Friday, August 14, 2015


I was once holding forth on this topic in a small group of modelers and one said, “What the heck is a duckboard?” That is, of course, a perfectly reasonable question, and the easiest answer is that it describes slatted wood panels, often used to ensure good footing in swampy, oily or otherwise treacherous ground. The origin of the term seems not to be known firmly (you can walk like a duck in muddy ground?), though the term gained widespread notice in the trenches of World War I. The problem there was that water tended to stand perpetually in the bottom of trenches, and duckboards placed there mostly kept the soldiers’ feet out of the mud. There is an informative if brief Wikipedia summary at: . It’s been true for years that hiking trails traversing swampy areas may improve the footing with stretches of duckboard.
     But what has that got to do with modeling or the Southern Pacific? Answer is, SP used duckboards all around the system. Here is one example, taken in the engine facility at Taylor Yard (Los Angeles) in July 1950 by Richard Steinheimer. The negative is in the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University, from whom permission to publish was obtained.

This is an area where running gear of steam locomotives was steam cleaned, naturally making the ground wet, and blasted-off oil and grease doubtless made it even more slippery. The duckboards would help workmen move safely and comfortably along these tracks.
     Here is another example, concerned more with oil spillage. It’s alongside the fuel track at San Luis Obispo, where diesel fuel was unloaded from tank cars. In fact the two tank cars visible in this view have their bottom outlets connected to intake valves by means of hoses. This is a Southern Pacific photo, probably from 1954 or 1955. (You can click to enlarge.)

Notice the similarities in duckboard dimensions and arrangement to the first photo, but also notice in both photos that some of the duckboard panels are not perfectly aligned with their neighbors.
     Now if one wanted to model this kind of scene, what would be an easy way to do so? Obviously these duckboards could easily be scratchbuilt with stripwood or strip styrene, though it would be a tedious process and likely not easy to get the boards consistently parallel. I’ve adopted a much easier way. I use HO scale pallets. There is a Preiser set of pallets, their number 17104. You can Google “Preiser 17104” and find lots of resellers of this pallet set. My box looks like this:

Note that you get 60 pallets in this set. The cover artwork shows a color that is more yellow than the models, but the as-molded color is definitely a new-wood color.
     I should point out that these are “Euro-pool” or EUR-pallets. They are narrower than standard American pallets, so may not suit you to stack on loading docks of your layout industries, but they are fine for duckboards. (The EUR-pallet is 1200 x 800 mm; standard U.S. pallets are 40 x 48 inches, or 1020 x 1220 mm. Today there are several additional standard EUR pallet sizes. If this topic is of interest, Google “EUR-pallet” for more information.)
     I have made duckboards out of these pallets by lightly priming them first, usually with gray or light brown, sanding the bottoms, and attaching a strip of thin styrene sheet or sometimes a scale 1 x 10-inch styrene strip, to hold them in alignment. Here are two sets of duckboards, one upside down to show the 1 x 10 I used in this case. The irregularity is deliberate; one could certainly align them very precisely if desired.

These duckboards are only primed, and certainly will be given oil stains and deposits before installation on the layout, but show the kind of model you can produce.They have and should have gaps between all boards, which is an effect you would not get with scribed styrene.
     As the prototype photos indicate, both engine terminals and oil unloading spots are good places to use duckboards. I plan to do both, and will report in later posts on their placement.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony,
    The boards look like full-size 2" x 6" x 6'. What's your guess as to the dimensions of the duckboards illustrated in both photos?

    George Corral

  2. I don't know, George, for sure, but think they look more like 2 x 4-inch boards. The ones at San Luis Obispo are definitely not 6 feet long, more like three feet, but the ones at Taylor might be as long as 6 feet. Of course those are just numbers from eyeballing the relative length and width of ties, etc.
    Tony Thompson

    1. It looks as if the boards would easily fir between the rails with a little to spare. 4 ft. to 4 1/2 ism y observation.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I first noticed these in my SP in Oregon books. I planned on using Bar Mill Models fencing for my version.

    'N'ormal Scale:


    I'm not sure how this scales out, now with the information in your post, I'll have to check it out further, but at first glance, it seems to be ok.

  4. I would use Central Valley fences as the starting point to make duck boards.

  5. The Central Valley fence is made of 11-inch planks, pretty large for duckboards. It is a 6-foot fence, and could of course be shortened, even cut in half, for a more prototypical width of the duckboards, but the board width is wrong. My belief is that pallets (U.S. or European) are a simpler and better starting point.
    Tony Thompson

  6. As an old soldier, I can tell you that standing in wet field fortifications leads to Trench Foot, aka Immersion Foot. Reared its ugly face it Italy in WW2 and in Korea. It got so bad in Korea, that the CG of 8th Army, Mathew Ridgway issued orders that the officers and NCO's of any man who contracted it would be court martialed, Suddenly, daily foot inspections were routine and the rate of new cases fell off a cliff.