Thursday, March 31, 2011

Model freight car standards

I want to summarize my standards for freight cars in my fleet. Although I divide these into mainline and branchline cars, meaning cars which are or are not of sufficient quality (accuracy and detail) to withstand scrutiny when stationary or in switching moves, there are some basic standards applied to all. These can be divided into three groupings: performance, detailing, and weathering.
     Performance. The primary aspects here are trucks and couplers. Trucks need to be free-rolling and in tram, that is, with axles perpendicular to the sideframes. Any truck which can get out of tram not only will generate higher friction, but facilitates derailments. Both these criteria depend on wheelsets of the correct length. An axle which is too long prevents free rolling, and one which is too short can allow out-of-tram behavior. Many of my freight cars still have Kadee wheelsets, but new cars and most upgrades now receive Reboxx wheelsets of appropriate length. I regard their performance as outstanding, and I like the appearance of the 0.088-inch treads.
     The standard coupler on my entire fleet at one time was the Kadee #5, and these are still on many older cars. But all new cars and many upgrades received the “scale head” Kadee #58, #78, or one of the whisker-sprung models. These interact acceptably with the #5 but are best with other scale-head couplers, so I expect a gradual increase in the proportion of scale heads in my fleet. I have not been happy with McHenry couplers and routinely replace them with Kadee. I have tried the Accurail scale coupler and have not found it superior to the Kadee scale head.
     With couplers it is vital to ensure correct coupler height, and free operation of both the centering mechanism and the knuckle. I am careful about this with new cars, but do find that maintenance sometimes requires restoration of one or more of these qualities. In fact any car which does not couple smoothly and dependably goes straight to the workbench for correction. The same is true of any trucks which do not perform as desired.
     Detailing. This is a difficult area about which to generalize, given the differences among car types and the wide variety of commercial models of each. But I can describe a few guidelines that I use.
     Car roofs are very visible on most layouts, given the common table heights we use, so I start with the running boards on house cars. The bad old days of terribly thick cast plastic running boards (so 20th century!) are fortunately behind us, but it’s still essential to make sure running boards look right. As I model 1953, prototype cars built since 1946 would have received steel grid running boards, as would many cars in shops for repair or upgrading. Etched metal boards are simply the best, in my opinion, though I think the Kadee plastic effort is impressive. I use model airplane canopy cement to attach the metal boards, since that adhesive remains flexible in the face of expansion and contraction of the metal part.
     Wood running boards are readily modeled with wood or styrene strip. Corner grab irons need to be there too, and though some of  my mainline cars still have cast-on corner grabs, branch cars do not.
     Nowadays most house car models have acceptable brake wheels (typically Ajax), but as more and more of the prototype specialties have become available (Equipco, Superior, Klasing, etc.), it’s often possible to apply the correct brake wheel for a particular prototype car. I don’t always do this, and sometimes it’s not easy to find out which brake gear to use, but laying in a stock of the various prototypes permits doing it correctly when the information is available.
     Grab irons need to exhibit adequate refinement. Cast-on ones are certainly candidates for replacement (except on a few of my mainline cars), and the heavy bracket grabs of early IMWX and InterMountain cars can readily be replaced with the current InterMountain parts, available for purchase as parts sprues.
     Modern kits and RTR cars usually have acceptable sill steps, though often rather fragile. Any cast-on ones are usually replaced with A-Line metal steps, as are damaged plastic ones. I still have some remaining stock of Tuttle steps, a slightly more refined part than the A-Line steps, and I tend to use them on models I regard as more important.
     Underbody detail is not something I put a lot of work into, other than making sure that some brake rodding is visible from the side of the car. As Richard Hendrickson says, I intend my trackwork to be good enough that visitors will not get an inverted view of my freight cars. Hopper, covered hopper and tank cars are an exception, as their brake rigging is much more visible and needs to be correctly modeled.
     Model trucks steadily become more accurate and provide more prototypes. As with brake gear, it’s desirable to put the correct trucks under cars, which I do when I can. The new line of Tahoe Model Works trucks is simply superb, and together with the new plastic Kadee trucks, offer us many superior examples of correct trucks.
     Weathering.  I do weather almost every single car. Photos of prototype cars which are only a month old already show some dust and dirt, so the myth of the “freshly painted car” really does not go very far. As I mentioned in my post on weathering PFE cars (see, one should attempt to create a wide range of levels of weathering, though most people (including me) don’t seem able to get there, particularly to the truly filthy dirt jobs. But at least a few cars should be so modeled, perhaps with a “wiped clean” area around the reporting marks and number for those of us who operate with waybills and car cards.
     Some cars, like tank cars, can be a challenge to weather convincingly; and open-top cars like gondolas and hoppers are a complex challenge because the interior is usually at least partly rusted, if not entirely unpainted. Each person has to find the weathering method that works best for them and then go to work.
     I have seen superb weathering done with chalks, but even with the superior Bragdon materials, I am not always happy with the results. Others prefer oil paints, or spray guns, and fine work can certainly be done either way. I personally have found acrylic washes to be the most flexible and dependable to obtain what I want, so nearly all my cars are weathered that way. As I say, however, each person needs to discover what will work best for their particular needs and skills.
     These are my most general standards. Beyond these, description becomes more intricate than is probably necessary here. Modeling challenges to represent specific prototype cars is an allied but different subject, and I intend to address it in a future post.
Tony Thompson


  1. Hi Tony,
    You mention above that you will install "scale head" Kadee couplers on new or upgraded additions to your fleet. I read in a previous article where you mention Sergent couplers.

    What is your opinion of Sergent couplers and are the two compatible?


  2. George, I think you are confusing me with someone else. I do own a pair of Sergent couplers and experimented at one time with them, but they are not on any of my active freight car fleet. I don't recall mentioning them in any posts on this blog. The Sergent is a gorgeous coupler but cannot do all I want, so I will continue to compromise appearance somewhat and operate with Kadees.
    Tony Thompson