A model railway dining table – Part 1.

June 17th, 2014

Now this is a project a lot of my friends know about, mainly since it’s been sitting in my living room since 2010, but it’s not one I have written about yet. Or, if I have, I’ve forgotten!

The idea was to make a model railway that lives inside a dining table under a glass top. I started on the railway half way through 2010 but am only now starting on the table part. It’s been so long I can’t remember all the details so this is a quick explanation of what’s happened up till now. It started when I bought a LNER locomotive.


The railway is N gauge and based on a British prototype of course. I started by building a base board from some MDF and straight supports.


I drew out a track plan that is basically a folded figure 8 loop. Since the railway will be inside the table its not one that gets operated as such. Basically the train will just go round and round in circles. Normally when you build a model railway you try to hide the fact the train isn’t really going anywhere. That’s a little tricky in this case so I didn’t worry about it.

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Since the train loops back over itself (like that ever happens in real life!) I had to raise the track with some more MDF supported on blocks. The lower part will eventually be a tunnel. I then laid down the track on top of a cork base and glued it in place. I used glue to avoid nail heads in the sleepers. The track was weighted down while the glue dried.

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I am really skipping over loads of details here. I  made an electronic controller for the train (only I can’t remember where online I got the circuit from now). It only needs to be simple as the train is just set up to run around the track at a constant speed.  Once the track was laid down I painted the baseboard around the track and the track and sleepers themselves. The sleepers are black plastic so painting them makes them look more realistic and the paint also makes the rails look more real. Real rails are rusty except for the top where the train wheels run.

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Next I added ballast. That took bloody ages. Months and months in fact with me doing a little now and then. In the mean time I was buying buildings (Hornby Lyddle End which don’t seem to be made anymore) and little cars and people and things.

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The idea is the layout will have lots of subtle details. The TARDIS for example and the little people I will turn into Steed and Mrs Peel. I also tried making people using little bits of wire as an armature fattened out with payers of painted on white glue then painted. I want little people doing subtle but dodgy things that only the observant will notice.

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That one is little pole dancer Rachel. Every model railway needs a tiny pole dancer. I actually had two TARDISes (TARDIi?) but I ended up turning one into cufflinks. Those eventually got given to a real Doctor Who, Peter Davison!

Anyway, the ballast has to be laid by hand and carefully glued down between the sleepers. To do this I would sprinkle the rail with the ballast from a teaspoon. Then I would use a fine paint brush to arrange the grains of ballast between the rails and sleepers. Next I would give it all a spray with some meths in a spray bottle. This is to ‘wet’ the ballast and reduce the surface tension for the next step with is adding watered down white glue literally drop by drop. The glue drops seeps into the ballast. I used a contact lens solution bottle to hold the glue. You then use a fine brush again to position any grains of ballast that might have shifted. Later I used a straight piece of printed circuit board as a straight edge to tidy up the edges of the ballast.

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As I say this took months. Next I started adding the land. I am using strips of cardboard hot glued in place to build up the contours. Later this is covered in rough tissue paper that’s wetted with glue. This forms a nice, firm but light shell for the scenery to sit on.

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I added MDF side boards to define the contours at the edges of the layout. You can see in the picture above that I was using a flat piece of MDF for the area above the lower track. The middle section of this would lift out to provide access to the inside of the tunnel. I was never really happy with that idea but the solution (obvious solution!) never occurred to me until I recently decided to make the effort to finish the table off. Instead of lifting some scenery from above all I had to do was cut access holes from beneath. Since the thing is sitting in a  table you can get under it! I have no idea why it took me four years to realise this!

Oh, in all this time the layout has been sitting on top of my old table. Basically rendering that table unusable. Each year, at a fairly annual BBQ I do I’d always have to shift the railway into the bedroom to sit out of the way on the bed so I could use the table as an actual table! Since I have been home more lately (my temporary retirement) I decided it would be nice to learn how to cook more. And if I cook more it would be nice to have an actual dining table to eat on. That’s what inspired me to finally start looking at finishing the thing.

So first I had to find a table. I have a very particular look in mind. Basically the kind of table and chairs you’d expect to find in a 30s British railway waiting room. Perhaps one of those old railway station hotels there used to be. So a wooden table, turned legs and on castors so it can be moved about.

The table I found on TradeMe for a whole $10.50! Mike helped me go collect it with his trailer. I then found four suitable chairs on TradeMe for $80. Next I bought some antique brass castors which were $65.


The table is Rimu I think and the top is split. That is good though as I am not using the top. Because the table isn’t quite big enough to drop the railway into (it needs to be longer and deeper) the top will be cut up to make new longer and deeper side rails. The castors are needed because I am making the table deeper. I need the depth for the layout of course. The castors raise the table about 2 inches meaning I can drop the side rails by the same amount. That gives me the depth I need. The chairs will need repadding as the seats are worn out so I can make them a little fatter to give a little more height in the chairs. Today I unscrewed the table top and fitted the castors.

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The railway will need to fit in between the corners of the ends of the square leg posts. So the whole table will actually get about 250mm longer and 50mm or so wider. To fit the cup castors I made up some wooden dowels. These fit into holes in the bottom of the legs. There were already short holes there, I just needed to drill them a little deeper.  To cut the taper on the dowel to fit the cups I clamped a guide to my disc sanding table and simply sanded the dowels to the right shape.

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The table is now sitting on the castors. Nothing is actually attached or glued yet but the weight is enough to hold it all firmly in place for now. I want to get the table resized and get the base on it so I can get the railway inside it. I can finish the actual railway modelling part later. Eventually I will make a hinged frame top that will hold the glass that forms the top of the table.

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The tape shows where the new base of the table will be.  So here is where the project is as of right now. The layout is off to one side so I can use the end of the table as a table!









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