From Rolling Stock to Buildings – Adaptive Reuse in the Bone Yard

The bone yard is all about recycling. Why build a storage shed when you’ve got a box car? Or an office when you could have a caboose? Not everything that rolls in gets cut up for scrap.

From Tender to Oil Tank


Converting a tender to a fuel storage tank required only a few basic additional details.

The easiest conversion on the lot makes use of a Southern Pacific tender. Since these tenders were used to carry water and fuel oil for steam locomotives, there is no reason it can’t do the same for the trucks and equipment that work in the yard.

The shell was modified only slightly by removing the cast-on steps so that it could lay flat on the ground. It was then weathered by fading the lettering and applying a weathering wash of black paint lightened with a touch of gray. A few small spots of rust were added with chalks. Safety placards from a decal set were added to the sides an a fuel pump located near the tank for the fleet.

From Reefer to Storage Shed

Reefer before

Broken and bowed, sometimes a model is beyond repair. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.

One of the most fun conversions came from an old mechanical reefer that I found in our Customer Service building. Sometimes a model is so broken even Mike Reagan can’t fix it! It looked like this model has suffered a great fall, been stepped upon or worse.

To begin, all of the underbody details, stirrups and of course the trucks were removed so the car could sit on the ground. The doors were also removed (they were already falling off.) All of these parts were then used around the diorama as details.

I made no attempt to straighten the car since the bow gives it great character. And since the car was of much younger vintage than many of the other pieces in the yard, it helped tell the story of why it was retired so soon.

rust streaks

Subtle rust streaks prove that weathering doesn’t have to be heavy to have an impact. Details inside the shed are as interesting as the external changes.

Also because of the car’s younger age, I kept weathering to a minimum. A light wash of gray took away the plastic shine and a few light rust streaks were added with oil paints. As a final detail, the car’s reporting marks were simply crossed out and replaced in a style typical of quick patches like this for a car that has been retired and is headed to the bone yard.

The new shed was then filled with many of the smaller, more valuable details from the dissection of the other locomotive shells. Brass parts like bells, whistles and number plates were stacked on pallets and placed inside. So were the generator and fuel tanks from the reefer itself. Anything the yard would want to keep out of the elements or away from the pickers went inside to complete the scene.

From Tender to Shed

tender cuts

Cut a new door in the side of the tender with a metal cut off disk in a motor tool. Even the removed body panel can be used as a detail somewhere else in the scene.

A similar conversion was made with a tender from a Pennsylvania K4. The weathering on this shed was taken a little further however, using all of the techniques discussed previously.

In addition to removing the stirrups from the base of the tender, a new door was cut in one side. The coal load also had t o go, leaving a steel plate that needed some attention.

To cover the “hole” in the tender’s coal bunker, I added a new roof patched together in bone yard style from pieces of corrugated sheet metal. This detail is very easy to make and can be used in many places and ways around a railroad.


Use molded styrene as a template to make a new roof for the tender.

Start with a piece of molded styrene plastic. These sheets can be found in most hobby shops in a wide variety of designs. You can use these as-is to build structures, cars, etc. but we’re just using it for a template. In true bone-yard fashion, I used a scrap from another building project.

Lay piece of heavy aluminum foil over the styrene and transfer the pattern by pressing the foil into the grooves with your fingernail. For more variety, you can skip a few channels and make some different patterns.

finished tender

The final look of the tender shows the effects of all the weathering techniques we’ve demonstrated.

Next, paint the foil with some cheap gray primer spray paint. This kills the shine and provides something for the weathering chalks to grip.

Finish the look with various shades of rust colored weathering powders. Then simply cut the panels to size and glue into place! It’s hard to find a more realistic siding model for less money.

From Caboose to Office

Every business needs an office, and our bone yard is no exception. A Pennsy N5c cabin car made the perfect starting point. The car was weathered with washes and chalks. The trucks and wheels were painted grimy black to remove the gloss.


Aside from weathering, only a new electrical hookup was required to turn an old caboose into an office. There are lots of prototypical reuses for cabooses around today.

To keep the interior lighting, one pair of the wire leads were clipped from the pick up shoes on the truck and new wires attached to extend the leads through the base. The wires were tucked into the trucks to keep them hidden. They are powered by the same 14 Volt fixed-AC power source that supplies the animated scrap yard accessory.

The caboose was mounted to a piece of old tubular track and is held in place simply by super glue. To finish the scene, a new stairway was built from strips of basswood.

There are lots of potential reuses for railcars beyond the salvage yard. I’ve seen tank cars turned into silos, flatcars as bridges, even a retaining wall made of hoppers. How have you recycled rail cars on your layout?

2 responses

19 06 2013

I Once saw a transfer house that used a flatcar as a loading dock, this makes perfect sense, because a flat car is the perfect height for a loading dock.

20 09 2013
Fred Patton

For ultimate reuse, there’s a restaurant in our neighborhood that was put there when I was a kid made of 3-4 boxcars! It was originally called Victoria Station. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant now, but 40 years later, it’s still there! It doesn’t look much like freight cars anymore, but that’s what they are.,+Sunnyvale,+CA&hl=en&ll=37.337715,-122.015748&spn=0.022417,0.049567&sll=37.269174,-119.306607&sspn=10.746411,25.378418&oq=homestead+road&hnear=E+Homestead+Rd,+Sunnyvale,+California&t=m&z=15&layer=c&cbll=37.337705,-122.015529&panoid=AV9hN2FzfbxjMwrAqbhIyg&cbp=12,357.95,,0,4.74

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