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 – 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 – Beyond the Rails

20 09 2013

After a long and useful career on the railroads, many freight cars find their way into a second job off the rails in their retirement. Trains have been used for a variety of functions, from restaurants and motels to storage sheds, even bridges. These can all make interesting modeling projects (especially for that old boxcar that’s fallen to the floor one time too many!)

caboose office

This caboose office was the inspiration for our own scrap yard caboose project.

We covered a few of these conversions in our Railroad Bone Yard modeling project. From a caboose-turned-office to reefer and tender storage sheds these projects required very little modification to the models. The same is usually true for prototype adaptations. While the train car serves a practical function, the owners often like to preserve its history. This is almost always the case in cars re-purposed as office, sleeping or eating spaces. While the inside of the car may be gutted and transformed into a functional space, the authentic railroad look of the exterior is a big part of the draw and charm – even if it’s no longer painted for the railroad to which it once belonged.

Boxcars and now intermodal trailers are common storage solutions. This one also forms part of a wall.

Boxcars and now intermodal trailers are common storage solutions. This one also forms part of a wall.

Although functionality may be the primary motive in purchasing these old rail cars, they have been a major savior to the rail preservation interests as well. Often unknown survivors of a “lost” car turn up in backyards or work sites. While often not in original condition, they are the best starting point for historic restorations. Take Camden and Amboy coach No. 3 as an example. Now the second-oldest surviving passenger car in the United States (the car is owned by the Smithsonian and on loan to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania) this 1836-built car toured with the John Bull to World’s Fairs and exhibitions all across the country. It was restored by the Pennsylvania Railroad after being discovered on a farm converted to a chicken coop.


Even within the confines of a museum some cars are put to creative use. The Pennsylvania’s “Queen Mary” flatcar’s deck has ample room for a concert stage in Altoona.

Even if they never return to the rails, these out-of-place trains are always a great find on a road trip across the country. The American southwest is dotted by dozens if not hundreds of retired 40′ Santa Fe boxcars and steel reefers being used as sheds. Caboose motels offer a unique overnight experience – even if the accommodations have been “civilized” over the original appointments. And those iconic cabooses show up in community parks just about anywhere the rails ran (and even in a few places they didn’t) since their widespread retirement in the 1980s.

You’ll even find some cars working hard in their retirement as part of a retaining wall or even the classic flatcar bridge. Beneath the Susquehanna River lays the twisted wreckage of hoppers and gondolas used to plug the whirlpool created by the infamous Knox Mine collapse in 1959.

So clearly a freight car’s utility goes far beyond the gauge of the rails! Do you have any favorite off-the-rails freight cars? Have you added any to your layout?

Freight Car Friday – Moving Freight, Part 1

5 07 2013

We spend a lot of time thinking about how trains look, but what about how they work? How does a freight car get from Point A to Point B? (Sure, a locomotive helps – but why that car, in that train, for that customer?) While the mechanics and aesthetics of trains are amazing in their own right, there is far more to the story than just wheels and rivets.

Throughout July, we’ll be featuring articles on railroad operations here on Freight Car Friday. Perhaps this information will inspire you to try some prototype-based operations with your own freight cars. After all, there is more to a model railroad than model trains.

Paper with a Purpose

Busy Yard

The action at a busy yard can seem like chaos, but every action has a reason. How do they know which car goes where?

Freight cars aren’t just moved at random. Each car in a train is traveling for a reason. If the car is loaded, it is headed to a specific customer. Empty cars are on their way for another load. Getting these cars to their destinations as efficiently as possible requires planning, hard work, and a lot of paperwork.


The caboose was an office on rails. From here the conductor could manage the train’s paperwork while it rolled from town to town.

One of these essential files is the waybill. A waybill is created for every loaded car on the railroad. It lets the crew know what the car is carrying, who it belongs to, where it is going, when it needs to arrive and how it will get there. It may also include other important handling information like notices about hazardous materials, speed or clearance restrictions or other caveats.

Waybills are created once a shipper’s bill of lading has been assigned to a specific car and is ready for shipment. The paperwork is then conveyed to the train crew so that they will know which cars to pick up, set out, etc.

Today, this information can be shared electronically. But that was not always the case. For more than a century, the conductor carefully managed waybills and other paperwork from his office in the caboose. Copies of waybills were manually transferred from train to train, yard to yard by the conductors and clerks.

Waybills for Model Railroads

Generating a form every time you move a freight car may not sound like a lot of fun for a model railroad. But we can take some inspiration from the process to help guide our operations and put you behind the conductor’s desk as your train takes a trip around your track.


These original waybill forms from the Reading show all of the typical information required including car identification, shipper, origin, destination and details about the load. These fields can be easily simplified for model train use.

By simplifying the paperwork, preparing cards in advance, and allowing for some repetition (how much is up to you,) running trains becomes a mission. Now, just like the prototype, your train has a job to do. When you pick up your paperwork, it’s time to go to work setting out and picking up cars.

There are several car forwarding systems available for model railroaders. Some are paper-based, others use computer programs and some are as simple as multi-colored tags. (For an example of one I’ve used, see these cards.) How strictly you adhere to prototype practices is up to you. Whether it’s a computer-generated switch list or the roll of a dice, when it comes to moving the cars on your layout, the results will be the same.

Over the next few weeks we’ll examine some of those actions along with more of the back stories behind them.