Building Wood Freight Car Kits 
Can Be Very Challenging 

My attempt at building an Ambroid box car
ambroid freight car kits

I admire those skilled model railroaders who can put together wood freight car kits such as the craftsman ones from Ambroid and other like companies. This project started out as an Ambroid Collector's Kit of an H-5 60' Postal Storage Car lettered for the Union Pacific. I don't model Western U.S. roads and the kit had been sitting on my shelf for so long that the decals were really brittle. Even a coat of Dull Coat wasn't going to save them. I tried cutting one out and it prompty disintegrated as soon as diluted Micro Set decal solution touched it. I decided to build it for my Utopia Northern freelanced HO layout.

Squaring the basic box
ho box car partitions

The first step is to build the basic box. I use metal machinist squares to keep the pieces lined up and affix them with carpenter's glue. That's the easy part. It becomes progressively more difficult. The skirts are also wood strips that need to be shaped and glued in place. The parts had warped. I used weights to hold them down. The end result was OK but not great.

This was a wood kit that was supposed to resemble metal sheathing. I didn't have any sanding sealer left. It had all dried out. I had some Floquil glaze so I brushed on a few coats to try to get a shiny surface. The metal rivet seams between panels had to be faked with wire. I don't know how modellers (me included) used to apply the wire with the glues then available. The instructions were to cut some grooves in the wood siding and glue the cut wire into the grooves. Easier said than done! It was really difficult to keep the wire straight and to seat it in the grooves. It took me half a dozen attempts using ACC glue.

Measuring for the grooves.
ho freight car panel seams
  • A trick that is very useful is to use clear plastic rulers, triangles and squares such as the ones in protractor sets that you can buy for school use.

These allow you to see what you are marking or where you are cutting. This can often work better than using a metal ruler as a guide. Another tricky task is to cut and place the bolsters and beams on the bottom of the car. I found it best to paint the roof, sides and bottom before proceeding. I found a PollyScale green that was a pretty good match for other UNRR passenger equipment (I had written down what I had used previously but I couldn't find my notes.) The roof and bottom were done with Engine Black. The ends of the car are made of metal and  glued them with Walthers Goo. 

The beams underneath the floor.
ho freight car panel seams

The piping on the bottom was another challenge. I managed to get it done only to discover that the pipes for the air brakes interfered with the trucks swivelling. As operations is more important to me than prototypical details I cut them off before they reached the trucks. 

Drilling for the grab irons
installing grab irons

I had learned many years ago to make a drilling template for installing grab irons on freight car kits. I found a package of grab irons in my supplies. This made it easier than bending individual grab irons from wire. I also had some steps in my scrap box so I cheated and used those as well. The drilling template was made on a scrap of styrene using the measurements and placement from the Ambroid instruction sheet. I drilled these by hand instead of using my Dremel so I could control the placement better.  

Installed grab irons
installing ho grab irons

Completed side ready for decals
ho freight car side

Here's a photo of a side before decals have been applied. I had to go over the paint a few more times and then I brushed on more glaze. I didn't use my air brush. In the "old days" I wouldn't have had an air brush when building freight car kits. As this was sort of a trip down nostalgia lane I decided to stick to brushes.

I had bought sets of decals for my Utopia Northern back in the late '60s. They are still in pretty good shape. I didn't have anything that said "postal storage" and the data is not correct for this car. I was just after an overall effect so I trimmed out what I had on hand. I keep a sheet of glass in a picture frame for use when cutting decals for freight car kits. I use an NMRA metal ruler (not a plastic ruler) and a sharp one-edge razor blade.

The decals were applied with tweezers, an X-Acto blade and Micro Set thinned with tap water. Tap water can leave stains. I didn't have any distilled water so I used tap water. I keep a Kleenex tissue handy for soaking up excess solution. The decals needed to drape over the wire seams.

They didn't lie flat. It is nearly impossible to cut them first and get them to line up and slitting them when they are wet will only destroy them. I let them dry in place and then used a razor blade to slit them along the edge of the wires followed by several more applications of Micro Set to get them to snuggle down. After that I added weathering with Polly Scale Rust and Floquil Rail Brown. When dry, I brushed on some Pan Pastel chalks to complete the weathering and gave the car a final spary of Dull Coat. The car, a little battered and worse for wear, is now in service.

I have said from the beginning that I am only an average model railroader, not an expert craftsman. I only have to please myself, not the nit pickers. However, I am not afraid to tackle projects that are out of my depth. Sometimes I surprise myself that things turn out as well as they do. It was time this particular kit got off the shelf and onto my layout. Certainly building freight car kits like this Ambroid Postal Service car tested my ability severely and it surely renewed my respect for those who enter their work in NMRA contests!


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