Brian’s coffee table layout

“Hello I’m 51 and I’m not a wood worker or can I say I’m a train layout expert, my last layout was HO and it was high school 🙂 !

Our coffee table finally gave out at Xmas last year and I had a brain storm and lot of work (which I didn’t think of at the time).

I asked the wife if I could build a new table with a train in it 🙂 she was for it, which blew my mind lol anyway here’s where I’m at.

It’s a simple double oval with kato track and a double crossover I can run two loco’s or one my inclines are steep but two of my engines run it ok, I’m going with the Illinois central scheme, living in Kentucky but from Southern ILL.

All comments are welcome 🙂



Be careful with the fibrous pink insulation. As a retired architect, I can tell you that it will become the next “Asbestos” insofar as litigation goes. The airborne particles get into your lungs and never go away – much like asbestos, causing you upper respiratory problems. It also causes minor skin irritations.

Better to use the white angel hair type and be safe.

As long as we are on insulation, try to use polyisocyanurate for scenery instead of polystyrene. Roofers use this in fire rated assemblies whereas the polystyrene (extruded or bead-board) is highly combustible. Besides sheets of constant thickness, it also is available tapered in 1/8″ per foot, 1/4″ per foot, 3/8″ per foot and 1/2 ” per foot increments making grades easy to attain. (divide the denominator into the numerator to obtain % of grade).

Fire access. Everyone wants to have the most mileage they can for track work and sometimes use multiple levels accessible by helix’s but there are several things that you should keep in mind:

1. That helix you installed when you were 25 or 30 is not as accessible when you are 65 so anything off the rails inside should have an alternate means other than shinnying up the middle.

2. Same goes for a duck-under clearance height. When you are 25 or 30, a 44 inch high layout seems ideal – until you have to drop to your knees to pass from one side to another. Consider using a height suitable for a office chair with casters to pass under. When you get older, getting down is the easy part – getting back up is the challenge.

3. You have the traditional spaghetti bowl layout for maximum run and invite operators and guests over to see the trains – how do they all get out in case of emergency? What if the lights go out? Do you have an exit plan? How about an extinguisher near an exit?

4. Operators come in all sizes in both height and girth. Are your aisle widths adequate for more than one to pass?

5. Layout construction materials can be made safe with just a little common sense. Do not use styrofoam insulation near hot electrical appliances, transformers, or where the potential for sparks fly (like inside a tunnel when a short occurs) and where you cannot easily get to it. Use proper size wiring for all circuitry. Yeah it’s great to go bargain hunting for wire but the telephone wire you got as a freebie is not suitable for higher amperage DCC. Layout lighting should be of the low voltage variety. I have seen Christmas tree lights used for buildings and to create sunsets but the older styles generate a lot of heat.

Be safe when you enjoy your hobby.


A big thanks to Charlie and Brian.

That’s all for today peeps.

Please do keep ’em coming.

And if today is the day you get started on your layout, the Beginner’s Guide is here.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

49 Responses to Brian’s coffee table layout

  1. John Fuller says:

    Looks like a great small space layout. Just my style because of the size. I am wondering if an N gauge size might be better for smaller systems. Otherwise it looks to be a great idea.

  2. Jaaques Shellaque says:

    Great layout, Brian, but where to set your coffee cup?
    (Will you install cup holders?). Great comments re:
    wire, heat, foams, and “old age”/safety. Thanks. js

  3. jeffrey sikes says:

    nice work loved the other layout to one day I will build one of table layouts like yours .

  4. alex rosental says:

    Excellent Charlie, specially your thoughts regarding glass or any fibrous or dusty (vermiculite) insulation for that matter. We should be wearing face masks like the japanese, whenever there are particles in the air.

    Charlie I am going to start my layout for the third time soon after I retire, again for real, and as a design engineer I cannot conceive doing it without some sort of CAD to capture the compacted multi levels, tunnels,bridges,rivers,harbors I dream with. Have you used software or as a good architect you you just draft it?. What is the best(easiest) software out there? I am a MAC guy but would buy me a PC just for this if need be. I will use HO at grade and then N and Z for top of the mountains with disregard to scaling concepts.

  5. Excellent project Brian , think I would like a try at that

  6. Gil Romero says:

    What is the actual size of the table? The work is looking good, make sure you send pictures of the finished product.

  7. Tom says:

    Every thing this site has offered did it well. Just like Brian’s current table top project; and Charlie’s tips.
    Al thank you for brining it all to us. Thanks everyone for a wonderful experience in model railroading.

    Now is the time to say good by for now. Its been a great run.

    God Bless!

    best regards.


  8. Archie Yarbrough says:

    I do like the ideas for safety for everyone but especially for us “Seniors” 🙂

  9. Roy Hobson says:

    Regarding Alex’ query about CAD, I have been using 3rd PlanIt for some years. I chose it over a decade back after comparing the available options and considering my own CAD experience. I don’t know if anything better has come along since, but I am still very impressed with 3rd PlanIt after years of use.

