Tasha Oates updated July 14, 2011

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  • Perfecting Plastic Cars

    THE LOW-COST READY-TO-RUN PLASTIC CARS CAN LOOK LIKE THE MOST EXPENSIVE KIT OR CUSTOM-BUILT MODELS


    1. The only way to make the cast-on details on your plastic rolling stock look more life-like is to replace those details with individual parts. We used ConCor's wire grab irons and strap steps, Cal Scale's "KC" brake system details, Pacific HO's box car door castings, Northeastern's wood roof walk and 1/16-inch wood angle, Kadee couplers, and Walther's decals. If you are using code 70-size rail on your layout, you 'll also have to replace the wheels or complete trucks with ones having wheels with the N.M.R.A. "RP-25" contour.

    2. The AHM simulated wood side 40-foot double-door box car is typical of most ready-to-run plastic rolling stock in having cast-on ladders, grab irons, doors, and steps. Like most cars of this type, the lettering looks spotty and poor because the color hasn't reached down into the grooves on the sides that simulate the wood boards.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 76 1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 77

    Plastic cars and locomotives have probably been more responsible for introducing model railroading to newcomers to the hobby than any other single factor. These relatively inexpensive and reasonably well-detailed pieces of equipment are ready-to-run right out of the box and at a price that is but a fraction of the least expensive kits that were "traditional" to the hobby ten years ago. Tens of thousands of people have been able to find the time and money to build model railroads that could never have done so if they had to build each piece of rolling stock, every locomotive, and all of their structures from kits or wood and metal raw materials. Many of the "old timers" in the hobby have voiced the opinion that these same plastic ready-to-runs have taken much of the creative skill out of the hobby and replaced it with snap-together model railroading that wouldn't even challenge a child's skills. They are right, to a degree, but it has all been better for the hobby. There was a time when you had to build everything by hand; now you have a choice. You can purchase as much of your vision of a model railroad empire as you wish in ready-to-run equipment and concentrate your creative building efforts on only those aspects of the hobby that most appeal to you.


    You can, for example, spend count less hours laying precision-perfect trackwork and have trains operating on it instantly without having to spend an equal amount of time building the locomotives and cars. If you really enjoy building and detailing cars and locomotives you now have a choice of buying the best and building it following the kit instructions or your own variation of them or you can invest your time in detailing and finishing at least a portion of the ready-to-run cars and locomotives on your layout to match the standards of the best kits. The one feature of the ready-to-run rolling stock that makes it a bit less realistic than a similar piece of equipment that has been built from one of the better "craftsman"-type kits is that the details on the plastic cars are cast right onto the sides of the bodies. It just isn 't possible, for example, to make a plastic grab iron look like the three dimensional piece of wire supplied with the "craftsman" kits. Perhaps the worst feature of most of the plastic cars is the lettering and railroad markings on the sides. Most of the manufacturers letter the sides of their cars with a rubber stamp dipped in a pad of correctly-colored paint. If the car is a model of one of the modern, smooth steel-sided cars, this system of lettering is almost as good as a decal or dry transfer. If, however, the sides of the car are scribed to simulate wood or if there is a lot of simulated rivet detail, the lettering just can't reach around the raised details. You can, then, improve the appearance of most plastic kits to nearly match that of a kit by simply replacing the ladders and grab irons and repainting the car so it can be relettered with decals or dry transfers that will snuggle down around the raised detail almost as well as if they were hand-painted.


    3. The floors of most of the plastic ready-to-run cars snap in place. The tabs above each of the couplers, on this AHM car, are pried out and the floor, complete with the trucks, can be lifted away from the body.

    4. The roofwalk can be removed by pushing the ends of its attaching pins out from the inside of the car. Some types have the pin ends heat-riveted. You 'll have to slice off the end of the pins on these cars.

    5. Use a single-edge razor blade to shave off the ladders on the sides of the car. Slice off just a sliver at a time so there's no chance for the razor blade to dig in to the broad side of the car.

    6. The ladders will have to be shaved from both ends too. Trim them down flush with the corrugated ribs and then gouge out the remaining portions of the vertical ladder supports that are molded onto the car's ends.

    7. Slice off the steps from each of the bottom corners of the car body so the lower edge is smooth at each end. The two grab irons on the left of each of the car's sides should be shaved flush with the sides.

