The $100 Module
Keiran Ryan

Print the drawings for your own reference.


The idea of modular construction is not new, nor is this project an original concept of mine. For the last few years, Model Railway exhibitions have displayed new and old layouts and the one thing to emerge from these exhibitions is that the standard of the layouts on show has improved dramatically. With this improvement, it is also worth noting that the difference between many of the high class layouts, comes down to one thing --- Presentation ---; that is the method by which the exhibitors show their handiwork, skills, information and attitude. Some of layouts I refer to, include; "Beyond Bulliac", "Wingham", "Swans Crossing", and many British layouts.

A few years back, when "Beyond Bulliac" came upon the exhibition scene, I was intending to "pull my finger out", and build my own layout. Upon seeing "Bulliac" and meeting and questioning the guys who operated the layout, it became apparent to me that this really was the only way to display a "work of art". Now don't think that I'm being pretentious when I call it a work of art, but in my opinion a model railway layout is a form of art, and by presenting it in this, self contained dioramic fashion, it is being framed for all to see.

The second thing that reinforced my thoughts on this issue, was when Rodney James showed two of the modules from his proposed new layout at the 1996 Branchline Forum. After spending most of the day going over the modules and a few phone calls to Rod at a later date regarding materials and sizes, I began my quest - no, my dream of redesigning my layout.

Getting Started

As with most projects, I examined some of the options I had, and after the typical pre-project stuff- ups, and many, many, designs, I decided on the timber type & sizes, method of construction and criteria for the modules. The modules had to be strong, lightweight, quickly assembled and disassembled at exhibitions, handled by 2 people, and transportable. This last issue (transportable) left me with the need to build a trailer and special cradle to carry the modules. After some serious thought, and some close consultation, the track plan was obtained from the Railway Archives (the plan, by the way, had some important dimensions and actually was to scale). It was decided seven modules, each 1800mm x 600mm, would do the job. Then, problem number 6,736.5 (you always have to have a few problems with this sort of thing); the 7 modules allowed for the yard, but did not allow for entering and exiting the layout! Yes, another 2 modules would be needed: oh goody, now we're having fun. One of the (many) mistakes I made (and learnt from) was to pay a steel cutting company to cut a template for the profiles, from 10 mm steel plate. The product was far from clean on the edge, and was distorted enough not to do the job. So I painstakingly measured, measured (measure twice, cut once) and cut a template (drawing 1) from 12mm craftwood (fibreboard), and sealed it with a satin clear lacquer, to stem the ingress of moisture.

Material and Tool List

  • 2 sheets of 9mm CD ply 3ply (5 ply preferred) 2400mm x 1200mm (per module)

    1 sheet 3mm craftwood (fibreboard) 1800mm x 1200mm

    Aquadhere wood glue

    Small nails/small screws

    1 tube Liquid Nails.

    Clear Lacquer (Satin finish)

    Jigsaw (electric, not puzzle) with scroll blade

    Router with 9 mm straight cut bit, and flush cutting bit & bearing.

    Paint, colour of your choice, if you decide to paint the timberwork.

    Blue paint for sky background.

  • Construction Method

  • 1. Using the template, mark out a sheet of ply as shown in drawing 2, leaving a 10 -12 mm gap between the profile edges.

    2. Using the Jigsaw, rough cut the profiles, as close to the drawn edge as possible.

    3. Locate the template on the rough-cut profiles, screwing or nailing the template to the profile, so that nothing protrudes through either side, interfering with the router base.

    4. Using the router with the flush cutting bit & bearing, adjusted so that the bearing runs on the template edge. Route the edges of the profile to match the template, then lightly sand the edges. Use a fine saw to square off the inside corner that the router leaves round. Clean up with a file.

    5. Using the profile in drawing 3, measure and route 9mm notches in the locations shown. Ease out the notches so that they are not to tight, not to loose, but juuuuuust right. (Goldilocks is just around the corner)

    6. Cut 1800mm lengths of plywood as per drawing 4.

    7. To maintain uniformity, measure (always from the same end), mark, and measure again, then route the notches in the selected pieces as per drawing 4a (Refer to drawing 5 for part names)

    8. On the two front fascia boards glue and screw mounting blocks in place, as shown in drawing 6. These aid in locating and securing the front fascia boards, which do not have routed locating notches in them.

