Monday, January 20, 2020

SP caboose handrails

I was recently asked about the color of handrails on Southern Pacific cabooses, which reminded me that I too needed answers in this area, for a Challenger brass cupola caboose I had received, painted but maybe not correctly. The handrails we are talking about are the classic curved ones on the side of the car, at each end, and the vertical rails alongside the steps.
     For many years, SP cabooses had these handrails painted body color, that is, freight car red. The photo below shows this clearly (the photo of SP 783 was taken by Wil Whittaker at West Oakland on December 13, 1947). It’s interesting to note here that a blue flag is tucked into the grab iron on the end beam, yet another way a car undergoing service could be marked to not be moved. But the point of showing the photo here is the handrails, all of which are clearly body color. The car does have the road name spelled out, indicating it has been painted since the adoption of that lettering in June of 1946.

(I should mention that the information in this post is largely drawn from my book on SP cabooses, Volume 2 in the series, Southern Pacific Freight Cars, published by Signature Press in 2002.)
     But in 1948, SP decided to paint caboose handrails white. We know this from the lettering drawing, shown below, first issued in 1946 and the basis for what you see above for SP 783.

The critical part here is revision  A of 1948, which added note 1, at the upper left corner. Here is a blow-up of note 1, since it is hard to read in the complete drawing:

Note that it only specifies “handholds on sides” and “outside hand rail posts on buffer beam” to be white. Here is a photo of a caboose so painted, SP 645 (this is an Al Phelps photo at Auburn, California in May, 1951). The cupola is a replacement for the original slant-sided cupola and was applied in 1945. There is a handrail on the caboose body above the steps, shaped like an upside-down L, and as the drawing directs, it is not white.

     But this direction on the lettering drawing was not always followed. In the years following 1948, many if not most cabooses also received white paint on that L-shaped body handrail. The photo below shows this clearly on SP 72, at Watsonville Junction in 1948 (Wil Whittaker photo). This body handrail is entirely white, but many only had the outer, vertical portion of it painted white.

     All the foregoing examples are photographs of the iconic SP wood caboose, Class C-30-1, built over a ten-year span, mostly at Los Angeles General Shops. The class totaled more than 620 cabooses, far more than any other single class, and when three-digit car numbers reached their limit at 899 (the 900s had other uses), numbers of scrapped cabooses (such as no. 72, above) began to be used. Though records are not complete, there are 165 known cabooses, out of the 620+, that received recycled car numbers, so they were not rare.
     When production of Class C-30-1 ended in 1927, drawings were revised to incorporate improvements throughout the car, and two additional classes of wood cupola cabooses were then built. In 1928, 50 cars of Class C-30-2 were built at Los Angeles. In 1929, another new class was designated, Class C-30-3, with a quite different construction: the body was framed with steel structural shapes instead of wood. About 80 of these cars were built by the end of 1930. This class is easily recognized by the visible ends of the steel framing members at the bottom of the car side.
     All the cars of classes C-30-2 and -3 received numbers of older cabooses, again because no new numbers remained available. The photo below shows SP 5, a Class C-30-3 car at West Oakland in July 1949, and its white handrails include the side rails and the vertical parts of both the rails adjoining the steps (Wil Whittaker photo). The framing ends along the car side are obvious in this lighting.

     The model I needed to paint happened to be a Class C-30-3 car, so the photo above was essential. I chose to do the kind of handrail white pattern with vertical and side rails only, as you see below. I like that the car carries such a low number, though not as low as the photo above!

     I should mention that the same 1948 change to white handrails took place on steel cupola cabooses also, and the changes may have originated with the first class of SP bay-window cabooses, Class C-30-4, delivered in 1947 with white side and end handrails. They also had vermilion red ends, an application that in 1955 would lead to the painting of caboose ends in Daylight Orange.
     This small-looking problem, of how to paint a minor detail of a model, is an example of the never-ending requirement for prototype modelers (or at least prototype-oriented modelers)  to consult the practices of the modeled railroad, in my case the SP.
Tony Thompson

Friday, January 17, 2020

Cocoa Beach 2020

This happens to have been the 20th anniversary of this excellent meeting, all 20 of which I have attended with pleasure. And that was why this year we even had a terrific cake (thanks to Carolyn Oliver and Ken Sanderson), complete with N-scale train, to commemorate the occasion. Great fun for all!

And thanks also to Marty Megregian, who managed to get this photo of the cake before it was cut, and the ravenous attendees began lining up for slices! A close-run thing.
     As always, Mike Brock and his team, especially Jeff Aley and Marty, put on a well-organized and smooth-running meeting. And the hotel (naturally familiar with us all and with a well-run event that happens every year), did their usual good job on our behalf.
     The ballroom, the site every year of both vendor tables and many model-display tables, was thronged with people whenever clinics were not in session. Below is just one snapshot of the crowd at one of these times. There are always interesting vendors and attractive products to look at, and of course superb models at the other end of the room.

     Among the models I really liked this year was Jim Zwernemann’s Proto-48 caboose, entirely scratchbuilt from styrene, with brass handrails and smoke jacks. A pleasure to see this quality of modeling.

     Another model I liked was another of Butch Eyler’s heavily weathered cars. Butch often brings along models with this quality of finishing, and here I especially liked the faded-out lettering and the heavy rusting of the roof. And it’s nice to tuck one but only one graffiti piece onto the car.

     Lastly, I should mention the models that I chose to exhibit this year, drawn from some of my recent work on graffiti (see for example: ).  I brought the car shown in the post just cited, and also a cement hopper, and showed them alongside some of my paper-overlay originals, ready to apply. (You may wish to click on the image to enlarge it and more easily read the text.)

     I always enjoy the clinic program at this meeting (and this year presented two of them myself), but the most fun of any slide in any talk was Mont Switzer’s opening slide in his talk about Nickel Plate modeling. Those who have been to Cocoa Beach will recognize the familiar logo of the nearby Ron Jon surf shop, which Jeff Aley modified for the logo of this meeting (see it at: ). That’s Mont at left, about to begin his talk. You can click to enlarge and see the billboard.

     Lastly, a complete account of my experience at the meeting necessarily contains one more mention of the excellent Cuban restaurant near the hotel, at which I always have at least one meal and often more than one: Roberto’s. Having traveled in Cuba,  I often remark to others that you will have to work hard to find food in today’s Cuba as good as what is served at Roberto’s.

     Impressive that this was the 20th meeting. Having been to the lot of them, it makes me feel a little old to contemplate the fact that I wasn’t young when this series started . . . but time does march on. And every year a highlight is this meeting at Cocoa Beach.
Tony Thompson

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Freight car graffiti, Part 2

In an earlier post, which I’ll call Part 1 of this series, I gave a summary of my contribution to the “Getting Real” series of monthly columns in Model Railroad Hobbyist or MRH, specifically the column about graffiti on freight cars. It was in the January 2020 “Running Extra” section of MRH. The post about it is at this link: .
     I have continued to work on the representation of graffiti for post-1980 freight car appearance. I continue to photograph prototype graffiti, on both freight cars and buildings, as candidates for the paper overlay technique I described in the MRH article and in my post about the article (link provided in the first paragraph of the present post). 
     I will just choose one illustrative example. Shown below is a covered hopper that I spotted a month or so ago. This photo was taken to show how the “writer” of the graffiti nearest the camera added back the car’s number (525551) in black spray paint, so that someone else wouldn’t do so, but farther down the side can be seen a blue-painted item.

The blue item looked like a candidate for a paper overlay, so I photographed more nearly square-on, as you see here.  Do note all the “tags” arrayed all over the car side next to this word, “bash.”

This photo was squared up in Photoshop, edges cleaned up, and printed out at my local copy shop, which is equipped with a high-resolution color laser printer. I usually just print these on ordinary paper, as it is easier to work with afterward, and the finest resolution is not really needed with these graffiti.
     The model chosen for this application is an Atlas model of a large 5700-cubic-foot covered hopper, shown below in its original condition.

     Here is the prototype bit of graffiti I showed, applied to the center of the Atlas model car, along with two additional graffiti decals. They are both from Dave’s Decals, sheet 6028 (visit the site at: ).

     Next came weathering. Here I used a combination of Weathering Solutions decals, which I have reviewed in a previous blog post (see it here: ). I used mostly their rust streaks set 1105-SLT (they no longer have a web site, but do have a somewhat informative Facebook page, which is at: ). I also weathered the area around the hatches, and the car sides, with my usual technique, using washes with acrylic tube paint (see the detailed description at: ). Here is how it looks.

     I have gotten the question from a few people, “Why didn’t you just make decals, instead of paper overlays?” Fair question. I have made a few decals myself in the past, and found that some of them, especially multi-color ones, did not come out too great. That’s mostly why I wanted to see if paper overlays would work. But of course decals have more flexibility, especially with outside-post cars, and would be best for those uses.
     For those who have never tried to make a decal themselves, a good and clear description of the process was provided as a comment to my first post about graffiti, at the link provided in the first paragraph of the present post.
     The present post is really the start of a series; I have undertaken a series of car projects with graffiti additions. I will return to those projects as further examples of my “graffiti-d” freight cars in future posts.
Tony Thompson

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Chain link fence

I have built a few fences on my layout, largely board fences using the molded parts from Central Valley, suitably painted. These are good board fences, but I had always meant to add some fences in chain link at some point. This is a ubiquitous fence style and dates back to the 19th century in America. But in a previous trial, I had experimented with a kit (the maker of which shall remain nameless) using wedding-dress tulle, and had not liked it very well.
     So when I saw the etched metal fencing material marketed by Bernie Kempinski’s company, Alkem Scale Models, I was really thrilled. I bought a set of the material directly from Bernie (he often has a few sets with him, if you see him at a convention or operating weekend), but you can buy it on line also (here is a link to the fence page on his site, and elsewhere on the site there is a PDF instruction sheet, if you want to see how to use the material: ).
     Shown below is the etched fret that comes in one of the kits, with a couple of pieces cut out that I was planning to install. I had measured the length of the desired site and it would need eight of the fence panels, thus the cutting shown here. At the top of the fret is material for gates. Each fence panel has a representation of barbed wire along the top, but of course this can be cut off if not needed for the fence you are building.

The material is stainless steel and is readily cut with strong shears or side cutters.
     For the first section I wanted to install, totaling eight panels as just mentioned, I needed to join the five-panel and three-panel pieces shown above. I used CA to do this. I taped down the fence segments on top of a strip of waxed paper, aligning the segments with a straightedge. I then carefully applied CA with a pin, then did the same to attach posts, using the fence post material supplied in the kit, 0.032-inch wire. Here is the completed 8-panel segment. You can readily see the three posts.

The fence itself is the silvery color of natural stainless steel, unlike any real chain link installation, even a brand-new one, because the galvanized material, though somewhat silvery, has much more gray to it. And of course it oxidizes in service to even more of a gray. I spray painted the fence with Tamiya “Light Ghost Gray,” their item AS-26, but probably any light gray would be fine.
     It was ready to install once I marked the location of the posts, and used an awl to make holes to set the posts. I put a small blob of canopy glue on the bottom of each of the posts, and gently inserted them into the prepared holes. A couple of wood blocks were used to prop up the fencing in a vertical position until the glue could set. Here’s a view of it in place, between my California Division of Highways garage (at left) and Pacific Chemical Repackaging.

For more of a close-up, which I think demonstrates better how nice this fencing looks, this view is of the same area.

     (I remember mentioning chain-link fences to a fellow modeler, who remarked, “Isn’t that pretty modern?” This kind of wire fence was actually invented in 1844 in England, and the first American company to produce and market this fencing was the Anchor Post Fence Company in 1891. When I was a boy in Southern California, the most numerous installations were from Cyclone, and accordingly this was almost always called “cyclone fence,” not chain-link. At that time, Cyclone Fence was part of American Steel & Wire, a division of United States Steel, and it both manufactured and installed chain-link fences.)
     I was glad to get this length of fence installed, and will probably continue with a perimeter fence for this industry, Pacific Chemical Repackaging, using more of the Alkem Scale Models fencing.
Tony Thompson

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Handout for typography talk

This post constitutes a handout for a talk entitled “Using Typography in Model Railroading.” Its foundation is a blog post from some years ago, which I would regard as a kind of “Part 1” to this handout; it can be found at: .
     Many of the basic descriptions of type language and concepts came from a superb book by designer Robin Williams, The Non-Designer’s Design Book (Peachpit Press), now in its fourth edition. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a really basic, clear and instructive book. And the prior editions, available for lower prices on the internet, can do almost entirely the same job.
     In the talk, I mentioned a number of typefaces, old and new. The list of them, including their original creators and date(s), is below.

     Sometimes you may see a font, in a prototype photo or in a magazine, that you really would like to try for signage. Provided your sample contains a fair number of different characters from the type, you can go to an amazing site on line that will (usually) be able to tell you what font it is after you answer a set of questions. Here is the link: .
     I also listed some sources on line for free or cheap fonts. Here are a bunch of them:

And if you find a font somewhere that you really like, but it’s not cheap, go to and enter the name of the font you like. The site will give a bunch of fonts that are darn close though not identical to the one you like, and there may well be free ones in the list.
     By the way, I support type designers who may be charging for fonts, and I always am happy to pay for them, even shareware, when that is called for. But I realize many people don’t want to invest much in fonts, so I have offered some ways to find useful ones that are cheap or free.
     I mentioned some publications in passing that I list here, just in case anyone might want to  pursue them. One is Lance Mindheim’s book, Model Railroading as Art (, which I reviewed recently in this blog (see the commentary at: ). Another is William Gordon’s book for sign painters,  Modernized Methods in the Art and Practice of Lettering for Commercial Purposes (Signs of the Times Publishing). And I did mention Tony Koester’s How to Kitbash Structures (Kalmbach).
     In concluding, I listed a few books that I thought might repay those interested in delving into type a little further. In addition to Robin Williams’ book, mentioned above, I showed Ruari McLean’s fine basic book, Manual of Typography (Thames and Hudson), and Robert Bringhurst’s magisterial overview, The Elements of Typographic Style (Hartley and Marks).
     My closing remarks included a list of these “Do’s and Don’ts” (you may need to click on the list to enlarge it to be readable):

     It was an interesting challenge to dig through my own experience and resources to assemble this material. Having been the designer and typographer as well as the layout person for numerous books for Signature Press over the last 25 years or so, I do have some background in typography, and I continue to find it an intriguing topic. I hope I conveyed that enthusiasm in this talk.
Tony Thompson

Sunday, January 5, 2020

My latest column in MRH

The issue of MRH (Model Railroad Hobbyist) for January 2020 contains the most recent of my columns in the “Getting Real” series. It’s contained in what is now called “Running Extra,” an extra-fare component of the publication, costing about $1.66 an issue if you subscribe. As such, it’s no longer available free for on-line reading or download, but you can purchase an individual issue if you wish (go to: ), at a price, I think, of $2.99.
     This column is entitled “Graffiti,” and obviously it’s about modern freight cars and the graffiti they often carry. I emphasized throughout the article that yes, painting graffiti is a crime — vandalism — and I am not advocating crime. But in the real world, freight cars since the late 1970s have carried graffiti, like it or not, and as with weathering, reality demands that we confront the matter. My position is that I want freight cars to be realistic, which means both weathered and with graffiti (earlier this year, I posted a project along this line; it’s at: ).
     I spent some time in the article on the history and terminology of this topic, and showed examples from both freight cars and walls of buildings. The reason was not merely to illustrate something everyone has already seen, but to choose some of the images to apply to model freight cars.
     For those who may not have, or may not wish to have, access to the MRH article, I will summarize what I did. There are some very nice commercial decals out there, cited and used in the article, but I wanted to try a technique of using my own photographs for applying to models. Here’s one example from the article, the word “money,” obviously found on a brick wall, with ground below:

The photograph was not taken quite square to the original surface, so the image was squared up in Photoshop, then surrounding areas were removed from the digital images. The lines from the background brick are still visible in the digital image, but disappear when the image is reduced to HO scale. I used decal scissors to cut out the printed paper version.

     A paper overlay like this was then thinned from the back with sandpaper until the edge essentially disappeared, then attached to the model freight car with canopy glue. I also added a Blair Line decal at the left of this overlay (below). After a coat of protective flat finish, the entire car was weathered, and a few scribbled “tags” added. Here is how it looked.

     This was an interesting topic to research, an interesting and challenging topic on which to do field research, and an intriguing experiment to develop this kind of paper overlay technique for freight cars. I plan to do more cars like this for my friends who model late enough eras, and will report further in future posts.
Tony Thompson

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Prototype lettering, Part 3: modeling

I’ve posted two descriptions of the ways prototype lettering is applied, and why it may matter to modeling applications of lettering. (The second of those posts is at this link: ). This post addresses modeling of the prototype application process.
     I want to show a terrific example of modeling this distinctive prototype process, sent to me by Bill Gill. These are photos of a model scene he created for the New England, Berkshire & Western layout at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, and echoes a number of the prototype scenes I showed in my first two posts. First, here is the prototype image he began with:

The Rutland, of course, is the prototype railroad that is the foundation of the NEW&W layout. With Bill’s permission, here are three photos of his modeling. This first one clearly shows the working platform for the painter, and the stencil applied to the car side.

You can see more clearly that this is really an HO scale stencil in the view below, from a higher angle. The HO stencil was laser-cut by the VectorCut service, unfortunately no longer in business.

This scene was set outside the NEB&W backshop on the layout, as you see below. This is a wonderful adaption of an everyday prototype lettering process to a model, and such scenes are certainly rare in model form.

This photo was taken before the layout was removed from its longtime location at RPI and put into storage, while layout space is renovated. We can all hope that the layout is repairable and can be renovated and returned to service when it reaches its new home.
     Thanks to Bill Gill for these very interesting and (I think) unique photos depicting in model form, a very familiar prototype scene. Not every layout has a suitable place for such a scene, but if yours could include it, it’s worth considering.
Tony Thompson