Until recently I was never much of a freight car fan. I preferred to focus on scenery and layout building and I was happy with rolling stock as it came from the box. That began to change after I switched to P48.

People look at this scale and see the potential for amazing detail. What’s less obvious is the amount of work in getting there, thanks to the 3-rail influence on the mass market. As a member of the P48 Facebook group recently observed, there is no common standard in this scale like there is in HO or N. My frustration with this has finally come to a boiling point. I’ve had enough of trying to work around mass-market compromises that make no sense on a scale model.

In a post like this it’s easy to sound whiney and complaining. That really isn’t the case. The cars you see in my photos are commercial kits or ready-to-run stuff from a box. In general AtlasO and other products are good and make a solid foundation to build on if that’s your choice but it’s important to understand the mass market has a different set of standards.

I also hasten to add that there are some very good products in quarter-inch scale, like the new state-of-the-art resin kits developed by scale modelers Ross Dando and Bill Yancey that are excellent in every way. Let’s also not forget the gold standard brass imports from Protocraft that show what’s possible with quarter-inch modeling.

As I think about my future with this craft, I want more of the realism and consistency that P48 offers and yes, the differences I’m thinking of matter, at least to me. What tipped my thinking over the edge is the economics of this scale and the impact it has on model building. I gave little thought to the cost of HO kits but have to think hard about the costs involved in quarter-inch scale.

In full disclosure, I didn’t pay for my Trinity hopper. It was submitted for a product review when I worked for O Scale Trains Magazine and Joe didn’t want the car, so he offered it to me. If I recall, at that time they were running around 70 bucks.

A recent check of the AtlasO website confirmed a price of $104.95 for the 2-rail version (all sold out on their end) and the 3-rail version is $99.95. Now I’m confident you can find the cars for less than that but it’s a steep hill to climb, if you want them in any quantity. Here’s the punch line though, you may recall from a previous post that I stripped nearly all the details off my car. All I left intact were the running board and roof hatches; everything else went away because it is incorrect or crude.

It feels like an irrational waste to spend a hundred bucks for a model that I’m going to discard 70-90 percent of, plus, I will spend nearly the same amount of money to replace the trucks and couplers with something decent for P48. Those numbers don’t make sense for me any longer.

I’m not opposed to spending that kind of money but not for products that are so compromised that I have to rebuild them to such a degree. I prefer to put the money toward quality materials like Protocraft trucks or resources like reference books and better quality tools that will improve my knowledge and expand my capacity as a modeler. I see this as a true investment in the craft that will pay dividends for a long time.

So, here’s the question I asked and answered for myself: If I’m going to essentially rebuild a commercial model to my standards, why not scratchbuild it in the first place and skip some bean counter’s ideas of compromise?

Given my objectives, it’s a choice that makes sense. However, I wouldn’t for one minute suggest it’s for everyone. Clearly, it isn’t but for me, scratchbuilding reflects the values I want to bring to the work and the ways in which I enjoy it. I prefer to spend my time on the things that truly make a difference for me. Wouldn’t you do the same?

In the next post, I discuss the lessons I’m learning from two test models, where my goal shifted from producing a finished model to understanding why the errors I made are happening and how to prevent them in the first place.



  1. Simon

    ‘If I’m going to essentially rebuild a commercial model to my standards, why not scratchbuild it in the first place and skip some bean counter’s ideas of compromise?’

    Here beginneth and endeth the lesson.

  2. Craig Townsend

    Welcome to my world of 1/29… I have a small fleet (approximately 30 cars) that is a collection of LGB (think 3 rail quality) and USA Trains (think Atlas with mis placed details, etc). At the present time, I’m keeping everything. 1st reason, the boys (5, 3 and newborn) can play with Dad’s trains (ie the LGB stuff as it has doors that open, tank cars that drain, etc). The USAT stuff eventually will either get kitbashed or sold once I have time to replace the rolling stock. I’m always battling between wanting operations quality trains and realistic trains. Slowly, the realistic trains are winning out.

    Don’t feel bad about paying $100 for a O scale model. These 1/29 models cost just as much.

    But then again a $100 worth of styrene goes a lot longer in terms of modeling.

