Shelf layout construction

Discussion in 'FAQs' started by pgandw, Mar 28, 2006.

  1. pgandw

    pgandw Active Member

    I started this thread because of the "hijacking" of a thread in the HO section on locomotive lighting by Farnham and myself. I don't see a better category to put this under.

    Farnham was interested in my experiences with shelf layouts as he some BIG plans for one. I have built 3 table or on-the-floor island-style layout frames in the past. Each has had at least 2 different layouts mounted on it. Details of my saga are explained in more detail on the Yahoo Layout Construction forum.

    I am planning my next layout rather than building because I anticipate moving this summer. Here is a copy of the pertinent parts of the post from Layout Construction Group I mentioned:

    "Layout #4: In planning - 2 18" deep shelf layout sections in HO and
    HOn3 joined together in an L. Want to use integrated book shelf
    style where baseboard, backdrop, and overhead bookshelf with lighting
    underneath are one integral unit. Capability to add storage shelves
    underneath. Must have cover for dust control and preventing eye-sore
    during construction phase. Must look good enough to install in
    living spaces or bedroom.

    Foreseeable problems not yet resolved:

    - Walls are seldom true enough for 8 ft long section of metal track
    and bracket system. Need system to adjust shelf brackets in
    y and z dimensions, and hold brackets rigid in x dimension.
    Adjustment system must be independent of layout frame for easy moving.

    - In some houses (like present one), wall mounting is impractical.
    Need to design attractive leg support system that minimizes intrusion
    into layout, provides adequate support for books on bookshelf on top
    of layout, and will be stable with less than an 18" width.

    - Steep grades mean good vertical transitions are essential. I have
    read many reports of difficulty carving these into foam and achieving
    desired results. Am considering cookie cutter 1/4" plywood for
    subroadbed to get good grade transistions without much effort. 1/4"
    plywood needs more support than 16" centers. Will 1/2" ply bend
    sufficiently? What about 1/4" ply reinforced with 1/2" or 1" foam?
    Or just figure out a way to properly carve the foam into a good

    - Will shelf bracket mounting be strong nad stable enough to support downward
    pressure of hand spiking rail into Homasote on top of subroadbed without movement?

    - How to arrange easy access to wiring, turnout throws (manual or
    electric), and uncoupling magnet mechanisms, yet keep underside of
    layout looking reasonable?

    - Only practical way is for cover to hinge up against items on upper
    bookshelf. Need stops and retaining mechanism to hold cover in place
    while cover is up. Inside of cover must be attractively
    finished/decorated for when cover is up and using layout.

    - How to arrange controls so they are flush or recessed into fascia?"

    Thoughts since posting the above a week ago:

    I bought the 2006 Model Railroad Planning issue yesterday. Iain Rice's article on expandable model railroads hit home with me. It reinforced my plan to separate the wall or leg supporting framework from the layout frame for mobility (I have never lived in one house more than 7 years, and the second longest was 5 years. 1-4 years has been common.)

    Also, realized I may want to have the shelves 24" wide to fit my plans for a turntable.

    If I use solid foam, I will have to place foam on top of a 4" minimum height frame to give room for under the foam stuff such as turnout throw mechanisms and wiring. This height will also give room for a waffle-style fascia to keep controls and electrical jacks from protruding into the aisle space. If I use riser construction, I still probably should allow a 4" minimum height of the riser above bottom of the layout frame.

    I welcome any thoughts and suggestions.
  2. abutt

    abutt Member

    Your project hits home. My wife and I are contemplating a "scale-down" move to a smaller (all on one floor!) house. The layout I have now is an around the wall, "shelf" layout, free-standing...and thank God I went that direction. My previous layouts were kind of like John Allen's -- well built in! And had to be left... the new owners being convinced they might want to get into the hobby!

