Freight Car Friday – Make Your Own Coal Loads

18 10 2013

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.

prototype load

Loads in a modern coal train often have a smooth profile thanks to flood loading tipples which load the cars as the train is in motion.

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!)

foam block

Cut a basic block from insulating foam. A single sheet will make loads for many cars.

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.


After shaping the foam is ready for coal. This load will have a more smooth profile compared to the original Lionel load.

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

coal load

Add full covering of crushed coal, or in this case dyed sand.

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.

loaded hopper

The finished load adds a different look to this car. Spread out over a train-load, the materials cost less than $1 per car.

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.

Freight Car Friday – Adding Pipe Loads to Flatcars and Gondolas

11 10 2013

We’ve shown several easy and inexpensive homemade loads already here on the blog. Now that you’ve just upgraded the deck of your flatcar, here’s another common prototype load that you can model. This is a fun one-evening project that will really help your freight car stand out.

Pipe Loads

pipe load

Pipe loads come in many varieties. The white banding stands out nicely against this black pipe. Note the blocking between pipes and grouping of the load.

Pipe comes in a huge variety of colors, diameters, lengths and materials. They can be loaded on flatcars or gondolas. Cars with a bulkhead are often preferred to prevent damage to neighboring cars if the load should shift in transit. But you will find plenty of examples of pipe in all sizes traveling on traditional cars as well. These loads would be handled with some care and probably not placed next to a dangerous load of hazardous materials.

Since there are so many varieties of pipe, there are many options when it comes to modeling it.  For steel pipe, drinking straws and stirrers make some of the best starting points. Available in several diameters, straws are already about the right length for a typical O Gauge car and they have a very thin profile (much more to scale than plastic structural tubing.) Also, you can’t beat the price!

Transforming straws into pipe is usually just a matter of paint. Black, gray, orange and “industrial green” are all common colors. You may find it easier to paint the load after you have glued your stacks of pipe together. More on this shortly.


Corrugated pipe takes a little more work, but the materials are cheap and techniques are easy to learn.

For corrugated piping, you can use the aluminum foil molding trick we’ve shown in previous articles as well. By gently pressing it against a form, you can recreate almost any shape in aluminum foil. We’ve used it for corrugated roofing and siding in our bone yard. It was also used to make culverts for some of our modules. The technique is the same for full lengths of pipe. All you need is the form – in this case a bolt – of whatever diameter you desire for your pipe.

  • Cut the foil into a rectangle of your desired length and a width long enough for one to two complete wraps around the bolt. A little overlap will and strength.
  • Smooth the foil on a hard, flat surface.
  • Wrap it around the bolt, keeping the ends square.
  • Use your fingernail to press the foil into the threads. Be careful not to press too hard and tear the foil.
  • When done, simply twist the bolt out of the new aluminum sleeve. Presto! You have a corrugated pipe.

If you mess up on a few attempts, don’t be discouraged. These can be used in scenes around the layout on construction sites, culverts, or for the really bad ones, scrap yards.

Making the Load


Secure the banding on the bottom of the load. White glue holds everything together. Give yourself enough time for the glue to dry.

Now that you have your pipes, the next step is to turn them into a realistic load. Working from a good prototype photo is a huge help in figuring out how to stack and tie down the pipes. In most cases, the pipes aren’t simply piled on the car and then secured with a single line around the entire bundle. First they are bunched in groups and banded together. These banded bunches are then banded to each other. And finally the entire load is secured to the car.

Black thread will work well to simulate the banding. Begin by bunching an appropriate number of pipes together. Glue the pipes together where the adhesive won’t be seen. The bands are just for show.


Small wood strips make easy stakes to help secure the load. Notice the stakes are loose – they will be secured to the load and will lift out easily if the car needs to run empty or carry something new.

For plastic straws, use plastic cement. There are many different types of plastic and depending on which glue and which plastic you have you may get a strong bond, nothing, or melted straws. Test yours first. If you don’t have a plastic cement that will do, just use white glue. White glue can also be used on the aluminum foil pipes. While working with these corrugated pipes, it can be helpful to slide a straw or dowel rod down the center to help maintain their form and give some added strength.

After you’ve glued each group of pipes together, band them with the black thread. Again, you can hide the ends of the thread toward the middle of the load. Here is where those prototype pictures come in!

Next you can glue and band the groups together just as you did with the individual pipes. It is easiest to stack your load upside down on the workbench so you can hide the ends of your tie downs on the underside of the load.

Securing the Load to the Car


The completed load is a nice complement to the weathered deck we made last week. Even with black-on-black, the tie downs and stakes add a lot of detail.

