Monday, 4 December 2017

Kit Manufacturers Comparison or Where's The Fun?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on several freight car kits to build up Harlem Station roster. I had to deal with kits from various manufacturers and thought it would be neat to share my impressions of each ones. It must be noted I’ve built models from these manufacturers for a long time. However, it was the first time I built some much detailed cars in such a short amount of time and with a focus on small details (brake gear, grabirons, roofwalk, etc.).

Life-Like: not a contest winner, but definitely an enjoyable process.

My endeavour started with a pair of Life-Like/Varney refrigerator cars. While absolutely crude, the sturdy and thick plastic used back then proved to be a blessing during the process. It is a sound and solid foundation upon which to one can add details to its heart content. Once again, Tichy details proved to be great to work with while Intermountain brittle plastic was less fun. Accurail AB brake assemblies saved also a lot of time and money. They can be modified too, though I’m not a fan of delrin plastic since I had to use epoxy glue to keep them permanently attached to the car. As much as possible, I prefer to use plastic that can be cemented with solvent. I also used Accurail Bettendorf trucks which are finely casted and affordable. The fine lettering moulded on is a plus to me. I certainly wish Accurail made more trucks. Finally, Kadee brake wheel were a bliss to install. Probably among the best on the market and ones must admit they are incredibly sturdy while having the finest cross section you can expect in HO scale. Overall, kitbashing Life-Like and Varney old train set took a lot of time, but it was a fun process and never tiresome or frustrating. You could almost consider it scratchbuilding since only the basic shell was kept and could have been easily built from scratch with less effort.

The next model I worked on were four Life-Like Proto 2000 Greenville Mill Gondolas. The last time I built this specific car, I was in high school back in 1999 and used a dull X-acto blade and CA glue. I recall the process to have been tedious. This time, sharp blades, solvent cement and tweezers made it much easier. However, the notoriously flimsy stirrups and annoying brake gear are certainly irritating aspects of P2K cars. I decided to order photo etched replacements from Pierre Oliver. However, I must admit the P2K cars are great to build and prototypical to booth. When you know their weaknesses, you can work things around so they are sturdier.

C&BT: Lots of remedial work required and far to be top notch

Then, I decided to tackle a pair of C&BT Santa Fe ice steel reefer. Tony Thompson and Andy Sperandeo once wrote about these cars back in the early 1990s. I thought Thompson was quite harsh when he concluded on his blog they weren’t worth the trouble. But after having spent hours on them, I must admit he was right. The plastic C&BT used is annoying at best. It is brittle and for this reason, many parts had to be oversized. This limitation also made many parts to look coarse approximation of the real thing, even from Average Joe’s standards. I ended up partially trashing the B-end details, the brake gear, ladders, stirrups, hinges, etc… I think you understand the pattern, only the shell was salvageable. But even then, dimensional errors plague the model. The roof doesn’t sit at the proper height and has oversized overhangs. The roofwalk is a joke, many platform brackets not molded.  I also had to alter the roof platform so they be prototypically correct (SFRD platform had long slots so the hatch latches could be dropped into it and not be a hazard for workers).

C&BT: This is an unintentional parody of a brake apparatus

At the end of the day, you end up with a model you need to extensively rebuild, alter and modify. It seems C&BT worked with flawed and insufficient data which made the model an approximation of the car. I can understand the limitation of the early 1990s, but it is quite frustrating to trash almost every details and waste time rectifying another’s mistakes only to get a passable result. When I buy a kit, I generally understand I can build it straightforwardly without having to extensively rebuild it (except if it is the stated goal from the start). I certainly don’t recommend this car, particularly when a vastly superior model is now available from Intermountain.

