A starter model rail layout you can build for under $500 – By Ben Kauer

A starter layout you can build for under $500– By Ben Kaur

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1: While the author does not indicate a prototype or region for his track plan, this simple but very believable scene could be replicated on this layout if we assume
a Milwaukee Road prototype. The bare-bones layout presented here can grow with more locos, rolling stock, and scenic details to easily replicate scenes like
this one.







When I started in this hobby, I had nothing in terms of tools. While it would be nice to imagine the average person already owning a table saw, or a sander, or a power drill, I will assume not even the simplest of implements. Everything called for in the design keeps to the budget of $500. I further assume regular pricing without any special sales, discounts or other consumer boosters in effect.  I assume that, all told, the cost of shipping and/or taxes runs roughly 10% of the bill, thus reducing our “real” budget from $500 to $450 before picking up a single piece of track. To establish spending benchmarks, I assume everybody has a Home Depot or an Ace Hardware in their neighborhood. Lowes, or True Value, or your favorite local stores are suitable substitutes.

The space

I start by finding a place to have my railroad. In my life, I have identified a quiet, containable, confined space where I could indeed build a layout. My particular room is roughly 11 feet
square, with three doors and a window. Its primary purpose is for sleeping, but otherwise, it does not see much use.
Let us consider how we use our space. We could build an island layout in the center of a room, but we’d rob the room of any other functions it may have, and we’d have to consider investing in benchwork and legs strong enough to support perhaps 50 pounds per square foot. A layout around the walls would keep the room free for its primary purpose, accommodate the necessary load, and it requires only a minimal support structure.
This approach has the bonus that the finished layout lends itself to a modular format.

Preparing the room

The windows are the easiest issue to address. Ultraviolet (UV) light is the single most damaging element on earth. It irreversibly bleaches and leaches materials at a molecular
level upon contact, decimating whatever resale your models might have had in a matter of months or even weeks. Hence, it should be avoided in the train room at all costs, even if it is just a temporary layout.
You can either box or fill the window, depending on the design of your curtain/blind assembly. Because I work the night shift, my window is already covered with a piece of sheet foam against the glass and a blackout curtain sandwiching the blinds against the inside of the foam. In the past, I have gone so far as to use sheet foam to simply box out the window with the curtains and blinds in place. This negates the need for a storage space to save them for when the room needs to be restored to its original configuration.
The layout is then unimpeded by the window. Doors are a bigger problem because we cannot block them so easily. A point to point layout nulls out the issue altogether,
but I fully believe it’s simply more enjoyable to watch trains move, regardless of operational scheme (or the lack thereof).
The longer your track is, the longer you can enjoy continuous movement. A continuous loop thus enables a train to run for an infinite length of time and distance, hence, it is the most
advantageous setup.
To accomplish this arrangement, we could utilize turnback loops or duckunders, and as an amendment to duckunders, removable bridges. Turnback loops require an amount of depth
into the room equivalent to twice your minimum radius. I want as broad a mainline curve radius as possible, so loops are undesirable.
Hence, the three doors will be managed by using two long, removable bridges.

The premise

My goal then is a shelf system consisting of 12″ shelf brackets, 12″ deep shelves and 2″ Styrofoam at roughly 60″ elevation, the height of my tallest furniture piece, in an arrangement that
encircles the room. The long span that is the window will require a reinforcing beam set perpendicular and under the shelf, or it will ultimately sag. The bridges themselves will be 2″ Styrofoam, with reinforcing layers affixed together with toothpicks and laminated with white glue either above or below the base piece. A single piece of 2″ foam will show considerable deflection, but as foam is built up in layers, it stiffens quite well.


2: Room and benchwork view from above in SketchUp.

The plan

I used the free program SketchUp to plan out the benchwork placement in my room.


Building the infrastructure


My first tool purchase way back when was the Ryobi 5-in-1 battery-operated set, and having had that experience, I recommend buying tools with power cords. So I bought a
corded Ryobi power drill ($39.99, Home Depot prices). You may need to pick up a drill bit index ($19.99) or a masonry bit as well, but in my case I have drywall and I was able to use brass screws to make pilot holes.
The second expenditure is fasteners: a box of 2″ brass screws ($7.50, HD) and a box of 50 wall anchors ($11.69). I’d add a stud finder with deep penetration and electrical detection
($19.99) to guard against driving screws into power lines.  Otherwise, my pilot holes were made by first driving a pilot screw into the wall and then inserting a wall anchor only if I
didn’t happen to find a stud. This work was entirely accomplished with my drill, the Phillips apex bit, and a 16″ tape measure ($8.48).
For shelving I selected 12″x14″ metal shelving brackets for $2.99 each at Ace Hardware. I ultimately needed 17. Make shelving from a sheet of 4′x 8′ sheet of plywood ($25.64) if
your store will cut it down into 12″ strips by whatever length you need to make it around the room. You may have to add a 2′x4′ handy panel ($5.98). One of my 6-foot shelves has to span
the window, so I used a 1×3 to reinforce it ($2.99) and a hand saw with miter box ($7.96) to cut it. The handsaw will indeed cut the plywood, and while it may be a bear to do it this way,
the savings is in the sweat equity!
We need a base underneath our railroad so we can model scenery that is below grade. While many will swear by only blue or pink fine-grain foam, I figure if white coarse-grain bead
board is good enough for Woodland Scenics, it’s good enough for me. Having used it more than once before, it’s no better or worse a material than any other.

The shelves are 12″ wide, but with 2″ foam we could extend this width up to perhaps 24″. I personally would not go much past 20″ or even 16”. In the shallow areas, my system will allow
for a 2″ base, while in the deeper parts, I have as much as 6″ of depth below grade. My “bridges” across the doorways will consist of a foam 2×6 with a reinforcing foam 2×4 beam placed vertically either below or above, depending on what my track arrangement will allow.

At minimum, expect to use one 4′x8′ sheet ($16.98) , two 2″x4″x72″foam boards ($2.98), and two 2″x6″x72″ foam boards ($3.98). I also purchased a razor knife with snap-off
blade ($9.97). I use it as a long knife, being very careful to not snap off the blade while using it. At this point we have established a base in our room; the foundation
for our layout is complete!
After purchases in table 1, the remaining railroad budget is $247.00 At this point we have $247 remaining in our railroad budget to cover trains, track and a power system. This is a bit slim, but we can make it work. It should be noted that up to this point my system so far gives no scale; you can still pick any scale you wish at the track planning stage. As we put together the operational plant, I shall do my best to consider as many options as possible.  If you wish, you could stop now and take your $247 and purchase any favorable train set and use the set track to build a crude point to point setup on this wall system, or perhaps remove the track from the layout and set the loop up on the floor to operate a continuous running train now and then. This is far less than ideal, of course, versus the “real” railroad we’re, pursuing, so we’ll move forward with another plan altogether.