Modeling Bulging Freight Car Sides

Freight cars can take quite the beating. Nowhere is this more true than with gondolas. Aside from the usual scrapes, rust and grime, after a few years in service, it is not uncommon to see the sides of a gondola bulging and distorted between the side posts.

bulging gon

This old Conrail gondola has distressed sides, even a few replacement panels, and also a noticeable sag! Recreating the effects of years of heavy loads is easier than you think on a model.

There have been several articles published in the model railroading press over the years on how to best recreate the look of these distressed side sheets. Perhaps the most common method is to use a soldering gun to heat a screwdriver or other implement of destruction and press the sheets from the inside of the plastic car.

This method works, but it does require some practice. A challenge with most of our plastic models is that our car sides are much thicker proportionally than the prototype, making it harder to recreate the look.

A second option is to remove the plastic all together and replace with a thin sheet of brass or other metal that can then be distressed just like the prototype with a few good whacks from a hammer and objects like a nail set, screwdriver, etc. This technique also yields great results, but it is a lot of work (unless of course you’re starting with a metal model with scale-thin sides.)

An Easier Way


Begin by placing drops of white glue on the sides of the car where you want the distortions.

Our bone yard display needed at least one gondola loaded with scrap – and it would only be appropriate to show some wear and tear on the car as well. For this car, we’re going to show a very simple method of getting the bulged panel look without any cutting, melting, or even hammering. The secret is a little white glue.

The technique is actually quite easy. Simply dribble drops of white glue onto the sides of the car where you want to create a bump. Study prototype photos for reference. The bulges will start at the floor line (not necessarily the bottom of the side on the exterior) and work up toward the top chord. And most bulges tend to be deepest near the center of the panel.


Looking from the side, the glue does not have to be super-thick. It will lose a lot of this volume when dry.

After the first coat of glue dries, you’ll notice it has lost a lot of its volume. No problem. Simply add another coat, and another, and another if necessary to get the result you desire. Each time you can place the glue a little differently to build up the odd shapes and character of the prototype.

When you are happy with the results, the car can be painted. We’ll cover this more in next week’s blog as we complete this gondola project.


After 24 hours, the multiple coats of glue have set and are ready for paint or weathering.

It is worth noting that the other methods for distressing the panels also usually end up with repainting the car. Melting the sides usually results in some pretty wavy lettering and if you’re replacing the panels, well that should be quite obvious.

But of course unless it was recently shopped, most cars with distressed panels like this will also show plenty of other signs of rusting and weathering. You can use the techniques described in earlier blogs to weather your model and still save the original paint and lettering in critical areas if you are careful about where you place your bulges.


After a quick coat of paint, the effect is very convincing. We’ll cover painting our model next week.

The only other disadvantage to this method is that the interior of the gondola will not show any signs of wear. However, if you plan to load the car with scrap as we do, that won’t matter!

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