Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Gondola loads

 Here are some easy ways to load up your gondolas.

1. Dirty up the empties - Empty model gons have two problems: they are too light, and too clean. We can add some weight by placing a flat steel weight salvaged from a boxcar right on the bottom. The weight from a 40' box car fits nicely in a 40' gon, as seen below. Next, we will dirty it up so it is not so obvious what we have done. Gons always have some debris in the bottom. Gather some workbench and floor sweepings, sift them through a colander or screen to eliminate the big chunks. Paint the bottom of the gon (or the steel weight, in this case) with thinned white glue and sprinkle a bit of detritus around. A little goes a long way!

click to enlarge

2. A real scrap iron load: I noticed from rust flaking off the inside of the rear bumper on my truck. I gathered the pieces and broke them up smaller with a hammer. Loaded them in the gondola and dripped some thinned white glue over them to secure them.

click to enlarge

3. Pipes or rebar:  I saw a local freight go by with a load of rebar recently, so I wanted to create something similar. I had a box of insulation support wires which I cut up to make a load. You can paint them yellow or green to simulated epoxy-coated rebar. These support wires some with a anti-rust oily coating so they need to be washed in soapy water before painting. These get heavy real quick, so I just put one layer on top of some stripwood spacers. 

click to enlarge

4. Rails being scrapped: This one was fun. Jointed rail used to come in 39' lengths to fit in 40' gondolas. I had some nasty old brass track from my first layout, and used it to make a load of old rail being scrapped. Just strip off the ties, and paint the rails brown. Don't worry about keeping them straight! Just pile them in with a few blobs of clear RTV silicone sealant here and there to keep them in place.

click to enlarge

5. Sheet metal coils: This is a little more involved. These are rolls of new sheet metal being delivered. The rolls are plastic spacers which came with a TV wall mount kit (you can also get them separately). Spray paint them aluminum color, and mount in cradles made of stripwood.

click to enlarge


Saturday, February 12, 2022

Replacement brake wheels

 Here is an economical replacement for missing brake wheels: 8mm metal dress snaps.

These are found in the sewing department of many stores such as Walmart or Amazon.  I found a card of 24 for $6.99 on Amazon. They come in 4mm, 6mm, 8mm, and 10mm. I use 8mm for HO scale.

The measurement specification is for the (unused) larger, female half.  Buying the 8mm size will provide a 8mm female (unused) and a 6mm male (which is about the right size).

Just separate the two halves of the snap. Discard the female half. Enlarge the hole  in the freight car if necessary. Put a drop of Krazy Glue in the hole, then press the male half of the snap into the hole.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Easy window air conditioners

 Need some easy HO scale window air conditioners? Cut the head off a zip tie, paint it white, filling the opening with paint. When it dries, add some silver paint to the hole area to simulate the finned condenser. Stick it on your window and you’re ready for summer!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Mini Wheel Pasta Fans

American Chop Suey was the original plan. But the grocery store was out of elbow macaroni, so I looked for something close to substitute, and chose these little mini-wheel pastas. They looked like they might have some model railroad potential as gears or big HVAC fan units. Two mini-wheels were spray painted silver. An 8-nub Lego block was turned upside-down, with a piece of styrene to cover the open Lego bottom (now the top). The Lego block was spray painted HVAC green. The mini-wheels were glued on top. Placed on top of a building, the Lego nubs space the HVAC unit up off the roof a bit. Another bit of styrene on the side suggests an electrical disconnect box.

Mini Wheel pasta

All the ingredients.

Finished HVAC unit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Scouring Pad Hedges

These rectangular scouring pads make nice hedges to go alongside your structures. Measure, cut, glue in place. Makes the structures look like they belong there, instead of just being plopped in place.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Architectural Vehicles

Architectural vehicles on an HO layout

Here is how to populate your layout with lots of vehicles for a fraction of the cost of "real" HO vehicles. On eBay, look for "Architectural Vehicles". This search should get you there. The secret: these were never intended for model railroads at all. They are intended for architectural models, where architects have to fill up parking lots and street scenes with lots of generic vehicles to show clients.

The two primary architectural scales are 1:100 (good for HO) and 1:200 (good for N).

Take the scale designations with a big grain of salt. Here is an alleged 1:100 vehicle. I put my scale ruler on it, which says it is 14 feet long in HO. Then I went outside and measured my actual Kia Optima, a mid-size vehicle: 14 feet 8 inches.

14 feet long

These are NOT highly detailed models. They consist of three pieces: a black chassis/wheelset (wheels are molded in place, and do not turn), a clear window insert, and a body. You can snap them apart easily if you wish to paint the body a different color. You can improve their looks by painting the headlights and taillights, and a license plate.

three pieces

homemade taxis

All train stations need taxis. I made some by painting some cars yellow, adding a bit of styrene to the roof for a TAXI sign, and then adding a black stripe with a mini brush.

