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Model railways in solihull
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How to Build Wagon Kits



Model (n)             1. A three dimensional representation, usually on a smaller scale, of

                               a device or structure.

                           2. An example or pattern that people might want to follow.


These notes describe my personal practices, theories and opinions built up over more than twenty years of plastic wagon kit construction and scratch-building and a few more years building other kinds of plastic kits. The notes apply mainly to 'OO' and 4mm to 1 foot or 1:76 scale, but also to other scales and gauges and in a broader sense to all kinds of historical modelling.


1. Find a Prototype and Stick to it


I used to dive in, buy a kit, build and paint it and use the transfers included if there were any, with no regard as to whether that wagon with those details ran in that livery. This was alright to start with, but as I began to collect more books, especially wagon books, I realised that if I followed photographs of wagons taken at roughly the time I wanted to model them, I would have the satisfaction of knowing they were correct, rather than having to rebuild them at a later date. The same theory applies to all forms of historical modelling, whether railway or not, and it is your personal choice if you choose to apply it and to what degree, or not, but be prepared for others to ask potentially embarrassing questions if you do not!


If you cannot find suitable books, some libraries have specialist railway sections that might help, or access to the internet, possibly through a library if you do not have access at home, can be even more useful. Even if you find a suitable photographic source though, you seldom get to see both sides of an item, so the unseen side may have to be guesswork based on what you can see. Another way to improve on this is to take your own photographs of a prototype and include every angle you can, not forgetting the view from above, which is seldom seen in real life, but very obvious on an 'OO' model.


2. Choose a Kit that is Close to Your Prototype


Once again, the internet is a good place to find out what is available. Why not choose a prototype that is not available as a ready-to-run model? That way, the finished model will be even more unique to you. If you want to build an accurate model, some parts of the kit may need to be modified to show damage, replacement parts or a slightly different wagon to the one portrayed by the kit. Some kits come with a useful range of alternative parts and some do not. If any parts are spare after the wagon is built, keep them safe as you may need them for a future project.


Choose simple kits that closely resemble your chosen prototype, go together well and are not too complex to start with, until your confidence grows. Slaters, Coopercraft and the vast majority of Ratio kits go together very easily with little or no modification once the parts have been cut from their plastic runners or 'sprues'. Cambrian kits tend to need more work and even a little modification before they will fit together well, so should not be attempted by the inexperienced, but they do produce a very useful range of wagons, including many in the engineering fleet. Parkside make a vast range of kits, the majority of which go together well and many of which have useful alternative parts included, although a few of the older ones, some possibly inherited from the Ian Kirk range are less detailed and not so easy to assemble. If you have any doubts about how easy a kit will be to construct, check that the mouldings are crisp, detailed and largely free of mould parting lines or 'flash' before purchase.


Try as hard as you reasonably can to make sure all the parts are present before you leave the shop, but it may not be wise to open a sealed packet until you are in a safe place at home where you can catch any loose parts. On the whole, I have rarely had any missing parts in kits, indeed if there are small, loose parts that are likely to go missing, the manufacturers sometimes include more than you need.


3. Wait for it


Once you get the kit home, resist the temptation to immediately start building it. Check the parts carefully against the instructions to make sure they are all there. Plan which parts you are going to use if there are alternatives. If parts need modification or changing, it is usually easier to do this before the wagon is built. Put the pieces together 'dry' first to make sure they fit.


Perhaps most importantly of  all, check that your chosen wheels and axles fit between the axleboxes with only minimal sideplay, with the axleboxes properly located vertically in the chassis and with the chassis perfectly square. Some kits, such as those made by Ratio and Coopercraft, are sold with moulded plastic wheels which I would not recommend at all, but you could use them on a static display model. They tend to be flimsy, poorly-detailed and will never run as freely or truly as metal-axled wheels and metal tyres in metal bearings. There are a few manufacturers who make all-metal and part-metal wheelsets, but after some experiments, I have found Jackson / Romford ones work vest on the modern 'standard' PECO code 100 track that both I use and the club currently uses. They have the added advantage of being all-steel apart from small plastic insulators to stop the electrified track short-circuiting, meaning additional weight low down on the wagon for added stability and a small step towards more realistic inertia for the wagon. They are fitted into separately available turned brass bearing cups called 'pinpoint axle bearings' which give very low rolling resistance, allowing model trains to be longer, less prone to derailments and behave in a more realistic manner when hauled. Two types of bearings are available - a 'top hat' shaped type with a flange on the inner edge allowing easier removal from the axlebox if required and a type without the flange which tend to be in for good once they are fitted. I use the former. It is essential that the profiles of the axles and bearings match or they will not run properly, so at least make sure they are from the same manufacturer.


Recent Parkside kits already include my choice of wheels and bearings, but you may want to buy alternatives if your prototype has had new wheels fitted in its life. The two main types of prototype wagon wheels are spoked, which  are cast with spokes like a horse-drawn wagon, and disc which are pressed from a circle of steel and tend to be fitted to more modern wagons. There are different styles and diameters within these main types. Check your photographs carefully.


4. Build it!


Using the instructions in the kit if you are not carrying out a massive conversion and, following your prototype photographs, assemble the wagon. It may be easier to paint some parts, such as those in the chassis, before they are assembled, but do not paint the surfaces to be joined or they will not stick properly. Take care not to get glue on your fingers, whether liquid plastic cement, or super glue. If you do get glue on your fingers, carefully remove it all or let it dry before proceeding or you will very easily leave sticky fingerprints on your model and while they make it easier for the police to trace the owner, they do not look very good. Fingerprints and similar imperfections can usually be removed once dry with a scalpel and / or ultra-fine sandpaper, but it is better if they are not there in the first place.


One of the most crucial parts of modelling any kind of rolling stock is to ensure that the chassis is square. Failure to do this results in derailments on a wagon. Some people use a flat sheet of glass or a flat tile to make sure all the wheels touch the ground together and that the wagon does not rock, but you can also use a flat, straight piece of track.


Before you put a roof or tarpaulin on your wagon, make sure some ballast is added if there is not room to hide it in the chassis. A four wheeled wagon should weigh a few grammes and a bogie wagon up to twice as much. The only 'OO' wagon kit manufacturer I know of that supplies ballast weights is Coopercraft and their weights are only about half as heavy as I would recommend for good running. You can use whatever you want for ballasting, fitted as low as possible in the wagon. Something like a sturdy three inch bolt or a couple of square inches of roofing lead is about right. I use lead sheet from a builders' merchant as it is flat and easy to hide, easy to cut and one roll will ballast a lot of wagons. I usually try to fit it between the underframe members for the lowest centre of gravity, but it works fine on the floor of a covered van. I attach the ballast securely with super glue. If it is not secure, you will have an annoying rattle. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water when working with lead and keep it away from children.


5. Paint Your Wagon


You can do this by brush or spray - whatever you prefer or whatever suits the wagon. Make sure the wagon is free from dust and grease first.


Great Western Railway wagons tended to be one colour all over, except for van roofs, either grey for revenue stock or black for service stock, with a few exceptions. This makes them ideal for spray painting. I use Humbrol 'tank grey' or matt black aerosols respectively. When spraying, hold the can or airbrush the recommended distance from the subject and spray a light coat, with the can or airbrush moving all the time you are spraying. Rotate the item being painted so that all areas possible are painted in one go. Try hard not to over-spray anywhere or you will get blobs or runs, but these can be carefully absorbed while still wet with tissue paper. Re-coat the subject when absolutely dry, possibly after a couple of days, if the paint has not covered very well.


If you choose to brush-paint your model, probably the best idea for the beginner, make sure that the paint is slightly thinned for an even finish and to avoid excessive brush marks - this is van (goods), not van Gogh. Stir the paint right down to the bottom of the tin very thoroughly and take the paint from the bottom of the stirring stick, re-stirring as necessary. If the paint is blobby or grainy, do not use it or you will get a poor finish. Re-coat as many times as is necessary once each coat is completely dry.


Whatever the painting method, you can use masking tape or products such as Humbrol 'Maskol' to mask areas of the model between colours if required.


6. Time to get Dirty


Once the model is painted and thoroughly dry, you may choose to weather it to get a more realistic finish or not - it is entirely up to you. Once again, the photographs will guide you as to what to weather and how. I usually weather at this stage as, if otherwise, the weathering can damage the transfers, although I sometimes carefully weather the transfers once they are fitted also.


There are various methods for weathering model railway rolling stock, depending on the type of vehicle, type and amount of weathering and personal preference. One of our members painstakingly builds up layers of weathering powders over a course of days and another uses colour washes and fine-grained sponges. I usually use colour washes, dry-brushing and detail painting, but have used an airbrush for applying a mist of track colour to lower bodysides and chassis and often use a very light spray from a can of matt black above the roof of a diesel locomotive.


To produce a colour wash, dip a suitably-sized brush for the job into both paint and thinners until the desired strength of colour is achieved and wash over the required area. Do not over-do this or try it when the paint is less than completely dry as the thinners will remove the previous coats of paint.


For drybrushing, a large brush with fluffy bristles can be used. Dab most of the paint off the brush with a tissue and dab the brush lightly over the required area.


In reality, a combination of some of these techniques that best suits you and the subject is probably best.


If not always obvious as most historic photographs are black and white, items left in the open, such as railway rolling stock, will suffer colour bleaching from the sun and rain, but also darkening from the general dirt, soot and coal dust. They will also be coloured by the fuels, lubricants and commodities that they carry. As a general rule, darker colours often tend to get lighter and lighter colours darker. You can add black, brown or white to the standard colours, mixed in a separate pot, to get these effects or use a colour wash afterwards.


