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I know, it is a true newb question, from a newb. But I am going to get started building, And I am going to get some materials tomorrow. I need to know at what height is optimum. Is it more of a subjective issue? I'm 6'2", but most people aren't tall, and I don't mind it being at less than say 48", maybe more in the 42" range. It will be only 1 level for main ops and a staging yard underneath (not for show). The highest track elevation will be in the 4.5" range.

Along with this, I still am totally unsure as to what to make the top out of. The price of 1" extruded foam board is only a couple bucks less than 15/32 plywood. Is there an advantage of laminating foam to plywood, other than sound deadening? I plan on using WS foam roadbed. Being as I won't have alot of elevation change, will I be better off using just plywood and doing it in the cookie cutter style. If so what thickness plywood is best suited? Sorry for all the questions, but I need answers, and I know where to get them ;)

Any advice is greatly appreciated.



WYSIWYG Photographer
I would say build the base of your layout at a height that is comfortable to work on (ie 4 feet).

This way here, you minimize how much bending over you do when you work on it and it also gives you a fair bit of clearance underneath to work on your electrical.

With regards to the base, there was an excellent article on MR's site a while back on using steel studs to build the frame.

Hopefully this link will work



Diesel Detail Freak
I'd say 48" works, My dad wanted to go with 36" but I showed him, with a yardstick, how low that was, so we're going between 42" & 48" for his layout, mine however will probly vary from 40" to about 60"... When I can build!


Lazy Daydreamer
Even at my stubby 5'10", I built at 48" because, at that height, it's easier for me to view my model trains from a railfan's perspective rather than a chopper pilot's. Then when I started spending a lot of time underneath on the wiring, I really appreciated the extra clearance. Bending/crouching once or twice in an hour wouldn't bother me, but 20-30 times gets old really fast!


Coal Shoveler
Chest high is a pretty good start point. Gives you the ability to reach in without really leaning over the layout.

I would recommend that the top of the layout be above where your gut would be. You don't want it to mash trees as you lean in. You want it to mash into the fascia....



Checking in at 6' I am building 48" to 53". Seems to be just about right for me to work on. There are not a lot of large grades on the layout, the tallest one is about 1 1/2", so much for modeling in Wisconsin! It all comes down to what will be comfortable for you.


Modeling SP in the 1980s
Years ago, the Layout Design Special Interest Group did a survey of layout owners, many of them well known (like Allen McClelland of the V&O fame) and asked them what their layout height was, and if they were to rebuild, would they go higher, lower, or the same?

The layouts were in the 40" - 50" height range, and all the owners said if they were to rebuild, they would build higher, like in the 50" - 60" range.

The thing is, the trains just look better when they are closer to eye level. The only caveat is to make sure the yard and switching areas are low enough you can see over things like buildings and trees.

I'm 6'-3" and I find I prefer yards and switching areas to be in the 50" - 54" range, although going as high as 58" works, it's not ideal. One helpful trick with higher benchwork is you can make it narrower at it will still look good. This lets you fit more layout into the room! In some cases, HO benchwork as narrow as 6-12" still looks good with scenery on it if it's close to 60" off the floor.

Adjust accordingly for your own height.


I am 5' 9" and built my lower level at 52". As already mentioned, I wanted a more personal view rather than a helicopter "eye in the sky" view. Everything looks much more real with it at this higher level and does not create a problem with me doing work toward the inside. The height also has an added benefit when you have to do your wiring and etc. under the bench.

I used plywood for my bench tops instead of the foam. My benchwork style is an open grid with 16" centers for the support joist. This allows good support for 1/2" BC grade plywood. I personally believe the 3/4" is overkill and much harder to work with (not to mention cost). The flat areas, i.e. yards are covered with one large cut of plywood while the mainlines' sub-roadbed use cut-to-match strips over the joists.

I would like to recommend that you purchase Kalmbach's book on benchwork. Here is a link There are a lot of good ideas for planning and building your benchwork in this book and it has plenty of pictures to go by.

This is a section of my layout using the methods I mentioned. By cutting the subroad bed to follow the track, you can now vary the depth of your scenery for gullys, ponds, creeks, and etc.


I'm a few inches shy of 6 feet, and I definitely prefer the track to be over 50 inches off the ground. The lowest point on my layout is 54 inches, and happens to be the only yard. Since I model ore operations, there isn't much finding individual cars in a yard and switching things around. (There also aren't any structures in the way). The highest point is a little over 60 inches, or about chin level for me. I've found the higher level to be easier to work on, as well as look better. There's no stooping to check the track alignment or run wires under the benchwork. Plus, any necessary duck-unders become nod-unders.

If you are planning a lot of wide areas (around 2 feet or greater) with substantial switching, then you'd want to build a little lower. If most of the layout will be narrow shelves with little switching, build higher. If there will be children, build lower (but don't sacrifice the backs of tall operators for the possibility that a child will come over someday). If there will be a lot of large scenery (mountains, big industry, etc) build high -- the higher level makes large things look larger.

Try getting a smallish piece of plywood, and legs for it. Try setting it up at different heights, and put some trains and buildings on it. Move it up and down and see how you like different heights. But leave it at each height for a few days: what you think is too high one day may end up growing on you.


Thanks again guys. I think 48" height will be a good compromise for me. I like to look down upon my "empire". But everybody has valid points regarding perspective. If all else fails, I'll pull in an adjustable chair and view it that way when it's running.



Modeling SP in the 1980s
phatpony said:
Thanks again guys. I think 48" height will be a good compromise for me. I like to look down upon my "empire". But everybody has valid points regarding perspective. If all else fails, I'll pull in an adjustable chair and view it that way when it's running.


That's fine, but make sure you mock it up at various heights for a few days each just to make sure. A lot easier to change your mind now than after you build it only to find out you would rather it be a different height.

I did several height mockups on my Siskiyou Line before settling on the final height of the benchwork. And boy am I glad I did, since I'm still delighted with the height some 15 years into the layout now. Would hate to have regrets all because I got in too big a hurry to test out a few things first.

Unless you like tearing things out and rebuilding them, that is. ;)


House Mother, Cheerleader
For any layout over four feet, I recommend some sturdy but lightweight crates or stools nearby for visiting kidlets to stand on.

And since someone mentioned How-To books, be sure to hit the Forum's Railroad Bookstore for those. There's a link at the top of every forum page. (No, I don't get a commission. :))


Registered Member
Staff member
Hi All! well to be a little different (I have to be different) I don't have a certain height from the floor.
Well the floor is not even and it can vary over an inch high or low in other places. In short I needed a reference level, and the floor wasn't it.
I started out with benchwork legs of 36" and adjusters attached to the bottoms. the adjusters are 1/2" bolts. I built the peninsula first and spread out from it and around the walls keeping the top of the benchwork level, (reference) all around. The sub roadbed was then mounted on risers attached to the benchwork to acheive the heights I wanted, they being 40" at the lower staging loops climbing to 45.5" midway around the room. From there it rises to the top level at 52.5 ". The upper staging loops are below this probably at about 47"
I'm 5' 11" and the 52.5 " is barely acceptable as far as I'm concerned. Now there will be two major points of interest the sawmill and the harbour, both at 33.5" and I'll be able to look down on those along with the yard and stations at 45.5"
I feel comfortable with the varying heights, they are right for me, however each person should determine what's best for themselves, or in the case where there will be more that one operator, then some compromises should be made in consideration of all who will be regulars to the layout. Get or build some steps for the children, because they do grow up fast :D
Anyway that's the way I did mine.


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