Intermountain: Flimsy stirrups, but great looking car

I then built two Intermountain PFE R-40-23 reefers. They did a great job capturing the prototype and the building process is quite straigtforward.  However, I’m not a fan of the plastic type favoured by Intermountain. It is quite flimsy for small parts and can easily break during handling. They plastic stirrups are a lost cause. They broke the moment I installed them and I can assure you I used paranoiac care to make sure they would survive. Thus, I ordered photo-etched replacement parts from Pierre Oliver too! But that said, Intermountain cars are generally well-designed and easy to assemble. The instructions are easy to follow too, which is a necessity when dealing with hundreds of parts.

Athearn: With some love, you can bring forward the potential

The Intermountain models then prompted me to update four Athearn 40ft ice steel reefer. Knowing the car was based on the PFE R-40-23 design, I ordered several Intermountain detail parts. I also extensively kitbashed the roof and hatches so they would be closer to the prototype. Using the Intermountain cars as a reference made it quite easier to do. While it required a lot of work, it was a great and rewarding challenge. I don’t regret any minute working on these cars and think they will be a great addition to my layout when completed.

Tichy: Top notch and extremely affordable

Finally, I continued my endeavour by tackling a bunch of Tichy USRA boxcars (single sheathed and rebuilt). Must I say Tichy product have the detail quality of resin kits and the ease of assembly of styrene kits for a fraction of the cost (even competing with Accurail). It is the best of both worlds. The level of detail is incredible and parts are generally free of flashes. Assembly is straight forward, instructions are generally well written and they use a sturdy type of plastic that is both durable and easy to work with.

That wraps up my impression with working with various types of kits available on the market. Meanwhile, I’ll soon have to work with Rapido kits (which are devoid of any instruction), Westerfield and Funaro & Carmerlengo resin kits. While I’m not new to resin kits – having built my share of Japanese garage kit and a Sylvan CN caboose back in my college days – I’m curious to see how I’ll find the experience.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

GARX 37ft Wood Reefers

Some of our decisions seem stupid when rated in term of efficiency. In this case, rebuilding Varney and Life-Like wood reefers as GARX refrigerator cars may sound foolish, and to some extent it is. However, simply judging a project value – particularly in the case of a hobby – from this perspective is brush over many layers of relevance.

Styrene, paper and brass...

The project started when I found out the general proportions of these models were a good match for 37ft meat reefers - a common lenght for decades in the packing industry - an idea found on Tony Thompson's blog. I had two cars, plenty of trucks and freight car parts that could be used to bring them to life. Dry transfer lettering is also a cheap and convenient commodity. Thus, my mind sought to find a way to make decent models out of them. My guess was that following prototype pictures and Rapido’s own meat reefer official artwork would yield acceptable results. Little did I know that I would venture in quite a quest.

Individually carved wood planks with bolts and wood grain.

Certainly, I can affirm a lot of work was involved. At the end of the day, only the car sides and ends were kept. Grabirons, stirrups, roof and hatches, brake gear and underframe were removed altogether, including door hinges. Someone could argue I would have been better to scratchbuild the damn thing from scratch and save myself a lot of tedious and unrewarding work. That’s probably true… However, I had to use several different techniques and skills to get the results I wanted. This kind of learning will be useful on other more worthy models. Practice makes perfect they say, and you can’t skip that step – even if it may look petty – if you wish to be a better craftman.

I didn't count the exact time it took to upgrade the models, but it certainly occupied me with quality leisure time for a few weeks. At each day, I looked at the models and decided which little detail I wanted to build or improve, taking my time to do the job right.

Correct underframe and brake detail, improved door hinges

This is probably becoming a leitmotiv here on Harlem Station, but I certainly believe working on a small and manageable prototype gives you the opportunity to progressively improve your skills and redo things better as required. On a large layout or project, the imperative of simply trying to complete the project makes it impossible to go back and redo or improve things. The show must go on…

If my explanation isn’t clear enough, think about it in terms of digital video encoding. If you only use a one-pass algorithm, you’ll get a somewhat acceptable result. But as you make a second and a third pass, fluidity and sharpness greatly improve. Depending of your goal, it can or cannot fit your aspiration. But if you want to learn skill and reach excellence in your modelling, this could be a good way.

