Removing Factory Numbers and Reporting Marks

After yesterday’s post about reworking a P2K automobile boxcar, Ralph Anderson posted this question:

 I just bought 2 P2K kits, ATSF 4700 cu. ft. covered hoppers, which I plan to change to cars the BNSF has renumbered and repainted. Any suggestions on how to remove the original lettering without damaging the kits?

This is a timely question, because I just finished removing the word Automobile from my Lehigh Valley automobile boxcar.  There are a few methods that I’ve used, so I’ll go through them from the most time-consuming labour-intensive to the fastest.  These methods are on a continuum from slow and safe to fast and potentially destructive to the paint around the lettering you want to remove.  They each have their place, but I’ve used the slow method most often.

To begin, here’s my basic arsenal of paint removal supplies and tools:


Safe Decanting

Maybe I’ve been beaten down by the Health and Safety crew at work, but I tend to err on the side of caution whenever I’m working with things that can hurt me.  Super Clean and Easy Off are caustic, meaning they’ll melt your skin off.  File that information under “bad things.”  To be safe, I wear rubber gloves like the orange ones shown in the photo.  I think I got these at an industrial/commercial supply store because it’s a cheaper place to shop, but whatever they sell at the grocery store will work fine.  I decant maybe 25mL of whatever product I’m using into a 400mL glass beaker, but a reused jam jar also works fine.  Only decant these products into glass containers.

I wear safety glasses and long sleeves while I’m decanting.  The point of all this is that I don’t want this stuff on my skin, lips, tongue, or in my eyes or nose.  I also do the decanting outside or at my paint booth in order to vent out any stink or gasses that the process produces.  Once the product is safely decanted, I feel that it’s safe work at my work bench or in my paint booth with the fan running.  One last thing about decanting.  Easy off is a spray foam, so I spray some of it into the Pyrex tray, then move it to the beaker.  I feel there’s less chance of getting any splashed onto me that way.

My suggestions aside, all of the products have safety information on the package that can guide you to make your own decisions about handling.  Use good judgement; don’t use these products if you don’t feel you can safely handle them.

Lettering Removal

The simplest and probably safest method to remove digits or words from a model is to simply scrape away in small increments with new scalpel blade.  I do this slowly, and I wash the loose bits of paint away with 99% alcohol.  Sometimes the alcohol softens the paint a bit while I’m working at it.  I also have a number of dental scrapers that I’ve fashioned into scraping tools with a dremel grinding disk.  The scalpel is sharper, but that’s not always a good thing.  If the paint under the lettering has softened too much, the dental tool works better.

If you work quickly enough, you can use one of the cleaners that I’ve shown above.  That’s where the beaker is handy.  Dip the Microbrush into the cleaner and apply very small amounts to the specific lettering you want to remove.  I use the scalpel or scraper to work the lettering off.  Have a cloth dampened with clean water handy, or use another clean Microbrush to wash the cleaning product off of the lettering if things start moving too quickly and too much paint is coming off.  The trick is to remove the lettering without removing the paint underneath.

To remove larger things like heralds and large print, I’ve wet sanded with 1000 or 1200 grit wet sandpaper.  You can get this at an automotive body shop supply store, or any store that sells car paint and tools to body shops.  Wet sanding also works very quickly, so I use small pieces of sandpaper stuck to things like a popsicle stick or the wrong end of a paint brush.

The last method I’ll describe is the most destructive, so use this one as a last resort.  CA debonder will dissolve model paint immediately.  Decant a VERY small amount into a glass container and use the end of a wooden toothpick that has been dampened in the debonder to burnish the lettering.  This can liquify the paint quickly, so instead of removing the paint, you might sometimes end up smearing it.  Use this method only if you’re really confident in what you’re doing.  Maybe experiment on a scrap model first.

Your Method?

Please don’t assume I’m any kind of authority on these techniques.  These methods have worked for me.  I use the scraping method most of the time because I’m usually just removing digits from a car or locomotive number.  It works best if I work slowly, and the smallest amount of weathering hides small scratches.  There must be other ways of doing this, so anyone with a different technique should offer it up!

P2K Automobile Boxcar as Lehigh Valley 8500-8599

One of my ongoing projects has been to sort through all of my old model train stuff from two decades ago in order to continue to purge the things that I will never use. During a recent purge, I found a Lifelike Proto 2000 50′ automobile boxcar kit (remember kits?).


When I came to own this kit, back in the early to mid 1990s, it was probably an advanced product because it had separate brake and ladder details.  Even by today’s standards, it’s a decent model, and without too much work its quality can match that of other contemporary kits.

A steam-era automobile boxcar would have no place on the WRMRC layout, but the geographical location and era of my planned home layout is slowly crystallizing, and what’s certain is that I’ll build something representing railroading on either side of the Niagara River during the first half of the 1970s – the era of my earliest memories of train watching with my dad.  I just might be able to use this car in that context.

