Wood Frame

At this point, it is assumed that your planning is now almost complete. It is time to consider the way to support the track and scenery. I say almost complete because there always seem to be loose ends, no matter how hard you try. There will still be a few issues that you will have to address once construction gets underway.

I generally prefer to use wood for framing purposes.  Most Z-Scale layouts will be built on a support called a butt-joint frame. This framework is relatively simple to construct, and when the plywood is attached to the frame, it becomes a very strong support for the track and scenery.  The underside allows you to route the electrical wiring to the control panel and to make shallow cutouts for things like quarry pits and ponds, and accessories such as the turntable and transfer table.

There also is another approach, using the Woodland Scenics Terrain System components.  This will be discussed later in this page.  Initially, we will talk about the traditional method of layout construction.

My preference for wood is based upon the overall needs of both my clients and myself.  Since many of the layouts are moved and generally banged around, a wooden framework keeps the scenery rigid and intact. I also like to build layouts in this manner because of my own approach to train operation. Inevitably, especially in Z-Scale, the train will stop abruptly over a spot of dirt or dust.  You could reach over and give it a gentle nudge, but I prefer another approach.  I urge the train back into motion by a series of enthusiastic, and what I consider artful, raps and bangs on the frame of the layout.  The ensuing tremors are usually enough to convince the errant locomotive to resume operation.  Yes, it's true, I'm a Thumper, and the bench work of my layouts reflects a need for strength. (I should warn you, though, that in Z-Scale, excessive thumping usually results in massive derailments.)

The Lumberyard

All the planning and design work has been leading up to that glorious experience of going to buy materials.  Since you have most likely chosen wood for the framing and support of your layout, you will be going to the lumberyard.

Lumberyards fall into two major categories. There are a variety of ways to differentiate the two, but one of the easiest is to listen to the public address system at the yard.  At one type of lumberyard, the PA will say:

Will the parents of a little boy named Bobby please come and get him at      the cash registers?

At the other type of lumberyard, the PA will blare:

Hey, Zeke. Have you got that pressure treated loaded on the truck yet?    They're on the phone raising hell.

The first type of lumberyard is the sort of place that has lots of station wagons sitting around in an asphalt parking lot.  These are not strictly lumberyards, but, rather, are large stores that include lumber as part of a greater selection of tools, hardware, electrical supplies, and other items needed by do-it-yourselfers.  They fulfill the needs of a variety of people, and because they are parts of larger chains, their prices are often very competitive. Also, because they are accustomed to dealing with the general public, they often offer wood in smaller units. For example, you can sometimes find a piece of plywood smaller than the standard-sized 4' x 8'.  Although it is more expensive on a square foot basis, you are not faced with the problem of what to do with great amounts of leftover plywood. At such places, you can find most, if not all, of the materials you will need to produce your Z-Scale layout, along with a staff of people who are used to dealing with the amateurs (although they may not always be that good at helping).

The other type of lumberyard is much more accustomed to selling wood by the truckload. I prefer this sort of place, if for no other reason than that there are no screaming kids and wandering golden retriever dogs.  In many cases, such a yard may sell items other than wood and wood products, but it usually is not the sort of place to buy a power tool and the like.  It is a different environment, much more professionally oriented, and the staff is often quite knowledgeable about the materials they sell. Such knowledge can be extremely valuable in certain circumstances.

My favorite lumberyard is called Carolina Lumber, located at the end of an industrial development.  They do have a small asphalt parking lot, but the rest of the yard is gravel and concrete. They are used to selling large quantities of wood, but they know me, appreciate what I do, and are willing to sell me one sheet of plywood and some 1 x 4s. More than once I have started to order a particular type of plywood, and they have suggested something better and cheaper. Good advice is always appreciated.

For your purposes, the first type of lumberyard is probably better, however, since you can freely examine the materials of choice and become familiar with their properties.  Watch out for splinters!  For a freestanding layout that will be moved periodically, I would use 1/2" plywood mounted on a 1 x 3 frame. Early on, you will discover that plywood is purchased in specific sizes that are fairly exact, while the sizes of wood for framework are more variable. The framework should be made of 1 x 3’s to provide adequate support for the legs.  It can also be made out of 1 x 4’s or even larger pieces if necessary for support. 

The 1x3 size refers to the rough cut size of the lumber before it is delivered to the lumberyard.  The 1 x 3 starts off at that size, but is planed and sanded down to a slightly smaller size of approximately 5/8" x 2-5/8". You should be aware that 1 x 3’s come in different types of wood. Fir is a good choice since it is usually clear (meaning no knots) and straight. When purchasing 1 x 3’s, take the time to sort through the available wood, since there will be some pieces that are better than others. Knots in the middle of the piece of lumber are all right, but knots along the edges of the 1 x 3 are less desirable since they are a weak point. Curved and warped wood (sarcastically called banana wood) is not desirable either because you need to rely upon the straightness and strength of the wood frame to provide overall support for the plywood base.

Plywood, because it is manufactured, is available in specific dimensions. Therefore, a 1/2" piece of plywood is actually 1/2" thick (within specific tolerances). Plywood is available in different species of wood. You will most likely find fir plywood, but you may encounter others with their own characteristics. Birch plywood is often cleaner and smoother than fir.  I personally prefer gum plywood, since it has both a smooth exterior and a relatively soft interior. This soft interior makes spiking the Z Gauge track much easier.

