Table top or island layouts

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Usually the first choice of beginners is the table top. If you are a beginner and are not sure of answers to several questions such as era, prototype, region, and many others, but still would like to start something, this might be the choice for you.

Table Top Layout Construction is typically a 4x8 table top made out of such material as 3/4" Plywood, foam core, Styrofoam, and others. It is supported by an array of different structures including sawbucks, 2x4 legs, to even sturdy cardboard boxes (to support the lighter weight boards, not plywood).

Articles of 4x8 Railroads :

Here is just but a sample of articles of layouts built on 4x8 areas.

  • Easy for Beginners by Jim Kelly, Model Railroader, in several parts
    • January 1991, pp.117-120
    • February 1991, pp. 120-122
    • March 1991, pp. 110-113
    • April 1991, pp. 68-71
    • May 1991, pp. 100-103
    • June 1991, pp. 78-81
    • July 1991, pp. 108-109 (Art Curren)
    • August 1991, pp. 77-79 (Gordon Odegard)
    • September 1991, pp. 74-76
    • October 1991, pp. 89-97
    • November 1991, pp. 98-102
    • December 1991, pp. 124-127
    • January 1992, pp. 124-129
    • February 1992, pp. 92-93
    • March 1992, pp. 86-87
    • April 1992, pp. 89-91
    • May 1992, pp. 104-106
    • June 1992, pp. 66-67
    • July 1992, pp. 106-108
    • August 1992, pp. 104-105
    • September 1992, pp. 74-77
    • October 1992, pp. 85-87
    • November 1992, pp. 128-131

  • The Denver Central, Jim Kelly, Model Railroader, July 1991, pp. 68-69

  • The HO Scale Columbus Junction RR, Jim Hediger, Model Railroader, Aug. 1992, pp. 72-73

  • The HO Scale Petite Pines Northern, Rick Selby, Model Railroader, August 1992, pp. 78-81

  • Building the Berkshire Division, Lou Sassi, Model Railroader, December 1992, pp. 94-101

  • The Peppermint Central, Jim Hediger, Model Railroader, December 1992, pp. 130-131

  • Buzzard's Cove, Jim Kelly, Model Railroader, December 1992, pp. 132-133

  • The N Scale Mohawk Division, Lou Sassi, Model Railroader, December 1993, pp. 86-95

  • The Soo's Red Wind Division, Pete Wicklund, Model Railroader, December 1994, pp. 88-97

  • The Silver City Central, Jim Kelly, Model Railroader, December 1994, pp. 120-122

  • We Build the Alkali Central, Jim Kelly, M. Railroader, Dec. 95, pp. 100-105, Jan. 96, pp. 90-95

  • Build the N Scale Carolina Central, Marty McGuirk, Model Railroader, in two parts
    • December 1996, pp. 92-99,
    • January 1997, pp. 88-95

  • The HO Scale Madison Central, Jim Hediger, Model Railroader, July 1997, pp. 84-86

  • Union Terminal Ry. In HO Scale, Don Mitchell, Model Railroader, October 1997, pp. 91-93



As you can see, in the articles, construction is very simple and quick. No complicated cuts or support structures are needed. This is important if your goal is to get something started rapidly, without too much thought in the beginning. You can use the time you save to better plan your future layouts.

Finish Quickly and Start Operating The Railroad Quickly

Because it is simple and easy to build, you can begin Operation in a short amount of time once you begin construction. A BIG plus to keep "Railpox" alive and well! Although no Railroad is every finish, you can spend more time detailing the area versus modeling a 100' x 100' warehouse size layout.

Simple Wiring

Since there is only 32 sq. ft. of space, you do not need to worry about running miles of wire.

Adjustable Height With Ease

You could make the table separate from the support structure (i.e., legs) giving you the option of changing height as you desire.



Traditional Table Top Layouts limit you to 32 sq. ft. not very much space for scenery, structures, and other details, ESPECIALLY for HO or larger scales.

Limits To Selection of Scale

Anything larger than HO becomes impractical. You could fit a great deal in N scale, but then run into the problem of modeling a smaller scale. With those who have difficulty already handling small objects, this becomes a bigger problem.

Eats Up Valuable Floor Space

You need Aisle space around the entire layout to reach every part of it. Placing your Empire in the middle of the room eliminates, or at a minimum, reduces what you can use the room for other than a Railroad room

Tight Radii

The Maximum Radius (for HO Scale) is 22". Not great unless you are running short equipment for smaller scales is not too much of a problem.

"She's coming around the mountain!"

Your track plan is usually relegated to the going around in a circle. After a while, your enthusiasm will dissipate and those reruns of Battlestar Gallactica will start to seem more appealing than your Railroad.


For the beginning novice Model Railroader, a Table Top Style might be a logical choice. It is simple, easy to build, and small enough to finish in a short amount of time. It would be a good first Project, teaching you the skills you will need in your future empires.


An Island Style would be considered an expansion of the Table Top Style. The layout could be of any size and use any construction methods. Although it offers some advantages, there are still similar disadvantages to the Table Top Style.

Layout & Construction Details

  • A Railfan's look at the M&K Division of the B&O, Don Cassler, Model Railroader, June 1990, pp. 60-68

  • The Rio Grande's Hart Lake Division , Ken Sasso, Model Railroader, December 1994, pp. 78-81

  • Introducing the Wisconsin Central in N Scale, Marc Van Cleven, Model Railroader, in several parts
    • July 1997, pp. 56-63
    • August 1997, pp. 62-67
    • September 1997, pp. 66-71
    • October 1997, pp. 78-83
    • November 1997, pp. 82-87
    • December 1997, pp. 112-115
    • January 1998, pp. 112-118
    • February 1998, pp. 103-109
    • March 1998, pp. 80-85

  • Build the HO Scale Northwest Timber Co., Lionel Strang, Model Railroader, Dec. 1997, pp. 82-89, January 1998, pp. 86-93


Independent of Room

With an Island Layout there is no need to have any exposed walls or ceiling joists. The layout can be build in an already "finished" room

No Duck-Unders

The fact it is an Island, there would be no Duck-unders for your operators to crawl under.

Railroad Can Run as a Continuous Loop

With an Island, you can design your "Mainline" to be connected at both "ends" to facilitate a continuous run for such cases as Open Houses.


Self Supporting Benchwork Needed

Although this is an advantage, it also can be considered a disadvantage. Reasons for this include a lack of a "structure" to secure the benchwork to, such as exposed wall joists. Also, you will have to build a separate partition for any backdrops you wish to add to the layout.

Radius Still Smaller vs. Other Non-Island Layout Styles

Because you need aisle space around the entire layout, your maximum radius is less, compared to if you built, for example an Around The Walls Layout.

Access Hatches Needed

Depending on how deep the benchwork is, most likely an access hatch will be needed in areas more than 3 feet from the aisle. If you have trackwork in this area, Murphy will be sure to visit you often there.


The Island Layout Style offers unique advantages. For a "Beginners" Layout it might be a logical first step. If offers you the opportunity to practice several Model Railroading skills, including Benchwork Construction, Track Laying, Wiring (including the tedious task of SOLDERING!), Planting Scenery, Building Structures, Detailing, and even Operating!! Though limited in what it can offer initially, rather than building nothing, even an Island Layout is at a minimum a positive solution to solving the question: What style of layout do I wish to build?

About this content:
Original author: Ken Leaver, Jr. Last revised on 3/11/98.
This LDSIG article is ©1998 by Ken Leaver, Jr. (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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