In my case, I’ll continue to upgrade older freight cars, as they are an excellent way to improve oneself and spend some quality leisure time.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Reefer Colors in the Acrylic Era

Finding the right color for freight car can be a real pain, and I'm not talking about the intricacies about boxcar red.

One of the worst color for me so far as been to find a correct orange reefer in acrylics. I've looked at many conversion charts and I'm certainly full of doubts, particularly for FGE and SFRD refrigerators cars of my era (late 40s-early 50s). While I've seen paint labelled as Orange Reefer, many modellers aren't convinced of their accuracy.

Actual pictures show us FGE reefers were kind of light orange closer to a dark harvest yellow than pumpkin orange. The same could be said about SFRD cars, which always have a kind of yellowish color though it seems FGE and SFRF had their own specific paint color.

Among suggested color, Microscale suggest Gunze Sangyo #109 Character Yellow as a substitute for Floquil PFE LightOrange. They even suggest Humbrol #18 Orange, which is quite a saturated orange shade a little bit over the top for SFRD reefers.

While many manufacturers now offer "Reefer Orange", I'm not that much inclined in testing a few of them only to be disappointed. Not all reefers were born equal and I'm pretty sure painting these cars is much more than just spraying some random stuff out of the bottle.

Thus, if anybody have suggestion on acrylic paints that can be airbrushed and suitable for FGE and SFRD car, feel free to comment. In the past, I wouldn't have minded and mixed my own custom color. However, as I'm building several cars at different moment, I'm not eager to have huge discrepancies among the fleet.

Edit: Reading again articles by Tony Thompson and others, it seems SP Daylight Orange would be a close match for PFE Light Orange reefers. Only need to find a correct color for the SFRD cars.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Kitbashing Erie 37500 Series Gondola - Part 2

Everyday we learn a new thing – at least we should – and modelling is probably a good teacher in that regard. While working on my pair of Erie 37500 series gondola I got a lesson where I expected it the less.

As a starting point, I’m using the old Roundhouse 40ft gondola. Some will object it’s a crude model by today’s standards but details are crisp and the number of panel fit the Erie prototype I’m trying to replicate. Certainly, there are some discrepancies in length, but this high side gondola fits decently the bill. My approach is to make it more credible by installing wire iron grabs, A-line metal stirrups, improving the braking gear, replacing the trucks, thinning down some section profiles and redetailing the bare interior. In short, it’s a typical rolling stock improvement project that should take a few evenings to complete at a leisure pace.

The problem arose when I made a new steel deck with hand-punched rivet details. I was quite proud of my work and thus decided to glue it on the bottom of the gondola. My first idea was to simply secure the bottom with a few drops of CA glue, however, the rivet punch process slightly warped the thin styrene sheet and I was afraid this could impeded the bond. Thus, I decided to simply brush a generous amount of solvent-based glue on the gondola and cement permanently the new deck. At this point, all was fine.

However, on the next evening, I found out the car sides had badly warped toward the interior and by a large margin. Using my hand, I carefully pressed the warped parts outward by applying a certain amount of force. I thought the sides were affected by the glue bond at the perimeter of the new deck… But imagine my surprise when the next day, the car sides were once again badly curving inside. Not only that, but now the deck itself was sagging the middle. It didn’t take long to find out the problem. The gondola bottom had warped significantly due to the solvent used to cement the new deck. When I installed the metal underframe, it no longer sat on the plastic shell but rocked on the curved bottom impeding the trucks movements. Big problem!!!

What happened was a simple and well-known phenomenon. When laminating two different materials, they have a tendency to warp when both have different characteristics. Generally, the process takes some time and is gradual. In my case, the generous use of solvent softened the plastic to the point that when materials hardened and cured in the following hours, their different rates of contraction created a disaster. The result was predictable to some extent, but little did I know a 1 mm bulge would manifest itself in such a spectacular way.