When it comes to securing the load to the car, you have several options. If you don’t plan to remove the load in the future, you can simply glue it, along with any extra stakes and tie-downs, to the deck of the car. For a removable load you’ll want to do a little more work.

For gondolas, you can glue the load to a false floor as was shown with our tarped machinery load. This floor will be a little more obvious on a flatcar. Here, consider using wood stakes to secure the load. For best results, build this in place on the car. Place the wood stakes in the pockets on the sides of the flatcar (you do not want a tight fit.) Carefully glue them to the load – but not the car.

Once the glue has set, you’ll be able to lift the load and stakes off of the car. It can be helpful to write the type of car the load will fit on the bottom of the load itself.

If you don’t count the drying time for the paint and glue, this entire project can be easily completed in an evening. If you plan ahead, you could build several loads at once working only a few minutes each evening. Next week we’ll work on some new loads for your hoppers and gondolas.

Freight Car Friday – Improving Flatcar Decks

4 10 2013

Throughout October, we’ll be featuring several easy projects you can use to improve your freight car models. Whether you are just getting started with “weathering” and customizing models, looking for ways to make your models unique and more realistic, or just need a relaxing modeling project for the weekend ahead, these posts may provide just the inspiration you need. So you say you’re not fond of “dirty” model trains? Don’t worry, many of the projects ahead can be done without adding a lot of extra grime or even changing the finish of the original model at all.

Improving Flatcar Decks

Even an empty flatcar deck offers an opportunity for the modeler.

Even an empty flatcar deck offers an opportunity for the modeler.

Flatcars and gondolas offer some of the greatest modeling possibilities with a virtually unlimited number of loads that can be added to them. We’ve shown how to model some loads already and we’ll present two more in the coming weeks. But every load will look better if it sits on a realistic platform.

For this project, we’re using one of our traditional plastic flatcar models. If you have a Lionel train set, there is a pretty good chance you have one of these in your collection. These same techniques can be used with just about any plastic or metal model however. We’ll make some notes along the way for how you could modify these techniques for our scale cars with real wood decks.

Our first challenge is to make a plastic car look like it has a wood floor. In most cases, the wood floor of a car is not painted on the prototype. The expense would quickly be worn away by the rough treatment the car will receive in service. This beating also leaves plenty of gouges and even broken boards.

Distressing the Deck

deck texture

A few passes with some 60 grit sandpaper adds a wood grain effect to the deck boards. You can add additional scratches and scrapes to represent abuse from loads.

You can decide how much abuse your car needs for yourself. If you want to add a little wood grain to your car simply rub it with some 60 grit sand paper or scratch away with a hobby knife blade. This process will go much faster with a real wood deck so start with a light pressure and built up to the desired level of punishment. A prototype photo (we’ve got a few of those here!) can be a big help when trying to get the right look.

Masking and Painting


Carefully mask all of the steel areas of the car – anything you don’t want to turn to wood.

Begin by carefully masking off all of the “steel” parts of the car. Regular blue painters tape will work well for this. Make sure to get the tape pressed tightly against the car. You can trim the strips to width with a hobby knife. The grooves in the floor make a good guide for a straight cut. If you are going to spray the car, don’t forget to mask all the sides and ends too. If you are brush painting, you can avoid this masking as long as you don’t get too crazy with that paint brush!


Peel back the mask to reveal a sharp contrast between the wood and steel. If you have any bleed through spots, don’t worry; they’ll be easy to cover with subsequent weathering.

To represent aged wood, use a light gray primer color. For a brand new deck, a light tan works well. Keep in mind that freight car builders did not use “green” lumber. It was carefully stacked and dried for as much as two years prior to being used on a car to prevent it from warping and distressing on its own once in place. So even a new deck would likely show some signs of age.

If you don’t have any experience with an airbrush, don’t worry. This is one of those jobs that will turn out just as well with a rattle can of primer from the hardware store. On the other hand, if you don’t have any experience with an airbrush, a simple project like this would be a great place to get started!

painted deck

The painted deck already looks much more like wood but it is still too uniform.

Paint the entire deck. We can come back and highlight individual boards later if desired by hand painting lighter or darker “wood” shades on individual planks. If you don’t want to paint these with a brush, tape off individual boards or groups of boards and spray with a can or airbrush.

For real would decks, skip the paint and use a stain. You can find aged wood gray stains in small jars at your home or hardware center. Apply the stain with a foam brush. You can apply it to the entire deck or just selective boards to represent recent repairs. Although you can wipe the stain off the “steel” parts of the car quickly if you go outside the wood deck, masking these areas is still not a bad idea.

When you’ve finished painting, peel back the painters tape. You will already notice a dramatic difference. Before we continue however, let the paint dry thoroughly overnight.