  10. sundaram says:

    Good work. Please check the gradient of your track. Check if your trains can climb the gradient. It looks quite steep in the picture.


  11. David Scott says:

    Oh dear the last one and here we are just back from Bracknell where they held the Southern EM gauge show. Lovely and my Daughter 6 1/2 correctly identified a Schools Class that went down well and Bought a field of cows! Well they were £2.80 each but superb quality.
    I hit the C&L stand and bought some OO gauge track of the best quality.
    I have on the design one turnout so £40.00 is not bad for something that will be on top of a bridge and seen by everyone…yes we intend to exhibit The Otter Valley Railway. Having spent most of my life in Devon. Katie is a Plymouth girl and we just want to have fun so: we have Otter which is a country station and of course Much Otter which is a seaside station.
    A great fan of The Madder Valley Railway of course and Pendon is a MUST once in the lifetime of any modeller!!!

    All the best and thanks

  12. David Oyler says:

    Alex, take a look at Wintrack programming software. I have been using it for 4 years and in my opinion, it runs sircles around other software. although the learning curve is challenging it is a joy to work with!

  13. james says:

    looks like a winner, a vid would be nice when you are finished

  14. Mike says:

    Brian. I think you have made a great little layout. Good show.

  15. THOMAS says:


  16. Ash says:

    Hi Al,
    Paid just now for the Golden Key.
    Goodbye to our friends who are leaving us for good.

  17. Willard Siscel says:

    what a way to recicle a broken table. Nope you show the finished product. Thanks also for the health caution. Keep’er on the tracks Will

  18. Neil Griffin says:

    how can I sine up for a gold key?

  19. Gerry says:

    So, what does Charlie think of using the blue foam instead of the pink???

  20. Mike Bryant says:

    Alex I use Anyrail software (only works with Windows) for track planning, I think it’s great, & has a free full version limited to 50 pieces of track, also has 3D viewing. Check out Youtube Anyrail videos. Buy version was near $60 when I bought it. Hope it fits your needs.

  21. Don Viray says:

    I love your layout/project Brian. You can probably get some very nice lighting effects inside the layout. Look forward to seeing your progress, and finshed layout.

  22. Danielle Odin says:

    If this is HO, your coffee table has to be a giant. I would want this but my coffee table is 20″ x 36″. I have tried laying a simple oval on it and it definitely is a NO GO! I am considering N gauge.

  23. David Wooff says:

    Food for thought & great advice from Charlie. Take care modellers.

  24. Nice layout keep up the good work

  25. Robert Brown says:

    Charlie, you are spot on with your health and safety remarks. While Alistar has a large focused audience it would be great to get your comments into some model train publications and into train shows for more to hear.

    I strongly agree with you with respect to the pink foam. I have allergies and the pink foam has set me back a great bit and I wear masks when I work with it. I am now trying to finish what am doing with it and getting it covered with paint, batting, etc. as quickly as possible. It’s better to use a hot wire cutter where possible vs. rasping and sawing. Even the hot wire cutter has issues as the fumes given off from the foam are dangerous, too.

  26. Hemi says:

    Lookin’ GREAT! Keep up the good work! ~Hemi

  27. curtis says:

    Rock and roll, can’t wait to see finished product

  28. Paul Case says:

    I believe that Charlie is refering to insulation batts not the pink or blue panels that we are using. He mentions that they are fibrous the panels we use are solid. I think Charlie should please clarify this. Paul

  29. Ray Zedel says:

    Paul:Case: I absolutely agree with you. Foam that we railroading people use is solid and not fiber. Sometimes pink, blue or grey. Pink insulation batts are fiber and should be avoided if possible and properly handled with breathing protection when unavoidable. Never in over 70 years of model railroading have I seen the pink fiber insulation used for anything.


  30. Anthony says:

    My uncle built a N scale layout into a coffee table and turned out very nice. I was 6 years old at the time and did not have camera so I wasn’t able to take any pictures. You might try to build a coffee table with removable sides and put a glass top on it so you put coffee mugs on top of the table.

  31. Richard says:

    I never new the foam was a danger….and I am a structural engineer. Oh well, always the same story getting told what to do by an architect. Seriously though it is v good to be warned about this foam. I have used it for scenery and for base boards in the past. Now I will be much more careful which type I use. And I love the little layout. Inspires me to do a small layout myself.

  32. Stephen White says:

    Brian, there is a common layout that you could move to (without a lot of pain) which would reduce your incline. Numbers are height in cm.
    5.7 6.0 6.5 7.0 7.5 8.0 8.5 9 9 9
    5.5 5.3 5.0 4.5 4.0 3.5 3.0 2.5 2 — 9 — 2
    5.5 5.5 9 2
    5.5 5.5 8.8 2.2
    5.5 5.6 8.7 2.3 5.4 5.7 6.0 6.5 7.0 7.5 8.0 8.5
    5.4 5.0 4.5 4.0 3.5 3.0 2.5 2.4

  33. Dwight in Toronto says:

    I really like the coffee table layout. I know my better half would admit that “It’s very cute”, but she would also say that I would only be able to admire it in someone else’s house!

