The online magazine on the history and operation of vintage scale model trains in American OO gauge

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

GE 80 ton models by Bill Johann

I was sent three photos by Bill Johann some years ago of his scratchbuilt GE 80 ton switchers. More on the prototype here.

He built three of these models. The construction photos are dated in April of 1993, and the in service photo, which I’m presenting first, is from December of 1997. Check out also all those hoses and such, and the Midlin track, it was the best looking of all the OO track lines.

So far as I can tell he only mentioned these models briefly and in passing on the on the first page of the May 1994 issue of The OO Road. There we read that the “80 Ton triplets, [were] built last year for road switching….” The focus of the short article is on how he had more recently taken two of the HO Davenport models (by Mantua – with the side rods) and combined the bodies with an Athearn switcher chassis to make yet another smaller Diesel of similar design.

The 80 ton models were scratchbuilt from styrene. The first construction photo shows a model with incomplete handrails, so we can also see his process a bit further there. Painting before installing handrails was a smart move.

My guess was that he used something like an Athearn GP7 (blue box) frame and drive, and chose the model as it suited the length of the stock frame and 8 wheel drive. Perhaps adjusted the prototype design a bit to fit. The body details are simple, but effective.

Fortunately, two of these engines are now in a collection in the east, and I’m told by owner Drew M. that they run great!

This photo from Drew confirms the construction date and also the drive setup, which is a stock Athearn frame and drive modified for 19mm gauge.

This final side view is of one of the engines today. The truck sideframes have been modified to resemble EMD Flexicoil trucks rather than the correct GE design, but suit the model all the same.

I know I really like the way Athearn blue-box era drives work on 19mm OO gauge locomotives, I’ve got at this point more than a dozen models running with those drives, and more under construction. I describe the basics of the conversion here.


Friday, May 15, 2020

2 wood freight cars that came out nicely

Some models I obtain mainly thinking it is cheap, I’ll do a quick rebuild and try to sell it. Then the project takes a good turn and comes out better than expected. That is the case with this gondola and boxcar.

To the gondola first, it is pre-war Hawk sulfur gondola (an overview of Hawk OO may be found here). It is not an old time car, it is contemporary to the pre-war era -- the wood construction of the prototype cars was due to the load type, and Hawk likely picked the design as it suited wood kit construction. I knew already that the AT&SF had examples of these, but looking around online I found similar cars for the T&NO, and I had decals that would suit the model. I actually did three of these cars as T&NO, the two others of this will likely make it to eBay before this one. It’s on Eastern/Famoco trucks which seemed to suit this particular model as built by the original builder. Each of the 3 of these just rebuilt required a different truck setup, the original Hawk frame being really too thick at the bolsters.

The boxcar has a scribed Picard body (an overview of Picard may be found here). I bought this one as it had an interesting cast frame, trucks, and also SC stamped brass boxcar doors, which I used on a different model – but also the 7’ steel door did not look right at all on this model, it really cried for a 6’ wood door. So I peeled off the remnant decals, made a door, did a quick touch up repaint (in real light it does not look as blotchy as it does with the flash). Again what really makes the car are the decals. This one is riding on trucks rebuilt from Sn3 parts, which visually suited the model I think – but also was a practical solution, as I needed trucks with very low bolsters to get the model to a correct height. Also I had to use the underset shank Kadees, so that the car was not too high. As originally built I don't think this car ever looked this good or operated as well as it does now.

I’m getting to the point I wish I had a bigger layout! But I do rotate my era and theme every month or so, it keeps things interesting.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Pondering Hoffman’s reefer kits and parts

One of the more obscure pre-war makers of American OO kits was Hoffman’s of Philadelphia. I have an overview of three of their kits in my collection here. 

I hardly build vintage kits anymore. I used sometimes, but so many things come to me in parts or in need of rebuilding that has become my focus. In the case of Hoffman’s, I’ve hoped to have one of their cars for years, but have never seen one for sale and honestly, I doubt many have held up at all as there are no wooden sides to support the printed card sides. And it would not surprise me if the overall actual run of these was just a few hundred kits, I was very lucky to find the ones I have.

There are some unique parts that would set them apart from other models if you have one of these. This first photo is a closer look at some of the small parts. The brake cylinder is very similar to a Nason one in size and shape, but a casting rather than a turning. I suspect the ice hatches supplied with the kits might actually be HO parts, but is a nice sharp casting. Finally, the coupler and end sill is a very unique set up, with the spring loaded coupler set up this way from the factory. How it worked in actual layout use I’m not sure, I would worry that the coupler might get droopy.

Besides parts found in kits I have, I have also spotted just a few loose in some various purchases. This second photo gives an overview of my two nearly complete reefer kits and what parts I had hoped someday to build up into a complete car. I have a roof, floor, ends, and frame (a very distinctive design) from a car that was built up (apparently rebuilt as a boxcar!), and also 5 usable trucks. (It is a unique design, see it closer here).

