How to lower your train accessories into your table

One of the first articles I remember reading in a train magazine (I don’t remember if it was Classic Toy Trains or a competing rag) was titled “Put your accessories in pockets.” Basically, it advocated cutting holes in your table, putting a board beneath the hole, and putting the accessory in the hole to even it up with the ground level on your layout.

It’s a great idea–more on that in a minute–but it really didn’t go into much detail about how to do the cutting part.

Lowering your accessories flush with “ground level” is a good idea because so many accessories–I’m looking at you, Lionel Gateman–sit on a half-inch box that holds the mechanical parts that make the magic work. That box is a bit unsightly protruding up from the layout, and if you place it too close to the track, passing trains can have trouble clearing it.

Level it up with the ground, and you eliminate both problems. Your layout takes on a more pleasing appearance and your trains run better, with fewer scrapes or, worse yet, wrecks.

Now, about cutting those holes….

Some people were born with power tools in their hands and were building workbenches before they knew how to crawl, or so it seems. Not me. I didn’t know how to swing a hammer right until I was 27 or 28, and I still don’t do it right every time.

So, unlike some people, I wasn’t born knowing how to cut a 8-inch by 7.5-inch hole in my table without it taking all afternoon. And the first time I did it, that’s exactly how long it took. Cutting the hole took forever, getting it straight was really hard, and then one of my measurements was off so I had to cut one side all over again. So it turned into a long game of cut-sand-fit, cut-sand-fit.

An oscillating multitool

An example of an inexpensive oscillating multitool. Use the blade attachment (second from the left) for cutting holes, and use a sanding attachment to clean up the cut afterward, if necessary

So my first suggestion is to use better tools than what I had. You can cut a square hole a few inches long and wide in a matter of minutes using an oscillating multitool. This tool was invented in Germany by Fein in 1967, but now that its patents have expired, much cheaper knockoffs are available. If the $200 price tag on a Fein doesn’t scare you off, great. And if you’re going to use one to remodel a house, you’re better off with a name-brand tool. (Bosch makes a good one too.) But if you’re just going to cut a few holes in a train table, a $35 knockoff will do just fine.

Using the tool is easy. Position your accessory over your table and trace its outline with a pencil. Remove the accessory, double check to make sure there are no wires anywhere near where you’ll be cutting, then put one of the plunge cut blades on the tool, following the instructions. Wear eye and hearing protection, because it can send sawdust flying, and the tools make a lot of noise.

Now you’re ready to cut. Position the blade along one of the lines and turn it on and plunge the tool straight down into and through the surface. You’ll be surprised how easily it cuts. Now raise the tool back through the cut, tilt it so the cutting blade is sitting at about a 45-degree angle, and follow the line to the end. Square up the end of the line, then repeat the whole process for the other three sides, and you have your opening.

Due to the design of the tool, you’ll find it fairly easy to keep your cuts straight. And if one of your lines is off, you can move a fraction of an inch and cut again, or put one of the sanding attachments on it and just sand the opening bigger.

Once the opening is big enough, your accessory just needs something to sit on. Take the piece of plywood you just cut out, flip it 90 degrees, and screw it to the underside of the table.

If your accessory doesn’t fit flush with the top of the table, shim it up with a sheet or two of cardboard. Or if it sits too high, loosen the screws holding the base and put some shims between it and the bottom of the table.

Once you’re happy with the fit, drop the accessory into place and wire it. If you want, you can sprinkle some ground cover onto the accessory’s base to make it blend in with its surroundings. Since I’m a tinplate kind of guy, I skip that step.

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3 Comments

  1. John Dominik

     /  June 12, 2011

    I remember seeing a train set when I was much younger that was pretty elaborate (=most of the basement devoted to it). The guy started with 2′x2′x1/2″ plywood panels that were actually about 1/8″ undersized. He would start out with that brown kraft paper (find it in the paint department) and lay out his tracks, streets, buildings, trees, lighting, all the rest. Then he’d glue it (using contact cement) to the top of at least 1″ thick open-cell styrofoam. He’d cut the styrofoam slightly oversized and then angled the edges back about 15 degrees or so. He’d dig down into the stryrofoam to get everything level, then he’d use a pencil or narrow metal rods to poke holes through the foam and run the wires on the bottom of the foam. Everything would run back to the center of the board, where there was a hole. He used a standard connector (he was an electrical engineer by trade), and each panel plugged into a pretty elaborate (he was an electrical engineer) control panel – each panel had something like 32 connectors (old ribbon cables), and on a standard panel, he could run six separate track circuits and eight different light circuits – plus room for expansion. He used a couple of 3″ bolts about 2″ from each corner for legs, and put handles on the bottom so he could remove ‘em when he needed. If he wanted to go back and re-work a section, he could just remove the section – the only thing holding it down was weight.

    • Dave Farquhar

       /  June 12, 2011

      There’s a lot of elaborate work being done with foam, for certain. I use traditional materials because I’m not after that ultra-realistic look, but it sounds like he did something similar to what I’ve done with painted Masonite panels for my scenery. My wiring does its job, but there’s nothing pretty about it.

  2. Mike M.

     /  June 12, 2011

    Low tech works too. Draw the outline for the indentation, drill a hole within that perimeter. Cut with a keyhole saw ($6 at Home Depot, or check grampa’s toolbox) starting from the hole you just drilled. Clean up the edges with a flat file.

    I like that you flip the bit cut out to make your platform. Definitely a frugal solution. I would be hunting for some fresh bit of scrap to do the job.