Before there was any scenery....before there was any track...before there were any lights, there was....the BENCHWORK (or TABLE or FRAME, etc...)!!!! Clearly (to me), one of the least interesting (in my opinion) but necessary, critical, life-sustaining (I kid!) and ultimately, impactful aspects of the hobby is what you run your trains on! Hey, we're all grown ups now, and we deserve a place where we don't have to put our 'toys' away every time we're done playing!
The reality is that I expect most of us modelers are a long way from getting a 'dream room' where we can build exactly what we want to our hearts content. This was my challenge. So before the present layout got built, it was fairly obvious that this was going to be a 'garage layout'. These other human beings that live with me have selfishly procured the nicest parts of the home for their own needs. Ahhh well.....
In addition to being in the garage, I also wanted a layout that was fairly portable and would be relatively easy to transport if we were to move in the next couple of years. I have painful experiences with this, before I got into N Scale, I had an O scale layout that was a 'permanent' L-girder sort of construct in the garage. Of course, a potential move a couple of years ago required the demolition of several years of work. Never again! (and we never did end up moving! Arg!)
One of the first questions I had to resolve was how to make this (portable) layout level? Beyond the basic requirements of sturdiness, height, size, etc... a garage presents a particular challenge not found in the house in terms of making it level (well, most houses anyway, are somewhat level). Most garage floors have a slope to them so that water and dirt carried in from outside goes back out to the driveway. While the grade is not noticeable when humans (like us) are standing on it or walking on it; at N Scale those little ore cars will go racing down the layout like its the Indy 500. An 'off the shelf' workbench or shelving unit would require some rudimentary, and probably not very good, modifications, but would also limit what I could do in terms of dimensions and so forth.
Another factor influencing my plan, was my intention to use a hollow door as the table top. I knew that L-girder was out (too much work and not portable) and the inexpensive, lightweight attributes of the hallowed hollow door approach have some nice benefits (and some drawbacks, which I will save for another post).
With those challenges in mind, I set out on my 'plan' (less a plan than an evolution of various random and half-baked ideas).
For my original N scale layout, which was just a single 36" x 80" hollow-core door, a simple wooden saw horse picked up for $20 at the local hardware store sufficed for the support. The sawhorse was an adequate solution, though far from ideal as the layout was too low to the floor at about 26" (most modelers and magazines talk about layout height and that a layout is 'nicest' at 'eye level', which I think is generally true. Looking down from too high up makes you feel like you're flying over the layout. Which sounds cool, but isn't). A single door is also convenient as its VERY portable due to its low weight and rigidity.
However, after a few months I decided that I wanted more track, more scenery, more, more, MORE!!! (you get the idea!)... and the single door was just not going to cut it. I decided to move up to a 'double door' (end to end) arrangement with my 'v.2' layout.
This presented a portability challenge, and adding more saw horses would not provide the necessary stability and rigidity to hold two doors end to end at the right level.
So, I came up with a plan that was loosely based on some framing ideas for some cheap, do-it-yourself type of work benches I found online.
The plan is basically 3 identical frames built out of 2"x4" lumber. Both the vertical and horizontal lengths are 36". The two end frames are placed on opposite ends of the two doors, and the 3rd frame supports the 'connection' point where the two doors come to together (this center one has the 2x4 laid on its side to provide as much area as possible to support the weight of the board and secure the two doors to the frame).
A big influence in the design of the plan (I use the word 'design' here loosely!) was a solution I found to answer the challenge of my sloping garage floor, and the need to have both a stable and secure footing that would allow me to easily level each 'frame' to ensure the layout surface was level from one end to another. I found this article on using old hockey pucks as leveling devices, which had me move the bottom, horizontal, load bearing supports all the way to 'ground level'. These adjustable, 'hockey puck' feet have worked terrifically, and the ~2" slope in the garage from one end of the layout to the other is adequately compensated for with these adjustable, hockey puck feet. I also have to say they look great! The shiny bolt hardware and the big, black, rubber puck look kind of cool (and very 'industrial strength!).
The frame design also has two short 14" pieces which rest on the bottom board and are attached with 2 3/4" screws to the 'risers' or vertical supports. These provide a ledge for additional bracing or for shelving (you'll notice my pictures feature lots of miscellaneous garage storage 'things' stored under the layout on the far side). I added in another shelf about 10" below the layout where all my 'controllers' are able to rest (not shown in the Google Sketch Up plans, but visible in the photos. See all those messy wires? They lead to my 'control panel' shelf).
The biggest challenge was connecting the doors to the risers/supports. Hollow core doors are cheap for a reason...there's not a lot of material that can reliably be used for bolting or attaching to the supports. The strongest areas of the doors are the side edges where the hinges would normally go. This actually turned out to be a benefit. I simply attached 2x2 boards to the long lengths of the doors and used these to drill holes for the nut and bolts to attached to the vertical riser/2x4 supports. Why was this a 'benefit'? Well, I was able to add a full 3 inches to the width of my layout!
All in all, I've been very happy with the design. Its rigid, adjustable, portable, and very sturdy. The height is right (for both me, and those other people in the house that like to play with the cars on the layout and try to push the trains like they're Thomas the Tank...Noooo!!!) Given the strength and design of the frames, I also have an option of adding some width (which I plan on doing) to extend areas of the layout beyond the current 39" dimensions.
Oh yes, and I have the carpentry skills of a mollusk, so this was an easy and 'idiot-proof' project.