob C. February 16, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Its a lot of hard work and a lot of fun to>>>>>>>>>

JOHN O GERLACH April 6, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Remodling a house and putting a bid package together including train room.

Ceiling electrical and lighting requirments are undetermined at this point. Need to write a spec to get bids.

Want to simulate daylight ,dusk,daWN and night.
Need to first know how bright is daylight and from 40″ from the ceiling to the table. What type of lights to use…flourscent,led, incandecent,halogen. Then what power for how many?

Would like a lower profile lamp as ceiling height is only 7.5 and have to put sky scrapers on a 51″ table. Also, prefer cooler running lights.

Your opinions are very much welcomed as the house project is on hold until this gets resolved.

anthony October 13, 2009 at 11:10 am

iv just recently stated to put things together for my model rail way but haven’t had the money to start it up yet but i was wondering what the best gauge would be to use

Bob November 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Being knew at these hobbie,i am going to go with the folding legs you can get at your hardware store.So if i choose to put it away for awhile i can and then come back to it later:}

ho December 1, 2009 at 4:27 pm

you should give out plans for trains

kirk c, January 12, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Ive got a picnic table but i need to make it sturdy,
and level and about 43 in or more
to view the trains better,

Edward, January 14, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Im using a picnik table of about 4×8,
and then put 4 inch stringers on the sides,
and then five 4×2’s crossway’s underneath to make it stiff,
Lining the 2×4’s with the stringer’s and then doing 4×4 leg’s in the corner’s against the skirt’s,
with screws not nails as nails will pull out over time,
and then you get flexing,
ill put another board on top of the table where the slits in the picnik table are so Itll be flat,& smooth,

Joe Steele January 26, 2010 at 8:26 pm

was thinking about using a daybed frame to hold my plywood. nice and sturdy all the way around.

Bob (Philippines) February 20, 2010 at 9:33 pm

I am building ho layout in room 15ftx11ft. I will be using 13 wooden brackets made from 4×1inch wood with 2×1 braces on either side. They will be 2ft6inches long and will be screwed to the concrete walls. on top I will use 1/2 inch marine plywood 3ft wide on all sides of the room. In this way there will be no legs in the way at all and I can `duck under ` to operate trains in centre of room. As I have not started yet ,if there is anyone out there who has tried this way and had a problem I would be pleased to receive there advice. Thanks. Bob

Larry Pries February 25, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Where can I find specs to build an S guage size table?

John August 14, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Some modelers use Homosote attached to a plywood table as a base for track layout and for scenic development. Some use extruded polystyrene (pink) for that purpose. What other materials might be used? What are pros and cons?

Ernst Relker August 27, 2010 at 10:54 am

If you made your own customize table fixed to the wall I would advise you to built a special removable part (80 cm x 80 cm)in the middle. If you have to (re)built a part in the back side of far away from the table side you just get under the table, remove your part (be wise when you decorate it) and you are in the middle of the table to work easy. Many times it happened to me that while renovating a small part at the back of the table (my table is stuck in the corner of my model train room) I demolished more by reaching the area as the original damage. I prefer to built a mountain or industrial area on my removable part. Glue all parts very well on the board and mark on the underside which side come where.
Hope this is helpful for new builders with (huge) table who are fixed to walls.

Blake Nielsen March 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Helpful information – thank-you!

Rob March 7, 2011 at 1:25 am

I use an old ping pong table for my train table which is perfect for my needs. First of all, i’m in a wheelchair and a ping pong table is a good heighth for working on and operating the layout. Also the table folds up for easy storeage and is on casters so its easy to move around. Finally the surface is the perfect size for my layout as the the playing surface of a standard ping pong table is 9″ x 5″ (yah I’m American lol) So if your building a layout from a wheelchair, an old ping pong table is perfect. Hope that helps.

Len October 23, 2011 at 3:58 am

I have very limited space so I use a small folding table to work on. The layout I’m building is a portable tabletop (24″ x 27″) layout in N scale. I used Styrofoam for a base because it was easily molded with a simple foam knife attachment for a soldering iron. Making a mountain scene allows for a great deal of detail in that small space. Scratch building structures is what got me started so that’s the focus of the layout. It doesn’t take a lot of room or a huge budget to enjoy the hobby.

Archie December 1, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Having the railroad suspended above the pool table on wires which allow it to be lowered by an electric winch would have several advantages.
No space required for layout storage.
Stock could stay on the track between sessions.
The layout could be winched up within a dust protecting housing.

The concept would need to take into account lighting but these could be mounted on the dust housing to give good lighting for the layout and the pool table.

Electric winches are surprisingly cheap, c£50. Much simpler than hand winches which require brakes or ratchets, ratchets risk dropping with a bang!

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