At this point, I was able to straighten the gondola sides. However, the only practical solution to repair the warped bottom - which should be better described as a belly - was to shave down the bulge with a chisel. It surprisingly went well, but it certainly didn’t address how badly warped the steel deck look. If it was a wooden gondola, I wouldn’t care since these cars were generally badly warped and sagging in old pictures. Unfortunately, steel cars generally keep their shape better.

From there, I had two options: try to fix up the deformation or simply cutoff the car bottom and replace it with a brand new one. In both case, it was a question of releasing the built up stress in the plastic. While at first I was leaning toward a full reconstruction, my long experience with resin figure garage kits kicked in. I plugged the hairdryer, set it to maximum heat, and applied evenly the hot hair on the car. I made sure to soften the plastic until it was malleable but was carafully enough so details start to molten. I didn't keep track of time, but it was less than a minute. When the car was soft enough to be reshape, I put it bottom up on a flat surface and gently pressed down the belly uniformally. When the shape was restored, I kept pressure until the plastic hardened again. As expected, the gondola sides straighened and the bulge disappeared once for all.

24 hours later, both cars were still keeping their shape thus I resumed the redetailing process. I was also a good occasion to address will laziness toward molded on ladders. At first, I'd planned to remove them, then decided to keep the ladder and save myself a tedious task. But after all the effort put on the cars, it was silly to still keep clunky ladders. I heard the voice of reason, took my chisel blade and scrapped off the unwanted details.

While I was able to repair my horrible mistake, I've learned my lesson. Next time I face a similar challenge, I will superficially glue the new deck with non-solvent based cement to eliminate altogether the risk of warping. I’m certainly not proud of myself for what initially seemed to be a well done job. Once again the old rule applies: use as little glue as needed. 

For some reason, we have a tendency to believe styrene is a stable material compared to wood or cardboard, but this is far to be true. Styrene (and other plastics) is surprisingly  vulnerable to warping and I've seen more than my share of projects going awry in a matter of days or weeks.

But enough about mistakes... The rest of the project was relatively straight forward, involving a new Accurail gondola brake apparatus, retainer valve and details from Tichy and a Kadee brakewheel. I went as far as adding the fulcrum and installing a bracket for a cut lever. Also, riveted steel straps were added inside the wall of the car as it did exist on some gondola. It was to reinforce the impression this is a real steel car and not a one piece injection-molded shell.

The goal is simple, these cars, even if they are prototypically accurate should at least have the same level of detail as a Proto 2000 or an Intermountain car. My reasoning being discrepancies in details are much more noticeable than overall accuracy. The model should look like a real car and have the basic features. From that point on, sky is the limit.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Kitbashing Erie 37500 Series Gondola

An so the endless waltz of car roster improvements starts with two old gondola to be bashed as close as possible to Erie prototypes. The idea is not to make exact replica, but to put enough efforts so the models can be credible. I've bought sets of dry transfer from Clover House suitable for Erie 37500 series. These cars were initially built as drop bottom gondolas until they were later rebuilt with fixed floor. While I've been lucky enough to find as built picture of Erie cars, my search for rebuilt car wasn't rewarded by any significant results. For more information, Ronald Dukarm wrote a short but informative story about these cars on

For this reason, I ask any reader that can point me decent sources of information about these particular cars to contact me. Many books and publications about Erie cars have been released over the years, but sometimes, it can be quite hard to find out particular prototypes when you have very little information about them except length, road numbers and sparse details.

In fact, I'll have to build (or rebuild) many boxcars and gondolas following Erie practices. Thus, I'm quite open to acquire relevant books/magazines on these subjects. However, I'm not that much familiar with Erie and would prefer to purchase books based on educated suggestions. Factual data over nostalgic books would be better. For the boxcars, Don Hanley's excellent series of articles in Model Railroad Hobbyist back in 2013 is an excellent starting point. I certainly would love to have better information on gondolas.