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How to build floating shelf benchwork for a model railroad

By | September 4, 2018

These shelves neatly frame a model train layout without any visible supports

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Without any legs, brackets, or other visible means of support, floating benchwork keeps all attention focused on the model railroad. Follow along as author Lance Mindheim shows how to build these lightweight, yet sturdy shelves.
Lance designed his benchwork for a 16″ shelf width. Use as many benchwork segments (shown above) as needed to match your track plan.
Layout presentation is important to me, as I work on my HO scale Los Angeles Junction shelf layout. Neat and clean benchwork enhances the experience of viewing and operating a model railroad. The benchwork and the space around the layout are like the frame around a painting. I especially want the benchwork to look good when the layout is in a shared space, such as a home office.

At the local hardware store I noticed various floating shelf designs. Because there are no visible brackets, this shelf support system is sleek and uncluttered.

The challenge was that the commercially available floating shelves were at most 8″ wide. I would need a 16″ width for my benchwork. Making the shelves wider would also make them heavier, especially along the front edge. This added weight would cause the shelf system to pull away from the wall.

For a wider shelf to work, the backing plate against the wall had to be harder than the soft pine typically used for layout benchwork. The soft wood could work free from the mounting bolts. I also needed to minimize the shelf’s weight, while making it rigid enough to resist warping.

After some experimenting, I found a combination of materials that’s lightweight, stable, and visually clean. My floating shelf benchwork consists of a poplar backing plate, select pine outriggers, an extruded-foam benchwork top, and wood lattice fascia. Follow along as I describe how to build this sturdy and professional-looking shelf layout benchwork.

Materials list

1⁄4″ x 11⁄4″ washers
1⁄4″ x 21⁄2″ lattice
1⁄4″ x 3″ lag bolts
1 x 3 pine
1 x 3 poplar
1″ panel board nails
2″ extruded-foam insulation board
3″ drywall screws
Foam-safe adhesive caulk

Lance made the outriggers from select pine 1 x 3s, cut to 16″ lengths to match the width needed for his layout. He used a Forstner bit to drill 11⁄2″ holes in the end of each outrigger to reduce its weight. Lance hasn’t tested lengths longer than 16″. Keep in mind that the added weight of wider shelves may make this design unstable.
Lance located the studs behind the wall in his train room. These studs are on 16″ centers. After drilling pilot holes, he then drove a 1⁄4″ x 3″ lag bolt through the poplar backing plate into each stud. He made sure the plate was level before driving the bolts. Before mounting the plate, Lance attached the outriggers with 3″ drywall screws as shown in the illustration. Wood screws would also work well to attach the outriggers to the backing plate.
It’s important to use a harder wood, such as poplar or maple, for the backing plate. This makes it less likely that the lag bolts will loosen and cause the shelf to pull away from the wall. Lance located the bolts near the top of the plate to further resist the downward pull of the finished shelf’s weight. The large 1 1⁄4″ washers keep the bolts from digging into the backing plate by spreading out the lag bolt’s load.
Lance checked to make sure each outrigger was level. To fix an outrigger that isn’t level, loosen the adjacent lag bolt, then drive a wedge between the wall and backing plate and retighten the bolt. If the outrigger is ascending, place the wedge at the top of the plate. If the outrigger is sagging, place the wedge at the bottom.
For the benchwork top, Lance cut 2″ thick extruded-foam insulation board to fit between the outriggers. He cut the foam so friction alone would hold it in place. After test-fitting the foam, he removed it and applied a bead of DAP adhesive caulk on the inside surfaces of the outriggers and backing plate. He then pressed the foam in place, making sure it was flush with the top edges of the base plate and outriggers. The photo on the right shows the foam in place.
To give the benchwork a finished appearance and add some extra rigidity, Lance searched for a fascia material that was both strong and lightweight. He found his solution with 1⁄4″ x 2 1⁄2″ wood lattice molding. Found in most home centers, lattice is usually available in 8-foot lengths. He attached the lattice to the 1 x 3s with 1″ panel nails. It’s a good idea to drill pilot holes in the lattice to avoid splitting the thin wood.

13 thoughts on “How to build floating shelf benchwork for a model railroad

  1. Hi Morgan,
    You can see Lance’s track plan by clicking on the HO scale Los Angeles Junction under Related Articles above. His layout is also featured in Great Model Railroads 2019.
    Thanks for reading,

    Dana Kawala
    Senior editor
    Model Railroader magazine

  2. Very nice. And very interesting. Can you show track plan? And any additional info? Is the final fascia necessary, or just for visual? If you don’t use a fascia, could the brackets be less than the full width of the shelf? Example: a 12″ shelf with 10″ brackets? Aluminum brackets? Just curious of what else can be done? Options are nice. A lot depends on what materials are available to the individual and where they live. Just curious. And thanks for this very illustrative article.

  3. Lance saves the day! Despite the fact I have a small compact basement I still plan to run my LGB D&RGW passenger cars in the room. A disadvantage of living in this apartment is that I have no access to the great outdoors to construct a garden railway. (Apologies to Marc Horovitz, LOL) Lance’s concept is the answer I’ve been looking for!

    Item: I’d like to be able to view the entire contents of GMR 2019 on the website. Not all railroads modeled are lncluded.

  4. Great idea and article. I would suggest one change. Screwing into end grain in inherently weak. Instead, I would attach the outriggers with pocket hole screws from the outrigger to the backing plate.

  5. I built my benchwork 2′ deep and in some places more in the fashion described. No legs on my entire layout 45′ main line plus staging area. maximum span 14′. used steel studs and a crimper for assembly, but screwed to the wall(s). have NO sag at any point. All open beneath for access to wiring, etc. and my roll around desk chair. Love it!

  6. I achieved about the same thing by using a “French Cleat” design. I built 18″ X 48″ boxes out of 1″X4″ popular, topped it with 3/8″ plywood, then sheet foam board. The layout is “U” shaped along 3 walls. It’s very stable, level, and does not slope or move.

  7. I think if T-braces were used on the top of the backing plate to outrigger joint it would be possible to make shelves that could extend further than 16″. Also, if you want to have a more uniform surface for the layout, one might cut rabbets in the foam so that it sits more on top of the backer board and out riggers. If you don’t have access to a table saw or router, you could set a 1″ insulation board plug in the opening and then glue a 1″ board on top for an even more continuous surface. Not having checked it out, you would need to make sure that the glued 1″ to 1″ board would be as stiff as the 2″ solid board.

    Great idea, it would work for me in a “dream” expansion of my layout.

  8. Wiring during or after construction? Surface mount or between layers of foam? Dcc or radio control?

  9. Thanks. I want to build a wall mount HO lay out in my living room and now I know how to mount it to the walls and not take up any floor space. Thanks again.

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