    The present layout is 2' wide and in four sections: three eight-foot sections and one ten- foot section. The "tables" or shelves are framed up out of 1x6s and form horizontal boxes if you will. They all sit on framed leg structures. All the sections are plated together with dry wall screws. They will unscrew, the layout scenery and track will be cut at the various departure points, and the sections moved out the basemnet hatch for the new location.

    Hopefully the new basement will allow the sections to be placed in a straight line and I will build units to arrange a layout in a long line rather than around the wall. The new one will be point to point with a behind the scenes staging area.

    I thought the layout I have now was going to be the last, but I don't think so. "Boys and their Toys" will continue until my last breath.

  3. MasonJar

    MasonJar It's not rocket surgery

    Sectional benchwork (8-footers from your information below) is good for “movability”, but having the entire unit integrated from floor to ceiling might be difficult, unless you build it with some sort of allowance for “knock-down”.

    Take a look for the thread by Gary S on his round the walls shelf, and also look through the Modular Forum - especially the resource thread at the top (see link in my signature). We discussed several methods of adjusting the shelf brackets, but in the end, a slight bend and a bit of shimming during installation was all that was required (and was infinitely more practical).

    I think you would be better off hanging the bookshelves from the wall, separate from the layout shelf. If that is truly not practical, then what about integrating the layout shelf into a tall bookcase carcass (at the back) and supporting the front edge of the layout shelf with a short bookcase/cupboard underneath. The result would look like a lower case “h” from the side... if you follow me...

    Can you do without the grades? The modular club I work with does not allow grades on the main, but will allow the scenery to go below or above the line. This can be very effective...

    If grades are required, I agree that cookie cutter with plywood is a very easy way to get the vertical transitions you require. ½" ply will bend quite easily. I don’t know for sure, but 1/4" ply with ½" extruded (blue or pink) foam will probably work well. You should bond them together in the desired curve, as they likely will not bend if glued together when flat!

    Your other option here is to use the Woodland Scenics foam grades & risers on top of your foam benchwork. (A cheaper solution would be to create a template for cutting your own.)

    I would say this depends on the bracket system you choose. Many of the heavy duty systems support 500 lbs or more if properly anchored, so I would guess it is a safe bet - although I do not know how much force is required for hand spiking.

    If you are building in sections in such a way that you can install a section after it is partly or completely finished, then this may not be an issue.

    Are you actually going to see the underside? This is really just a question of thinking about the routing of your wiring, etc, and keeping it neat, and tight against the underside of the subroadbed (i.e. foam or whatever you end up with). You can either route it closely, or bundle somewhat looser wires into a cable management system of some sort. I have seen very effective cable/wire holders bent from coat hangers.

    If the cover is to be a permanent fixture, then one thought that comes to mind is to paint your backdrop on the inside of the cover. That way it will be visible when it is open, and will actually add to the layout. I would use 1/4"+ paint grade ply to provide a smooth surface for painting. Alternately, you could use luaun (door skin) laminated with 1/8" masonite for a smooth surface.

    I saw a neat little trick in Sept 2001 MR (I think). The mini-DPDT switches to control the Tortoise switch machines were recessed inside 2" PVC pipe end caps that were set into the facia.

    The RJ-12 jacks we use for the throttles at the club are also set into the facia by routing out an appropriate sized rectangle.

    Again, as the size gets bigger, and the requirement for portability increases, I would recommend separate installations of benchwork/legs/shelf brackets, the layout sections, and the upper bookcases. Or at the very least allow for knock-down construction.

    Our specs at the modular club call for a frame 4" to 4 ½" high (this allows for use of nominal 1x5 without cutting). We recess the 2" foam inside this frame. There is still plenty of room for wiring, Tortoises, etc under the layout without it showing. The frame itself becomes the facia - no extra material is required.

    I hope that helps!