    I suppose it’s time to sign up and ensure that Alister’s daily correspondence continues to put a smile on my face. I believe it’s a one-time-only $9.99 or something, right? I’m somewhat perplexed and saddened that so many insist that this represents such an extravagant financial burden/hardship. A drive-through snack from MacDonalds costs more! Oh well.

  34. Dwight in Toronto says:

    Ok, turns out I was wrong. Just clicked on Alister’s golden key subscription link, and the fee is £19.99, which is just over $30 Canadian. Apologies to those who find this a bit excessive … your reluctance to contribute is understandable. It’s still not a “break the bank” amount, but it’s a price point that makes one go “hmmm”.

    By the way, the rigid pink foam insulation that most of us use as a scenery base is NOT a lung infection nor lung cancer threat. I have to imagine that the material being referred to in an earlier post is “spun wool” fibreglass insulation, and I’ve never heard of anyone modelling with THAT scratchy, itchy stuff!

  35. Just a couple of thoughts…
    I have concerns over any fibrous material… Especially fiberglass…
    The same holds for diatomacious earth… Natural yes… So is asbestos…
    These materials are hard on the lungs and do not decompose.
    Extruded foam (pink or blue) is a much better choice but it has its own flammability concerns… Especially when exposed to heat.
    The same is true for expanded foam (Beadboard — traditionally white but comes in blue also) Expanded foam does not have the structural integrity that extruded foam does and can be very messy to work with.
    Be careful and make your choices wisely..
    Have fun in what you do and enjoy your hobby…

  36. Great info especially regarding foam. Keep up the good work.
    Butch from New Hampshire

  37. Max says:

    Architect: Retired at 51? Didn’t think retirement was in an architect’s vocabulary.
    Good suggestion on the ISO board.

  38. Thomas Snider says:

    Dear Alaster:
    I would like to purchase your GOLDENKEY. However, when I go to your
    secure page it gust flickers, and does not allow me to enter any of my
    information. What do I do ???

  39. Will in NM says:

    Brian: I love your coffee table layout. I assume it’s N scale since you mentioned Kato track. That’s a great start you’ve made. I take it that you were able to weld up that frame yourself, so your skills are not as bad as you implied. I like the little drawer in the bottom (to hold your train cars amd/or power controls?). Anyway, you’ve done a great job so far. Please post again when you make more progress.

    Thanks to all for the CAD program recommendations. 20+ years ago I used Atlas Right Track software to design my little HO Christmas layout. I also have used the TrainPlayer Track Layer program which lets you run simulated trains on the layout you design. I’ve also used Generic CAD many years ago and the Sierra Home Architect program. My experience is that all CAD programs have a fairly steep learning curve, so I frequently resort to just pencil and paper. Having been a draftsman for 10+ years, it’s often faster than trying to leatn the CAD idiosyncracies.

    p.s. Can someone please repost the link to the Golden Key pass purchase?

    Will in New Mexico

  40. Ruben Simon says:

    Thanks for the tips on fire safety, and pink vs. white insulation, and keeping a fire extinguisher handy.

  41. Bill says:

    Hope you’re testing your grades. Some of those look very steep.

  42. Ron Schultz says:

    Every one should go back and reread Charlie’s note . As a retired fire chief i cant say enough about fire safety. It would be bad to have your great train layout be the cause of your house fire. Always think fire safety when you build the “Railroad” . when building the real railroad tunnel fires were real. dont have one on your model. be safe and enjoy our hobby. i’m on my 5th lay out and its great at 86 years of age . I just enjoy the “pick up and set out” runs i have developed So as the old hymn goes – Keep your hand on the throttle and your eye on the rail.

  43. Peter Bayley-Bligh says:

    Charlie provides some very good advice and remember the ‘flower stuff’ when dry is also dangerous as an inhalant.

  44. David R. Karper says:

    Thank you, Mr. Lee. I received it all. Bryan, keep up the good work. Dave.

  45. Bill Hancock says:

    Hi, nice start. What is the scale, N HO ? ALSO what are the detentions of the table?

  46. Larry Embry says:

    As for room for your coffee cups, how about a removable glass cover, with access points around the perimeter if needed?


  47. Dan Williams says:

    Alex Rosental, I’m working on a similar layout. Still in the planning stage, need to clear the room where the layout will go. I started with HO Slot Cars when I was 10. Eventually I got a piece of race track with a train crossing. Finally added the trains when I was 24 and married. New house and years later no room for the layout. By-pass when I was 49 limited me. Got into N guage for the room limitations and something to do while recovering. Now at 70 I’m planning a lower level HO with Race track and trains with upper level “mountains” for the N guage.

  48. Frank says:

    I liked that you shared these photo because it demonstrates how easy it is to work with flat sheets of foam and layer them. You don’t have to work on supports and such when making those grades.

    Since Model Railroader introduced their Clinchfield Railroad articles I have always liked using foam sheets and even more so when someone builds their railroad. And you even have yourself a tunnel.

    Frank in Orlando

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *