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  • The Importance of Standards, Part 1

    Model Railfanning, a Monthly Column
    By Bob DeStefano, Thoroughbred RR Models

    Over the years, I’ve observed  “Newbies” to the hobby go through an “Accumulation Phase”, purchasing locomotives and freight cars randomly without much thought to a theme or “purpose” for the train or of a railroad. The “Newbie” just buys “stuff” to show his friends that his collection can be as large as theirs. My guess it’s a “guy thing”, especially in clubs.

    Gradually though, we become more educated or even “indoctrinated” within club culture or by reading the various hobby magazines. A maturation process takes control over our initial impulse buying sprees. We begin to realize there are differences among manufacturers. Quality and adherence to prototype fidelity replace the twin buying urges of  “I bought it because it looks good”, and amassing quantity. We become more selective and look for more accurate models and quality products.

    As we progress in the hobby, we become aware that there are all sorts of conformance standards. These standards insure quality control in every phase of the hobby. Eventually, these standards become the normal practice as you build your models.

    For your locomotives and freight cars, there are two sets of standards that you should consider following as you build your models. One category of standards is “Operational” and the other category is “ Appearance”. One or two standards you adopt may fall into both categories.

    Operational standards include:

    • The kind of couplers you choose to use.
    • Proper uniform coupler height for all cars and locomotives to insure good train operation.
    • NMRA standardized weight guidelines for your cars.
      • A simple weight formula to follow is an HO model should weigh one ounce for every 10 feet. Cars should ideally weigh within plus or minus of a half ounce of the ideal weight. For example, a 50 ft. HO scale boxcar should weigh five ounces. Maximum weight for cars exceeding 70 ft. is seven ounces.
    • Properly gauged metal wheel sets on all cars.
    • All freight cars should roll freely down a 2 percent incline.

    You should have a 15" test track set up with a coupler height and “pigtail” gauge. A nice extruded aluminum coupler height gauge similar to mine is available from Micro-Mark (pg. 78 of their latest catalog for $8.95). You should also own at least one NMRA standards gauge.

    One of the most important tools you should own is an NMRA standards gauge. You can purchase it from Micro-Mark or your local hobby shop.

    Use the NMRA standards gauge to insure all your locomotive and freight car wheel sets are within gauge. A small digital postal scale can be used to check the weight of your freight cars. 

    Use an NMRA gauge to insure that all the wheel sets of a locomotive or freight are within proper tolerances. Everyone should own at least two of these multi-purpose standards gauges.

    Check the coupler height and pigtail height. To raise the coupler height, use Kadee insulated fiber gray or red truck spacer washers. A low pigtail can be corrected using the special pliers pictured below.

    Some model railroaders are happy to just take a model out of the box and put it on their layout. As you become more experienced, you’ll want to upgrade your models further so you should consider adopting some “Appearance” standards. Some of these standards readers may consider subjective because it all depends on your skill level and how much time you want to invest in developing a realistic looking fleet of freight cars

    Appearance standards include:

    • Use of knuckle couplers. My preference is Kadee #58 scale metal couplers for most general freight cars and #119 shelf couplers for tank cars.
    • Car end details. If not manufacturer installed, add such details as Hi-Tech Details air hoses, coupler cut bars, Plano see-through end coupler crossover platforms, and individual grab irons on the ends.
    • Freight cars with individual grab irons or molded on grab irons. Like me, you may have a mixture of freight cars with both molded on and individual grab irons that you have acquired over the years. Of course, you can shave off those molded ladders and grabs and install more realistic detail parts. Detail Associates and Tichy make just about every style and length of grab iron you need and you can also bend your own if necessary from .010” brass wire.
    • See-through roof walks on boxcars and covered hopper walkways. Plano Models makes some excellent roof walks for covered hoppers.
    • Locomotive details should include basic details such as MU hoses, coupler lift bars, sunshades, where applicable, radio antennas, air conditioners proper horns, individual grab irons, lift rings, etc.
    • Weather your freight cars and locomotives consistent with the era you model. Thirty-year old freight cars should have more weathering than 10-year-old cars. Graffiti is non-existent in the steam and diesel transition era but should be present on an increasing percentage of cars post 1985. But note that there are still quite a few cars around without graffiti being photographed today.

    If you institute these basic operating and appearance standards you’ll have a better performing and a more prototypical appearing freight car and locomotive fleet that will provide lasting enjoyment in this hobby. 

    In Part 2 of this column, I’ll take you step-by-step through a simple freight car detail upgrade and weathering project. I’ll show you how to upgrade the appearance of a very common Athearn “Blue box” 62 ft. tank car, supplied by a client, and I’ll weather it up so it looks like it’s been in service working on the railroad for a while.


    For more information, contact Bob DeStefano at








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    • Original Author Bob DeStefano

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  • Christopher Brimley
    Christopher Brimley Bob, this is fantastic, I was unaware that we were posting this.
    December 1, 2010
  • David B
    David B Can't wait to read the follow up.
    December 5, 2010
  • Harry Birks
    Harry Birks Thankyou i like this a lot being new to the MRR . thankyou
    March 31, 2011