  4. jetrock

    jetrock Member

    I would recommend looking at furniture stores for a line of bookshelves of approximately the height you desire. By mounting modules onto a bookshelf of appropriate depth, you can have free-standing layout structures that do not need to be mounted to a wall and provide lots of storage space underneath. Mounting hardware need not be more than a few bolts through the tops of the bookshelves. If you don't want bookshelves all the way around, shorter units could be used as "legs" to go between the ends of long shelf layout segments.

    I designed my own shelf layout to sit on an open-framed shelf I built along a wall, but it can be removed and set onto a free-standing table or other piece of furniture for easy relocation.
  5. pgandw

    pgandw Active Member

    Farnham wrote:

    How's this: Forget about moving the controller while the train is running-- trains will
    clearly have to stop at stations, sidings, etc. What I don't like is the idea of children
    running around with 110 volt power packs, plugging them in and taking them out-- what
    about a 12 VDC supply line going to two or more connectors, and only the regulating part
    of the power pack being used? That would be good enough for us I think. 
    As to posts and cleats, why are they called cleats? I think I also heard lintels and risers. I 
    am thinking, could some or all of my sections be built with open work, without a flat sheet 
    of plywood? Or all of them? But then would the sections be heavier and harder to remove 
    or carry? Also materials would probably cost more. Would it be better with open work only 
    on sections where bridges/ over- or underpasses were planned? 
    And now I'm thinking in any case an eight-foot-by-nine-inches piece of 3/8" plywood could 
    get, uh, floppy! Oh yeah I get it-- there will always be something else on each section to 
    support the backdrop . . . 
    BTW, two auto stores were without a clue about connectors for RVs. This could be 
    because of New York City where the hardware/ automotive industry is very very 
    competitive and profit-driven, not a reflection on yr advice-- also a shortage of RVs. I am 
    concerned about the connectors being replaceable. Do you know the names of any 
    suppliers/ hardware sites? Best wishes, still dreaming of trains, 
    Stopped in my favorite LHS in San Diego (Reed's) to occupy my evening on the road. Saw an MRC Controlmaster 20 there. Controlmaster 20 has a base station, and comes with a handheld throttle with a memory built-in to allow unplugging and plugging in. Handheld even features momentum and braking, and base station allows pre-setting some things like starting and top voltages. Sounds like it's just the ticket for your situation.

    Risers and cleats are the terms I have seen in Westcott's books and articles on benchwork. A riser is typically a 1x2 or similar, serving as a vertical post. A riser is mounted to a joist, which is a vertically mounted piece of wood linked to the main girders supporting the layout. Typically girders run parallel to the longest dimension of the layout, and joists are placed across or between the girders - not necessarily at right angles to the girders. A cleat is typically a piece of 1x1 placed horizontally along the top edge of a riser to give something besides the end grain of the riser for the plywood subroadbed to be mounted to. The other purpose for cleats is that by using multiple screws in both cleat and riser, the plywood can be bent into the desired alignment across the track - superelevated or flat. For more information, I strongly suggest reading/obtaining one of the Kalmbach books on benchwork construction.

    Most recommend 1/2" or thicker plywood for subroadbed, supported at around 16" -24" intervals. Thinner plywood will require supports be spaced much more closely to avoid sag between supports.

    As for what to use for wire connections between layout sections, either contact an online RV parts supplier, or use one of the modular layout standards for your connections. Most modular groups can tell you a source of supply for the connections system they use.

    More thoughts on what Andrew said later about my plans - have to catch up on work after the road trip.
  6. MasonJar

    MasonJar It's not rocket surgery


    There are several options for walk around control with DC, and they all involve the basic principle you stated. One well know system is the one Fred mentions above.

    On cleats - one other advantage they provide is the ability to screw down the subroadbed from below. This might come in handy if you ever need to adjust anything after the top is all covered with roadbed, track, ballast, scenery, etc, etc.

    On connectors - at our local modular club ( we use the flat 2- and 4-pin trailer plugs.

  7. abutt

    abutt Member

    Havre been using the Controlmaster 20 for 12 years on my walkaround layout. Telephone wiring and jacks at four positions for moving around where the action is. Hasn't failed me yet!

