Monday, August 6, 2012

Simplified underframe brake gear

I have described previously one of the ways I detail underframe brake gear, in connection with the project to upgrade an old Athearn metal box car model (available at: ). In response to a couple of requests, in this post I will try to make that description clearer.
     Underframes of model freight cars are not usually very visible when on the layout in normal position (upright), and my thinking is entirely directed at that situation. I know of course that there are train lines and brake-system piping on freight cars, but on many car types (house cars, flat and gondola cars) it isn’t at all easy to see. My simplified brake gear therefore omits that piping.
     Some readers will be “shocked, shocked” that I omit major (if invisible) portions of brake gear on many models, and I should say that occasionally I do get excited about really doing a particular model with full detail, and then I include the train line and all piping. But usually if I sit down, that impulse will pass.
     But let me be clear: simplified brake gear is definitely less appropriate for tank cars and hopper cars (including covered hoppers). They are different in that the piping is visible on an upright model, so in those cases I would include it.
     For my simplified brake gear, the basics are of course the three elements of an AB brake system, reservoir, valve and cylinder. I would also normally include enough of the brake rodding to be noticeable in a side view. That “side glimpse” is what I want to reproduce on most cars, though any car with a fishbelly side sill will conceal even that much of the brake system. Sometimes I even omit rodding, but on the model for this post I will include it.
     I show my approach on a model car with no original underbody detail beyond a center sill, bolsters and crossbearers (it’s the old LifeLike reefer). I am adding AB brake gear and enough rodding to be visible in a side view. The rodding will only be enough to look right, and I will add no piping.
     The AB brake set here happens to be Cal Scale (set 283), which has brackets for the valve and brake cylinder. I simply drilled the floor #53 for these parts and installed them with styrene cement. Then I applied supports for the brake levers. The floating lever at the cylinder has a pair of supports, the fixed lever only has one. (These lever supports are sometimes called “lever guides,” sometimes “lever carriers.”)
     For the lever supports I often use preformed grab irons. The ones you see here are old Northeastern steel-wire grabs, which I no longer use on car sides. They are attached with CA, and the pivot block for the fixed lever is a piece of scale 4 x 4-inch styrene (it’s just above the reservoir in this view). Kadee #58 couplers are temporarily installed here.

I photographed the gear on this reefer because its white floor shows up the brake gear well. The grab irons used as supports look like this in a side view, before applying levers and rodding. You can just see the pivot block (you can click on any of these images to enlarge them).

     I like to let the adhesives set fully before proceeding, so I would usually set a model like this aside for a few hours or overnight.
     The installation of levers goes easily. With a Cal-Scale set, you get a nice pair of styrene levers, and they have holes already in them for wire rodding, if you choose to use wire. An alternative, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is simply to trim a piece of scale 1 x 6-inch styrene strip to a lever shape (it just takes a few strokes with a file), and attach with styrene cement. For this post, I show below two different reefers, one with Cal-Scale brake parts and levers, the other with Athearn caboose AB brake gear, and white levers made from 1 x 6 styrene.
     Last, I add rodding, either brass wire (usually 0.012- or 0.015-inch diameter) or 0.015-inch styrene rod. The small styrene rod sizes can be purchased direct from Plastruct or from on-line suppliers of their products. The styrene rod has the advantage that it attaches easily with styrene cement. I usually flatten one or both ends gently with pliers so it will not roll during cementing. Again, the examples below show brass wire in one case, white styrene rod in the other.

The point of these particular details is to achieve the proper profile view of the brake gear, shown here prior to painting. This is the view I want from the side of my model. Rodding will be more evident when painted a dark color.

      The last step is painting. Normally I would airbrush an underframe like this with body color or with a lightened black such as Floquil Grimy Black, but on occasion I have brush painted them also. Either one works, and you have a simplified but good-looking representation of the underframe parts that ought to be there.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony,
    Now that Accurail has released their "underframe brake rod" set in HO, would you consider using that part as a 1-stop method of adding brake gear to under-detailed models?

    At less than $1.00 each, it is a pretty good deal.

  2. Good suggestion, Andy. This Accurail part is quite nice and can certainly serve as a good set of brake gear. However, it does not have the delicacy and openness of wire rods and lever hangers, which one readily notices in a side view. I would likely use it for cars not getting as full an underbody treatment (and remember, my "simplified" gear is already well short of a fully detailed brake system).
    Tony Thompson

  3. I like the Accurail brake set Andy mentioned. The brake cylinder is rather crude, but is easily replaced. The next most likely candidate for replacement in the set is the brake chain, but that's a tough nut to crack. In the end, you still have a lot of work adding the piping for the air.

    If you see your cars at eye level and below a lot, it may not do justice for your model. Like everything, it's a compromise.

    I'm actually trying to adapt a set for a C-30-1 caboose. This involves replacing the brake Cylinder with a (Tichy) KC brake cylinder, and then adding the extra linkage for the second brake wheel. With a fleet of cabooses, the speed of using the Accurail set is a real time saver.

    Now if I can figure out the routing of the brake pipe from the train line to the KC's integral triple valve. Translating the 2D drawing to a 3D bent piece of wire has challenges.

    The downside is there are no sill tabs hiding or obscuring the brake rigging. It's all very exposed, and in my opinion, the two most attention getting things on a train are the ends - the locomotive and the caboose. I may reconsider and scratchbuild the brake rigging. I think a lot depends on how well I can integrate the additional hand brake rigging.