We live in an era when primary source historic information is abundant.  Online resources alone eclipse what was available to a modeller two decades ago, not to mention the quality of the various hard-copy books on the market from niche presses.  I acquired a copy of Craig T. Bossler’s CNJ/LV Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment shortly after finding this kit in my collection of junk, so  I was delighted to learn that the P2K model of the Valley’s automobile boxcar is actually a close representation of the prototype.

According to Bossler, the Lehigh Valley took delivery of 100 automobile boxcars from ACF in 1942.  These cars were numbered 8500 to 8599.  Being the ever frugal outfit they were, the Valley repurposed these cars long after they outlived their intended use.  63 of them were still in revenue service in 1971, with the majority of them in auto parts service.  A small number of them were refitted with damage free loaders and placed in general revenue service.

Bossler’s Color Guide proves that the kit is very close to the prototype, though there are a few differences that can be corrected without too much effort.  Most significantly, the side sills are incorrectly shaped, and need to be contoured with the appropriate notches.  I used the photos in the Color Guide to inform my carving and filing.  The kit designers had the foresight to put indents on the inside of the side sills, which serve to guide one through the re-shaping of the sill for different versions of the car.  The left end of each sill needed a short augmentation to conform to the prototype, and I accomplished that with strips of styrene and a spot of putty.


IMG_2753The above photo shows the shape of the side sills before the car was touched up with Model Flex Maroon Tuscan Oxide Red.

The word “Automobile” appears to have been removed from the cars in the Color Guide, so my next step will be to remove that and paint the sill extensions. I’ll move ahead with the assembly of this car, but I’d like to have a bit more information than what’s in the Color Guide.   A high angle shot would really help to move the project forward, but I’d appreciate any information that a reader can give me.  Please help me out if you can!

Switching Layout- Room Preparation

About a month ago, I posted a drawing of my unfinished basement so that I could share the anticipation of building some kind of layout in all or part of that space.  Though I have a few different rolling stock projects on the go, I’ve just come to the end of three months of intense work and personal challenges, and I needed a few days away from those.  Instead, I spent the past week or so digging through books and searching online for more information on a few possible layout concepts.

All of this has produced a small pile of scrap paper, each decorated with odd loopy lines, and while none of them represent anything close to a track plan, it’s been fun to noodle with some ideas.  Of the dozen that I sketched, I’ve come up with two concepts that work with the space I have available.  Both represent about two miles of railroad selectively compressed along the outside walls of the basement.

Ah yes… those outside walls.  They’re unfinished, and I expect that I would be deeply dissatisfied with a layout in an unfinished room.  I won’t be building anything until the exterior walls are framed and drywalled.  But wait!  One wall is already framed and drywalled on one side!  All I need to do is drywall the other side and I’m good to start building.

layout detail1

Orange oval indicates the location of the wall that is easiest to finish.

So the decision was made.  Instead of aiming for that larger project of two miles, I’m going to build a shelf layout depicting a specific industry or two.  The shelf will measure approximately 12″ to 16″ deep and be about 12′ in length, mounted to the wall ahead of the crawl space (the orange oval in the sketch above).  That crawl space will be a good location for some staging.

Yesterday, I got to work.  I roughed-in three receptacles (one facing the finished side of the wall, and two facing the layout).


I picked up four sheets of 1/2″ drywall after work today, and with any luck, I’ll get some of that up quickly.  I have to do a small amount of framing so that the area above the crawl space is finished with drywall.  I’d like the layout to have finished walls behind and beside it.

So there it is, I’ve defined a layout space that represents an attainable challenge for me.  I expect that finishing the layout side of the walls is within the scope of my abilities and the time I can dedicate to it.  The layout that will be built in this space will serve as a place where I can practice modelling techniques and pose my finished models for photos.  I’ll get to plan a small, operations oriented layout, and then put the plan to the test by actually trying to build it.

Wish me luck.

NYC 86′ Hi Cube Project

One of the things that we don’t have on the WRMRC layout is auto-parts traffic.  Hi-cubes are ubiquitous in southern Ontario, where all of the assembly plants in the province are located.  The only commodities moved for the auto industry in the north of Ontario are the finished product going to market, and perhaps the raw materials going to the stamping plants (steel from the Sault?).

I was born in the ’60s (man), and my earliest memories of trains are from the ’70s (far-out).  Starting in the early 70s, my father took me anywhere within a couple hours of home to watch trains.  Rail traffic around these parts was dominated by the steel and auto industries. As a result, hi-cubes play the leading role in my nostalgia for railroading in the ’70s.

This past summer I purchased a two-pack of Walthers Pullman-Standard 86′ hi-cubes in PRR livery, for no reason other than the vivid memory they evoked the instant I saw them.  If you consider that nearly every model railroad product released in the past 15 to 20 years is new to me, you might understand my excitement over the quality of these models.  They’re already outshined by newer products by ExactRail, for instance, but they’re very nice models of the Pullman-Standard car, with no mods required (from what I’ve seen) to be accurate.

The purchase of these Walthers cars inspired me to have another look at the old Athearn blue-box hi-cube models, apparently produced some time in the Mesolithic period.  Ten bucks got me one in NYC and one in PC factory paint.  I figured this was a small price to pay in order to check out the potential of these models.

