Section One: Module Construction

Method #1: Lightweight Plywood

This photo shows a 2'x4' module built using the lightweight plywood method with bolt-on legs assembled in pairs. The use of quarter-inch plywood can save weight and be just as strong as heavier material if proper construction methods are followed. The thin deck and fascias are glued and screwed to the joists, which makes a rigid assembly. The fascias in this particular plan are outside of the 24" deck so this unit is 24 1/2" wide and 4' long. Optional basic widths are 30" and 36" plus fascias. Special units you might build may differ.

If you look closely at the picture you will notice that the fascias extend above the deck both at the front and rear. It also has thin metal corner braces to hold the legs in a rigid position. Controls for operating the milk car unit and the turnouts are mounted on the rear fascia.

Some modules are built with fascias raised above the deck like this one, while others are built with one or both fascias flush with the deck. There are good reasons for these variations.

For example, some people prefer to have it flush in front to make it easier to view trains, especially for children -- and to see the wheels, and with a steam locomotive this can be interesting. Others prefer to have a raised fascia in front because it helps keep trains from falling to the floor in the event of derailment. It also keeps little hands from reaching the trains.

When both fascias are raised, track and turnouts are protected during transport or if it should fall on its face before it's fully erected. Two raised fascias might make the unit slightly stronger, and it makes it easier to stack (nest) several modules for storage or transport. It's also possible to mount skyboards over the raised fascia, eliminating the need to bolt them on.

You'll have to make your own decision here, perhaps conforming to your local group's wishes. This does not, however, affect how the modules will join with each other.

The Plywood Deck

At the right is the basic blueprint of a basic module 24" wide by 48" long, so the top deck is made from a piece of plywood cut to that size. Use a good grade of plywood, good both sides, as the cheaper grades have too many knotholes that weaken the material for our purposes.

Four such pieces can be cut from a full sheet of plywood (some home improvement centers feature plywood pre-cut to this size). Note: You have to allow for the width of the saw blade kerf (cut), which could be as much as 3/16", so the actual dimensions will be slightly less. You should also cut two fascias, the widths of which equal the depths of your joists, plus the 1/4" thickness of the deck, plus the distance you want your fascias to extend above the deck, which could be 1" to 2" or none at all. Get out your pencil and start figuring.

The Joists

Your joists will probably be made from pine or fir (choice of wood is optional) one-inch thick. Note: 1" wood is usually 3/4", slightly more or less. By the same token, the width of a board is usually less than its standard nomenclature -- i.e., a board 4" wide is usually 3 1/2" wide, but could be between 3 1/2" and 3 3/4" wide. Dimensions may vary from one lumber yard to another.

The depth of your joists is another instance where you have some latitude. Our diagram suggests that 1"x4" might be better than 1"x3" because it allows more room for wiring, for recessing folding legs, for rivers or highway for underpasses. Less than 3" (2" is not recommended because there is not enough room for wiring and it is not as strong and rigid. This has become more critical with recent releases of very large and very heavy die-cast and brass scale-proportioned locomotives). These modules must take a beating, as you'll find out.

Cut four joists the exact length of your deck width, so cut your deck first. Now you're ready to assemble.


What we are building is actually an I-beam laid on its side, so to achieve maximum strength with this lightweight material, all parts need to be welded together, and that means glue. The four joists are carefully fitted, starting with the two end ones. They should be glued with Elmer's or Wilhold applied to the deck and the edges of the joists. Then they can be nailed together. Some people prefer screws, but the glue is really the main bond with the nails holding the pieces together until the glue sets.

Be sure the ends of the joists are square and even with the edges of the plywood deck so that you'll get a good bond when you add the fascias later. Add the other joists at approximately 16" on center.

The fascias are added next. Do the rear one first as it is probably going to be higher than the deck. Put glue along the ends of the joists and one edge of the plywood deck, and also on the inside of the fascia where it will join with the deck and joist-ends. It might be helpful to hold the fascia in the proper position against the deck and joist before applying the glue, and draw a pencil line around the area of the fascia that will receive glue. It will be neater this way -- no use smearing glue all over.

Now glue on the fascia. This is tricky because the deck with the joists probably wants to curl slightly, so put one lower corner of the fascia square on the bottom of the end joist (your joist is cut square and mounted perpendicular to the deck, isn't it?), being sure it also is square with the depth of the joist. Put in one nail.