    On the flip side, how hard would it have been for you to replicate that teardrop, not quite round profile of the hopper car by hand. I certainly would have a hard time and would probably resort to CAD and 3D printing the body. If you factor the time spent designing it plus the cost of the 3D print it might almost be cheaper to buy the Atlas model to strip off the details.


  3. mike

    Craig, I would imagine that your scale being designed for use outside adds another layer of compromise to the equation. It all boils down to what works for the individual. For example: I know nothing of CAD design programs and 3D printing. Useful as these tools are I would have to start at zero and climb a steep learning wall. It isn’t worth it to me because I prefer old school methods and would rather work with actual materials instead of push pixels around on a screen. Further, though I’m aware there are many variables to printing pieces, I haven’t been that impressed with the parts I have seen. As for the cylindrical profile, that’s easy with a woodworker’s contour gauge.


  4. Craig Townsend

    We all certainly approach the hobby differently based on our own skills and abilities. Learning CAD was a steep learning curve for me, but I’ve found that over time I’m slowly getting better. Not that it is for everyone. I was merely thinking how I would approach your hopper car. I think I would have done the same thing as you, stripping the factory details.


    PS maybe one of these days I can get a blog started so you (and the rest of the world) can see some of my stuff)

  5. Jeff

    I see your shift in focus on freight cars as a natural extension on focusing on the craft in P48. You’re taking your track, structure and scenery to new heights so the rolling stock would be no different. And you nail it with stating what’s the sense in buying a $100 car if you’re going to spend almost that much in terms of time and materials bringing it up to standards.

    Some will look at those Modern Era O Scale cars and balk at the price. I think they’re worth every cent if you want a quality kit that will produce a quality model. One of the serendipitous aspects of O Scale for me is since I model in a small space, I don’t need as much stuff. My N Scale friends say the price is crazy. I take out an O Scale boxcar and say “how many of yours will it take to fill one of mine?” It’s usually around 10-12 cars. If you buy a comparable in terms of detail ExactRail N scale boxcar, a bargain price is around $25 a shot. That’s $250 – $300 – but mine are heavier, the details are more visible and they make a nice clunk when they cross a rail joint. Same goes for motive power and throttles. I really like that Iowa Scaled Engineering Throttle – but the price – a-ha – again, I’ll only need one vs 4 or 5 NCE or Digitrax throttles for my little slice of America.

    Getting off the pulpit now…

  6. mike

    Thanks Jeff.

    I agree with you about the price of state of the art kits like Bill’s. I don’t think they are overpriced given the amount of development time and effort that he put into them. I met Bill and saw the cars first hand at the St. Louis RPM last weekend and they are stunning. I would rather have a handful of excellent quality cars than a basement full of compromises. Like everything, it’s a choice.


  7. steve hurt

    Great to see you again in St Louis Mike. (your wife too!)

    Like you guys the large scale, rail service truck after market is ummmmm challenged. HA OK I am it but with that said I still feel your pain. But you know first hand the thrill of the model you created can never be surpassed with taking one out of the box and setting it on the rails. Keep it up!!

  8. mike

    Hi Steve,

    Yes, if you want certain things, or something done to a certain standard, you have to figure on doing it yourself. Your work is a perfect example of that. It was good to meet up with you and your Dad too.


  9. Chris Mears

    I sure like the distinction between the cost of the model and the value it represents in terms of investment. We often remark, as a community in this hobby, about how much of something we need (e.g. “but I’m going to need a hundred hoppers for the mine”) without ever considering the quality of the investment beyond more things to count. I like interrogating these assumptions if for no other reason that enriching the language of this hobby. I’ve always admired your personal approach and your understanding of what you are trying to achieve. This goes beyond simply what you want to have when you’re done but what it should do for you on a more personal, creative, social level.

    You could have spent the full $104.95 but it really doesn’t sound like it would’ve provided a start point and as you note it really would represent components you simply don’t need. This touches on the second thing I connected with in this post and that’s considering the footprint of this hobby. Why buy things we don’t need and only discard them. In a hobby that identifies as a creative opportunity we can make better decisions. Perhaps in both approaches (start with the AtlasO hopper or start from scratch) you spend the same amount of money but I feel that starting from scratch results in a model you have a richer relationship with: it’s your model; it’s your work.


  10. mike

    Thank you Chris. As always I appreciate your insights.