Building a Shelf Mounted Train


[Materials Calculator]


Ever since I was young, I loved model trains.  The problem with model trains is the vast amount of space they require -- some setups eating up entire rooms.  I personally don't have an entire room in the house I can dedicate to a train set though.  This web site talks about another alternative though -- integrating a train set into practically any room in the house, and making it look like it belongs!  The idea is to run a train on a shelf that is near to the room's ceiling.  The shelf can be painted to match the decor in the room.  A rope light, and Plexiglas encasing, along with a stylish wall switch add a rare sophistication to the design -- something you might not expect from a model train!

The shelf-mounted train adds a unique quality to any room -- both elegant and fun at the same time.

Step 1: Measuring and Planning

The first step of any big project should of course be planning.  In this case you need to measure and plan the layout of the track.  Start by measuring the length and width of the room you plan to put the train in.  You can plug these numbers into the materials calculator.  This will give you an idea of the cost of the system as well as the amount of materials needed.  The material calculator assumes a rectangular layout.  If you have a more complicated layout, you will need to adjust the numbers yourself -- I will add an appendix to discuss some of the track layout options and how they effect your materials list.

It is a good idea to draw a scale drawing of your room, and plan the layout before starting to build.  Plan where you want to have the shelf borders.  These do not have to be evenly spaced as they are not visible.


The Plexiglas borders on the other hand are visible, so you should plan the Plexiglas a bit more carefully.  The Plexiglas borders should not line up with the shelf borders to prevent any alignment errors on the shelf from transferring themselves to the Plexiglas where it would be much more visible.  For the corner pieces, the material calculator will give you the length of the Plexiglas required.  Notice that these pieces of Plexiglas will extend an inch beyond the edge of each corner shelf.  The exact dimensions of the straight Plexiglas is up to you.  The height of the Plexiglas should be the distance between the shelf and the ceiling, minus an eighth of an inch.    Planning the lengths of the Plexiglas ahead of time is important.


You have to locate a place to put the transformer and the control devices.  This location should have access to an electrical outlet (but this outlet does not need to be controlled by a switch -- this project uses X10 or Insteon to control the train.  Regardless, it is likely that you will want to have an outlet installed.

The best place to put all of this equipment is on the top shelf of a closet.  In my case, I used the linen closet which is not even in the same room (note -- there are some laws about running wiring through walls that have to be followed if you do this.  Please check your local electrical code).   I will try to update this site with information on how to get your local requirements later -- for now, check the discussion pages.

If you are the top floor, you can also put the wiring in the attic.  Again, check you local electrical code about running wiring through the floor.  You may have to build a dedicated box for this in this case.

Keep in mind that if your power outlet and switch are on different phases of the house, you may require an Insteon RF repeater.

Step 2: Materials and Tools

Having the right tools ahead of time is a good idea.  The following is a list of tools that you need:

Step 3: Cutting the Corners

The following produces 360 degrees of inside corner.  This is sufficient for most setups, unless you require an outward turning corner. 

I should also mention that the following generates a LOT of dust.  Make sure to wear a mask, and try to have as much dust collection equipment running as possible here.  If possible, do this outside!

Start with a 3/4"MDF board that measures exactly 38"(2*G) x 38"(2*G).  Draw a line down the center of the board in each direction, and diagonal lines between the corners.  These lines will serve as cutting guides later on.  Place a mark exactly 13.5"(H) from the center, and another at 14.25"(I).  Label these H and I respectively.

Outfit your router with a circle cutting jig, and a quarter inch cutter.  Drill a hole at the center of your board to use as a guide for your circle jig.  Position the router such that the outside of the cutter matches the line drawn by I (you are cutting on the inside of this line).  Set the router depth to 1/4" and cut a grove around the whole circle.  This will be the grove that the Plexiglas lies in. 

Next, position the router such that the outside of the cutter matches the H line (again, you are cutting on the inside of this line).  At this point, the board should be well supported such that when you make the through cut, both the center and the outside are supported.  This cut should be done in two passes -- the first pass, set the depth to be 5/8", such that you do not cut through the whole board.  Cut the entire circle at this depth first.  This will prevent tearing along any of the finished edges.  Next, set the router to a through depth, and cut out the inside circle.  When finishing the cut, put slight pressure on the router towards the inside of the circle.  This will prevent the router from slipping outwards and damaging your good wood. 

Once this is done, cut the piece into quadrants along the lines you marked at the beginning of this section.  Clean up the inside of the circular cut using sandpaper.  Any imperfections in the curve will become very visible when you route the edges.