Now put the lower corner of the other end of the fascia on the bottom of the other end joist. Agin be sure it's square with the depth of the joist. Put in one nail. Now go to the remaining joists repeating the process; the lower edge of the fascia should be even with the bottom of each joist. Put a nail in each joist.

Your deck should now be straight, the ends of the fascia should be even with the depths of the end joists, and the bottom of the fascia should be even with the bottoms of the joists. You want to be sure the ends are square because they'll fit better against adjoining modules when you C-clamp them together. Put another nail in each joist, or screws if you prefer (if screws, put your countersink holes in before you get into the glueing).

Now comes the hardest part. Put a row of 3/4" or 1" 18-gauge brads (or wire nails) through the fascia into the edge of the plywood deck. This deck is only 1/4" thick so the nail has to go in straight and in the middle of this 1/4" area. It will be helpful if you draw a pencil line from one end of the fascia to the other along this center line. It will be neater if you countersink the brads and putty or spackle over them before you paint the module.

After this fascia is securely glued and nailed, do the front one. If you want the front fascia to come to the top deck, not extend above it, then work from the top edge down, rather than from the bottom edge up, as you did with the rear fascia.

When this dries for a day you should have a very strong, lightweight I-beam that will provide a good base for your track and whatever else you want to put on it. This method has produced a 24"x48" module top. It will weigh about 12 pounds and be easy to carry and store.


In developing our standards, we opted for as much individualism as possible, which means you don't have to make your module by this lightweight plywood method. You can make it out of cast iron if you want to (you have to carry it!). Or make it out of other thicknesses of plywood, such as 1/2" or even 3/4"..

The absolutes are railhead 40" above the floor, legs adjustable +1" or -1", O-gauge track centers 8 1/2" apart, and tracks that end 5" from the module ends. This means that if you prefer, and can carry, a module 30" or 36" wide, or more than 48" long, feel free to use those dimensions. But keep in mind that your lengths must be divisible by 48" (if you want to use a 72" length, then supply two modules that length -- and two of these are 12 feet long which equals three four-foot modules).

One way to get more distance quickly is to make some modules 72" long, but only 14 1/2" wide (room for two mainline tracks), and just hang them from adjoining modules. We call these Spanners.

Some of our members have used 1/4" plywood for deck, fascias and joists. Others have used 3/8" or 1/2" plywood with 1"x4" joists. You can eliminate one joist if you do it this way. Thicker plywood is a little easier to work with and is stronger than 3/8", but so far the 1/4"method with joists has held up very nicely in actual service.

Method #2: Heavier Construction

Some people aren't comfortable unless they build things big and heavy; they're obviously strong enough to handle any weight. If this is your want, or you happen to have the material on hand, you may want to use this heavier construction method. Here again is your 24"x48" plywood top, thickness being up to you, but with additional framing in place of plywood facias. If you use 1/4", you will need four joists. If you use 1/2", you can eliminate one or both middle joists. The diagram at the right shows the plywood deck flush with all edges of the end joists and side fascias.

Using this construction and heavier materials, you won't really need to use glue, but it does make for a firmer, stronger and more durable job. Use #6 screws 1/2" long to attach the fascias to the ends of the joists. Attach the deck to the joists with small nails if you're also using glue. If you don't use glue, you should use a good number of screws, #4 or #5, with length appropriate to the thickness of your deck.

Method #3: Bob Griffin's Suggestion

A group of New York state Lionel operators, under the aegis of Bob Griffin, came up with another alternate method. They wanted a little more distance between the front edge of the module and the center rail, so they are using a 1"x4" board for the front fascia with flush decks, which gives them an extra 1/2" of space, enough to mount crossing gates and similar accessories between the track and the front edge of the module. They use 1"x3" joists which leaves space between the bottoms of the joists and fascias to run their wiring without having to drill holes through the joists.

Fastening the Front Fascia

The front fascia should be glued and screwed to the ends of the joists and deck. Since this fascia is 3/4" thick as opposed to the lightweight plan of 1/4", it calls for careful workmanship if any screws are going into the 1/4" deck. If there is a problem, a simple solution would be to add a piece of quarter-round or lattice to the underside. Another solution would be to rabbet the top edge of the fascia, which also could be done with Method #2. Rabbeting takes special skills and tools, so it is more complicated. Both are illustrated at the right and either of these methods will be neater.

