Every great model railway layout begins with proper planning, and a big part of proper planning is figuring out which materials you use to build your layout moving forward.
Not all that long ago there were only a two or three “perfect base materials” available to pick and choose from.
Today, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are a myriad of options that offer different pros and cons, options you’ll have to research before moving forward, and options that will influence the type of model railway you’re able to build as well.
Below we highlight some of the best lightweight model railway baseboards hobbyists and enthusiasts are using right now. In general 12mm Plywood is considered the best and most widely used choice. Hopefully you’ll be able to use the information in this quick guide to find the right material for your layout, too!
While the temptation will be there to start with the tabletop material for your model railway base, you need to consider the whole construction of the layout, will it be free standing, permanent to one location, or need to be able to set up and take down and space and travel demands.
It is often a better idea to first start with the leg material instead. These legs, after all, are going to provide the stability for your layout. If they are lightweight, shaky, or made from poor construction materials your entire layout is at risk.
If they are heavy duty, made from quality materials, and intelligently selected you have nothing to worry about.
Most hobbyists and model railway engineers choose to use square planed timber (known as PSE, Planed Square Edge Timber) cut to size. 44 mm x 21 mm legs provide plenty of stability with a well-designed support plan although you can go for a full 44 mm x 44mm for maximum strength. You can find these readily available in DIY centers such as B&Q and Wickes here in the UK, however experience shows that the quick grown pine for sale in these centers is often badly warped in one direction and can be quite expensive. It is worth a trip to your local timber merchant, (They are all over the country, and you often wont realize how close your nearest is until you go looking). Builders won’t buy wonky wood so it tends to be straighter and often cheaper too.
The underlying framework for your model railway layout base is another big piece of the puzzle you’ll want to get right.
PSE works well as a building material for your framework. It’s easy to work with, relatively lightweight, but also happens tremendous strength properties when under load.
Think about how your framework will be laid out on your model railway before you start buying materials, though. You want a frame that is strong and solid but one that doesn’t weigh more than your washing machine.
Use enough framework material to get the job done right and no more.
There may not be a singular choice for the best lightweight model railway baseboards for tabletops.
You could ask 100 model railway enthusiasts what their favorite tabletop material is and get a dozen or more different answers. Some people love to use marine or birch plywood, others like to use Sundela materials, and others still choose MDF or chipboard to act as the base for their railway layout.
Plywood is maybe the most popular choice, in large part because it is so easy to find as well as so affordable. It definitely doesn’t hurt that plywood is easy to work with, too. Plywood also has a natural resistance to moisture and damp and doesn’t expand and contract with temperature changes. A thickness of 9 or 12 mm is usually plenty strong enough for most people’s needs without adding too much weight.
Sundella is made from recycled paper and is incredibly lightweight. It’s also easier to work with than plywood, even.
This material is a little bit on the flimsy side, though – particularly if it gets damp or wet. It’s usually best reserved to be used as a topping material placed on plywood, to sort of smooth things out. It’s available from builder’s merchants nationwide such as Travis Perkins, Jewson and International Timber.
MDF and chipboard are very inexpensive alternatives to plywood and not widely recommended for a couple of reasons. Very susceptible to moisture and humidity changes, both of these materials are difficult to work with, are not “clean finished”, and do not have the longevity other materials will. Put your tea down on the board whilst building and you’ll have a water ring for life.
The only thing model railway enthusiasts agree on when it comes to perfect base materials for tops is that the material should be between 9 mm and 12 mm thick. This thickness provides plenty of strength and stability while remaining easy to work with and lightweight enough to move your model railway layout should the need arise.
At the end of the day, your budget and your layout needs will largely determine what ends up being the best lightweight model railway baseboards material for you specifically.