    8. Wrap a piece of No. 600 grit emery paper around a flat scrap of wood to serve as a sanding block to smooth the areas of the sides where the ladders and grab irons were shaved away. Use vertical strokes.

    9. A steel ruler will guide your knife blade while you retrace and rescribe the portions of the vertical grooves that were covered by the rungs of the molded-on ladders and grab irons.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 78 1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 79



    10. Use light strokes with a half round or knife-edged jewelers file to cut the scribe marks you made with the knife to match the width and depth of the other lines on the car's sides.

    11. A fine-strand wire brush is the best tool to remove all traces of fuzz and hairs that are left by the trimming and filing. The light marks left by the brush will simulate wood grain if not hidden by paint.

    12. You can drill each of the No. 75 drill bit-size holes for the grab irons on measured marks but the job will be quicker and more accurate if you carefully pre-drill a brass scrap to serve as a drilling jig.

    13. Drill the first two holes with the brass jig; insert one of the ConCor wire grab irons to hold the jig in alignment; then drill the rest of the holes. Remove the jig and repeat the process on both ends and sides.

    14. & 15. Use a small soldering iron, a wood burning pencil, or X-Acto's "hot knife" (shown) to heat the ConCor strap steps so they can be pressed into each corner of the floor flush with the outside edges.

    16. If you really want a super detailed car, you can slice off the cast-on brake cylinders and tanks and replace them with Cal Scale's precision castings. Their "KG" set would be used on a car built in the early 1900's.

    17. You can trim the door openings right through the molded-on doors and then slice away the remaining portions of the doors and door guides to fit "opening" doors to each side. Pacific HO, Selley, and others make cast metal doors like these. Northeastern-brand 1/16" wood angle can be glued to the car side to serve as the door guides.

    18. Cut two sections of Northeastern's milled wood roof walk the width of the car's plastic end walk for each end of the car and another the length of the central roofwalk if you wish to replace the relatively "modern" metal walks in the kit with more appropriate wood roofwalks.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 80 1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 81


    We tried the detailing, repainting, and decaling steps on one of AHM's new simulated wood side 40-foot double door box cars to illustrate what a tremendous difference a little time and effort can make in the realism of a "typical" plastic car. The same steps could be followed with any type of car, from a reefer to a flat car to a caboose, with equal success. The parts that we replaced on this AHM car would be roughly the same as those we would have replaced on an Athern, ConCor, MDC, Train Miniatures, Tyco, Life-Like; or Lindberg car. If you really appreciate the detail and interest of the real railroad's rolling stock you'll eventually want the majority of your miniature equipment to be as close as possible to the appearance of the real thing. With one of the "craftsman"-type kits; all you have to do is follow the kit 's instructions. You can achieve nearly as great a degree of realism by rebuilding part of your fleet of plastic rolling stock like we did this AHM box car. The next step (and one we did not take with this box car) would be to "weather" the car following the series of steps outlined in the Summer 1971 issue of 1001 Model Railroad Ideas.


    19. & 20. Slice the two end walk supporting posts flush with the roof. Glue a pair of 1/64 x 1/32-inch supports under the short sections of wood roofwalk you just made and glue them to the roof in place of the original plastic endwalks. The wood central roofwalk can be glued right to the tabs that supported the stock plastic roofwalk.

    21. & 22. Glue the ConCor wire grab irons into the No. 75 holes you drilled in the sides and ends to replace the molded-on ladders. The car can then be painted to match the color of your favorite prototype railroad (we used Floquil's "roof brown"). The floor will have to be refitted and the lower grab iron holes drilled in to it before they can be pressed into place. We 'd suggest you mount Kadee's MKD-5 couplers (if you are using this brand on the rest of your cars and locomotives) to the bottom of each end after trimming away the snap-on mounting lug. The "NMRA style" couplers can then be cut off of the AHM trucks.

    23. We used Walthers decals to re-letter our car to match one that was once part of the full-size Colorado Midland Railroad. You can, obviously, re-letter the car to match any railroad you wish or simply purchase decals to match the lettering on the original AHM model.

    24. & 25. The new grab iron-style ladders, wood roofwalks, and decal lettering give the modified model all of the realism of a car assembled from the best of the "craftsman" kits. Kadee couplers on each will add even more to the life-like appearance of the completed car.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 82 1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Fall 1971 - Page 83


    Article Details

    • Source 1001 Model Railroading Ideas
    • Publication Date Fall 1971

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