Finally, on each piece mark which corner it is intended to go in.  Try fitting each piece into its corner at the height you want to install. You will likely notice some gaps forming between the board and the wall -- this is because the corners in your room are not perfectly square (very few rooms are exactly square...).  If there is a gap between the corner of the board and the corner of the room, then no adjustment is required -- that gap will be hidden by the crown molding later on.  If, on the other hand, there is a gap between the wall and the outside edge of the board, you will need to shave the board a little.  It is very important that you do not take any material off of the outside edges of the board.  These must be 5.5"(F) to match the straight shelves that will connect to them!

Step 4: Creating the Bending Mold

While you have the router and circle jig out, you might as well cut the pieces needed for bending the plastic/molding for the quarters.  Take a 2'x4' board of MDF, and mark a line down the center lengthwise.  Starting at 1/2" from the edge, drill 17 holes, spaced an inch and a half apart along this line.  Set your circle jig such that there is exactly (I)14.5" between the center mark and the cutter edge.  Starting with the hole furthest from the edge, use the circle jig to cut archs in the board (cut all the way through).  When you are finished, you should have 16 archs which match the curvature required for the Plexiglas.  Glue these up such that they are eight high (6").  Important: use wood glue!  Do not use any glue that weakens with heat!

Step 5: Cutting the straight shelf

The straight shelves are fairly simple.  Rip your remaining MDF into 5.5"(F) strips.  Once ripped, use your router, tablesaw, or RAS saw to cut the grove for the Plexiglas.  The grove should be 1/2" from the edge of the board, a quarter inch wide, and a quarter inch deep.   This will be the Plexiglas grove.   Do not cut the shelves to length yet -- do this at the installation stage

Next, replace the 1/4" cutter with a guided edge bit -- I used a 1/4" rounded bit.  Set this to the desired height.  Edge the outside of the straight shelves.  This is also a good time to edge the corner pieces as well.

Once all the pieces have been cut, and the dust settles, prime everything -- even in the Plexiglas groves.  Do not let the paint clump in the grove.

Step 6: Cutting the molding

The top molding is what holds the plastic in place at the top (at the bottom, the Plexiglas is supported by the grove).  The molding screws attach into some tapped L-Bars that are attached to the ceiling, and some screw-caps are used to cover the screw heads, making them hard to see.  It is important that each section of plastic is removable, so that maintenance can be done on the track, and derailed trains can be recovered.

Cut your molding and plastic to length (measure your sides, and figure out the exact length you need).  Leave one piece on each side a bit larger than you need -- you can cut these to length later.  Cut the corner pieces to the exact length specified in the calculator.

Use a combination counter-sink/drill bit (for size 8 screws).  Position the stop board on the drill press to 1/2" from the drill center.   Place each piece of molding such that the top edge is against the fence, and the edge rests against the stop board.  Drill each piece.  Next, position the stop board on the other side, and drill a hole in the other end of one piece.  Dry-fit this piece and another on one of your 2" brackets to make sure they fit with no pronounced gap.  Repeat for all the pieces except for the pieces that were cut a bit long, and the corner pieces (do not drill holes in these until you have installed all the other pieces).  For any longer boards, you may need to drill a hole in the center as well.

Step 7: Cutting the molding brackets

In order to attach the top molding, you have to create some custom brackets.  This falls under the realm of metal working, so beware -- metal working is much less forgiving of errors than woodworking.  The brackets to be used can be fashioned from some aluminum 1" L-Bars.  You will need exactly one 2" molding bracket per piece of Plexiglas.  For any sections of Plexiglas over 30", you will also need a 1" molding bracket to support the center.

Cutting the brackets can be dangerous if you are not careful.  Because the small size of the bracket, the end pieces can end up becoming missiles.  Whatever method you use to cut the metal, make sure that both sides are secured to a fence.  This can be accomplished with a fence, or just a piece of wood holding it in place.  Suggestions on how to cut this are as follows:  RAS saw, Table Saw, Miter Saw, Circular saw (to be done).

Once the pieces are cut to length, clean the edges with sandpaper or a file to prevent yourself from getting cut down the road.

Next, you need to drill holes.  You will need a drill press for this with a fence (a fence can just be a board clamped to the work surface if you donít have a more permanent one), and a stop board.  I would suggest wearing gloves for this, as aluminum shards can be sharp, and you will mark up your hands without them.  Set up a fence on your drill press such that the drill center is 1/2" from the fence.   Also, position the stop board 1/2" from the center of the drill bit. Use a 9/64" drill bit.   Always drill so that a raised edge is resting against the fence.  You will notice you can only drill two holes per 2" molding bracket.  You should be able to drill both holes for each 1" bracket though.  Once you have drilled all of your pieces, move your stop board to be 3/4" from the drill bit center.  Finish drilling all of the 2" pieces.  It is very important that the distance between the holes on each 2" bracket is consistent.