If a wagon is carrying cement or china clay, there will be light grey spillages on top of every horizontal surface, perhaps especially around doors where it is loaded or unloaded and all over the insides of open wagons and hoppers.


Up until about the 1930s, cattle vans were washed out with lime, leaving the lower halves covered in a thin white coating.


Coal wagons tend to get blackened all over from dust and oil wagons will often have black drips and spillages of oil from the loading hatches.


All wagons will tend to have oily or greasy black marks around all moving parts from their lubrication, such as axleboxes, brakegear, buffers and couplings, and all iron and steel areas will be prone to rusting.


Air or vacuum-braked wagons and other rolling stock will also tend to have a coating of rusty-coloured brake dust all over their chassis and lower sides. This will be less obvious on non-continuously-braked, loose-coupled goods wagons as the brakes are manually applied, one wagon at a time.


Many wagons, especially flat and open wagons, have exposed bare wood. While this probably started out a nice yellowy colour, a month or two in the open will transform it into a light grey colour and you may want to create a wood grain effect on it if it is obvious on the original photograph by light scoring with a knife, light rubbing with small pieces of coarse sand paper, taking care not to rub all the detail off, or handpainting it with a very fine brush in a slightly different colour.


Markings can also be applied to wagons by railwaymen, photographers, or even vandals. Very often, although less-so since about the 1970s, wagons had their destinations chalked messily all over their sides and ends, or 'MT' for empty or perhaps instructions where there is a problem with the wagon or load such as 'one journey only' or 'do not unload'. These can be carefully painted on in white with a very fine 'OOO' brush. Sometimes posters are attached to wagons, usually closed vans, advertising the load. Some of these are available from Hollar Models as transfers, but you could hand paint them also.


7. The Transfer Window Opens


There is a vast array of transfers available, from the likes of The Historical Model Railway Society (formerly P. C. Pressfix), Frizinghall Model Railways, Modelmaster, Woodhead, Replica Railways, Slaters and Fox. Some kits include transfers, but it is unlikely that they will include the exact ones you need for your wagon. When ever I find useful-looking transfers in a shop, I always buy them just in case. There are two main types, rub-on and waterslide. Follow the instructions with the transfers on how to apply both sorts. Personally, I recommend using waterslide wherever possible as they are more robust and can be moved, especially the 'Pressfix' types which have a more discrete backing.


Always try to apply transfers, especially lettering and numbering, in strong, natural light as I have found that the eye tends to line them up on their backing film, rather than on the decal itself under artificial light and as soon as they are viewed in good light, they do not look as straight.


Transfers usually stick best to a gloss or satin paint finish, rather than a matt one, although for the sake of realism, satin or matt look better than gloss. Again, make sure the model is free from dust and grease. I usually apply rub-on transfers with a ballpoint pen or 0.7mm propelling pencil. I use a very small paint brush, a scalpel and a tissue when applying waterslide transfers.


If you cannot find a suitable transfer, hand painting or modifying other transfers can be substituted. If you want to cut waterslide transfers into smaller pieces, this is most easily done while they are still dry and on their backing sheet. If you want to paint on top of waterslide transfers, this is best done once they are on the model and dry. Where a large transfer needs to be fitted over raised detail, there are various potions available to soften transfers to make this job easier, but I often prefer to simply cut the transfer with a fresh scalpel blade, remove the raised area and then paint it back when dry.


Once transfers are dry, various paint effects can be applied to them. If you want it to look like the paint of the markings is being weathered, a localised, but heavy, wash downwards in the same colour, below the markings can look effective. If you want it to look like the markings were stencilled on, this can be achieved by painting lines across at regular intervals with a very fine brush in the backing colour.


Once the paint and transfers are all thoroughly dry, a good way to protect them, both and also to even out inconsistencies in the finish, is to apply a coat of matt varnish, ideally from a spray can or airbrush, but I have yet to find a good replacement for the old Humbrol enamel spray as the current formula takes the paint off. Instead of this I use brushed-on Humbrol 'Matt Kote'. If a localised shiny finish is desired, on glass objects or oil spills for example, Humbrol 'Gloss Kote' can be brushed on top.


8. Now What?


Congratulations - you just finished your first wagon and if you are not there already, you are starting to become a modeller, rather than just a collector of model railway items. I hope it went well and that if you had any problems or even minor disasters, at least you should know first hand now to avoid them next time. Perhaps something more complex next time? A more exotic wagon? A parcels coach kit?



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© Solihull Model Railway Circle 2000-2024. Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of this website the publisher, Solihull Model Railway Circle, cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in the website, nor for any consequence arising from such information. The articles included and the views expressed on this website are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Solihull Model Railway Circle or its members or advisors. This website is intended to be a resource, but initially it is for promoting the Solihull Model Railway Circle.