I’ve seen a number of “portable” layouts at train shows over the years but an O scale monster whose outer dimensions come close to those of my house has always stuck in my mind.

Like most layouts of this type it’s little more than a gigantic multi-track oval where trains can be put on autopilot and forgotten, that is until something goes wrong. What sticks in my memory though is the time required for set up and tear down of this beast is measured in hours. Not minutes, hours.

I don’t think so.

For this project, easy transport, set up and tear down is the goal. With the beams finished, I had to figure out a support system that was simple and quick to assemble. The result is below. (My apologies for the dorky photos.)

P48 Experience_12s

This is the center section that will support the primary scenic module. The top of each leg assembly is notched to fit around the beam and they slot into guide blocks on both sides. There are no mechanical fasteners required (photo below). To prevent the legs from spreading out, I stretch a heavy bungee cord (not shown in the photos) between the lower braces. Assembly is a matter of seconds (literally) and I can hand carry everything with ease. An additional beam and leg assembly fits on each end making a total length of twelve feet, or I can just use two sections for an eight foot display.

P48 Experience_14


P48 Experience_13s

Here’s the four foot long module base in position. Ideally, I’d like it to be self-aligning to the support structure and I’m still working on a solution for that. It’s built from more quarter-inch plywood with a plywood and styrofoam sandwich for the outer members. At 20-3/4″, it came out a bit wider than I planned but that’s not a problem. I still have to add the side, back and top panels but those will wait until I’ve settled on a final design for the scene. Track level is roughly 50+ inches, meaning this is aimed toward adults, not children. An unintended consequence of having it this high is that there is a bit of wobble along the long axis but not enough to really concern me. The wobble is there because I left an 0.040″ gap when I fitted the guide blocks for the legs. This gap is compensation for changes in the material from humidity and temperature swings when it’s on the road. I could add more bracing but at a cost in simplicity so the jury is still out.

All the framework will get a coat of black paint and will be hidden behind a curtain when on display. I have two staging modules to build and that will wrap up the major construction. What I like about this is how the support for a twelve foot long display packs flat into a handful of easily carried pieces that can be managed in one trip to and from the car. Next, it’s time to get serious about the design of the scene. I have a couple of counterintuitive questions that need answers.



  1. Chris Mears

    I like it.

    So you’re using the same laminated beam for the spine that connects both legs and also the frame for the module itself? That should make for quite a lightweight frame.

    Does the module just overlap the legs and that spine in terms of locking it in place when assembled? A look at the photos suggests so but I was still curious.

    It appears like no tools are required when assembling this at a show which is a terrific approach – not just easy to carry but no tools required to assemble so it’s a self-sufficient approach there too.

    I quite like the construction style here and am keen to see how you tackle the surrounding panels.


  2. mike

    Hi Chris,

    Yes, I’m using the same design for both applications. The laminated beam on the module is not as deep, since it doesn’t have to carry the same load. The module, without the shadowbox enclosure, is very lightweight and sturdy. And, yes there are no tools required for assembly, which is very nice. This sounds really ad-hoc but it looks as though bungee cords, velcro material and spring clamps will carry the day for holding things together.

    As for how the module sits on the support, I had to modify the module design on the fly because I made a mistake when I assembled the first one. Actually I made two mistakes. First, I didn’t cut the notches in the top member of each leg assembly deep enough and the top of the support beam didn’t sit flush, which meant the module would need to be shimmed or have filler blocks to support the outer edges. Because of this, I decided to create another notch in the cross members of the module base to compensate, thinking that these would help align the module on the support frame and allow it to sit flat without the need for additional shims or filler blocks. This would have worked fine if, I had paid more attention to the orientation of those notches when I assembled the module’s frame work. I glued some of them in backwards, therefore nothing lined up as I planned.

    The short story is that I cut the leg assembly notches deeper, which only took 15 minutes or so, and allowed the top of the beams to sit flush with the top of each leg. That eliminated lots of fussy little filler pieces to manage but didn’t solve the self-aligning problem. I understand this is hard to envision with just text, so I will post a supplement with photos on the solution I came up with.


  3. Matt


    A great idea! I really like the center beam. My latest C module has leg pockets but set up is rather painful. Using the lightweight center beam would allow the legs to be completely set up first then the C module placed on the leg.

    Love your construction series.


  4. mike

    Hi Matt,
    I can recommend this form of support. It’s very lightweight yet strong and quick and simple to set up. For transport, it breaks down into a flat pack that’s easy to carry. The only downside is the need for additional cross bracing to stiffen it up.