Ever since I was a young kid, back when my older brother enjoyed having me share a room with him so he could hit me with his pillow in the middle of the night, I have always been a model railroad fanatic. Unfortunately, most of the places where I lived we did not have room for a train table. Now that decades have passed and I live in a house large enough for a train table once again, I am once again able to enjoy the pleasure and sweet pain of planning and building a railroad layout.
A few years ago I made my first attempt at reliving my childhood by building a simple 4′ x 8′ standard train table with two parallel loops for my HO-scaled trains to travel around. Built out of simply plywood painted green, with 4′ tall table legs (built tall enough to allow storage underneath), I never found the time or patience to actually sit down and work on the layout. With the curse of real life and work taking over most of my free time and mental energy, the table quickly became a place to stack items on and collect dust. A year later, the table was broken down and stored in the garage, becoming the home of spiders and bees rather than my childhood memories.
Last year, the model railroading bug bit me once again. Work was becoming stressful, winter was setting in, and my sister informed me that my nieces and nephew were becoming interested in modeling. Living in a new home with more than enough space in the basement, the time was right to dust off the old table and try modeling once again. After deciding to place the train table in the basement, I separated the 4′ x 8′ table into two 2′ x 8′ tables, liking them together with two 3′ x 6′ tables to create a large 8′ x 10′ table, with a cut-out in the middle for a person to stand in and access all parts of the table.
Now with the size of the table determined, I began taking measurements and laying out how many loops I wanted and what type of “zones” I wanted. The first zone I wanted to create was a mountain scene. Being that mountains are naturally the largest structure on a train table, I located it in the back of the table layout to be a backdrop for the other zones to be built later. This mountain served a duel purpose by blocking out the vapor barrier covering the wall insulation (since I was too lazy to design a separate backdrop to cover it up).
In order to make the scene seem more realistic, I planned to raise the track high enough to create a bridge to allow another train to travel under it. This required a stable platform within the mountain so I could have a train traveling through an enclosed raised tunnel. It was time to go shopping.There was some plywood remaining that I could have used for the mountain platform, but I was a bit concerned about weight and the tacking down of the track once the base of the mountain was completed. I decided that using modeling foam board was the better choice, since it also allowed me to easily shape the platform without the use of a saw. While driving over the nearest Staples store (hey, I own their stock, so they’re getting my business), I passed by a new furniture store . . . and they were throwing out tons of Styrofoam packing used to protect their products. GOLD MINE!!! Putting my pride aside, I hopped into the dumpster and started searching for large solid pieces of Styrofoam. Many pieces I pulled out were of similar size and shape as well as density, so I knew the material would good stock for the mountain.
I laid the foundation of the mountain out on top of the foam board, allowing me to move the mountain around easily without destabilizing the structure. After getting the right height, I began to cut and shape Styrofoam into a rough design before laying down the next layer of foam board. With the next level down, I dug up some flexible track pieces which I have kept in storage and started playing with the curve. I needed a curve which was not too sharp yet allowed enough room for the rail cars to clear the mountain walls. With a few practice bends, I traced out a rough curve and sprayed down some tacky glue. Next I placed down the track bedding, smoothing out the curve while preparing the mountain to receive the track. Since track nails are designed to go through the bedding and into the table, I sprayed glue on top of the bedding to help secure the track while the nails were simply pushed into the bedding to keep the track steady while the glue dried.
With the track in place, the mountain and tunnel walls were the next stage. Splitting and cutting Styrofoam at various angles and gluing them in place, the mountain walls went up fairly quickly. Placing one last piece of foam board down, creating the roof of the tunnel, I was able to complete the top of the mountain. I left some flat areas on top of the mountain for a possible structure or two once completed, but I also added a few scraps of Styrofoam to create an irregular top for a more realistic look. Once all the glue had dried, I used pre-plastered cloth strips (available at your local Michaels Arts/Craft store) and water to cover up the Styrofoam and create texture on the mountain. Laying the strips from the top down in one-foot strips, I was able to completely cover the Styrofoam while adding the little “ripples” into the mountain for the added details which would not have been capable with Styrofoam alone. This process took a few hours in order to allow the plaster to set-up properly and dry out.
The last step was to paint and decorate the mountain. At first I used small bottles of modeling paint to design the mountain. However, the plaster strips were absorbing the paint too quickly, so I decided to buy a few cans of spray paint to lay down a base color instead. Green paint was used on the top of the mountain, since grass and trees will be added later. Brown paint was used on the slopes, since brown grass and dirt will be applied, along with various rocks and boulders. A special faux “stone” paint (available at Home Depot) was used to create rock slides, interior tunnel walls, and raised graded rail beds for a more realistic look. This stone paint costs twice as much as regular spray paint, but the color and texture it provided more than made up for the additional costs. Using your classic brown and green “grass,” I sprinkled the mixture on the mountain and along its base (both pretreated with the spray glue) to create added texture and realism. For the rock slide and raised track bed, I used crushed gravel to create a realistic look of actual rock.
Once the mountain was moved into its permanent place, I screwed the foam board foundation to the table top, ensuring the mountain will not shift after the trains travel through it. This also allowed me to create my bridge and know that the tolerances were not going to change over time. Using 1/4″ diameter wooden dowels to simulate large logs, I laid down two parallel dowels between the main mountain and a smaller sub-mountain, spanning over a simulated cut-out in the mountain side (also painted with the faux stone). Cutting a “log” template, I began to cut over 40 logs to lie across the two parallel dowels to create the bridge. Using super glue to secure each log, I was able to make the bridge in two nights. Once the bridge was in place, I realized that the bridge was too high when compared to the rail bed, so I cut small slots into the mountains plaster and Styrofoam to fit the bridge in better. With the bridge in place, the track was nailed down and guide rails went up. Attaching a long raised rail bed on the far side of the table, and a secondary smaller bridge and Styrofoam hill in the foreground, the mountain (and two outer loops of track) was completed.
After two months of working on the table, real-life once again snuck up on me, causing me to put the project to the side for future endeavors. I do get a chance to run my train engines around from time to time, but no significant work has been done in the past few months. Hopefully with the winter setting in once again, I get can get to work on it soon enough. More updates to come, so keep checking back. If you have any questions or wish to share your train stories, please feel free to do so below in the comments section.