The HO Scale Model Train – Benchwork and Track Planning Tips For Great Layouts

By Mike E. Foster

The popularity of the HO scale model train is in large part due to its ideal blend of size and detail. Besides the detail provided by the model trains themselves, modelers pride themselves in their quality track planning and benchwork.

The preparation and design of the track layout itself is referred to as track planning. The underlying structure beneath the track is called the benchwork. Attention to both concepts contributes to a successful HO scale model train layout.

So why do model railroad modelers emphasize their track planning and benchwork? Many model railroad hobbyists enjoy the operations side of model trains. They choose to focus on recreating the actual operations of a railroad.

Other railroaders take pride in the quality and creativity of their train layouts. And for many, the layout reflects on the skill and enthusiasm of the hobbyist. It’s a measure of the railroader.

Benchwork: The Foundation

Given the standard 4 foot by 8 foot rectangular size of plywood, this size is often becomes a starting point for the model railroad foundation. But consider variations on this popular size. For example, many HO scale model train modelers choose 30 inch by 60 inch sections screwed together.

The sections may be combined in a variety of ways, including along the perimeter of a room. By building benchwork for model trains in sectionals, you obtain flexibility in moving or modifying the track layout. Not only does this size sectional fits through standard sized doorways, but it makes it easier for you to reach across the sectional. A trick to add realism and convenience is to mount your benchwork shoulder or chest high.

As for the material, seasoned wood or plywood is less likely to warp or bend. Avoid difficult or heavy materials such as Oriented-Stranded Board (OSB), homasote, or particle board. Consider a coat of paint for protection.

If you want a variety of elevations in your layout, consider installing sections of benchwork at different levels. However track grades should be kept under 3% grade, where the grade is the rise over the run. For example, a 2″ rise over a 100″ run is a 2% grade.

Track Planning: The Layout

101 Track Plans for Model RailroadersThe goal with model railroad track planning is the successful tradeoff between space and realism. An additional factor to consider is a table layout versus a wrap-around layout. The wrap-around layout allows for long straight sections and wide curves. Or consider double high layouts for space efficiency.

Always design before permanently attaching track. This is particularly important if your plan has little room for error. You may choose to position a track yard near the front of the benchwork, allowing closer viewing and easier access. Determine your preference between track and realism. You can do more with a lot of track, but you lose some of the realism. Don’t forget to allow space in front and back for scenery.

Track planning is about making your priorities and choosing tradeoffs based on your preferences. You may choose several turnouts, to include various types of passing, siding, facing-point, and stub-ends. Placing a stub-end close to the edge of a section or table makes it easier to park or move equipment, as you’ll likely prefer to store extra equipment on close shelves.

You’ll likely want to have at least one track segment that allows for non-stop operation. Of course actual railroads don’t run in a loop, but running a train non-stop is a great feature. But for a realistic layout, combine features such as loops with point-to-point sidings.

These tips should help with your own track planning and benchwork. Successful advance planning will help you identify your priorities and design to those preferences. And you’ll be better able to manage the tradeoff between realism and detail. No doubt, your up-front planning will result in more HO scale model train layout success.

Mike Foster is a model train enthusiast and enjoys helping others learn about this fascinating hobby. For more on the HO scale model train scale, visit his website: If you want even more information, subscribe to the free 10-part model trains email course at no cost.Article Source:
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I am a complete model railroading novice, and I’ve started this website to share what I learn with others who are also new to the hobby and want to learn about it. I invite you to sign up for my newsletter and get the free report: 7 Model Train Mistakes To Avoid.


  1. gwendolyn drake says:

    do you have any tips on how to transport an HO train layout platform with all of the buildings and scenery in place? Any suggestions??? Thanks! my email is– thanks! Gwen

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