Friday, January 11, 2019

A Long Overdue Update

I've been quite silent over the last few weeks and months. No by lack of involvement in the hobby, but rather lack of brain power. As my health isn't stabilized yet, my cognitive capacities are taking a toll. Headache, dizziness and fatigue are plaguing my daily life. Funnily enough, it doesn't seem to impair my capacity to focus on manual jobs like modelling. However, when it is time to do intellectual tasks such as writing a blog post, I quickly hit a wall.

There are a lot of things I'd like to write about, particularly many ongoing projects. Unfortunately after a few paragraphs, I start to lose focus and can't keep my ideas clear. When it is time to conclude a text, I find out it makes no sense... and as you know, English isn't my native language. When I'm tired, I'm prone to making a lot of stupid mistakes. I've have this problem with French now, so imagine dealing with English.

Also, this new year brought some ominous news that my employers are financially in a dire situation. It means it is wise to start planning my next move... and I'm not sure I'm eager to continue to walk down the same path.

Meanwhile, I've started to build my layout room in the basement... I had big projects and finally decided it was better to go back to my initial plan for a modest 17' x 10' room. I know it is not modest, but I've trashed the idea of an around the wall layout and will only build a shelf layout on one wall. It's enough for me and I know too well achieving excellence is all about focus.

Also, while putting my collection in order last Fall, it was clear I had far too much cars in my collection. I trimmed down some stuff I had no use for, then spent the last few months thinking about what could be done. I tried to see which themes were best represented by my motley crew fleet. Quickly, I found out two big groups. Cars that could fit a 1980 CPR/CNR layout and many old time cars that were perfect for early 20th century.

I told myself it was perfect since it fits my interests in early 20th century railroading and 1980 railroads. I bet you recognize my Temiscouata project and the Quebec South Shore Railway. Both are perfect shelf layouts. I've somewhat decided to start with the 1980 layout since I have everything on hands at this point.

I also came to the conclusion I had more than enough projects and it was better to no longer invest in my fleet. Many cars should be upgraded and this is a satisfying way to enjoy this hobby. The same apply to Hedley Junction. For this reason, I started to transform a few blue box kits and Accurail cars to see how they can be improved significantly without going too crazy. My goal is simple, approach car building in a more artistic and impressionist way rather than a technically accurate way. Unfortunately, I've had a hard time writing a post about this endeavour. Fortunately, I took pictures and hope they are self-explanatory. I explored various challenges, including the way to make cast on details look better and which improved details have more impact. Colors and hues played also a big part in that exploration. Yes, I discovered counter intuitive things. For example, that fading a black coal hopper could be done with turquoise blue... As you can see, I'm trying to see things for what they are instead of applying my observation biases. No, faded black isn't always gray and Chessie fans could testify about the C&O hoppers that turned yellow or orange over the years.

Here are a few commented examples:

These old Roundhouse boxcars are notoriously unprototypical. Roof and ends are the most notorious flaws. Improvements include addind door stops, car end vertical posts, new ladders, door latches, correct brakewheel and break housing including chain, metal stirrups and tack boards. While not perfect, these small details add a layer of realism even if the car remain "unprototypical". It is no longer a crude toy.

Old Athearn cars were often fantasy models. However, this UP grain boxcar was extremely accurate, except for the wrong car ends. In my spare parts box, I found two MDC improved dreadnaught car ends to replace the old ones. Details were improved and decals added per prototype pictures. However, I didn't replace the cast on ladder because the risk of ruining the model was real. Instead, I used colors to make them pop up. A very dark brown was used to create shadows and a light color applied on the ladders. The result, they now look slightly detached from the car shell. Athearn also painted the model too dark. Several washes and powders helped to tone it down and lettering add to be cleaned a few time to keep the white color almost intact.

Accurail cars are generally nice. The details are crisp though cast on. Unfortunately, their boxcar stirrups are plain weird and too easy to identify. It's why I replaced them. Also, the roof corner grabirons were replaced by bronze phosphore ones. Why? Because these details pop up against the background. I can tolerate cast on grabirons, but corner grabs only looks good if appropriately modelled. Once again, shadows and highlight helps to bring life to the car ends that generally have a strange look on Accurail cars due to the casting process. Weathered waybills made of paper on tack boards and chalk grafitti give this car a purpose in life helping to improve the realism.

It may not look like this, but this car is now covered in turqoise blue to fade the black. The real D&H car it is based on was extremely faded and took various hues over the time... And be aware this is only the beginning. By the way, this car is a cheap Life-Like one. Reinforcing angles were added on the top cord per prototype, most grabs on the sides were replaced, but the one on the ends were decent enough to warrant keeping. It would have been a waste of time and risky to get rid of them. Each bay received new Accurail triple bay hopper doors. These are nice details and I had a bunch of them from previous kits. This single detail transformed a toy into a real model.

Athearn boxcars are annoyingly easy to spot on a layout... The worst sins are the ends, the doors and roofwalk. Fortunately, I found out ATSF did have almost similar boxcars in their roster. The car ends and roof were correct, so I updated the model. New door and finely crafted door tracks eliminated the toyish look while a new straight sill made it a genuinely ATSF car. Tichy roofwalk and Accurail 8 foot doors completed the transformation, including a Kadee brakewheel. While now perfect, this is now a Santa Fe car and fine details mask quite well the blue box origin.

But it wasn't all. ATSF red boxcars did weather badly. The red paint faded and lots of grime and rust obscured the attractive bright scheme. Working from pictures, I tried to replicate a car as it would have looked in the late 70s-early 80s. Once again, reweight patched, waybills, ACI labels and COTS plates add a layer of reality and life to this cheap model.

In a world where a cheap car now cost well over $25, an average one $30 and a good one $40 or 50$, it is harder and harder to justifiying buying more models. These old kits may be far to be perfect from a prototypical stand points, but at the end of the day, I believe colors, textures and general feel are efficient tools to achieve realism. Not only they cost nothing because our collections are full of them, but they are also a great way to spend quality time actually building, customizing and improving cars. It may sound ridiculous, but to justify these cars existence, I had to do a lot of research so I could make them more than foobies. In the process, I once again learned a lot about car building technologies, changes in AAR policies and working with styrene, brass and decals. These lessons aren't wasted at all and I certainly hope to see these cars running somewhere some day.


  1. Glad to see you repurposed these vintage models. I have done this many time in the past. The research is fun and trying to replicate the prototype from what one has on hand is always fun...keep up the good work...George Dutka

    1. Exactly George. Interestingly enough, since the models are not perfect, it forces us to make more research to better understand it. In the case of the ATSF boxcar, I had to look at real door tracks to better replicate them. It was a technical detail I wouldn't have thought about researching, but now I know it. Idem with brakewheels, trucks, doors, car ends, roofs, etc. We all know the end model won't be 100%, but it has soul and reflects our understanding of railroading. A perfect RTR model won't provide that insight... but going the old kit way does help to appreciate the work behind an excellent modern RTR car. You and Peter did/do inspiring work. Always interesting and inspiring to see you share that experience.