Roadbed: What have you used?

I wanted to build some track and just finished placing at order at Fast Tracks for some PC board ties and code 55 rail. I thought this might be the moment when I carve off that 0.015″ and test the code 40 waters but chickened out at the last minute wondering if my meager collection of rollingstock really would be okay on the shallower rail.

With track in mind thoughts turn to the roadbed that the new track would sit on. In the past I’ve used balsa, cork and foamcore board. Of the three I’ll admit that I was never a fan of cork. I find it a little pricey and the fact that I’ve never purchased more than two lengths that were split equally and forget about that ballast edge profile. The balsa I liked but can be expensive. That said, it looks nice. I thought I’d cruise around the internet to see what other modellers have elected to use. Naturally cork roadbed still reins king among modellers.

Among the websites I checked out I looked at Tim Horton’s Dawson Creek Subdivision website. Mr. Horton is a really tremendous modeller and his layout is really one of those hidden N scale gems. He’s trying a balsa subroadbed topped with foam. Check out his tips here. I see more and more modellers are using foam roadbed similar to the product that Woodland Scenics offer. When I worked at the hobby shop we sold the Woodland Scenics foam roadbed but I never met anyone who actually used the stuff. It was a pity as I had some questions about it. Of all the things I was curious about, I wanted to know how well it held up on a layout over time. I like to use a Peco track eraser to polish my rail heads between operating sessions and wondered if that gentle pressure would compress the soft foam roadbed and either damage the track or my carefully applied ballast? Perhaps the act of ballasting the track actually results in the roadbed becoming saturated with glue and consequently becoming rigid.

What do you use under your track? What are you thinking about trying?



  1. I use cork as my lightly laid Interurban line doesn’t need much of a ballast profile, but have heard Woodland Scenics foam is also good and doesn’t get saturated with glue because it isn’t very porous so seepage is kept to a minimum.

    Thin dense foam has a number of uses, you can use it as a base for roadways with tile grout over the top, then compress it with a small roller to create cracks, however this takes alot more pressure than just cleaning the track would, so your ballast should be fine.

    1. Good evening. Thanks for the note. I really enjoy watching the videos of your layouts online and think you’ve done such a superb job of really illustrating the type of railway you’re modelling. I assume you’re laying the cork directly over the table top without a subroadbed? My layouts in the past have typically used a very minimalist wooden frame with a 1-2″ thick foam “top”. Over that I would lay down the roadbed and track.

      In considering the Woodland Scenics foam I think this is one of those moments where I really wish I had a local hobby shop I could just pop down to so I could pick up a length to try out. In the meantime I still have a lot of balsa sheet which I may fall back on using.


  2. I have cork roadbed that Ive never used.. I plan to use that… If I lay gravel the edge won’t show and can lay it so the edge won’t be seen (the layout will be against the wall). I have standard track (code 80?) not going with anything smaller.

    1. Good evening. Great to hear from you.

      It’s funny how much the term “standard” track has changed in only a very short time. Only a decade ago the standard track, in terms of rail code (height), for HO was good old code 100 and in N we worked with code 83. Since then most manufacturers have introduced smaller rail into their regular product lines and now code 83 has become reasonably available from Atlas and Peco. Here in N scale Atlas and Peco both offer full lines of code 55 trackwork. Comparing the two scale it’s interesting to note that while HO made a leap toward rail that was closer to the prototype’s actual size for mainline rail us N scalers made a leap toward something that just wasn’t as bad as we were used to. Code 55 rail for N is the same as using code 100 for HO and our native code 83 is actually taller in height than the rail LGB use in their standard track sections (comparisons here based on multiplying the rail height (code 83 is 0.083″ tall) by the scale’s ratios respectively.

      As for cork. I always considered Midwest brand cork to be the defacto standard cork roadbed and aimed my initial comments at their product. In HO scale the roadbed was nicely sliced and nice to use. In N scale I find that that most often the two halves are not equal in width and when seperated the resulting chamfer isn’t really a nicely bevelled edge (compared to the HO one). Frankly trimming the cork once it’s installed isn’t that tricky and once ballasted it’s something I wouldn’t give any more thought to.

      As I sat down to write the post tonight I was driven by the track parts in the mail due to arrive here soon and the fact that I don’t have any roadbed to lay track over and with no local hobby shop, I’d be improvising. I have a feeling I’ll be working with balsa again as I have some on hand already.

      Great to hear from you. Take care.

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