Designing layout in sections for moving

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In many cases it is desirable to spend many years building a high-quality model railroad, yet this desirable goal conflicts with the highly-mobile lifestyles of many model railroaders. This conflict can be reduced by designing a layout to be movable.

There are several factors that should be considered when designing a layout to be movable. Those factors, discussed in the following sections, include strength, weight, and size.


Strength of layout materials

Obviously, when a layout is moved it is exposed to different types of stresses than when it is in normal use. A layout section in normal use would be subjected to gravitational forces and bumps from layout viewers while the same section in transit may be placed on its side or even upside down. This means that all layout elements (scenery, trackwork, wiring, etc.) must be firmly attached to the benchwork.

The benchwork for a movable layout must be designed to be fairly rigid when subjected to twisting forces. It is easy to image how a layout section could be abused during a move causing it to be twisted or racked. Such abuses would be devastating to most scenery and would almost certainly destroy trackwork. A rigid framework is needed to avoid this problem and the author feels that a grid-style benchwork frame with diagonal bracing works well for this purpose.


While it is important to design a layout section to be strong, it is also important to consider weight. While this goal tends to conflict with the previous goal of strong, rigid benchwork, a light-weight layout section is possible. One method of achieving both goals is to use rigid foam boards inconjunction with a grid-style framework. A light-weight, grid frame filled with rigid foam produces a very strong, yet light, layout section. Another possibility involves using a slightly heavier grid framework with a light, somewhat flexible scenery material.


Movable layout sections must be designed to fit through openings and around common household obstacles such as staircases with corners. It is important to note that a movable layout section has 3 dimensions - it is a common error to build scenery to a height which makes passage through a common door impossible.

Transporting the layout section

A simple, protective framework constructed around a movable module will allow modules to be stacked and will protect trackwork and scenery. The framework need not be elaborate, a simple 1x4 frame attached to the benchwork with wood screws will provide support and will be easily removed at the destination.

In addition to a supportive framework, a cardboard or plywood box may be constructed to cover the layout section while in transit. This should be considered if the layout is moved a long distance or if the mover may not appreciate the importance of careful handling.

Disassembly and assembly

There are a few design issues to consider which will make the assembly and disassembly of a layout easier. The primary factor to consider when deciding how movable a layout needs to be is to determine how often you expect to move it. A layout that will be moved once or twice in one's lifetime need not be as convenient to move as a layout which will be taken to shows on a regular basis.

The first ease-of-assembly design issue to consider is electrical connections. One can use the appropriate connectors between layout sections to make moving the layout quite simple, however, if the layout will be moved rarely one could consider just running wires over sectional boundaries and simply cutting the wires when the layout is moved. It's a matter of considering the convenience and costs associated with each approach.

Another issue which affects assembly ease is the design of leg assemblies. A layout which is moved frequently may have elaborate leg assemblies which fold into the benchwork. This would be convenient but would add unnecessary cost if the layout is moved rarely. Low-cost options include leg assemblies which bolt together or simply thrown away when the layout is moved.


Certain styles of benchwork provide strong, rigid support required when a layout is movable. A grid-style design with diagonal bracing provides such a rigid design. The use of foam boards can allow a lighter benchwork and provide a rigid base for scenery.

The choice of materials is often affected by the expected frequency of moves. A layout that will be moved once or twice need not be designed for quick assembly and disassembly, while a layout that is frequently moved should have convenience features to assist assembly and disassembly.

About this content:
Original author: Mike Davison. Last revised in 1996.
This LDSIG article is ©1996 by Mike Davison (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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