For each bracket (both 2" and 1"), mark an edge to be the edge that attaches to the molding.  You need to tap all of the holes on these edges with an 8-32 tap.  If you are very careful, you can place the tap in your drilling machine, which speeds things up a lot (but breaks more taps).  Be aware that taps break easily, and it is good to have an extra tap on hand.

Step 7: Prepping the room

Well, it's time to make a mess in the room.  Move out all the furniture, and cover anything you can't move with dust cloths.  Place your miter saw right in the room.  Don your Dust Mask.

Before installing the shelves, you should prepare the ceiling.  If your ceiling is stippled, or has a pattern, you must flatten the edge of the ceiling so that the display case lies flush at the top.  My first attempt at this I tried sandpaper -- not so successful -- the grit quickly clogs the paper, and you do not get very far.  Perhaps with very rough sandpaper.  So the alternative is to use a scraper, and some elbow grease.  Use your cut shelves to mark the ceiling to show where you have to smooth, and then smooth it.

Once this is finished, you will need to paint the area you sanded -- I would suggest painting the entire ceiling.

Step 8: Installing the molding brackets

You should install the molding brackets before you put up the shelf.  Once you put up the shelf, you will not have access with a drilling machine, which will make installation very difficult to say the least.

The 2" molding brackets need to be installed at the seems of the Plexiglas.

For the corner pieces, it should be noted that the edge of the Plexiglas extends an inch beyond each edge of the board.  This is done to prevent any misalignments between the corner boards and shelves from being visible at the Plexiglas seem.  Place your corner board along the ceiling, and lightly mark the edges with pencil.  Be sure to mark the position of the grove (the side closest to the wall) is.  This should be exactly (I) from the wall -- if not, take note of the distance, and use it for future measurements.

Once you have your corner pieces marked, attach a 2" L-Bracket such that one side is exactly lined up with the mark.  Ensure this piece is square with the wall.  Mark and drill holes for the anchors.  Attach the L-Bracket using size 6 screws (1").  If you happen to run into a stud, use a longer size 6 screw, and screw it directly into the stud.  Repeat for both edges of all four corners.

Marking the exact position of your other L-Brackets is fairly straight forward.  Attach the center bracket and end bracket to a piece of your molding using a screw.  Attach the free side of your molding to an already attached bracket.  Ensure that the distance from the wall is correct, mark the position of the holes of your brackets.  Using the marks, install your next L-bracket.  Repeat until you have all of your L-Brackets installed (except for the centers for the corner pieces).  Once you have this done, mark the length and position of the holes for your last pieces of molding (the ones you cut just a bit to long).  Trim them, and drill the holes for these pieces as well.

Once all the molding brackets are up, install your rope light.  Be sure the rope light does not hang more than 1" from the ceiling.  If you are having trouble with this, purchase some extra connectors, and space them closer together.

Step 9: Installing the shelf (pre-crown molding)

The shelves are supported by two means: by some L-brackets placed every foot, and by the crown molding.  The L-Brackets support most of the weight while the crown molding keeps the shelf from sagging on the outside edge.   In places (such as above the door, or above windows), you will not be able to install the crown molding due to its height.  In these areas you cannot use L-Brackets as they would be visible.  You will need to rely on an adhesive to stick to the wall (such as no-more-nails).  Depending on the length of the section, you may also have to use ceiling supports.  If you have such a section that is more than 3í long, or if the section spans more than two pieces of shelf, you will need to install some ceiling supports to prevent sagging (see the appendix for details on how to do this).

When marking where to drill holes, it is more important to make the shelf parallel to the ceiling than to make it level.  However, the ceiling may have some dips in it (especially if it has ever been repaired), so try to make the shelf straight in these areas.  You should use 2" L brackets.  There should be four L-brackets per 4' section of straight shelf -- one an inch from each edge, and then two more spaced evenly in the centers.  For each corner, you will need three L-brackets as well; again, one inch from the edge, and then one a few inches from each corner.  Do not place any L brackets if there is not 11" of wall straight down from the ceiling as these would not be covered by crown molding.  The top of the L-bracket should be exactly 7" from the top of the ceiling

Once you have all the L-Brackets in, install the shelves, starting with the corner pieces.  Use menders next to the Plexiglas grove to ensure the outside edge of the shelf lines up.

