Building Modules with 1x3s

You've been browsing the site, admiring pictures of all those tasty T-Trak modules that people have built, and you want in on the action. Great! Just one problem: you've never built anything out of wood before. We'll take things one step at a time, then, with a very basic module design, using readily-available materials and common tools.


First, the wood

The basic module we'll build here calls for some 1x3 (actually 3/4" x 2-1/2") softwood, and some 1/4" sheet material. If you've already got some scrap wood matching these descriptions leaning against the garage wall, you'll want to use it, right? That's fine. T-Trak modules are a good use for small scraps.


If not, you'll need to do a little shopping. First, the 1x3. Your typical home center or lumber yard sells two kinds of pine boards. "Number 2 Common" is the cheap, knotty, twisted stuff. "Select" is generally knot-free, and usually straighter. For a T-Trak module, which requires less than 4 linear feet of board, the difference in cost is minor. Spare yourself some headache and get the better board. (If you're willing to spring for something better still, consider a poplar board.) A four-foot board contains enough material for one module. Pick one out that's reasonably straight, and shows no sign of splitting.


Now, the deck material. Most home centers have a rack of what they call "handy panels," partial sheets of plywood, Masonite, pegboard, and such materials, sized for small projects. You should be able to find a piece of 1/4" plywood there, but before you grab it, check the rack for 1/4" MDF. Why? Take a look. Odds are, the plywood panels are all warped to some extent or another. An MDF panel, by contrast, will lay flat. Flat is a good attribute for a module deck, so go with the MDF if they have it. MDF — that's short for "medium-density fiberboard" — is similar to Masonite in composition. It machines easily, takes paint well, and won't go all mushy if it gets wet (which it probably will when you apply scenery to your module). If there's no MDF, pick out the flattest piece of plywood they've got.

On your way to the checkout, stop by the hardware aisle. Pick up a small box of 3d (three-penny) finishing nails, four 1/4-20 T-nuts, and four 1/4-20 by 2-inch hex tap full-thread bolts. If the store doesn't carry the full-thread hex tap bolts, opt for carriage bolts in the same size. Make sure they're threaded all the way up to the head; not all of them are.


Cutting parts to size

Let me guess — you don't have a saw, right? I understand. If money's tight this month, don't dash out and buy one. Keep your landlord happy instead. Find a friend or relative with a chop saw — that's the easiest tool for cutting the 1x3. Almost every self-described handyman has one in his garage these days. The whole job shouldn't take more than fifteen minutes or so. Cut two pieces from your board to 12" long, and two more pieces to 6-3/4" long. A little undersize is okay.

Cutting the panel is a little more complicated. The long edge is easily cut with a table saw (another handyman essential) to a width of 8-1/4". Cross-cutting it to a length of 12-1/8" on a table saw can be a tricky operation—there's potential for kickback if you don't know what you're doing. Read the manual first, and use the miter gauge. Getting nailed in the nuts by a flying chunk of plywood is no fun. Trust me on this. If the chop saw that cut your 1x3 can handle an 8-1/4" wide panel (the smaller ones can't), use that, it's easier. The sizing does not have to be absolutely precise, but the final length of the panel must be shorter than the 310mm length of the assembled UniTrack that will be attached to the module. If you have the track on hand, use it to check the length.

Why didn't we have the home center do the cuts for us, when we bought the wood? They have a saw, right? You could, but there is probably a sign posted on their saw: "no precision cuts." The lack of such a notice is no guarantee of accuracy, especially with the short pieces you need. You may be charged for the privilege, too.

If you absolutely cannot get access to power tools, you could cut the parts with a hand saw. Getting straight, square cuts will take some patience and skill, however. A miter box is invaluable here.


If need be, the sheet material can be cut with a utility knife, a fresh blade, and a steel straightedge. Make light passes with the knife—many of them (I lost count after 100). When the knife blade starts to break through, flip the panel over, then score along the line from the other side. This ensures a clean cut. Don't leave any fingers in the knife's path. Don't work on a good floor or table surface. Trust me on this.


Assembling the frame


You've got the parts? Good. Take the two longer pieces of pine; these will be the front and rear fascias of the module. Pick the better side of each part. On this side, draw a pencil line 1-1/8" in from either end. The nails will be driven from here. Now flip the part over and draw a pencil line 3/4" in from either end on the other side. You'll align the end fascias to these. Flip the part good-side-up again. Tap two nails along each line. Stop when the point of each nail just breaks through the other side. Repeat until both parts have four nails sticking out.

Take one of the short pieces; these are the end fascias. Spread a little wood glue over one end. The choice of glue is not critical; white or yellow glue works fine. Line the part up with the pencil line on the inside of one of the long fascias, opposite the nails. The points of the nails should help keep the end fascia from sliding around. You'll be standing it upright as you drive the nails home. Get a third hand to keep everything steady if you need to. Tap the nails in until the heads are flush. You now have a wooden "L." Repeat with the two remaining parts. When you have two Ls, stack them up (the end of one will have to overhang your work surface a bit to clear the undriven nails), and tap the remaining nails home. Check the assembled work for squareness, and adjust as needed.

The end fascias are not flush with the ends of the module, but inset about 3/4". Why? They don't really need to be flush, and this way there's less trouble if things don't line up quite perfectly.

Attaching the deck

The hard part is done. Now spread a little glue on the top edges of your frame assembly, and position your deck panel. Note that the deck will overhang the frame a little. That's fine. Clamp the deck in proper position until the first two nails are driven into opposite corners, then add as many additional nails as necessary to hold the deck flat to the frame. Give the whole assembly some time to dry.

Installing feet

It's time for one more visit to your handyman friend, this time for the drill press. (You need to make holes that are perpendicular to the deck surface, and this is tricky to do with a hand-held drill.) Measure along the undersides of the end fascias, about 2" in from the edge of the front or rear of the module, and mark the spots. Drill each spot with a 11/32" drill, about 2" deep. With a small hammer, carefully tap a T-nut into each hole, then install the carriage bolts. Flip the assembly over. There's your new module!

The adventure continues…

There's still more work to do, of course. You'll want to paint or stain the fascias before attaching track and applying scenery. Once your module is done, run some trains, take it to a show — and don't forget to post a photo of your finished work here.

Video of the Process

Jimmy from DIY and Digital Railroad Youtube channel showed the process in July 2021 —

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