Model building is a series of individual decisions that add to or detract from the final result. Each step is an opportunity to exercise care and judgment or something to hurry through because your mind is on other things. If I want better quality models, then I have to make different choices from what I’ve done in the past. I can make those choices haphazardly and hope for the best or I can make them intentionally by analyzing what’s happening and doing things differently. This isn’t rocket science.

I want a small fleet of covered hoppers for my Mill Road cameo and I have a set of drawings in my Car Builders Cyclopedia for a Pullman Standard 100-ton covered hopper. I have a commercial version of this car and looked it over again with fresh eyes. As expected there are a number of areas that need attention but the kicker is this car is made from die cast aluminum and an especially hard and thick plastic. Grinding away the unwanted details is a miserable task that I don’t have the proper tools or patience for. For that reason alone scratchbuilding is the simpler route.

Building three of these cars feels manageable so I dove in with predictable results, as mistakes piled up quickly between the first two models. In a rare moment of clarity and sounder judgment, I decided to forget about making a finished model out of these and take the opportunity to look more deeply at why these mistakes were happening.

This master drawing has the critical dimensions and cut lines for the model.
My first attempt highlighted a number of errors and assumptions I made. I measured the side sheets incorrectly and had to add filler pieces to cover the huge gaps on the bottom. I used plenty of auto body filler to smooth things over.
The two photos above show a number of errors and mismatches between the first and second build. Clearly, it’s time to step back and evaluate what’s happening here.
With each model, I essentially start at zero because I don’t have an understanding of the car or a system for building. I fumble around because I’m making up the process as I go. This lack of domain knowledge shows in the first version I made. All that red auto body filler testifies to the mistakes and fixes I made. I had to fit additional pieces to fill some gaps where the sides meet the hopper chutes. My workmanship is less than stellar, and even though all this would have been covered over, this form is the foundation of the entire car. Poor work here would have haunted me for the rest of the build.

The geometry and compound angles in the discharge chutes tested my skills and I re-cut new pieces several times before reaching the point you see in the photos. Even then I still wound up with discrepancies between the first and second car. Yes, it’s discouraging but I’m slowly learning to welcome mistakes like this. Digging into them is where the improvements I want to see in my modeling are born.

An accurate layout is critical and since I’m doing multiple cars, I decided to make brass templates for the key pieces, rather than measure and lay them out individually. I spent the better part of an entire work session making two templates from 0.032” brass and feel the effort will pay for itself in the long run. Stepping back like this is not a waste of time. I’m not on any kind of schedule with this build and understand that accuracy and quality don’t come overnight. I’m doing my best to focus on the process instead of the outcome.

Measuring each piece separately introduced a number of mistakes. These brass templates eliminate most of them.
Another mistake prone area for me is cutting the parts from raw stock. I’ve learned to measure from a common reference point and take my measurements off the same scale rule each time. In spite of this I’ve noticed how easy it is to tilt the knife blade this way or that when cutting and this impacts the line and edge of each piece. Tight joints need square and true edges for a good fit and I have much to learn here as well.

A model maker’s miniature table saw is a tool I’ve had my eye on for a long time. It would ease the work of making accurate cuts, especially in thicker material like 0.080” or 0.100” styrene. However, no tool is a panacea for sloppy workmanship. I want to sharpen my hand and observation skills and make good use of the tools I do have. This means cutting parts a bit oversized and truing up the edges to final dimension by hand or with my drill press and a milling bit. What I’m saying here is that there are many ways to get an accurate result. A shop full of dedicated tools is nice but a little ingenuity also goes a long way.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of this build. In fact I’ll share very little from this point on, because I want to simply enjoy the work. Not every project has to be fodder for the blog and speaking frankly, I’m happiest when I can just play around at the bench and try random ideas. Whether they work or not is irrelevant. I learn something from each attempt and that’s reason enough for me.



  1. Pete Leach

    Making templates from brass sheet is a great idea, especially since you are planning to make multiple copies of the model. I have a small box of templates made from styrene I’ve made just in case I want to duplicate an effort.
    I have learned (the hard way, don’t we all!) to build mock ups and/or fixtures. Earlier in my life, I would just dive in and start building, only to have structure a 1/4″ too wide or something not square, or…
    I recently built a structure that needed a lean to represent one in disrepair. A mock-up of the full size building helped me visualize it and fixtures kept the side out of square, as I planned. Oh, and I still dive in every now and then but less and less.

  2. Dave Eggleston

    I really appreciate the idea (new to me) of making brass templates. I’m prepping to build 8-12 boxcars of a single type and am going to use this process once I’ve worked out final measurements from the test car(s) I’m working on. Thanks for pointing out this method. Simple yet powerful.

  3. Matthieu

    You are basically applying, at your own pace, what a real workshop would have done. You may feel the first try was botched and haphazard, but in reality, this aborted model made you understand how material do assemble themselves together into a finished product. Modelling a boxcar is a piece of cake if you know what you are doing, but building a covered hopper is something else altogether. You need to get a hand at it. When you tried to fix mistakes using automotive putty, I smiled. You probably found out yourself it was a huge waste of time and efforts. I wouldn’t be surprised making the brass template took less time than puttying, sanding, puttying again and sanding forever something that should have been discarded from the start. Learning the moment when fixing mistakes make sense and when it is not, is something we all need to learn! Thanks for sharing!

  4. steve hurt

    Good stuff as always Mike. That type of pattern will certainly go a long way to simplify a few cars for you. This is something I need to do more of also. I too am a dive in then figure it out guy too often. But I have tried to get better about that.
    This reminds me of watching Norm Abrams on the New Yankee Workshop for years. He would have more time in the jigs and patterns than the project but it would be a perfect fit when it was done, so the hassle and time paid off.
    I cant wait to see these cars come together.


  5. mike

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I’m happy to report the brass templates work as I hoped. Cutting out parts for the third car, I switched things up by clamping the template and stock to the bench as I traced around it with the knife. This eliminated any chance something could slip from the pressure of the knife blade. Another option would be to use double sided tape to help secure things while cutting. As Matt observed, I needed time to become familiar with various procedures and determine which one suits my working methods best. I need to start a section in my notebook to record these decisions, so I can repeat them in the future.

    I have two of the cores assembled and the differences between them are too minor to worry about. As several of you suggested, making the templates was time well spent. The project is now off to a good start. Matt, you’re correct, a covered hopper is a challenge but what I’m really looking forward to with this build is the brass work and pushing my skills with the material.


  6. Jeff Peck

    One of the many things I enjoy about this blog is your honesty. We don’t get just the end result but the whole journey – the concept, the design and the construction process and what works and what doesn’t.

  7. mike

    Thank you Jeff.

    One thing I want to do is give an honest view of the process. So many magazine articles just give a dry rundown of what the author did. Well, I wanted this car, so I grabbed a bunch of material, cut it, glued everything together and presto, it was done.

    I think it’s important to know what’s actually involved to scratchbuild something, even if it means you see the warts and all. I think it’s important to know you can approach the work deliberately with the goal to improve or learn something. Finally, I’m not an expert with any of this and don’t need to have people think I am. I’m just trying to figure it out like everyone else.