Step 10: Crown molding

You will need a friend and a 12" miter saw for this.  Did I mention that you should have a 12" miter saw handy for this?  The reason is it makes adjusting the corner angles much simpler than using a compound sliding saw as adjusting the angles is a pain (I started with this method, and then gave up, and rented a 12" saw.  I couldn't believe how much easier it was!

Before you do any cutting, make sure you know which side of the crown molding is intended to be the top.  There should be a sticker on the back indicating the side that is supposed to be up -- if not, look for the edge that has more detail -- this will be the top.  Not having installed crown molding, I managed to install three pieces upside down before I realized my mistake.  At that point it was to late, and I never recovered from the error.  You should have a jig to hold the crown molding in place.  If not, cut a piece of wood at 45 degrees  to use as a support (the long edge of the wood should be exactly the length of the back of the crown molding).

Measure the angle of each corner, and adjust your miter saw accordingly -- for example, if you measure the wall angle to be 94 degrees, adjust the miter saw to cut at 43 degrees off straight -- no it's not intuitive so spend some time thinking about it before making each cut.  (  The top edge of the crown molding should always be resting on the base of the miter saw!

If you have a section of wall where you cannot put crown molding, you should end the crown molding using a 90 corner going into the wall.  A good rule of thumb is that the top of the crown molding should line up with the window/door frame below.  See the banner picture at the top of this page for an example.

Step 10:  Adding the Train

The train track should rest on a cork or foam bed to reduce the track noise transferring into the walls.  This can be laid down using double sided carpet tape.  Once this is in, attach the track using screws.  There should be two screws per section of track.  The exact method of attaching the track will depend on what type of track you have.

Step 11: Adding the control

The train is controlled using an Insteon switch.  You are free to use cheaper X10 products if budget is a concern, but otherwise, the extra money is well worth it.  The first step is to replace your existing light switch with the Insteon keypad linc you ordered.  NOTE: if you have florescent lights in the room, you will have to install a new switch!  Otherwise, just take your old switch out, and put the new one in.

Set your transformer to the off position (you don't want to accidentally start the train here)  Plug your transformer into the bottom your Appliance Linc module.  Plug your ropelight into the bottom of the Lamp Linc module.  (IMPORTANT -- be sure you do not accidentally plug your transformer into the Lamp Linc module -- this could burn out your transformer!!!)

Now plug your RF module into the front your Lamp Linc module, and the Lamp Linc module into the Appliance Linc module.  Plug all of these into your closet outlet.

Go to your wall switch.  Select the button you wish to use for the train.  Press and hold this button for ten seconds, until it starts to flash (this takes a while).  Then, go to your appliance module, and press and hold the set button for three seconds.  Repeat this for the ropelight.

You are now ready for the maiden voyage!!  Place the train on the track, with all of its cars.  Next, switch your transformer to 50% on.  Your train may or may not start.  If it does not, press your button on the wall switch.  Adjust your transformer until the train gets the desired speed.

Step 12: Plexiglas and Molding

Well, you have the train running.  Take the train off the track to prevent someone from playing with it before you have the Plexiglas up.  If it derails, you're out a locomotive and some cars, and possibly a floor.

This section takes a while

Bending the plastic is tricky, and I can't say I'm an expert.  I've managed to melt a couple of pieces together, and shatterd another piece as I tried to bend it.  To bend the plastic, take the plastic and gently place it between your two molds.  Gently push the molds together until the plastic is bent to shape.  Use a metal clamp or two to hold it in place.

Heat the oven to 120 Celsius (350f).  Put the plastic in and let it heat up for about ten minutes (again, I haven't determined the ideal temperatures or times yet -- Once the discussion pages are open, I'm hoping someone will be able to tell me).  When you take the plastic out, let it cool completely (at least a couple of hours) before removing it from the mold.  The plastic will straighten again, but should hold part of the curve.  This is enough to prevent it from cracking when you are putting it on.

Note, if the mold doesn't fit in the oven, you can trim it down in size a bit.  Just be sure it covers 90 degrees of corner.

You can use the same molds and technique to bend the top molding, only do this slower.  Unlike the plastic, the MDF will not ruin if you overheat it.  Also, I ran my MDF under water before bending it, to increase the moisture content.

Once bent, you need to drill holes in the Plexiglas to receive the screws.  I used a 1/2" drill, and then used a thin saw to turn the holes into slots.  The holes should align with the holes on the corresponding piece of molding, and should be .75" from the top of the Plexiglas.

Install the corner pieces first.  Bending the plastic/molding can subtly effect its length, and it is much easier to adjust a straight piece than it is to adjust a curved one.

Step 13: Enjoy

You're done!!  You can enjoy the train set at your leisure, and be the envy of all your friends (or at least your kid will be the envy of all their friends).