Friday, September 29, 2017

Modeling cardboard cartons

There have been all kinds of wooden crates offered in HO scale over the years, along with barrels, boxes, drums, and trunks. But by the 1950s, when I model, the use of corrugated cardboard cartons was becoming established, and many products were so shipped. On the various loading docks of the industries on my layout, I would like to be able to show such cartons. Surely there is a practical way to make these details.
     This idea had percolated around in my head for some time, until I had one of those “Eureka!” moments. Ordinary brown paper bags are exactly the same color as most corrugated cardboard. They do come in a variety of weights, and for this use I prefer the lighter or smaller bags, like the one below. It’s about 9 inches long and the width shown is about 5 inches.

All that is needed here is to cut out and fold up some carton-like shapes.
     The first step is to decide what approximate size you want. Let’s say you choose a carton that is 2 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet. A simple drawing can be laid out in seconds. It might look like this, with dimensions in scale feet:

To assemble this kind of box, flaps to be glued are useful, and one can add them (shown shaded below) in somewhat arbitrary shapes. The flaps don’t have to be trapezoids, and in fact real cardboard boxes have them as rectangles.  For a box shown as partly open, the flaps must be rectangles, But these trapezoids are just easier to assemble, if the final box is to look closed.

I omitted flaps on one side, thinking that that side could be the bottom of the box.
     This kind of shape is easily cut out with scissors, and when all folds are made, the rough box, ready to be glued, looks like the photo below (a test in white paper).

     All folds need to be crisp and fully 90 degrees. Then glue the flaps — I use canopy glue. The process is a little like origami, but with patience does work. If the first box isn’t great, keep practicing (ask me how I know). Here’s a brown-paper box of the dimensions shown in the sketches above, and also a smaller box ( 2 x 2 x 3 scale feet), glued so the flaps are open, as with an opened and discarded box.

If you find difficulties getting boxes to stay square, you might try a heavier-weight bag for the raw material. I have learned to work with the light paper, but some may prefer something stiffer.
     Many shipping boxes carry the names and emblems of the shipper. I have experimented with logos of appliance manufacturers, for example, as instances where a large carton might be used. Such logos can be added in several ways, but I won’t get into that in the present post.
     These boxes are quick and easy to make, to any desired size, and are a good scenery detail to include at suitable places on the layout.
Tony Thompson


  1. Simple. Brilliant!

  2. Why not build the closed boxes around a solid core like a little block of balsa?

    Also, any idea when corrugated cardboard first came into use?

  3. A solid core would be easier in some ways, but then the paper has to fit exactly over the core. Not sure the overall modeling is easier. Corrugated paper was patented in 1856, and the two-sided product we are familiar today invented in 1874. The pre-cut box was invented in 1890. Certainly it was a familiar product in the 1920s, and increasingly thereafter. (You can find lots of this kind of history on Wikipedia.)
    Tony Thompson