  8. farnham

    farnham New Member

    All the best . . .

    Thanks a lot guys! And I'm glad to see this discussion on a more appropriate forum. (BTW, why are there two sets of login boxes on the pages--or is it my browser? Does one do something different than the other?) Just a few comments before I pass out:

    My shelf where I'm thinking right now will be no more than nine inches wide, with drop-leaf turnarund sections at both ends that will attach to the opposite wall when open. You will have to crawl under them to get through the hall when they are open. The turnaround sections will move as the layout grows, allowing operation during construction. That's another reason to use connectors! Eventually the line can break through the wall into the front parlor where there will be a wider shelf.

    I envision removing the sections with wall brackets attached, either to work on them or swap them. If they go somewhere else, anchors or screws will have to be set in the wall there.

    One advantage is the shelf will not have to be living-room grade or whatever Wayne (was it Wayne?) called it. I envision just throwing a cloth over it to protect it from dust. The hallway is 34-37" wide and more than 50' long. We can't figure out why they built apartments that way, but there it is! Having lived here almost 40 years I don't envision moving, but I like the idea that the sections will have to be built more carefully and thoroughly to allow for connectors and matching of scenery, etc. Also for moving furniture through the hall!

    Because the shelf is so narrow, it will need backdrop boards and/or 1x2 stiffeners to allow it to be carried. I was thinking of using 3/8" plywood but you are dissuading me of that already!

    Thanks for the tips about the MRC system-- I hope it doesn't cost too much. I think we should have other throttles for local operations-- these will be for switcher engines and hopefully won't need momentum, cruise control, etc. though speed limitation would be nice. The MRC system still uses isolated track blocks I hope?

    BTW, I hope to use TrainClown's papier mache method for scenery, unless someone can dissuade me . . .

    What confounds me now is how to get such narrow scenery to conform with the backdrop/ background (the whole wall may be painted if it looks good), and whether to build it as a flat board or use openwork construction which may be much heavier and probably somewhat more expensive. I also want to start with hand laid rail just because I've never done it.

    But most of all I think I have to order some material and just start building something, anything at this point. This is only about my second railroad and the first was more than thirty years ago. How I could have denied myself working on model trains for so long is a mystery!! :cool:

    everlasting farnham
  9. MasonJar

    MasonJar It's not rocket surgery


    That is a really narrow shelf! But since it is so small, a 4-foot section with a backdrop attached (1/8" masonite, or thick styrene) should still be relatively light... :)

    I would recommend you look at foam-based scenery as one of your options.

  10. pgandw

    pgandw Active Member

    My original concept for a shelf layout was based on a 2 part series in January and February 1977 called "Bookshelf Layouts" by Robert Lutz. (You can purchase articles from back issues from Kalmbach Publishing). Using pre-fab book shelves, metal single-slot shelf brackets, and vertical track mounts, he had designed a shelf sectional layout system hanging on the track mounts.

    Above the layout was the pre-finished bookshelf, which served as a structural member and place to hang the lighting. The shelf was fully functional as a shelf for books or other displays. The layout itself was suspended from the metal shelf brackets with C-shaped 3/4" plywood frames. A backdrop was installed across the inside of the C frames at the back. Lutz suggested somehwat open construction of the layout, using the C frames as joists for risers, and attaching a cleat across the backdrop and using the front rail as supports for plaster shell scenery.

    Pluses of the design from what I could see:
    • relatively easy to build using readily available components
    • 4ft sections would be manageable in both size and weight
    • enough of a furniture finish/appeal that the Mrs would allow it on the living room walls
    That last is a critical item to me. I will never be allowed to disappear from the family for hours into a basement model railroad. But she is quite happy to display some of my models on shelves in the living areas and/or bedrooms. I saw this concept as an opportunity to take the display a step further and get my working layout as a wall-mounted display.

