Model photos by the author; prototype photos as indicated
Preparing prototype models of specific railroad equipment, in this case freight cars, is a lot of fun for me. I have long enjoyed modeling diesel locomotives, but in recent years I have acquired a real liking for building, detailing and weathering freight cars especially boxcars. I have now prepared a couple hundred detailed and weathered prototype models of various freight cars. The most prominent cars in my roster are Atlantic Coast Line boxcars. I practically lived at trackside throughout north and central Florida during the 1960s and 1970s, thus making ACL boxcars among the most common freight cars that I saw. So it is only natural that I focus on these prototypes.
In 1960 ACL received 700 50' boxcars, numbered 31000-31699, from American Car & Foundry. These cars made up ACLs class O-31. They had a capacity of 4,817 cubic feet and were rated at 50 tons. All had 8' 10" doors and a then-standard 10' 6" inside height. Noteworthy is that O-31 boxcars were the first to use the slogan Thanks For Using Coast Line . A hundred of the cars (31600-31699) were equipped with DF loaders. O-31 boxcars saw all types of service, being used for hauling paper, chemicals, can stock, auto parts, various merchandise and tobacco products. 1 Several cars were randomly selected from the class to be assigned to bulk salt service for the Allied Chemical Company in Baton Rouge, LA. These specialty cars were identical to the remainder of the class with the exception of yellow-painted doors and four small circular roof hatches for salt loading.
Almost the entire fleet of O-31 cars made it into the Seaboard Coast Line following the 1967 merger with long-time rival Seaboard. While the new SCL paint scheme was attractive in its own right, the railroad was in no hurry to repaint its older boxcars. Many O-31 boxcars survived in ACL paint into the early 1980s.
I have a good time locating photos of a prototype freight car and doing some research with friends to learn more, then building models of the prototype. For me, this is prototype modeling. I dont take research to the level of some other folks, but I go far enough to help to prepare a credible model of the real thing as it may have appeared in a specific setting. My three ACL boxcars here came about in this way. I prefer working from photographs of the real thing rather than from technical drawings. For these models I used photos from Paul Faulks ACL Color Guide book and some provided by Larry Goolsby2. There is no need to make this into "rocket science." Keeping things simple is desirable. If a finished model looks right based upon available photography, and the technically competent among us verify that it is reasonably accurate, then to me it is right and I am satisfied.
Modeling from photographs is a nice way to build railroad models. However, one must have adequate photos to work with, which may at first appear to be a problem for some modelers. If you are accustomed to taking models out of the box and with a bit of weathering placing them into service, then prototype modeling may seem daunting because of this. No doubt, prototype modeling calls for research, but research need not be an insurmountable obstacle. If you model the contemporary, then take your camera and head out to capture your favorite prototypes on film (or smart media cards!). If you model railroads and equipment that no longer exist, then there are many sources of photography including a myriad of fine books. So, if one intends to become a prototype modeler then one must accept that added time will be required to research prototypes to be modeled.
I worked this way for many years. However, while some prototype modelers have taken on research as a hobby unto itself, I only do enough research to prepare a credible (not perfect) model. I strive to get key components in the right places, then lean heavily upon the paint finish and weathering to make a model appear realistic. Also, I will not sacrifice reliability for detail. All models that I built must be able to stand up to layout use with no more than normal minimal maintenance.
Before moving on to building our models I want to make mention that the internet is probably the most useful resource for obtaining information, photography and other data that I have ever encountered. There are numerous groups on the internet that you can join. These groups are made up of some very experienced modelers that enjoy sharing their resource materials and their experience. I belong to several and highly recommend this media to you. I have thousands of photos that I have acquired that I am more than willing to share (at no cost) via email. Those of you dismissing the computer as a model railroad resource are missing out on one of the most fun and most useful aspects of this great hobby.
The million-dollar question is what does it take to model the Atlantic Coast Line class O-31 boxcars? I first discovered the Branchline Atlantic Coast Line O-31 boxcar kits while surfing Branchlines web page on the internet. When I saw the ACL O-31 listed there I thought at long last. Sigh...yes, there must be a model railroad god. I immediately placed my order. When the models arrived I was not disappointed. The factory applied lettering is excellent accurate, opaque and very sharply applied. Even with years of experience with decals I could not have matched this quality (even if decals were available).
I started work by comparing the Branch-line model to photos of the prototype, looking for differences and for items that could be upgraded on the model. As it turns out, the Branchline kit very closely matches the ACL class O-31 prototype in both detail and paint. There is only one minor and correctable exception that I will get to in a moment. The model is offered numbered for five different cars a single car (Item #1910) and a 4-pack (Item #19104). I bought the 4-pack feeling that four of any one freight car that is not in unit train service is enough.
Tools that you may need include the ubiquitous X-Acto #11 hobby knife, hobby tweezers, de-spruing nippers, small flat blade and small Phillips screwdrivers, cotton swabs, a few small paint brushes, liquid styrene cement and I also recommend Cyanopoxy cement. The time required to take one of these kits from box to completion will depend upon your experience and developed skill level. I have built many such kits and can complete one in a little more than an hour, though it typically takes me a relaxing evening putzing around on one of these models.
