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Freight Car Tips - Model Railroading Tips, Tricks and Techniques

Freight Car Tips

Do you have freight car tips to share? Email them to me here.

Box Car Doors
There was a post about Boxcar doors being left open with cargo inside. I work with Norfolk Southern and it is a regular practice to move cars with doors open. More so cars loaded with brick. So, open a few doors and put some pallets of brick in there. You can also crack open doors to expose bundles of plywood and such. But, they usually get closed at a Yard to prevent rain damage or thieves (which I've seen done, backed the truck right up to it and started throwing out sheets of plywood!, but they opened the car because they knew what was in it already) -Kelly

If possible I usually omit the steel weights because they are affected by uncoupling magnets. Instead I glue discarded balancing lead weights into the freight car which I get for free from a tyre dealer. I use very thick glue like liquid nails. So long I only had good experiences with this method. -Regards from Germany, Michael

Some More Coal Loads
I see you have some good ideas for coal, I use blasting sand. Go to a sand blasting company and ask them for black blasting sand, it looks just like coal and you can fill your cars up. -George Poole

You know, I realized a great way to make graffiti without buying those expensive decals. I use White-out (a correction pen), the finer the tip the better. I even made up a cool scene with this- I painted an HO car, parked it in front of a university, and put an angry teacher beside it, like one of his students painted it! -asparuh frangov (viper)

Instead of using windows included in a kit or making your own from styrene (clear) use Sobo glue. Take a plastic cup, and on the bottom pour some Sobo glue. Take a toothpick and spread a little around the edges of the opening. Then, taking as much as you can, spread it over the window, making sure to keep it level. Let it dry overnight and it will be clear and look like a real window!!! -Paul

Cool Bashes of Hay
I went to a nearby little field of dried up grass in Houston. I then picked out some grass and went home. I wadded up some newspapers an made a ball out of them(I taped it with masking tape so it will say still).I made it to fit HO scale. Then I cut the grass into little pieces, perfect for HO scale. Then I "painted" the ball with glue. Afterwards I sprinkled the little grass pieces on. Try buying the cheapest hair spray and spray it no the unfinished bash of hay. Again, sprinkle a second layer and let dry. Use a hair dryer on cold, or a portable fan so the leftover sprinkles will fall off. Why not try this on a hopper or gondola? Or use it as grass? make up different uses for this wonderful idea! -Viper

Free Cool Loads for Hoppers
I made up a imaginary cement factory on my layout. I made up that the company used the cheap reliability of the train to ship its ?giant? boulders from its mine to the factory. So, I went to the park, close to my house in Houston. I picked some very rough pebbles and small rocks for HO scale (pick them out to fit your scale). I loaded my Union Pacific hoppers and gondolas. They look very realistic, and it's absolutely free! I didn't have to ruin my cars by gluing it, so next week I'll pick up on a whole new scenario! -Viper

Coal Loads and Dirt Roads
Another good source of coal in small size is the coal from charcoal canisters used in vapor recovery in automobiles. Just visit your local auto recycling center. Used sand blasting sand makes good road bed for dirt roads to when glued with 50/50 Elmer's and water. -Brad

Andrews Trucks
Many USRA-design model cars do not come with Andrews trucks, as built- they come with later Bettendorf trucks. Either is correct, but to backdate to USRA Trucks (Proper if it comes with type K air brakes usually), take a Bachmann 'train set' grade car that had plastic wheels and the cheap sideframes (These are somewhat crude but strangely attractive Andrews trucks), and take them off the car. Shave off the screw mounting pin, if necessary, on your USRA car, to mount the truck. Use the Bachmann screw to attach the Andrews truck to the car. As for the Bettendorf truck? It's probably actually proper on the Bachmann car. -Stephen

Coal Loads
To put coal in my HO scale hoppers, I went to a nearby playground that used pulverized tar bits. I grabbed a bagfull and picked out the smaller ones for the top, and the larger pieces for the bottom. I laid a thick layer of white glue on the car, then sprinkled the tar 'coal'. When that dried, I poured glue on top of that and put on another layer, and so forth until I got to the top of the car. Beware this is not a coal load for a child's train set, as it is really not terribly strong of a bond (Just strong enough the car can tip over and be tipped upside down). -Stephen

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Model Train Help eBook 4th Edition

Flatcar Loads
To make a suitable flatcar load for your MOW (maintainence of way) train, buy the cheapest, rustiest (rusty is good) straight track you can find at the hobby shop or swap meet. Rip the rails off the ties, and glue them onto the deck of the car. Don't forget about tie downs or blockings. -Stephen

Kadee Height
When putting your own Kadee draft gear pocket on the Proto 2000 Northeastern (My example that I worked on) caboose, if you install the centering spring above the coupler, the coupler will ride too low. Therefore, you should put the centering spring UNDER the coupler to achieve a little more height. This is why one should ALWAYS test fit the coupler's height before gluing or screwing the pocket together or to the frame! -Stephen

Making Tyco/Bachmann Cars Better
I have found a simple and easy way to make those nice looking rolling stock that no ones is to hip on having around. They are about the correct weight, and detail in not really that bad. Remove the trucks, take the "TRUSTY DREMEL TOOL" and use cutting wheel or sanding disk and cut between the center beam or Bolster where the hole is down flush with the car floor, so it looks like one open channel of frame. Then take a piece of Styrene and cut to fit and glue in place, I used a .080" Thick. After in place "10 second set time with ProWeld model glue" drill your hole center for the screw for the truck. I'm using Athearn Stock trucks.

