Tested Rolling Stock Tips
As Scratchbuilding and Kitbashing Aids

Most of these rolling stock tips are ones I've picked up from the model railroad magazines, club members, or during layout tours.

Do you have one or more rolling stock tips you'd like to share with other model railroaders? If you do, click here to go to my invitation for you to submit it to me and have your own page on my website.

Assembly cradle

model train building cradleProtective cradle

You can buy a cradle like the one in the photo or make your own.

Make a cradle to hold rolling stock for assembly by using the cardboard box the car came in. Place the bottom of the box inside the top box cover so that you have a rectangle of four walls. Cut a slot in both side walls wide enough to hold the car when it straddles the box sideways. The box also is a container for small parts as you work. If you offset the cuts in the side walls you can still reassemble the box for car storage.

The commercial cradle is made of soft foam and has a cut-out space to hold small screws and parts.

I also keep small plastic containers for holding parts so I don't lose them. At one time I had a number of tin boxes that cigarettes were packaged in. I got them in England. British modelers will remember Churchman #1 and Senior Service boxes. They were great for storage. You can also buy plastic storage containers, but I digress... .

Placing grab irons

When scratchbuilding you can install grab irons lined up vertically and horizontally by drilling out a template in brass or plastic. If you use brass or aluminum you can bend over the top end at right angles to slip over the roof edge of the car so the drilled holes line up where you want them.

When working with styrene, drill the holes slightly smaller than the diameter of the wire you're using. Grip the metal grab iron in the middle with a pair of pliers, hold in position at the holes and heat the grab iron with the tip of a soldering iron as you press the grab iron into the holes. If you don't want to buy grab irons, you can often find staples that are close enough in size.

Sandpapering in tight spaces

Use an emory board instead of a sanding block. Cut it to shape if you need to make it more narrow for windows, etc. 

Another method is to use a finger nail file. A benefit is the file won't clog.

Marker lamps

Marker lights always add something to a caboose even if you're not going to illuminate them. Model railroading pioneer John Page had a good tip that I've used. 

  • Apply clear finger nail lacquer over the marker light jewels. 

It makes them sparkle and appear to be brighter. The lacquer also acts as a glue to hold them in place. 

  • Modeling clay is easier than using tweezers to pick up the jewels for insertion. 

Press the front of the jewel into the clay. The clay acts as a temporary handle while you glue the jewel in place. Here's a novel way to light caboose (van)  marker lamps.

Wheel tips

The wheel "trucks" you can buy today eliminate many of the problems associated with older wheel sets. However, if you're like me and have cars that have been around for years these tips may help solve some of the problems.

  • Testor's clear dope can be applied to axles to prevent rust. 

Obviously, clean the rust off first with a Dremel brush or an abrasive pencil eraser chucked in a motor tool. If older die-cast side frames have become worn, drill the axle holes oversize and press in small brass bushings to act as bearings. (It's probably easier to buy new trucks, but obviously more expensive). If you have some cars that don't roll well and others that roll too well, this can increase derailments when both are in a train. 

  • Try swapping some of the wheel sets to mix the free-rolling with the ones that don't work so well. 

The effect is often an increase in overall freewheeling but slightly more stiffness in the cars that roll too freely. If you're using trucks with metal axles, visual identification of wheel/axle polarity is to paint the insulated side black and the uninsulated side a rust color. Both colors are prototypical. 

  • Loosen the screw slightly that holds one set of trucks. This will help the car track better.

Installing coupler springs

Kadee makes a special plastic tool for installing their springs but I've usually used small flat screwdrivers. 

Another method is to slip the narrow end of a toothpick into the spring and use a second toothpick to slide the spring into position.

Reinstalling truck springs

Draft-gear springs in older Central Valley and similar trucks can be installed with a pair of tweezers and a small flat screwdriver. Slip the tweezers into the end of the spring. Insert the end of the spring with the tweezers compressed inside it into the slot or hole in the truck side frame. Hold the spring in position with the flat end of the screwdriver and pull out the tweezers keeping the spring in position where it belongs.

Freight car scratchbuilding tips

The trend is towards buying highly-detailed freight cars such as the ones made by companies like Kadee. Great, but very expensive if you're building a fleet. There's personal satisfaction in scratchbuilding a car or reworking a kit and it's cheaper. Here are a few tips:

Brass ladder uses:

 Stamped brass ladder stock can be trimmed with nippers to make roof handholds. Cut a 3-rung section and remove one rail. Bend the other rail at the center rung 90°. Use a file to sharpen the ends of the rungs. Bend them down perpendicular to the rail. Install on the corners of the roof walk that extends to the top of the side ladders.

Ladder stock can also be used to make brake platform brackets.

Ordinary staples can be used as braces under the ends of the roof walks that extend past the ends of the car.

Attaching brake wheels

I find it difficult to get brake wheels glued onto their shafts. They always flop around as the glue sets or I drill the hole too big and they slide down the wire. They are also easily damaged during  operations when cars are handled. 

  • One way to get them glued on is to push the wire shaft at right angles through a rubber eraser and into the brake wheel as it rests on top of the eraser. 

Apply a small drop of cyanoacrylate (AC) glue (like Flash brand) to the brake wheel on the wire shaft. When the glue is dry, slip an X-acto blade under the wheel and gently pry the assembly loose while pushing the wire up from below the eraser. This way the brake wheel will be glued perpendicular to the shaft.

  • Another method is to flatten the top end of the wire by hammering it on an anvil. 

Add a drop of glue to the flat spot. Push the brake wheel onto the shaft from the bottom of the wire until it is stopped by the flat spot on the wire.

Proto 2000 axle splitting

Paul Bailey of our train club sent me this tip by email: "If anyone you know owns an early Proto 2000 steam engine (perhaps the Heritage series), tell them to inspect the axle sleeves immediately.  They are prone to cracking and failure causing damage to the side rods and pins. Parts are not available for any Proto steam engine but these sleeves can be machined with success using solid nylon barstock". (Sent Feb, 2009.) Thanks Paul for the tip.

I had problems with some diesel axles and know a few others who also ran into trouble with the axles. When they split, the gears cog and operation is erratic at best.

I believe Athearn axles can be substituted. Anyone else have experience with this? Send me an email and I'll post your reply.

I'll post more rolling stock tips as I remember them. If you would like to know when I add tips, please add me to your RSS feed. If you've never used RSS, it's simple and it's totally anonymous.You don't need to give me any personal information. You'll receive notification when I've posted new material on my website. 

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