    My first track plan was a pretty close copy of the Gum Stump & Snowshoe, in HOn3, but expanded out to 18" x 8ft, thereby reducing amount of "retaining wall scenery", reducing grades down to 5-6%, and lengthening tail tracks to 20" which would often permit 3 car trains in HOn3 (depending on engine length). The track plan broke nicely at the 4ft point with only 3 tracks crossing the joint.

    I put this out for comments on the forums, and learned a lot, both on my own and from the forums.
    • From somebody who had built sections from the Lutz design, I found out the sections were quite heavy and awkward becuase of their 3 D shape. It was a 2 person job to hang or remove the sections from the wall tracks (you have to line up 3-4 brackets into their tracks simultaneously). And the readily available pre-finished shelves had no structural strength (simulated wood finish over particle board) and were heavy. I would get around the bookshelf weight and strength issue by constructing my own plywood over foam core shelf - very similar to a hollow door but with a 1" extruded foam core.
    • I realized that the bookshelf on top was effectively the same as a double-deck layout. It presented a lighting requirement - blocked light from above - but this was not all bad. Adequate height of the shelf above the layout (with good lighting!) would be critical to reach/lean in to see to hand-lay my track. Would putting the layout at the height I wanted and then having adequate clearance put the bookshelf too high to be of any practical use?
    • I realized the Mrs was not going to tolerate an under-construction bookshelf layout in the living room for weeks/months on end. A nicely finshed cover would have to be added from the get go or my real estate rights would be rescinded. The cover would have the added advantage of preventing the layout's use as a temporary storage for kids' toys, drink glasses, or other non-train items.
    • The wall I was planning on using is real plaster on lath - I would not be able to install the metal track on that wall. So I had to design a free-standing frame to mount the shelf tracks on.
    • As I was figuring out how to overcome these challenges, I found out I am most likely moving in May. And that will probably not be my last move.
    I have seen pictures of quite a few shelf layouts built with the new double slot bracket and track systems. There are quite a few advantages to ditching my integrated all-in-one bookshelf design based on studying these layouts. The layout can be built modular-style (I'm partial to framed foam construction), including the ability to box 2 modules face-to-face with carry plates for moving. Individual modules/sections are manageable by one person - especially when only 4ft long. Vertical clearance to the bookshelf is no longer an issue - I can set it high during construction, and move it lower afterwards. The layout can easily be converted back and forth from wall hanging to legs, or simply set on a suitable table, since it doesn't have to support the bookshelf. Each layout section would have 3 separate components - 1) layout baseboard, track, and scenery; 2) backdrop which would mount to wall tracks or risers from the layout baseboard; 3) bookshelf "roof" which would mount on its own brackets, lighting could still be mounted to underside of the bookshelf.

    The biggest drawback/question I see to the non-integrated approach is the appearance issue. I think I could overcome most of that by burying the shelf brackets within the depth of the "box" of both the layout and the bookshelf. The same with wiring and any other connections.

    Since storage of components would be much easier, it might be do away with the need for a cover - at least in the beginning. In the long run, the cover might be desirable for dust control and prevention of cup and toy placement.

    Ideas and suggestions are always welcome to help my thinking evolve.

    yours in planning
  11. pgandw

    pgandw Active Member


    To answer your wiring questions: the MRC Controlmaster 20 -although it has many refinements - is still at heart a conventional DC throttle. You would wire it up just like any DC cab or throttle using dual cab control. The only extra wiring would be that necessary to provide additional walk-around throttle plug-ins.