The plywood is graded so that the buyer is able to choose a piece appropriate for his needs. Because it is machine-made, the plywood is made of plies of thin wood.  The outside plies are of specified grades, while the inner plies are of lesser quality. You will find AC plywood to be best for layout purposes. A refers to one side of the plywood sheet that has a clear surface, while C refers to the other side, which may have cracks and knots in its ply.  Place the C side of the plywood facing downward toward the 1 x 3 frame.  Then the flaws will be visible only from the underside.

You may run into other grades and types of plywood, such as BC, CD, or the nasty CDX. Again, the letters refer to the quality of the wood used on the exposed plies of the wood. Sometimes small imperfections of the wood are filled with ellipse-shaped plugs, giving the side a B grade.  These plugs do not interfere with layout construction.  CDX is usually cheap when compared to AC, but it's bad stuff, useful for concrete forms and the like. Therefore, be sure to ask for 1/2" AC or BC plywood.

Many lumberyards will also cut the plywood to dimension for you; the big stores have a panel saw for this purpose, but they may not be willing to do all cuts (there are rip cuts and cross cuts, depending upon the direction of the saw). This practice varies from yard to yard; if you cannot get the wood cut by either the lumberyard or by a woodworking friend, you can cut the plywood yourself with a hand or power saw. It is important that the cuts be straight and square.  If you are unable to cut it, you always can build the layout to the size of the plywood sheet. Although a 4' x 8' Z scale layout is a largish one, it is certainly not out of the question.  A 2' x 4' size is more typical, and many of the supermarket type of lumberyards offer sheets of plywood in this size.

A Few Words on Square

The term square can be defined as:

  1. an instrument having at least one right angle and two straight edges that is used to lay out or check angles.
  2. a shape having four equal sides and four right angles.
  3. forming a right angle.

     Square can mean a lot of things, including:

     4. a person who has overly conventional or conservative tastes.

In this case, we are talking right angles here. The 90 degree corner, the right angle, the square corner, is literally the foundation of our technological society.  Building things square means that materials will fit together properly and will be strong.  Building things square is therefore desirable.

After all this discussion of the term square, I must admit that I didn't build layouts with square corners for a long time, which drove the cabinet makers from whom I rent my shop, crazy.  One of the earliest lessons in woodworking is that things must be built with square corners.  The square corners make for a piece that is strong and solid.

Many layouts don't need to be square, since they often are either built in as part of a special room dedicated to model railroading or freestanding on its own set of legs. The layout must be square when it is mated to something else, like a table, a briefcase, or a glass cover.  The layout has to be square if it is a module which will be joined to other modules, which presumably also are square. In short, many Z-Scale layouts have to be square because they will incorporate commercially made components, made by people who have disciplined themselves to building things square. This may sound like drudgery, but it quickly becomes second nature. And, the notion of square is a relative one, since achieving perfect squareness is unlikely.

Basic to building a square angle is the device called, sensibly enough, a square.  A visit to your local hardware store will turn up a large variety of squares ranging in size from very small to very large.  I recommend purchasing an inexpensive one of moderate size. You obviously could buy something more expensive, but this is not necessary. More expensive tools are more accurate, but we are not talking about rocket science here. Your interest is in building something which is close to being square.

The 1 x 3 frame components are first cut to the appropriate dimensions. Start at one corner, join one long side and one short side together. I have found it to be easiest to use screws to hold the wood together.  Here, a drill equipped with a pilot drill bit is a useful tool.  The pilot drill bit is used to drill pilot holes for the screws.  Doing so prevents splitting the wood, a common problem at the ends of the 1 x 3. Use a bit that is about three-fourths the diameter of the screw, but remember that softer woods will not require such a large hole.

You have several types of screws to choose from, but you will find that a type of screw called a drywall or sheet rock screw to be the easiest to use. It has a Phillips head designed for machinery driving.  The screw can be driven with either a Phillips screwdriver or a Phillips bit chucked in a reversible electric drill. As you drive the screws, exercise caution with your other hand, since the screw driver may jump out of the screw slots. If the screws are hard to drive, you can use a bar of soap to lubricate the threads of the screws.

The outside frame is joined together in this manner.  Here it is easiest to attach the plywood to one long edge of the initial frame, then work your way around the frame using the square edges of the plywood to square up the frame. Finally, insert the cross stringers and screw them in place. The screws used to attach the plywood to the frame do not need to be as long as the framing screws. Since you may find it convenient to remove the plywood sheet at a later point, gluing the plywood to the frame is not necessary.  In particular, if you are going to cut out the plywood for roadbed supports or for stream beds (called the cookie-cutter method), you will need to remove the plywood from the frame for the cutting process and then reattach it.

The skirts can be fastened by screws into the side frames.  Drill pilot holes and then drill a very shallow larger hole to recess the screw heads.  The screw heads can be covered with plugs or with wood filler.

Once the framework is built, it is time to install the track. Here is a layout built in this manner:

At this point, the sides have been boxed in, but the scenery contours have yet to be cut. The ramps supporting the track and glued and screwed into place and the track has been nailed down.  Once the scenery contours have been cut, the side skirts can be painted or laminated with plastic or wood veneer. Here is the same layout a bit later, during the scenery texturing process:

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