In order to address what details go where it is recommended that you locate photos of the prototype you are modeling. Paul Faulks Atlantic Coast Line Color Guide is a good place to start. I found that the notched sidesill of the Branchline model was accurate for the ACL O-31 boxcars with one exception. There needs to be one more notch to the left of the doors (on each side of the model). This is easily fixed by using an XActo knife and a small file to cut and file the sidesill to match the model to the photos. Cut away the unwanted plastic, then scrape and file the roughed edges until they are smooth.
With this one correction complete, what else can be done to the Branchline kit to make it even better than it already is? There are certain detail items that I add to every freight car that finds its way onto my roster. This includes coupler cut levers, scale brakewheel, air hoses, metal stirrup steps, scale or near-scale grabs and ladders, and Kadee near-scale couplers either #58 or #78 couplers. I prefer to use the Kadee #78 coupler whenever its installation is reasonable because it has a scale draft gear box as well as a scale coupler head.
Another item to consider replacing is the plastic roofwalk. Though I have used the included roofwalk with other Branchline kits I chose to replace the ones on these cars with photo-etched stainless steel ones from Detail Associates. With a galvanized-metal roof color no paint is needed as weathering blends all together quite well. The DA metal roofwalks are thick enough to keep them from bowing between roofwalk supports like a sine wave as room temperature changes. I strongly recommend using Cyanopoxy to bond the steel roofwalk to the plastic roof supports. The formed-metal roofwalk corner grabs that come with the DA roofwalk were drilled for and installed.
So far I have only built three of the four cars in the 4-pack (all pictured here). Not wanting all three cars to look like cookie cutter models I weathered one lightly, one Bill Folsom collection has medium weathering, and the third has a painted yellow door, also with medium weathering. The car number on the yellow-door car also had to be changed to match a specific boxcar in the Faulk ACL Color Guide book. All three models are prepared to represent a mid-to-late 1960s setting.
Not wishing to go into a step-by-step kit assembly exercise here we will instead, highlight what was done to these models that make them different from a simple assembled per manufacturers instruction model. After adding the weights and cementing the roof in place, brake equipment and rigging were clipped from their sprues using de-spruing nippers and installed using liquid styrene cement. The draft gear boxes were discarded and Kadee #78 scale couplers and scale draft gear were installed in their place using 2-56 screws to secure each. To the detail conscious modeler the scale draft gear and coupler offer a tremendous improvement in appearance over the older #5 couplers. An added gift is that the #78 couplers and draft gear are pre-assembled, making installation a breeze.
Assembly of the model stopped short of installing ladders, grabs and brakewheel equipment. These items were not installed until after the model was weathered. Huh? Close friend and freight car critic Mike Bradley suggested that while my Q-tip weathering is effective overall, it may work better if I applied this technique to models before installation of ladders, grabs and end detail that interferes with applying the weathering with a Q-tip. I thought this over and decided to give it a try. These boxcars were the first test subjects.
The yellow-door salt-service car needs four roof hatches. Details West 202 sand-fill hatches for Alco diesels are the right size and make a good stand-in for the real thing. The DW hatches are white metal and match the color of the roof nicely. Use the accompanying photos for placement. Drill mounting holes and secure each in place using Cyanopoxy.
Start weathering by either brush painting or airbrushing the underside of the car along with the trucks using Polly Scale Railroad Tie Brown. Next, paint the sides and ends of the boxcar with a wash of Polly Scale Railroad Tie Brown and MODELflex Grimy Black. If you have an airbrush you can spray this same mix of paint. Do only half of each side at a time. Do not wait for the paint to dry. Immediately use a Q-tip dipped in Badger brush cleaner to wipe off most of the weathering paint. Do so with the Q-tips wiping in a top to bottom motion until the desired effect is achieved. Repeat the process to all four halves of the car sides, then one end at a time.
Applying ladders and grabs after weathering provided noticeable improvement in the final appearance. Maybe the improve- ment doesnt jump out at you, but close study of the weathered surfaces behind the ladders and grabs reveals significant improvement when compared to weathering applied after these items have been installed. Doing the weathering before installing the ladders was a bit more bother, and I am not sure if the improvement is significant enough to make it worth it. So, the jury remains out on this.
Grabs, ladders, stirrup steps and brakewheel equipment was installed, then weathered using a paint brush and watered down Polly Scale Railroad Tie Brown mixed with MODELflex Weathered Black. The last item needing attention is the roof. The entire roof is sprayed with several coats of flat finish. Afterward mixes of MODELflex Rail Brown and Polly Scale Railroad Tie brown are hand brushed along the edges of the roof and up onto the outboard areas alongside the roof ribs.
In summary, the Branchline factory painted and lettered boxcar kits offer prototype modelers accurate models that, with a few minor detail additions, become show models. A 20- to 30-car train of these cars will really look great sandwiched between your detailed and weathered locomotives and caboose.