Building A Module - The Bits & Pieces

What is "Module Railroading"?
 Module railroading can be many things to many people.  If you belong to a "module railroad club", it's a series of table-like modules built by the club members to standards that allow the modules to be connected together so as to form a very large layout.  If you're an individual, "module railroading" means that your layout is on a series of table-like modules so that when you move, the model railroad can move with you instead of having to be cut up with the "sawzall".

Whether it's one module or a series of modules, the layout is usually portable, can be built in sections, can be joined to other sections, and is usually standardized in terms of width-and-length, electrical connections, and track connections.  The key element is the connectability between modules. 

We're going to show you how to take some bits-and-pieces of wood that are on the left-side of the photo below, glue-and-screw them together with some fasteners and give the wood a good coat of paint so that it looks like the painted frame in the middle.  Then we'll add a Styrofoam deck so that it looks like the module on the right side.

(BTW, the photos down below are all of the same module but at the different stages of construction.)
We'll next add some wires so that the trains can run.  Since we're using DCC, we'll add some telephone wire to control the trains.  We'll also show you how to make the legs.  I'll leave it up to you to lay the track, scenery, and structures.  (We'll also give you some tips and tricks to make life a bit easier when it comes to laying the track and adding the scenery.)  By the way, the word of the day is "light" as in "not heavy".  Our modules will be ultra-light so you don't get a hernia when you move them around.

To give you an idea of what you can do, here's a photo of my Bancroft & Irondale modules - 12 feet of "module railroading" in two 6-foot modules connected to somebody else's modules (two different people) at either end.  To get them out of the house requires going up 10 steps from the basement, out the back door with a 90-degree rotation in the back porch, down 6 stairs, around the corner and into the back of my mini-van.  There isn't a single ounce of hydrocal on them cause I'm the one that has to do all of that work (me and "Dolly").  So, when I built them, I wanted to make sure I could do all of that without ending up in the back of an ambulance. 
Before we get started, first a word on the different types of wood that's available for building the module frame. 

The Types of Wood
Modules are usually built from two types of wood - plywood and dimensional lumber.

The best dimensional lumber is usually pine.  It comes in two grades - "Select Pine" and "Knotty Pine".  Pine usually gets a bum wrap from the "module-construction experts" with comments like "...it warps....", "... it cups....", ".....it cracks....", ".... it splits....", ".....birch veneer plywood is better...." and whole bunch of other lame excuses.  These so-called experts have obviously never used pine the right way.

Any lumber, whether it's dimensional lumber or plywood, will warp, cup, crack, and split.  I've just finished making some modules out of birch veneer plywood.  Even before I've glued and screwed the wood together, it's got a nice 3/16" warp in it to say nothing of the shredding I got from the poplar inner core when I cut out the holes for the telephone jacks.  I've also used Baltic birch which split when I drove screws into the ends.  And then we've got those missing patches on good-one-side fir plywood, to say nothing of the density and weight of that kind of plywood.

Each type of lumber has its good side and its bad side.  It's not a question of whether one type of lumber is better over another type of lumber.  It's how we mitigate those possiblities that makes the difference.

We're going to use knotty pine, simply because it's readily available, I don't have to cut it up into strips, it's easy to work with, and it will take a lot of abuse.  It's also the least expensive of all the options available, and the lightest of all materials. However, the choice is yours.  Whether it's dimensional lumber or plywood, knotty pine or select pine, birch veneer/ Baltic birch/ G1S fir, they all can produce a very functional module. 

I Don't Cut Plywood
The first thing that's usually mentioned when you say you're going to build your modules out of plywood is how to cut a 4'x 8' sheet of plywood into 4" or 6" strips to make the module frame.  You ask around to see who's got that itty-bitty 110-volt table saw.  You then load the plywood on top of your car and truck it over to your buddy's where you rip it up in the middle of his driveway.

I don't know what your table saw looks like but here's what mine looks like.  This definitely is NOT a plywood-cutting table saw!!
While I've cut up plywood a hundred-and-one-ways-to-Sunday, I've never cut up a sheet of plywood and liked the results.  Here's why.

I have yet to cut pieces off a sheet of plywood in a straight line. There's always those zig-zagged scalloped edges where the plywood bounces along the edge of the fence.......  The pieces are usually 4" on one end and 3 15/16" (or worse) on the other end...........  To say nothing about the struggle to keep a 4'x 8' sheet of plywood lined up square with the fence..............!!??  .........And then you've got to cut the 4" or 6" strip into 4' or 6' lengths with it hanging over the left side of the table while you're trying to keep it squared on the miter guide............?????   

Fa-getta-bout-it!!   It don't work!!!

Years ago when I first started building modules, I didn't have the power tools that I have today.  But, I very quickly discovered that most reputable building supply stores have .....the "saw service"!!  They have a very beautiful "panel saw", a gorgeous "chop saw" and a whole lot of other power tools that I still don't have.  Here's what the panel saw looks like. 
The plywood is simply placed against the tilted vertical table.  The business end is adjusted so that it cuts a standard 4" or 6" strip.  It's got a 220 volt motor that doesn't stall as it moves across the plywood.  It's an 80-tooth blade instead of your 40 tooth blade which means the edges of the plywood aren't splintered.  It's "zing, zing, zing" as the blade goes across the panel.  No scalloped edges and it's 4" wide along the whole length. 

So, whenever I need to cut a sheet of plywood, I pick out my sheets and wheel them over to the saw service with my cutting diagram.  Very accurate and no splintering.  And here's the nice part. It doesn't cost me a cent.

So, next time you're walking out of the store with that heavy sheet of 3/4" plywood to run through your buddy's 110 volt table saw to chop a 4'x 8" piece of 3/4" plywood into tiny 4" strips - STOP!  Turn your cart around and walk the plywood over to the saw service - BEFORE you leave the store. Get them to cut up the plywood. It'll save you lots of time and headaches.  

Cutting Dimensional Lumber - I Don't!!
When I first started, I didn't have a lot of the tools that I have today.  As with the plywood, I discovered the "saw service".  When I built a module, I'd pick out a couple of pieces of dimensional lumber, walk over to the saw service and give them the list of lengths that I needed. They'd set up a "stop-block" and run the pieces through their chop saw, all nicely cut to the same lengths.  When I got home, I was ready to start my module construction. 

A 4-foot Module - The Bits & Pieces
Just to recap, I have
2 pieces - 3/4"x 4 1/2"x 4' - Side Members
2 pieces - 3/4"x 4 1/2"x 22 1/2" - End Plates
1 piece - 3/4"x 1 1/2"x 22 1/2" - Middle Cross Member
4 pieces - triangular Corner Gussets

PS - You're going to have some scrap pieces of 3/4"x 1 1/2" lumber left over.  Get the saw service to cut these scraps into pieces that are 4" long.  We're going to use these when we install our DCC telco jacks/ UP5 panels/ UR91 radio receivers, or whatever other components we use to plug our throttles in.

I've also included an extra End Plate so that I can match it to my next module if I want to use bolts (instead of clamps) to clamp the two modules together (more on this later). 

If you're building a 6-foot module, the pieces are the same except the side members are 72" instead of 48".

Up next - "Triangular Corner Gussets".  

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