Floating Benchwork


The "benchwork" is simply a frame, much like a bedframe, that surrounds and supports the foam base. Here it is, unassembled on the floor. It was later fitted with removable legs, so that the entire layout is portable. The outer frame is constructed from clear #1 grade pine 1×8s with a close, vertical grain. The crossmembers were unfortunately not so carefully chosen, built from lower-quality 2×2s.

[unassembled frame]

Since I enjoy woodworking, I took some time on the frame to construct strong joinery: dovetails for the corners and blind mortise-and-tenon joints for the crossmembers. These are simple to cut with a hand saw and chisel.

[dovetail joinery]

[mortise and tenon]

Each crossmember is also drilled through with many holes to allow for wiring. Much later (early 2009), I found I had underestimated the weight of the track, wiring, and scenery, and that these 2×2 crossmembers offered inadequate support, sagging up to 1 cm in the middle. Fast forward to 2009 when I ended up adding 1.5×1.5-in aluminum box tubing underneath each one, which cut the sag to a millimeter or two. This retrofit required cutting off the nice wooden tenons, lifing the entire foam base by 1.5 inches, and installing the aluminum box below, glued to the wooden crossmember for added strength. The wooden 2×2 rests atop the aluminum, which was necessary since all the wiring already ran through the holes. This proved to be a quite satisfactory arrangement. Here is a detail of the mounting of the aluminum box to the frame.

[aluminum cross-member]

Note how the sides of the box are notched to hang on the small crossbar, and the bottom edge of the box is extended into a mortised notch in the bottom of the frame to make it flush.

[aluminum box attachment]

I was so intimidated by the technical challenge of this retrofit that I spent about two months thinking about how it was to be accomplished. I am, however, quite pleased with the result. I have usually found that plenty of careful and detailed thinking beforehand makes a tough job easier. In the end, that retrofit was a good thing, as it provides more space underneath for the wiring and whatever I develop for a protective undercover.

Now back to 2006 where I was just getting the frame put together... Once assembled, I mounted the frame temporarily on sawhorses until I could build the legs. This picture is obviously pre-retrofit.

[assembled frame]

Now, there is always the problem of space. With three kids, we don't have a spare room that can be devoted to the layout. One can't just put a 6×10-ft layout in the middle of the living room, apparently. We do have a sun room, with great light, and it's just big enough for a couple feet of walkaround room on each side, but it's also an otherwise useful room, and we want to keep it that way.

It just so happens that we were browsing a wonderful book of George Booth cartoons. There was one section on keeping order in the home (in Booth's unique style, of course) with the following cartoon (which I have admittedly used without permission—sorry). I think Booth would agree that I have followed the spirit of that cartoon.

[George Booth's table hoist cartoon]

Eureka! So I built a mechanism to hoist this portable layout frame to the ceiling (in the sun room) to keep the layout stowed out of the way when not on display. This is important since it will free up the garage for the winter, which helps preserve a happy household. Which permits me to continue this insanity... Here is the frame, supported by J-shaped hooks fashioned from 1-in × 1/4-in aluminum bar stock, raised to the ceiling. The ropes are there just to be a safety backup, since the J-hooks are not actually attached to the frame.

[J-hanger]

[frame raised]

The four steel cables attached to the J-hooks run over blocks attached to the ceiling, and then through another set of blocks to bring them all into line before being gathered into a single cable fed to a boat winch mounted to the wall. If you work out the geometry, you will see why the gathering of cables is necessary. Note the exterior windows, which became interior with the addition of the sunroom. At least I know the old outside wall is strong enough to anchor the winch and the tackle above it.

[hoist rig]

And here it is, lowered to work/display level:

[frame lowered]

The base is a three-layered, interlocking sandwich of 1-inch thick pink insulation foam board, with a corner cut out where the control panel will reside. Here is that slab of foam board, with the cork roadbed laid out on top of it:

[foam board]

(I also have legs that can be bolted on to make it a stable table.) The hanging mechanism is sturdy enough to work on the layout and keep the work in progress, tools, and whatnot all messy on the layout with no need to clean up. Just winch it up and out of the way! And the winched table arrangement is wonderful for adjusting table height to whatever is comfortable for the task at hand. Up it goes to work on the wiring. Down to work on the track. Way down to get to the center. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the trains run on it just fine with it hanging.