Before mounting the truck permanent, You will need Two Coupler Draft Gear Boxes, "I'm use the coushin Pocket type" On the center frame rail you will need to shave out a little bit of the frame center, then use the same size styrene for this also. Two Pieces, use the Couple pocket for measure of the length you will need, from the Back side of the DraftGear box cut 2 pieces just a tad shorter than the length of the 2 fingers of the back, fit the 2 pieces, one at each end, in the frame for the right fit, "may need to shave a little from the center part of the frame" then get your setting for the DraftGear Box, when it is all lined up to were you need it Glue the D-Gear Box on the Styrene and wait a couple seconds or tell glue is set, and glue it to the car.I had on the side the pocket was heading down a little so I had to file a small bit from the top of the Gear Box and shave off just a tad of the car end for it to make a straight fit" Add your trucks and check the Coupler Height, I added One Washer to each truck and ended up with a perfect Coupler Height.

Note- you should also sand a little bit on the parts you are going to glue, just to ruff up or take off the glaze, this will help the glue set better, you can also add a screw to the Draft gear for added support to hold it on the car. -Larry L. Doub

I have found a source of coal for modeling with. It is from activated charcoal filters used in respirators, new ones are preferred but a used one is as good if it is neutralized. -Gilbert

More Coal
Someone (I forget their name) [Gilbert:see above] once suggested using activated charcoal for freight cars. Another source for this could be the type used for aquarium filters. They come in jars and are common in almost any pet store, or even in Wal Mart. I don't know if there are any price differences, but this is another source. -Kason

Re-lettering Cars
I have noticed that a lot of today's freight cars coming off the NS and CSX along with many shortlines and private owners have some interesting cars out and about. The one thing that I have seen a lot are re-paints; such cars are not seen much on model railroads. For example: you have an ATSF boxcar and want to turn it into a Finger Lakes Railway car.

The thing to do rather than strip the paint on the car and then repaint it is keep the car in its current color and just paint out the Santa Fe Logo and what ever else you don't want to see. Then reletter and number the car, don't worry if the original logo bleeds through a bit, its normal, besides it gives the look of a hand-me-down car or shows a hint of the original owner. No car really looks to good, many have shabby, faded, or tattered paint after years of service. -Brendan

Kadee Springs
One modeler suggested using CA cement to secure Kadee coupler springs; I'd be very reluctant to try this, as the CA could flow onto the coupler head, gluing the coupler into a rigid position. My preference has always been to use a drop of Elmer's or other brand white glue at each end of the spring; it will not tend to flow onto the working parts of the coupler.

As stated, an X-acto type hobby knife can be used to insert the springs; insert the blade near its point, between the coils of the spring close to one end. Dip the other end into a small puddle of glue, then slide it over one spring boss, compress the spring, and snap the other end over the other boss. -Joe A.

Drill Bits
Some kits require the application of handrails and it is not allways possible or desirable to run out and buy a #76 drill bit. My solution was to take a pin, rough up one side of the head, insert it as straight as possible in a chuck and drill away. If you loose it no big deal, the sewing basket is full of them. I'ts worked well for me on my walthers caboses. -Tony Rosa

Kadee Springs
To keep Kadee knuckle springs from ever falling off your couplers, apply a tiny bit of CA-glue to one end of the spring before putting the spring on. This bonds the spring to either the knuckle or the coupler, but still allows the spring to freely compress. Use an X-Acto knife to put the springs in place. -Jeremy Kudlick

Kadee Springs
I can't take credit for this as I saw it on another website. To keep those little bitty springs used for Kadee and Micro-Trains couplers from flying away, run a thread thru the spring until you get it placed. The thread can then be (carefully) pulled out. -Johnnie C. Scott

Coal Loads
I model mid 80's Chessie System, mostly coal drags. For coal car loads carve a block of hard foam that when placed inside the hopper comes to 1/8" from top of car. Add 1.25 Oz of lead weight for a 45' HO car. Take some wet water Elmers glue bottle filled with water with a few drops of soap to break surface friction and lightly coat the foam.

