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Peter's Model Railroading | Articles | Layouts | Layout #8

I decided to go back to using 3/4" plywood as that is lighter than the equivalent MDF. At the time, I was also building three 2' x 4' modules for the Houston S Gaugers' club layout, and I had enough material leftover to build this fourth one for my own use.

Still hanging on to the idea of having these modules be, optionally, stood on removable legs, the hardware was removed from the previous experiment and re-used here. You can see the layers of paint on it by now.

Once painted, this is what it looked like in my room. I hung on to the coal tipple mock-up for planning purposes. By now I also had stained the four legs I had been using, so that the module appeared to float in mid-air more.

I did not want to just throw away the flextrack, so I carefully cut that out of the slab from the previous experiment. Here I am testing out my initial ideas behind how to light a module. Also, while I had this module sitting in the middle of the room, I was using that as my workbench to build a freight car kit.

Remember, I am still trying to build the coal tipple mine scene, so I need to be able to have the creek in the back of the module. I decided to glue four layers of 3/4" of blue insulation foam to the top of the module (here in Houston we cannot get the 2"-thick stuff, as there is no real market for that in this part of the country). Each layer was heavily weighted down with all sort of heavy stuff I could find to lead the foam-specific glue cure.

I could then carve out the cut-out for the creek.

Once that was done, I had the overall profile that I wanted, and so I cut 1/8"-thick Masonite hardboard to dress up the outer perimeter of the module.

Still not giving up on the flextrack I had bought, which was still attached to that 1-1/2" slab of MDF, I cut that slab into the five blocks that just narrowly missed the edges of the ties. Next, I turned that block sideways, and cut off the majority of the MDF block from the bottom of the track. In this photo you can see two of the five tracks so processed. You can also see the concrete foundation blocks for the coal tipple building, cast out of plaster-of-paris from a mold I scratchbuilt.

In this photo you can see the 5 tracks glued down to the foam layer, and the 44 concrete blocks glued and stained in their position. This was the first time I got the closest to where I wanted to go with this module design.

After some considerable work, this is starting to look like a real module. The ballast and first layer of grass is in. The creek has rocks and has been painted and pre-weathered.

The focus now moved to creating a backdrop for this module and to integrate the lighting system into that. This photo shows the backdrop built in the garage.

The backdrop was attached with screws and bolts, and you can see the aluminum frame, which holds three high-powered LEDs, integrated into the center post of the backdrop. This really did brighten-up the module, but the problem with these LEDs was that they got very hot. The thought of doing this for each module was going to add quite a bit of heat to the room. Also, they act like spot lights, so it didn't provide nice, even lighting.

However, I was quite happy with this experiment for my long-term plan for the layout, so I finally made the big decision to tear down my U-shaped layout (Layout #7), re-arrange the cabinets that that layout was built upon, and set up my one module and the three Houston S Gaugers modules I had built for the club, all on top of the cabinets in the center of the room. It was my plan to build four modules to capture the yard of the Hazel Mine coal tipple scene. My module (the tall one) was in the correct position in this photo; the others are just there to get a feel for what it will be like to have four modules sitting up on the cabinets in the middle of the room.

By now, LED strip lights were becoming affordable, and so I bought one 16-foot strip for the purpose of experimenting with that for lighting my modules. I built this stand just to see what it would look like. I liked the effect much better than the high-powered LEDs.

Since I was now fully committed to this plan of building 4 modules to capture the Hazel Mine scene, I used the leftover wood from my previous layout (Layout #7) and built the other three frameworks, in the same manner as the first module. Masonite hardboard (the backdrop panels from the previous layout, hence the blue paint) was used to dress up the visible edges of the modules. This photo still has the three high-powered LEDs for the lighting for the first module.

As documented elsewhere on this web site, I built these aluminum frames for holding up the LED strips to light the layout.

I built the scenery layer using blue insulation foamboard exactly like the first module I built, and here you can see the ties put down for the out-feed tracks of the mine. There was a turnout merging tracks #1 and #2 into one shortly after the tipple's location.

In the first module I had thought that I'd wanted to be able to see the bottom of the creek, but since that was at the back of the module, it seemed wasteful to go through that trouble. Instead, I decided to just raise the bottom of the creek in this second module, and then paint the foamboard surface such that it appeared that the water was deep here (which it is in the real world). In this photo I have back-filled the creek in the first module (the back one in this photo angle), and have poured Envirotex epoxy to simulate the water.

The second module (the left one) is progressing nicely. I have planted a large number of trees from my previous layout into the creek bed area, and trackwork is moving along. While all of this was going on, I had also scratchbuilt the three PRR hoppers you see in this photo.

With the rail all down, I could finally, for the first time, put all of my equipment on the two modules, for as much as would fit.

All was going well, and I decided to add some fine coal ballast to the modules to show spillage of coal over the years.

It was during this work that I discovered the first signs of trouble, although I didn't recognize it as such at the time. I had meticulously laid the track on the second module (left in this photo) to perfectly match with the tops of the rails of the first module (right in this photo). But, as you can see from this close-up photo, somehow this rail no longer matched. Well, that's easy enough to fix, I thought, so I filed the too-high rail down to match the one on the right, until the cars ran smoothly over them.

Eventually, over time, other rails magically started rising up. As that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach set in, I realized that there must be some fundamental construction problem here. When I decided to scrap these modules, I separated the two that I had completed and took a close look at what the culprit might be. The best I could come up with, taking all sorts of measurements, was that the foamboard had expanded vertically in the second module and not in the first one. This forced the whole unit to raise the tracks in some spots. This expensive failure (in both time and some money) caused me to swear off foamboard for layout construction. I had already experimented with this blue insulation board in my N-scale days, and realized that it was quite noisey. This was also the case for these S-scale modules, but that was just another death knell.