Working on Volume 04 of The Missing Conversation had me on the heights of the Mount Olympus of modeling given the fine work of Tom Mix and Tony Sissons featured in that edition.

However, I had to come back down to earth and resume work on my own modeling projects.

For everyone in this hobby, there is some aspect of it that intimidates us. It may be wiring, the artistic side of scenery, installing a decoder in a locomotive, or scratchbuilding anything. Whatever it is, it stands in the way of our greater enjoyment. For me, it’s freight cars.

I’m not a freight car modeler. I appreciate the skills and knowledge of those who practice this discipline and who do it well but I’m just not among that group. Track, scenery and structures are more my speed. That said, a model of a railroad is more fun with trains than without, so I’ve been looking a few stalled projects in the eye and beating back my resistance. One of these projects is to upgrade a 1970s vintage Atlas PRR X43 box car.

While some of the details seem a bit heavy, the car body itself is good. The underframe is better than what you would get today, although not much has changed since the 1970s. Back then the car came with three-rail wheels and crude truck mounted couplers. Atlas offered insulated two-rail trucks (five-foot) and you could body mount Kadee couplers. Although oversized and crude, the cars had separately applied ladders, a running board, and brake appliances on the B end. Grab irons and stirrup steps were cast on.

My knee jerk preference would be to replace the underframe with a scratchbuilt one that includes properly proportioned details from end-to-end. Honestly though, the stock underframe isn’t that bad, mainly because it has full bolsters. I don’t like the overly wide opening of Kadee coupler boxes, which are designed for excessive coupler swing on ultra-sharp model train curves. I’d rather see a scale draft gear and centersill extension.

I have a bad habit of starting such projects with great enthusiasm but never finish them. That’s why you seldom see any rolling stock in my blog photos. My objective for this car is to apply an acceptable level of visible detail, so the car will photograph well. If I succeed in this, it will represent a forward step in my hobby development. The tricked out underframe can come at a later date.

PRR X43 box car end stripped of details.The first order of business was to strip off the factory details. This also involved carving off the molded lugs Atlas designed to hold the ladders off the body. A similar process had to be done on the roof. Naturally, the molded lugs bisected the stiffening ribs (carlines?), which required a lot of fussy work to remove and leave the correct profile. Once these lugs were gone, I filled the holes with round styrene plugs and glue. I let these dry overnight, then carved and sanded them smooth.

PRR X43 running board holes plugged and sanded smooth

So here is the project well underway and the urge to do more has crept in. How far do you go? I’m always urging you folks to do your best and those sermons better apply to me first. In looking over my progress on the car, I saw lot’s of room for improvement with what I had done to date. It takes less time to do it right from the beginning than it does to redo things later, so I began refining the work on the roof and car ends. I also noticed some cast on details I forgot to remove, and now they’re gone too.

Initially, I planned to use plastic Intermountain ladders and grabs, but looking at them with a calm eye, the cross section is kind of heavy especially the ladder stock. Given how fussy they are, I can live with the grabs.

I know how to scratchbuild scale ladders from brass angle and wire, plus I already have the jig, so that’s the plan now. Tune in next week for more progress. I’m going to finish at least one car in my lifetime.



  1. downeast

    Before you go to the task of scratching your own ladders, take a look at the Chooch detail sets that were created for a more prototypical proportion than the Intermountain sets.

  2. mike

    Hi Ben,

    I’ve already built the ladders. I’ll cover that process in the next post. You’re right though, the Chooch ladders are a good alternative.


  3. Dunks

    “I’m not a freight car modeler… …I’m just not among that group. ”

    Interesting frame of mind. You have decided that you are not in that group, ergo you are not a freight car modeller. Leaving aside the tautology inherent in the phrase, and whatever the rest of us may think about your (evolving) abilities in the field, I find it fascinating that you state this, and then decide it is a matter of “intimidation”.

    You see, I do agree with all that you say, but at the same time disagree with your self-assessment. This is not some form of Zen koan*, just that yes, you are not known as a freight car modeller but it is because you have focused on other areas of modelling. Over time, you have found the achievements of the truly excellent somewhat humbling, and because of this, you feel intimidated. You then use this to bolster the idea that you are not a freight car modeller, and it becomes negatively reinforcing. (In case anyone wonders, I did a BS many years ago in psychology.)

    But the very thought which has been holding you back, is also the one which provides the key to breaking the vicious circle: you have called it “intimidation”, and not “inability”. The only way to deal with a cold swimming pool is to overcome the intimidation and plunge right in, assuming you can swim.

    To put it another way… it’s not that you can’t model freight cars, you haven’t overcome the intimidation.
    It’s not that you are not a freight car modeller, it’s that you are not a freight car modeller yet.
    One day, you may say, “I wasn’t a freight car modeller, but I overcame the intimidation, and I became one. Now, what other intimidations can I overcome?”

    For anyone struggling, replace the thought, “I can’t do that,” with, “I need to learn how to do that,” and replaced the internalised idea of “uncompetence” (I made that word up, but this isn’t about incompetence – poor competence – but lack of competence) with the concept of “intimidation”.

    Now, where’s that inspiration called Tom Mix…?

    *I have in my hand an ice cream. And yet I do not have an ice cream in my hand.
    Yep, it’s an ice cream koan.