Now form the top of the hopper with Woodland Scenics cinders ballast. Roughly shape the load. Take the wet water and saturate the cinders. After wet go back with a small testors paint brush and shape the load again then lightly pack it down with your finger tip. Then apply a uniform coverage of elmers glue watered down 50/50. Let it dry for a few days and when weighed it should be real close to 4.25 oz. Any Chessie fans out there? E-mail me. -D. B. Evans

While on vacation, I visited Horseshoe Curve and the Altoona area. I noticed from an overpass that several gondolas were not completely empty and retained a small amount of debris. So, as modelers we can show a subtle amount of debris just laying on the bottom of the car without having to completely fill the cars. This can be anything, such as saw dust, wood planks, a 55 gallon barrel or two. Just add these to the bottom of the car in any manner. I applied a white glue solution to glue everything in place. Also, all of the gondolas seen were well rusted inside and some had their sides bowed out a bit. Apply rust colors to the inside of the gondolas and later add the debris.-Marty

To make coal tenders as realistic as possible, take charcoal from your grill, and crush, put this where the coal goes, add a few drops of white glue, mixed with watered down dishwashing liquid. This will make the glue dissappear. Your coal tender will look like it is filled with real coal, instead of shiny plastic. -Frank

When operating trains, those boxcars that have their doors closed create a mystery as to its cargo. I understand that some railroads have operated trains with the boxcar doors open, exposing their cargo. I don't really know if it's true or not. In any event I modeled several boxcars that contained loads and glued the doors open. Now, when the train passes by, those who are viewing the train can look in to see what the car is carrying. These loads can be cut 2 by 4's, boxes, barrels or even one or two humans who just jumped onboard an empty car. -Marty

You can use kitty litter as a form of rock or gravel, great if your layout has a quary. When filling your freight cars, let it spill over the side to add extra detail. -Gordon Thomson

Car Adjustment
To lower the bodies on Athearn freight cars, remove the standard weight between the floor and the underframe. Shorten the truck mounting bosses on the bottom of the floor to 1/8" or less so that the frame fits flush against the floor. On closed cars the weight may be placed inside the car. Open cars may be weighted with the loads. -Bob Guinter

Model Holder
Cut a slot in the sides of the car box that are wide enough to hold the model car. This makes work on the underside easier and also prevents the car from rolling when work is stopped.

Grabiron Placement
Grab irons can be placed uniformly on a car side if the holes are drilled through a jig. Make a simple jig by drilling appropriately spaced and sized hole in a sheet of brass. Place the jig over the car side in the desired position and drill holes through the jig.

Roofwalk End Braces
Ordinary office staples are convenient for making braces under the ends of roof walks and under brake platforms.

Stock Car Litter
Stock cars look more realistic after you put straw on both decks. I use ordinary saw dust or saw dust from a belt sander, spread it on the deck and glue it with a mist sprayer.

Sometimes when I want a longer or a shorter box car with more or less doors, I start buying medium sized boxcars and then cut them up to make them shorter or longer and add or remove doors. I also buy extra trucks, so I can add more axels & wheels to the longer boxcars. -Wendy Holmes

Applying Decals
Be sure to see Joe Czapiga's The Art of Applying Decals on the How-To page.

Car Weight
Stock N scale freight cars have a nasty habit of jumping the rails over points, crossovers, & etc. The problem is that even though the manufacturers provide weights in the form of a chunk of steel applied to the decks, or fabricating the deck out of die cast metal. In most models, this weight is insufficient to keep the trucks from bouncing over and out of the rails. A simple solution is to add more weight, but most importantly, the added weight must be over the trucks themselves. 2 x 1/2" long 1/4' hex head machine screws glued on to the deck directly over the trucks solves the problem beautifully. Other rolling stock require a little more creativity but this size of machine screw adapts very well and can be concealed easily. -ARBEE

N-Scale Car Weight II
On gondolas I put scale size rocks in them, then saturate the rocks with a 50/50 mix of water and mat medium with a drop of liquid soap, to glue the load in place. On cabooses where it is sometimes impossible to get the car apart, I put small pebbles in through the windows followed by a spray of the above mixture to keep them from shifting. Get the paper towels ready, if you use to much, it leaks out the bottom. -Merwin G Dooley

Grabs and Hoses
Since I'm a blues guitarist, I've found that guitar strings make great grab irons and air hoses A set of medium gauge strings is about $8 bucks and it will last a longggggg time. There are 6 asst sizes from .046 to .010 They're good for locos, pax, and frt cars as well. I've used some of the larger ones for maintenance facility hose and piping. Enjoy! -Ted Tyson Sr

I discovered that an old rusting metal shielf could supply many tons of scrap iron for gondola loads. These flakes of rust could comply with various scales. Just fill the gondola with the flakes or add a false bottom and fill the remainer of the car with the rust flakes and apply white glue. Set the car aside until the glue dries. Presto, you'll have real honest to goodness a steel scrap metal load. - Marty

Paint Removal
I have been looking for a quick, safe way to remove paint from engines, cabeese, etc. Looking on a model car sight the other night, I found a tip on paint removal- Castrol Super Clean. It works great! In about 30 minutes, my Athearn F7 was clean with the exception of bits and pieces that I took off with an old toothbrush. It does not harm the plastic or styrene. Use it in a well ventilated area, although if you must you can use it a closed shop or garage, just don't stay too long as the fumes will get to you. You must wear gloves when using Castrol Super Clean otherwise it will remove the first layer of skin. Dishwashing gloves should work fine. When you buy the CSC don't buy the spray bottle as it is cheaper by the gallon and easier to use. Go to the local dollar store and buy a quart dish or a little bigger, that should be fine. -Mark Credell