Cheap, but slow 

typical eBay listing

The bigger the lot, the cheaper they are! Look for the 25 or 50 packs. You can probably get 50 vehicles for less than $20. These are mailed direct from China. It takes about 3 weeks to arrive in the USA.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Simple Car Cards & Waybills

Here is a simple, inexpensive car card and waybill system for freight car routing; which minimizes handling and makes routing obvious for old forgetful operators like me, and for new operators on your layout.


  • Baseball card toploader sleeves. Toploader means the opening is on the shorter side. (Amazon
  • Car cards, cardstock cut to baseball card size (3 1/2” x 2 5/8”)
  • Waybills (cut from 3x5 index cards)
  • Channel: vinyl outside-corner molding used for bathroom tile, UPC 70673 85883 (Home Depot)
  • Elastic hair bands 


Create a list of standard abbreviations to include all possible freight car destinations on your layout. Use the same abbreviations consistently. I use three-letter abbreviations. Here is the list of abbreviations on my layout.

BOL Bolton Railcar Maintenance Facility
COM Commissary
CPR Chronicle Printing, Marias
CSH Cascade Section House
DAS Davis Passenger Station
DAV Davis Classification Yard
EEE EEE Feed and Supply, Marias
FRT Freight House and Team Track
GCF Glen Cove Fuels, Glen Cove
GCM Glen Cove Signal Maintenance Yard
KEL Kenton Electric Fabricators, Kenton
KEN Kenton Yard
KFF Kenton Freight Forwarders
LMS Leslie Marine Services, Marias
MMT Marias Machining & Tool, Marias
NPO North Portal Interchange
PAM Pamola siding
PSH Pamola Section House
PTC Precision Tooling Corporation, Marias
QUI Quinn Intermodal Yard
SPO South Portal Interchange

Install a channel all along the edge of the layout to hold the sleeves. It is helpful to label the destinations on the channel itself. The channel comes in 8 foot lengths, so it easy to just mount channel everywhere all along the edge of your layout. The channel has a flange which allows you to tack it in place from below, so no nails will be visible. Or you can just run a bead of adhesive on it and glue it in place.

channel material: vinyl outside-corner tile molding

car card/waybill rests in channel

Each freight car gets a Car Card. These are cut to baseball card size and show the reporting marks, car type, and destination for the car when empty. The Car Card is inserted into a baseball card sleeve,

car card in sleeve

Each sleeve/Car Card will always stay with its associated car.

When on the layout, the sleeve rests in the channel in front of the car.

When in transit, like the prototype, the waybills go along for the ride. A recycled margarine tub next to the power pack works well.

When off the layout, keep car and sleeve together by using an elastic hair band. These are soft and won’t mar your cars, and they won't dry out like rubber bands.


Waybills are half-size cards which have a destination written on both front and back. The destination abbreviation is written in big red letters for easy viewing, so you need not pick up a card to read the destination. The waybill is inserted in the lower half of the sleeve so it is visible in front of the Car Card. With only two destinations written on the waybill, it is a 2-cycle waybill. You can also write the load information on the waybill if you wish.

waybill inserted


There is no car “storage” on my layout. Every car on the rails is in the process of going somewhere else. (The cars go in/out interchange tracks to/from a rolling storage rack, which represents all destinations beyond the layout). The abbreviation shows where the car is going NEXT. When setting out a car at a destination, the operator places the sleeve in the channel where it will remain.

car at destination

At the end of a session, all the cars are hopefully at their destination for the day.  After a certain time has elapsed (typically, in between sessions), it is time to advance the waybills to prepare the cars for their next move. In each sleeve, turn the waybill over so the next location is showing. Now replace the sleeve in the channel, but place it standing UP to indicate the car is ready to be picked UP.

car ready for pickUP

To indicate an empty, just place the waybill BEHIND the car card so it cannot be seen, which reveals the empty routing instructions written on the lower half of the car card.

no waybill indicates empty car

Now when the train comes by, it is obvious to the operator which cars have recently been set out (the sleeves are horizontal, and waybill abbreviation matches the car’s current location); and which are ready to be picked UP (the sleeve is standing UP, and the waybill abbreviation shows a new destination).

This makes it easy to check that you delivered all your cars during the session. If you see any sleeves still standing UP, you still have work to do!

Making up trains

A length of channel can be mounted on the top of the layout in front of a sorting track, so the yard operator can clearly see which car is going where, and rearrange/block them in an efficient order as a train is made up. I just set the cards in correct order first, then shuffle the cars until they line up with the cards.

making up a train

Multiple tracks

Multiple channels can be mounted in front of multiple tracks, so the sleeves are arranged in the same pattern as the cars.