    I personally find hand laying track to very soothing and rewarding. Others think it's either boring or frustrating. The reality is that I can hand lay 4ft of track or a turnout from bare roadbed to wired, painted, ballasted complete track in two 2 hour sessions. And I'm not a fast or skilled worker at all. The result will look and operate better than all but the most meticulous flex track and prefab turnouts because it flows, and joints between track sections are not visible. If you are willing to spend the extra time, you can surpass the best flex track with Proto87 tie plates, more spikes, and other details. But you should choose your track based on your preferences, not mine. If you are going to handlay track, I strongly recommend you used Homasote for your roadbed - on top of plywood or foam. Neither cork nor foam roadbed holds spikes well enough; most plywood is hard enough to curl your spikes. Homasote also works well with manufactured track too. Most flex track users prefer cork roadbed due to ease of use and cost. Homasote cannot be used without a subroadbed or baseboard; it will sag between supports over time.

    As far as baseboard for a 9" shelf goes - 1/2" plywood supported at 16" intervals lengthwise with no other supports is sufficient. Just add 1x1 sections as needed on the back bottom edge to mount your backdrop supports to. Or use 2" foam - again no other support needed besides the shelf brackets at 16" intervals. I would glue 1/4" plywood pads to the foam where it sits on the shelf brackets to prevent indentations. Glue 1x1 sections on as needed for backdrop supports.

    Sounds like your plan is coming together pretty well!

    yours in planning
  12. farnham

    farnham New Member

    Plannin' on the Railroad.


    Thanks as usual. What annoys me about flex track-- though if made of fiber the ties are marvelously impervious to soldering (though not warping !)-- is that the track never really bends, it is just constrained by the tie strip. So you are always overcurving and compensating it both in curvature and length of tracks. It's nice on straight sections but forget about curves. I'm sure there are ways to get around these obstacles such as sliding the track through the retaining clips, but the idea of individual rails, pre-bent to the curvature they will go into, is something I definitely want to experience for better or for worse. Suggestions and efforts to dissuade me of my delusions are always welcome.

    :wave: . . Also, would my 16-17" minimum radius constrain, say, Athearn passenger cars?

    :wave: . . Also, can you say off-hand what would be minimum, moderate, and steep HO grades?

    :wave: . . And Umm, how much this MRC Controlmaster 20 would cost?

    Still plannin', . . announce1

  13. pgandw

    pgandw Active Member


    Flex track is no longer made with fiber ties. There are 2 kinds of flex track made today, both with plastic ties, and in a variety of rail sizes. Atlas is the most common brand, among the cheapest, and the newer code 83 doesn't look bad. The Atlas (and its clones) have quite a bit of "spring" in them. If you bend Atlas track to a curve, and release it, it will straighten itself out. This tends to make for smooth curves, but you have to solder the ends that occur on curves while the track is straight to avoid kinks at the joints.

    Micro Engineering (ME) flex track is the most detailed and realistic, is made in code 83, 70, 55, and maybe even 40. It does not "spring"; in fact it is quite stiff. The best way to curve ME and similar flex track is to build or buy a radius gauge. Ribbon Rail sells radius gauges that fit between the rails in a variety of sizes. Or, like me, you can cut the desired curve in a piece of plywood (I cut to the inside of the tie line) or hardboard, and use that to bend the ME track around.

    Central Valley tie strips are another very realistic option. And of course, handlaid track is my preferred option. If you are going to hand-lay track around curves sharper than 24" radius, I strongly recommend a rail bender. The rail bender will keep your curves consistent, and if you cut off the ends that aren't bent, kink-free joints on curves.

    Google is a good way to research some of these items.

    I don't know what an MRC Controlmaster 20 costs; check eBay, on-line stores, and hobby shops.

    I would not run Athearn or any passenger car more than 50 scale feet long (about 7") on less than 18" radius curves. 16-17" radius curves in HO are going to constrict what you can run significantly. Anything more than 7" (50 scale feet) is going to take research, quite likely some testing, and possible modification to get around those curves.

    hope this helps
  14. abutt

    abutt Member

    Built my present layout and the one before entirely with flex track. I made templets for various radii as guides. Best thing about flex track is making easments in and out of curves is easy. I used code 83 from Shinnohara (sp?) as well as their turnouts.

    I think I paid around $160 for the complete Controlmaster 20. Probably get for less on Ebay.

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