DIY: Building L-Girder Benchwork

  • 01 of 05

    What Is L-Girder Benchwork?

    L-girders, cross-braces, legs, and subroadbed components can all be made from plywood, or other materials can be used.
    Ryan C Kunkle

    L-girder benchwork is named for the inverted "L"-shaped beams that carry the load. L-girder allows tremendous flexibility in design for odd-shaped and multilevel layouts. With its open structure, it is easy to add scenery both above and below track levels. L-girder can be built with little experience and a few simple tools.


    Like other types of benchwork, L-girder can be built from a variety of materials. The most common are dimensional lumber, plywood, and steel. Steel studs and other components are available at many home supply stores. The techniques for using steel are similar to wood, but the materials are much less familiar to most modelers. Plywood offers greater dimensional stability and consistency at ​a comparable cost to traditional lumber but must be ripped to proper widths.

    Whichever materials you use, you will want pieces in roughly 1x4, 1x2, and 2x4 sizes to make the L-girders, legs, cross braces and supports. Heavier or lighter construction can be used as necessary depending on your installation.

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  • 02 of 05

    L-Girder Components

    Vertical legs, horizontal L-girders, cross-braces are all visible in this view. A masonite fascia panel has been added to one side as well.
    Ryan C Kunkle

    L-girder benchwork can be broken down into four basic components. These pieces can be assembled in any configuration for unlimited design potential.

    • L-Girders: L-girders transfer the load of the layout from the cross-supports to the legs or walls. L-girders are made from two pieces in an inverted "L." The horizontal top plate provides rigidity and strength and also a convenient means of fastening cross-bracing. Traditional sizes are 1x4s for the vertical, and 1x2s for the horizontal. Girders can be any length. If you need multiple pieces to complete a length of girder, overlap seams and reinforce joints with additional vertical splices.
    • Cross-braces: Looking at L-girder benchwork from above, it looks like a ladder. Cross-braces are the rungs of the ladder, connecting the L-girders on either side. These braces are traditionally are made of 1x4 boards and can be any length. Braces should be spaced consistently; 16-inch centers work well. They are mounted on top of the L-girders and can be extended beyond them in either direction. The plywood decking that supports the track can be fastened directly to the top of the cross-bracing or elevated on risers.
    • Legs: For free-standing benchwork, legs transfer the load from the L-girders to the floor. As with other benchwork construction, 2x4 lumber is the most common dimension for legs. Additional L-girders can also be used vertically to make legs.
    • Subroadbed: Track and scenery are supported on a horizontal plane or sub-roadbed. Plywood (1/2 inch or 3/4 inch) are common, extruded foam insulation is becoming increasingly popular. A solid tabletop is not necessary. Subroadbed support is only necessary where the track, structures, or other elements requiring a foundation will be located. The plywood may be removed in other areas with no detriment to the layout's strength. This allows scenery to extend below the grade.
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  • 03 of 05

    Assembling L-Girder Benchwork

    Seen from below, the assembly sequence of L-girder is clear. Girders attached to legs. Cross-braces to girders, in this case cantilevered. Subroadbed attached to braces (elevated on risers.) Note the support of track bus wires and feeders as well.
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Assembly of L-girder benchwork is straightforward; L-girders attach to legs or walls, cross-braces attach to L-girders, and sub-roadbed attaches to the cross-braces (directly or elevated on risers). The configuration of the parts will depend on your track plan.

    L-girder benchwork frees you from the dimensional limitations of a table-top layout. Having a good, detailed track plan in place before you start building benchwork will save headaches down the road. Once you know where you'll be placing track, you'll be able to put support where you need it and avoid it where you don't. Imagine laying out a curve to find you've placed a leg right in the middle of it or trying to work around cross-braces as you install switch machines in a yard. You can make changes as you go, but it is much easier to get it right from the beginning.


    Benchwork can be built with a few simple hand and power tools. A circular or chop saw for cutting boards to length, a cordless screwdriver, level, measuring tape and clamps are essential. A pneumatic finishing nail gun can also be used to speed construction. A stud finder is important if you'll be attaching L-girders to finished walls.

    Build L-girders first to speed construction. Use wood glue to strengthen joints. Boards can be fastened with drywall screws or nails. When attaching L-girders to walls, anchor into studs. Model trains are not generally very heavy. Nevertheless, benchwork should be strong enough to support anything that may end up on top of it, including you.

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  • 04 of 05

    Building Multilevel Layouts

    Three levels of railroad can be seen in this view. The staging yard below the cross-braces of the center level will be largely hidden from view. Notice the L-girder attached to the wall and the open view created by cantilevering the upper level.
    Ryan C Kunkle

    L-girder is the benchwork design of choice for multilevel layouts. Cantilevered cross-braces allow an open front. This makes it possible to stack one level above another without any supports blocking the view below.

    Construction of a multilevel layout is not much different from a single level. Make sure your plans for all levels work together to share common legs wherever possible. Levels can be connected through a long grade or helix.

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  • 05 of 05

    Backdrops and Fascias

    A simple fascia panel adds a finished look to the front of a model railroad even before the railroad is finished.
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Backdrops add depth to a scene and can also be used to divide sections of a railroad and hide vertical supports. On island or peninsula benchwork designs, you can extend legs in the center above the height of the cross-braces. Benchwork can be cantilevered out from these center supports. It's then convenient to hang backdrops from the legs. Additional vertical supports could also be fastened to cross-braces to support backdrops instead of or in addition to using the legs themselves.


    To finish the front of the layout, a fascia can be mounted on the ends of the cross-braces. Additional supports may be necessary for taller fascias. Masonite hardboard works well and can be bent into curves for free-flowing designs.

    The top of the fascia can be cut with a jigsaw to match scenery contours on the layout. In addition to providing a finished appearance, the fascia can also support plugs for walk-around cabs, controls for turnouts and other features, labels and information for operators, boxes for waybills and other operating paperwork, and many other features.