Once you've experienced the joys of operating an oval layout on the living room floor, or of admiring a shelf-full of model railroad equipment, you'll begin to wonder just how much better it all would look in a more permanent setting. There are, to be sure, thousands of true model railroaders who never got beyond the floor/shelf stage, but they are missing something. Model railroading is really an action hobby - those precisely-detailed miniatures of real railroading are designed to operate as well as they look. Why not get that train set or collection off the floor or shelf and onto a completely-sceniced model railroad layout?
That term "completely-sceniced" can be enough to scare off some of the more timid souls. In fact, a plain plywood board with tracks, a scattering of houses, grass, trees, and roads falls with in the definition as much as a mountain "empire" - the fascinating feature of this hobby is that you have the choice of which to build. Many modelers start with the simple flatland layout, adding hills and ravines over a period of months or even years to suit their budget of time and their interests. The first step, though, is to get a table built that will allow you to expand your new model railroad layout with a minimum amount of rebuilding.
To the beginner, the simple flat tabletop may seem the quickest way to get some trains rolling.
It may well be, however, that flat tabletop can present some real problems if you ever want to thrill at the sight of a train crossing over a bridge - with a flat tabletop you must provide some sort of cutout under the tracks for that gully that the bridge bridges. There is a better way ... Most experienced model railroaders will suggest some form of "open grid" type of benchwork. The open grid style is similar to the framework of a frame house before the exterior and interior wall panels are in place - you might consider it to be merely the outer framework of a table with some braces across the open center section but no top. Narrow boards, just a fraction of an inch wider than the tracks, follow the path of the tracks around the "open grid" tablework. The track boards are supported a few inches above the top edges of the tablework on short wooden risers. You are free to add bridges: hills, and valleys wherever you choose - extra tracks can be added at will on their own track boards and risers. Eventually plaster-type scenery will fill in the open areas. Initially, however, the open spaces can be filled with scraps of burlap or cardboard to keep any accidentally derailed trains off of the floor.
The simplest type of "open grid" benchwork is simply a series of shadow box-style frames made from 1x3 or 1x4 boards placed on end and screwed together. A slightly more complex type of "open grid" was pioneered by Model Railroader's Lynn Westcott. Westcott's design used 1x3 longitudinal members that were capped with glue and screwed 1x2 pieces to form an inverted "L" shape. The shorter crossmember's are then screwed to the "L" braces from below through the flange of the "L". The advantage of the "L girder" type of benchwork is that even the basic grid can be adjusted for closer spacing under complex mountain trackage or wider spacing under larger, flat, yard areas. If you're planning a first-ever model railroad layout, the simple shadow box-style "open grid" benchwork will be best. Just be sure to fasten all joints with screws rather than nails. Should any changes be needed as the railroad progresses, the screwed-in place supports can be removed without upsetting the rest of the layout. It's also far easier on existing construction to attach new track supports with screws rather than to shake up the entire layout as you hammer away at the new supports.
Apartment dwellers may want to consider constructing their layouts in a series of portable "modules" that bolt together to form a complete layout. These modules, like those in the photos, can be as small as 2 x 4-feet; with each area detailed as an independent unit. The modules can be stacked on a series of shelves for storage and assembled into a larger layout when you want to operate complete trains, or on that blessed day when you finally find a house with room for a complete model railroad. Even a single module can form the basis of an effective scene to display your models. If the trackwork is planned carefully enough, you can even operate a switching yard or industry setting while you wait for the day when longer trains can be sent out to run over the "mainline". The time spent detailing one of these modules is worthwhile in that the module can form at least a part of even the largest model railroad empire. If your space is limited, at least temporarily, it's a good way to get started and gain experience in building and operation.