Adding Depth


A quick wash with some diluted black paint brings out a lot of detail and adds to the aged look.

Now we want to highlight, or more correctly shadow, the lower parts of the deck. To do this we’ll apply a weathering wash. This process was described in more detail in an earlier blog.

Using a very thin flat black paint, brush paint the entire deck. Allow the paint to soak into all the cracks between boards. After the paint has had a few minutes to set, you can wipe off any excess from the tops of the boards. If you take off too much and you don’t have the desired look in the cracks, you can reapply the wash. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to leave a little black on the tops of the boards either. It will help add to the final affect.

Apply as many washes as necessary until you are comfortable. Remember, no two cars are the same. There is no “right” way to weather yours and the train will look better if you don’t try to make them all “just right.”


Now that we’ve brought out the detail, we can finish our deck treatment by highlighting the boards themselves. Weathering powders or chalks work best for this. These powders can be found in a variety of hues. Again, we’ve covered weathering chalks in an earlier blog if you’d like more information. Pick several of your favorite grays, browns and black and mix them on the car.


After brushing several shades of weathering powders the deck has a well-used yet maintained appearance. Even if the rest of the car is not weathered, improving the deck makes a big difference.

The heaviest weathering should be focused towards the center of the car where most loads would be placed. Use black or dark gray to add a healthy layer of grime to the middle of the car. You can now highlight individual planks with lighter colors to help vary their aging. Add unique stains in random locations with other colors to represent further load damage.

While we’ve focused on the wood parts of the deck, this weathering can go over the steel portions too. It all gets scratched and dirty. If you want to add some heavier “rust” to the steel parts of the deck, consider using oil paints.

Again, how much you apply is up to you. One advantage of the chalks however is that a wet sponge or paper towel will quickly correct any “mistakes” or bring you back to the start if you think you’ve gone too far.

Final Details

The deck itself is now finished. If you are modeling an empty car you can leave it at this. Many flatcars and gondolas aren’t as “empty” however and you can sprinkle a few extra blocks of wood, a piece of chain, bailing straps, etc.  from previous load restraints on the deck for that extra little bit of realism even if you’re not going to add a full load. If you do want to add a load, we’ll start one of those projects next Friday!

Freight Car Friday – Wood Chip Cars

28 06 2013

Railroads are designed to handle heavy loads, but not every load breaks the scales. Wood chips are one of the least-dense loads commonly carried by rail. Because of their relatively light weight, the chips can be hauled in large volume in very big cars.

woodchip car

Cars like this Southern gondola, originally built for wood chips, are often seen in refuse service today. This car must be put in a rotary dumper to be unloaded.

Wood chips are used in a variety of products, from paper to construction material. The lumber industry is a model for raw material utilization. These chips are often the “left over” byproduct from milling operations. Rather than waste the material, it is collected, sold and shipped to other processing plants.

For the railroads, transporting the chips has always presented a challenge. How do you maximize the payload so that you can earn a profit while keeping the cars within the limits allowed by interchange rules?


This massive hopper was designed for wood chips.

Over the years, many railroads have created wood chip cars by converting older equipment. The cars have come from hoppers, gondolas, even boxcars. In almost every case, part of the process includes raising the sides of the car to the tallest height possible. Purpose-built wood chip hoppers and gondolas can also be found.

Many processing plants have large rotary dumpers, similar to those found for emptying coal and ore, which simply turn the entire car upside down to empty the load. In other cases, the hopper doors on the bottom of the car are used to empty the wood chips into a pit from which a conveyor delivers them to storage piles. Some boxcar conversions retained their doors so they could be unloaded by hand from the sides of the car.

In recent years, with a great rise in the amount of waste hauled by rail, some of these large cars have found new uses in bulk trash and scrap hauling service. Only certain types of refuge can be hauled in these cars. Compressed and heavy bales would overload their capacity very quickly. Like the wood chips, some of this scrap is recycled into other products.

coke hopper

Here’s an interesting twist on converting cars. A section of this wood chip car has been removed to make it smaller for coke service. Compare it to the conventional cars on either side.

There are several industries you could model which would take in these cars. Many, like paper and lumber mills, tend to be large complexes that will require many other types of rail cars as well. Or you could just add a few to the consist of your trains as they pass through your railroad on their way.

Creating an extended height conversion car could be done relatively easily by starting with one of our conventional hoppers or gondolas. Extended sides can be made from styrene plastic or basswood, available at most hobby shops. Don’t worry about being to precise – most of the prototype conversions were clearly after-market changes as well.

Loading your cars is easy – just sweep the sawdust off of the workbench or workshop floor after your next project. A car or two of wood chips is a great break from the many coal loads you’re already carrying.