Coal is still the top commodity by volume and revenue on America’s railroads. And coal loads are a common sight on our model railroads as well. Whether you want to improve the look of your existing loads or make your own, and whether you need loads of coal, iron ore, ballast, dirt or more, these simple techniques will work for you.
Study the prototype and you’ll find that coal loads take many shapes. The “mounds” found on most commercial loads are common on cars loaded from older tipples, dump trucks or other heavy equipment. Modern flood-loaders which pour in the coal as the train is moving will often leave a very smooth, flat profile on the top of the load. The size of the coal chunks will vary greatly as well. All of these effects are easy to reproduce and can give your hopper and gondola fleet some more variety and character.
Starting with a Form
The first step is to create a base for the load. There is no need to fill the entire car with coal dust (unless of course you have operating coal loaders and unloaders!)
Many models come with a simulated plastic load. This is a good place to start. If you don’t have one of these or if you just want to start from scratch you can make your own from a piece of insulating foam. The pink or blue foam sheets are available at home centers and come in a variety of thicknesses. One inch foam will work well for most O Gauge loads. The foam is easy to cut and shape and also lightweight – this prevents the finished load from making the car top-heavy.
Cut the foam to size using the car as a template. If you are doing and entire coal train of similar cars, you can cut a group of loads quickly once you have the dimensions.
Test fit the block before you start to shape the profile. You want a snug fit, but not something so tight that you have to work hard to remove the load. Since different cars will have different interior dimensions, it can be helpful to write the car type on the bottom of the block. That way you’ll know that the load fits in any “Lionel 3-bay hopper” without having to test each load.
Next, carve the desired profile on the top of the foam block. You can use a hobby / utility knife, rasp or files to get the desired contours.
Coal, stone, ore, etc. come in many colors and varieties – pink and blue are not among them. Paint the foam blocks with acrylic paints (do not use solvents as they will melt the foam.) Basic flat black will work for coal.
Adding the Load
You can get finely crushed coal and stone from several commercial suppliers at your local hobby shop. An inexpensive alternative used for the load shown here is colored sand, available at craft stores. The black sand works very well for finely crushed coal. You could also use it for cinders around steam locomotive service facilities, fills and ballast in secondary tracks and yards. A two-pound container costs about $2.00.
Spread a layer of white glue across the entire load and sprinkle on your coal. It helps to work over a newspaper so you can collect and recycle the overflow. Once you have the load looking the way you’d like, mist it with some isopropyl alcohol from a spray bottle and pour on a little more white glue, this time diluted about 50/50 with water. Once the glue dries you’ll have a spill-free load. Note that you can do this with the molded loads that come with cars as well if you want to make them a little different or more detailed.
You can now place the load back in the car for a test fit. You may have to trim a few lumps of coal off from around edges. To make it easier to remove the loads, consider adding a small piece of ferrous metal to the inside of the foam load. (a few small roofing nails are an easy source – just press in from the bottom.) Now you can use a magnet to pull the load out of the car and avoid taking it off the layout all together!
By carving the load profiles yourself, each load will be unique. This is a great way to add an extra touch to your cars for little cost and a few hours of enjoyable work. Next week we’ll turn our attention to one of the most common cars on our railroads but one which is often neglected when it comes to loads – the boxcar.