There were only three major builders of hi-cubes in the ’70s, those being Thrall, Greenville, and Pullman-Standard.  What I like about the Athearn car is that it augments the Walthers model and allows for a small fleet of hi-cubes models representing a variety of car builders.

Shortly after embarking on this mad quest, Jurgen Kleylein pointed out an article in the January 1994 issue of Railmodel Journal that served to jump-start my research.  There are two relevant articles in that issue that were of use to me.  The first, by D. Scott Chatfield, gives an overview of how 86′ hi-cubes are deployed by railways to serve the auto industry, and it assess the merits of Athearn’s 4- and 8-door HO models (also referred to as quad-door and dual-quad cars, respectively).  The second article, by Robert Schleicher, describes his method for body-mounting the couplers on the Athearn car.

From Chatfield’s article, I went to the NYC Color Guide to find photos and more information about the NYC car I was going to build.  Of course, the benefit of building models in this age is abundance of online photos to use for reference.  From those sources, I examined merits of the Athearn 4-door (quad-door) 86′ hi-cube, and came up with a quick summary of what can be done with a model that, as it turns out, is a mishmash of features from two different builders.

1.  Early Thrall 4-door cars

As Chatfield points out, the Athearn model of the four-door car is a good starting point for an early Thrall hi-cube.  The only major change required is the removal and replacement of the bottom sill.  The sill on the Thrall car extends all the way to the stirrups on both ends.  Otherwise, it appears that the Athearn model closely matches Thrall cars built before 1967.  They’ve captured the single welds on the side panels, which are appropriately sized to match the prototype.  The indents in the sides, at either end of the car, are reproduced with fidelity.  Building a model of one of these based on the Athearn car could be a quick win.

2.  Late Thrall 4-door cars

To correctly model this car with the Athearn model, the welded side seams would have to somehow be changed to represent the double row of welds on the prototype.  An indent on either side of the doors would have to be built into the car’s sides, and the same change to the bottom sill noted in my description of the early Thrall car would also be necessary.  These changes make the late Thrall cars a more involved project, if one bases it upon the Athearn model.  A more workable compromise might be to do all modifications but the double row of welds along the side panels.

3. Greenville 4-door cars

In his 1994 article in Railmodel Journal, Chatfield calls the Athearn model “a nice copy of the Greenville car, except it lacks rivets.”  I agree with him to the extent that of all the prototypes, this model is closest to a Greenville car.  Today’s models have rendered Chatfield’s assessment of the Athearn model out-of-date.  The Athearn model has errors that I would find unacceptable today, but some changes can bring it closer to the prototype.  The beams at the top and bottom of the indents by the side ladders and grab irons are too pronounced.  Furthermore, all of the Greenville cars were riveted, and the Athearn model depicts a car with welded sides.  The welds could be smoothed out and replaced with rivet decals, if one is willing to sacrifice the factory paint, which is not always a great loss as the paint on some RTR Athearn models is gruesome.

That outlines the basic changes required to bring the model’s major features in line with the various prototypes.  In my next post, I’ll outline my first attempt at updating an Athearn model of a 4-door hi-cube.



Chatfield, D. Scott. “Athearn HO Scale and Arnold N Scale 86-Foot Box Cars.” Railmodel Journal. January 1994: 32-39. Print.

Schleicher, Robert. “Derail-Proofing Athearn 86-Foot Box Cars.” Railmodel Journal. January 1994: 44-45. Print.

Sweetland, David R., Yanosey, Robert J. NYC Color Guide to Freight and Passenger      Equipment, Edison NJ.: Morning Sun Books, 1994. Print.

SW1200RS Project: Window Glazing

I had a dilemma while composing this post: how do I take a photo of something that is completely invisible?

I worked on the cab window glazing of 8152 last night, and tonight I finished the all-weather window on the engineer’s side and the sliding windows on the fireman’s side.  The glazing isn’t all that evident in the photos because, well, it’s see-through (duh).  Actually, it turns out that it’s mostly see-through because I managed to get some dirt and grease on the pieces while I was installing them. I’ll have to buy some HO scale Windex to clean them off.

I experimented with two different adhesives.  I used Micro Crystal Clear glue by Microscale on the rear windows.  It’s white with the consistency of Elmer’s school glue.  I used a Testor’s product specifically designed for cementing clear plastics on the front windows.  This product is slightly thinner in consistency and more grey in colour when it’s wet. Both products are clear when they dry.

I think I like the Testor’s product better, but it’s too early to say for certain.  I’m going to need more practice before I can say for sure.  The pieces of glazing included in the kit are die-cut to fit just behind each opening.  Some pieces were cut perfectly while others were slightly too large to fit in the depression inside the cab, just behind the window gasket.  The tight quarters of the cab interior constitute a difficult place to apply adhesive and move parts into position.  This challenge is compounded by the fact that the model is nearly complete and has lots of delicate detail parts attached.  It was prickly business, but I’ve finished one unit.

I’ll get onto the other unit tomorrow night.