Freight Car Friday – Make a Tarped Load for Your Gondolas and Flatcars

13 07 2012

In a slight departure from our normal look at prototype freight cars, this week we’re going to take it a step further and show you a simple and inexpensive project you can do to give your freight cars some extra prototypical character. It’s also just a fun project you can complete on one of those hot summer afternoons.

Tarped Loads

prototype load

This prototype load on a bulkhead flatcar is would be an even easier project than the one we’ll do for our gondola. But all the same techniques apply.

Often there are loads that can not be left exposed to the elements, but are also to cumbersome to be loaded into boxcars. In these cases, loads are placed in gondolas and on flatcars for shipment and then protected with heavy canvas, or now sometimes plastic, tarps. Sometimes it is pretty easy to guess what is under the covers, but other times it is a complete mystery. These loads are always distinctive and add a fun flair to freight trains – in any size.

Fortunately for us, they’re also really easy to model! Follow along as we make a load for one of our common gondolas. You can adapt all of these techniques to fit any car in any scale. And you’ll be able to remove the loads and reuse them in similar cars to add even more options to your operations.

False Floor

The first step in this process is optional, but it will make your load easier to handle and make it possible to remove it and reuse it quickly in other cars of the same dimensions. To make this load removable while still installing prototypical tie downs and details, we first need to build a false floor for the gondola.


Begin by making a false floor for the car so the load can be removed.

This floor is nothing more than a piece of styrene plastic cut to fit inside the bottom of the car. While this model does feature some rivet detailing on the floor, a plain floor will do as you won’t see very much of it when we’re done. You could also substitute a piece of cardstock or bass wood. Wood would be an excellent alternative if you are modeling a car with a wood floor.

Once the floor is cut to size, it needs a quick coat of paint. You could try to match the car color, but the floors of most gondolas and flatcars don’t stay very shiny for long. Also, this car is going to be the test subject for several more modeling articles, so I know it won’t stay silver for much longer! For wood floors, simply stain and weather the wood to look like aged planks. For “steel” floors, a base coat of primer gray, brown or just flat black will often work. Again, this load is going to cover most of the floor, so there is not much point spending a good deal of time on detail here. If you are installing a smaller load you may want to add rivets, patches, weathering, etc.

The Loads


The basic forms for the load can be made from almost anything.

Before we can build a tarped load, we need something to cover. Nothing that we do here will be seen in the final model, so there is no point spending a lot of money or time on the loads themselves. (You could detail one a little more and partially expose the load for a neat effect, but we’ll save that for another time.) Our goal now is a distinctive shape and nothing more. You can use anything you want for this as long as it fits in the car. A great load may be sitting in the trash can or that pile of clutter on your workbench right now. Scraps of wood, old sprues from modeling kits, a broken toy – whatever has a shape you like will work. Do try to avoid sharp edges that can poke through the tarps.

For these loads, I started with scraps of insulating foam left over from the scenic diorama project. I cut and glued small blocks of the foam together to make three “machines.” The foam has an added advantage when it comes to wrapping the tarps which you’ll see soon.

Although they won’t be seen, I didn’t want to chance the garish pink color of the foam bleeding through the tarps so the loads quickly painted in flat black paint once the glue dried. Remember to use acrylic or latex paint on the foam!

The Tarps


Plastic bags make almost instant tarps.

All that’s left is to add the tarps. Again, we’re going to use cheap materials – plastic shopping bags. Like the tarps, these bags come in many colors so you should have no problem finding one that works well. If not, you can always paint the tarp once it is on the model. Just take care to position the bags so none of the printing is showing.

If your bags look too thin, you can double bag it. Simply wrap the bag around the load, laying it across the top and pulling it down on all sides. A little white glue around the lower sides of the load will help everything stay put. A rubber band is also a good tool to keep handy.

securing tarp

Trim the excess tarp from the base. The ends can be tucked into the foam blocks for added security.

With the tarp in place, cut off all the “excess baggage” just below the base of the load. Leave a little excess which can be tucked up under the load and secured or simply laid on the floor of the car. A bead of white glue around the bottom edge will secure everything. One advantage of the foam is that this excess can be pressed up into the foam with the back edge of a hobby knife for a good tight fit until the glue dries.

Tie It Down

tie down

Simple black thread makes an easy and effective tie down for the tarps.

Lastly, we need to secure the tarps with rope. You can use thread, twine or string. start on the bottom of the load and rap your line around as many times as necessary to achieve the desired look. End the tie down on the bottom as well and secure both ends with glue.

You can now glue the loads onto the false floor.

For final details, consider some extra wood blocking on the car deck to prevent the load from shifting, a little weathering, and perhaps a shipping label or two on the tarps.


The finished load is a great addition to this car – but it can also be placed in other gondolas the same size too.

Obviously this is only the beginning of what you can do with these techniques. Add a light bulb for a “glowing” mystery load. Wrap some very distinctively shaped “presents” for a Christmas load. We can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with! So go take a second look at that mess on your workbench and look for more simple freight car projects like this to come.



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