Legs for Your Module

The best way to support your module is on legs. We don't say this facetiously, as we started out without legs, placing modules on tables at our club meetings because we had plenty available at the time. We found this had several disadvantages; tables aren't always level or exactly the same height; it's hard to connect the modules and to level them; they're too low for operating purposes; and you have to arrange the tables (and put them back again) as well as the modules, which means extra work. Putting your modules on the floor is unthinkable. So using legs is the natural option.

Regardless of what type legs you use, they must be adjustable plus or minus 1" and they must be long enough so that the railhead is 40" above the floor. This means you have to take into account the thickness of your module deck, of the carpeting or roadbed if you use it, the means of adjusting the height, and the height of the rails and ties.

We can't give you exact dimensions here because of the variables involved, but we can warn you that you should decide about carpet or roadbed before making your legs.

Material 2"x2" purchased at the lumberyard is a good size for legs, but will actually be closer to 1 1/2" by 1 1/2". The four legs can be separate and if attached with two bolts through the fascia or module ends, won't need braces. They'll be plenty sturdy once their tied into the other modules. The bolts can probably remain in the modules when not in use, otherwise you may end up at a meet without bolts. You also have to carry four legs, and they must be identified in some way so you know which leg goes on which corner (1-1 for first leg and corner, 2-2, etc. is simple), unless you're clever enough to drill everything so the legs are interchangeable.

A better way is to make two legs at each end into pairs by means of cross braces. This method will be a little sturdier. If you add corner diagonal braces, your set-up will be even stronger. Important: If you put bolts through the end joists when bolting the legs on to your module, the bolt heads must be countersunk (recessed) so they are flush with the surface (or even a little below). This is the surface that will be C-clamped to the next module and must be kept flat, smooth, and clear. This can't be stressed too strongly.

Adjusting Module Height

Adjustment of module height to compensate for uneven floors and to mate with adjoining modules, can be accomplished with 3/8" or 1/4" bolts, full thread, with hexagonal heads, and T-nuts. Ring bolts, as suggested by Phil Maddox, have a larger surface to get hold of to make adjustments when you're setting up.

Some T-nuts have sharp points and are driven into the wood with a hammer. Drive them in straight or your adjustment bolt will go in crooked and hit the side of the hole you drill in the leg. It will be hard to adjust, or worst yet, will not go in all the way when you need the full 1" adjustment. With many uses, they sometimes slip out of the leg. This can be remedied by driving small (#6) wood screws into the notches on the edges of the t-nuts (two per nut should be sufficient). This will keep them from falling out. Another type of T-nut can be screwed in. It will be easier to get this type in straight and it will not loosen over a period of many uses.

Hinged Legs are Fast!

If you want to set up quickly to operate, make your legs in pairs and hinge them to the module. You must use corner braces (at least two) in this situation. Hinged legs have the advantage of easier and faster set-up, you don't have to remember to take the bolts and legs, but they do add weight when carrying the module. If you use 1"x4" joists, the leg will fold completely within that depth, if you cut away parts of the center joists to accommodate them.

Legs are Finished...Are You?

After you've completed and installed your legs, and everything fits and works properly, set up your module and admire it. You've done a good job and are to be congratulated. But you're not finished yet. You've already decided whether or not to have roadbed or carpet, and you will want to paint or stain the module before adding track or wiring, so we suggest you turn to Section 4: Decoration and Scenery, before continuing further. Then you'll have to quickly come back to Section 2: Track and Section 3: Electrical, because some of these overlap.

The picture above showa a just-completed module which happens to be 30"x72", but has basics the same as for any other size module. It just so happens this one was to serve as part of a six-track yard adjacent to Al Bailey's home layout. The picture below shows one of Al Bailey's modules after decorating.

As you can see, you can achieve quite a dramatic and realistic effect with a little imagination.

  • Introduction
  • Simple Standards
  • What's in This Manual?
  • Section Two: Track
  • Section Three" Electrical
  • Section Four: Decoration and Scenery
  • Section Five: Special Modules
  • Back to Cover Page