Dan Becker's Model Trains - Building an N Scale Table

tabletop construction
Table top construction
Welcome to my first article about a newly rediscovered hobby - model trains. When I was younger I had HO scale trains. I enjoyed them very much, but I always remembered the large space that the trains required. At least my parents had a nice big finished basement, and there always seemed plenty of room for one more hobby.

These days, I don't have as much room for hobbies, so in order to give model trains a try I need to use N (1/160 scale) or Z (1/220 scale) scale trains. N scale has much higher availability and lower cost than Z scale, so I decided to go with that. Additionally, I wanted to buy something somewhat prepackaged to help speed up the layout, so I decided on implementing the Woodland Scenics Scenic Ridge layout.

After deciding on this layout, the first thing I needed to do was build or buy a sturdy 3 foot by 6 foot (0.9 m by 1.8 m) table. Since I have some experience with woodworking, I decided to build one. The basic requirements were a sturdy top and some folding legs so the layout can be stowed in the attic or transported in a truck.

First I constructed a table top from some clear 3/8" (1 cm) plywood and some 1 x 4" (2.5 by 10 cm) braces. One of my favorite tools is a Dewalt plate joiner. This is also known as a plunge router or a biscuit joiner. Basically it cuts precise slots on two adjoining pieces of wood, and you fill the slots with glue and a little, wooden, football-shaped biscuit, and then you have a strong, nicely aligned joint. You can cut as many slots as you like, but you only need about 4 for a 6 foot length. Shown in the first photo is the table top all cut, glued, and clamped. The top is upside-down and sitting on some work sawhorses. Click on the photos to get a larger image.

pivoting leg assembly
Pivoting Leg Assembly
For each leg assembly, I made two horizontal braces (more 1 by 4s) and two angle shaped vertical legs from 1 by 2 inch (2.5 by 5 cm) lumber. These legs, looking somewhat like a letter H with two cross bars instead of one, have a rounded top and a bolt that attaches to the table top. The two legs can fold up under the table top by pivoting around the bolt.

This photo shows a close up of the pivot bolt and the top of one leg.

legs folded up
Legs Folded Up
This photo shows how the two leg assemblies fold and tuck up under the table top.

Hmm. Note how I have the one pivot very close to the edge of the table top side piece. Also note how I have the pivot bolt ending in a sleeve embedded in the nice soft clear pine side of the table top. Not very robust, but this is what you come up with as you are creating a design in your head as you walk up and down the hardware store aisle.

pivot is destroyed
Leg pivot is destroyed
Crackle-crunch. Engineering disaster number one. This photo shows how after one or two folds the table legs ripped the pivot bolts out of the side of the table top. The legs acted as a kind of lever and wrenched the sleeves right out of the wood.

Lesson 1, soft lumber is not as strong as plywood, hard wood, or metal. Lesson 2, do not depend on wood to provide a strong point for hardware attachments: ratheru se hardware (such as a bolt and a nut) that goes through the wood and not embedded in the wood (e.g. sleeves, nails, screws, etc.) Lesson 3, learn to plan a little better so you only have to build things once.

bolt and steel pivot fix
Bolt and Steel pivot fix
After a bit of creative problem solving and another trip to the hardware store, here is my solution. I decided a carriage bolt and a nut going through the wood would be much sturdier. Also I purchased a small steel strap plate to hold it in place. This should keep things in place.
diagonal leg bracing
Diagonal Leg Bracing
This last photo shows the finished table legs unfolded and perpendicular to the table top. To lock the legs in place and make the table extra sturdy, I made two diagonal leg braces from soft steel conduit pipes. The ends of the pipes are hammered flat and fixed to the leg braces with some hardware.

Ker-runch. Engineering disaster number 2. Not learning from my first mistake, I decide to use some wood screws and a slot in the pipes to keep everything in place. Eventually the screws get ripped out of the wood and the slots get all bent and twisty and difficult to use. I remove the screws and drill holes through the braces. I redo the leg braces with simple holes. And I get a wingnut and a bolt to hold the bracing in place. In other words, get rid of the wood fastener hardware and use all steel solutions.

There were a few mistakes and much to learn along the way, but in summary I am happywith this sturdy and transportable table. The next article in this series is Part 2 - Laying N Scale Track, or leap to any article below.

Thanks for reading my articles. More train layout photos and articles will be posted in the near future.

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Last modified: Saturday, 13-Nov-2021 09:23:09 MST.