    9. The two end profiles have holes cut in them for securing the modules together; there are many ways to achieve this. One method is to drill holes in the template (refer drawing 7) and place metal ferrules in the template to allow a drill bit to drill the profile board, but not to wear the template. Drilling the template when it is screwed to the profile maintains a level of consistently between modules. My preferred method of module attachment is to use 1/4" T-Nuts. These require a 5/16" diameter hole.

    10. Cut 2 lengths of 35mm x 70mm pine, 2 metres long. These are to be used to hold the profiles whilst locating the module together. Measure and groove the pine as per drawing 8. Clamp the two pieces side x side and double check the measurements before routing the grooves. This should make them identical. Mark the pieces so that they are always facing the same direction. Locate and clamp the pine on a bench or 2 saw horses, and locate the profiles in place, thus allowing the long bits to be attached. (Easy ain't it)

    11. The simplest way to put the jigsaw (puzzle not electric) together, is to ease the pieces together, without force, starting with the top centre brace, rear centre brace, and base centre brace. Be very careful, locating the 150mm backdrop support brace, leaving it flush with the profile boards (drawing 5) Make sure all the pieces sit flush before gluing and nailing/screwing. When all the notched pieces are in place, carefully glue and screw the front two fascia pieces in place; check for square. Allow 15 years to dry (oops, that's just for me – just kidding), give them a day or two. Don't forget the 25mm backdrop support that fits at the rear of the base, as the backdrop sits on this piece

    12. The 3mm-craftwood backdrop fits in next and is what makes the module strong, tough, rigid, firm, solid, healthy, wealthy, and wise (sorry – I digress). Having the craftwood cut to size by the timber supplier, is definitely the way to go. The only dimension to work out here is the width of the board. The best method to obtain this measurement is to use a small piece of craftwood, approximately 1200mm x 50 -100mm wide, and test fit it into the curve of the profile. Continue trimming the craftwood until you are happy with the fit (it should be under stress, but not to the point where it displaces the front upper fascia panel). Once you are happy with this measurement, write the measurement down so that it is not forgotten, and cut all of your backdrops the same so that even if they are not in total contact with the profiles, they are still consistent.

    13. Spread Liquid nails between the backdrop and the profiles before forcing the board into place. Locate the board into the bottom back corner of the module and force it into the profile shape, (don't worry – it will bend). Run Liquid nails into all the joints between the backdrop and the profiles, and between the other boxed joints in the module. Finally adjust the ends of the backdrop so that they don't extend past the module ends, and adjust the module for square before the Liquid nails dries.

    14. Cut a baseboard from 9mm ply to suit your requirements. I prefer the old cookie cutter method as it reduces weight and allows for drainage and other below rail level modelling.

  • Conclusion

    I estimate that the module should cost you just under $100.00 Aus, which in my opinion is reasonably cheap. The module at this stage should weigh between 35 and 40 Kilogram. If it weighs more than that, then get the lead out. (Joke ha, ha)


  •   Self contained.


      Force operators out the front, thereby communicating with the public.

      Quick to put together & pull apart.

      Works the eye to focal points on the layout. No heads, hands and bodies over the back, distracting the viewer.


      Great as a home layout: extremely portable, especially if you move regularly.

  • Disadvantages

  •   Needs special transport (when exhibiting).


      Awkward to manage on one's own.

  • While this specific size of module suits my purpose, any length of module, using the same technique, can be built, depending on your environment. While building a corner module can be done, a reverse corner module is a tad more intimidating: but I await any suggestions.

    Keiran's 10 Rules of Modelling

    1. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

    2. "KISS", Keep It Simple Stupid.

    3. The only limitation is your imagination.

    4. You won't know if you can achieve something until somebody tells you that you can't - Don't listen to them.

    5. If at first you don't succeed, give it another go - After all, you never fail at what you do, you just achieve a different outcome.

    6. Don't build 10 similar items: instead, take the time to build one perfect item, and cast thousands of them.

    7. Always keep your mind open to new ideas, then build on them.

    8. Strive for perfection, then improve on it.

    9. Don't be scared to rebuild a model you thought was perfect, because your idea of perfect will change as your skills improve.

    10. As a modeller, your basic aim should always be to improve both your standards and your skills.