At least I thought I had an extra Hoffman’s roof and floor, but when I was getting ready to glue them together very recently I realized the body is certainly too long for the frame if you use the original ends. Comparing it with the kits, clearly this floor and roof are not Hoffman’s. Then I see a quirk of my kits: they both have two floor stock pieces and no roof! The instructions are a little vague but apparently the actual roof is two pieces of wood, one for each side. Oh, and the used ends I have must be from a different car, the gluing points don’t match the roof and floor piece at all, but are certainly original Hoffmann’s parts.

For the moment I think I’ll dig around and look for more original Hoffman’s parts or at least very close matches. If I go forward with this project I would cut down the floor and roof to match the virgin kit parts. As I have no spare Hoffman’s sides for this rebuilt model, my plan was to use the very similar Champion MDT reefer sides instead. But discovering that the floor and roof are not Hoffmann’s has put a bit of a damper on things, I might instead just strip the frame I had found and put it in the kit that lacks a frame and be done with it. Or maybe I should break down and build one of the kits, neither is absolutely complete, that might be the best project. Will see how I feel as the summer goes forward.   

Saturday, May 9, 2020

2 Scale-Craft boxcars … again … and some containers

Back a few years ago I posted about how I had made a pair of plug door boxcars from Scale-Craft boxcars. The reason to do so was I had a number of SC bodies but not enough SC doors. They may be seen as originally built in this post. Honestly, over time I’ve become less happy with how they look, they are kind of undersized to really look right as a plug door boxcar.

But the SC boxcars do have a reasonable look for a 1950s boxcar, sort of a poor man’s PS-1 boxcar with 7’ doors. In subsequent years, I have really kept my eyes peeled for Scale-Craft boxcar doors. I’ve actually bought junker non-SC cars on eBay just to pull the doors off (and rebuild with non-SC doors), and then finally struck gold with several pair in a parts purchase, so I have plenty of the doors around.

So a decision was made to convert the cars back to standard boxcars as you see here now. One of the cars bodies had the holes drilled in for the door guides, and the other did not. For the one with working doors, I had a spare set of the guides and was all about having the doors open! It’s a nice look. For the other car, I wanted also to try another thing, just mounting the doors on that car fixed in place. It is a better look, without the door guides, and I’ll be doing that on at least one more car soon. Click on the photo for a closer look.

Which led to a final “upgrade.” I had to remove some lettering on the left side of the cars, and this removal plus the newly painted parts left some slight variance in color. So I decided this would be a great pair of cars to weather, a very basic job with AIM weathering powders. The flash photo washes out the effect a bit, but it is a really refreshing look for what is on the layout, and I’m going to have to do some more weathering. These cars I will run as older cars in my 70s/80s sessions.

And a bonus. Up in the foreground, in soft focus, are some containers. The two red K-Line and the blue HanJin are recently painted/lettered models that came to me incomplete, built by Pierre Bourassa. They are a bit short in length at 17’ (they should be 20’— but the width and height are fine), and a little rough. Came to me one red, one blue, one yellow with no lettering. I could not find any prototype containers that are yellow, so I repainted that one red, and worked out simple lettering for both with alphabet sets. Not completely correct, but nice background models.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

3 brands of OO Switch kits

One topic I have not written about extensively is that of vintage track products in American OO. Track was an obvious concern of OO gaugers of the past, and they built many a layout with the products available to them.

Three brands of switch kits came up in some recent digging, Famoco, Tru-Scale, and UMPCO, which serve to illustrate the great, the good, and the bad of these products.

First I’ll mention that all of them are built with traditional OO rail. The height is that of modern Code 125 rail, but the profile is fatter. I have read that this type of rail was originally developed as O scale third rail, it is substantial stuff! It was widely used back in the day in steel and in brass (although I use modern Code 100 rail on my layout, and notably Mantua and Midlin produced track lines in OO in Code 100 rail, which is a more correct size). These kits all have brass rail.

The best of the three brands featured today is new to this site! So I’m happy to present to you UMPCO (Universal Model Products Co.), a post-war line. The box says they are located in Philadelphia, and the line is listed in the catalog of E&H Stores, also of Philadelphia. There we see listings for:


  • Turnout, brass, #6
  • Fibre tie strip
  • Spikes, off-set head


The instruction sheet indicates that they also sell WYE, #4, and #8 turnouts – but it is a generic instruction sheet, those may have been available in other scales or by special order. The box highlights that they sell precision and quality parts, and for sure this top strapped turnout kit is very usable today.

Also selling a good, solid product was Tru-Scale (overview here). This is their SK-8 switch kit which is set up to use with their roadbed. Why I rate it good only is the points have come unsoldered, broken at the little joint at the end near the frog, really a function of using too many small parts. It could be fixed certainly, but the UMPCO switch by comparison is more solidly put together. Also you have to manage all the gauging a bit more, as it is not strapped for installation.

The bad switch of the three is that produced by Famoco (overview here). Of all the parts in the box, I think really only the stock rails and maybe the tie strip are usable today -- and probably even when the product was brand new! It was a nice idea they had, the points and frog are die cast (!) in zinc (!!) or similar casting material. The castings look nice, anyway, but the big issue to my mind is that this material does not conduct electricity very well. The guard rails are also castings, but this time in brass or bronze, they could still be used but seem to my eye to be of an unusual design. On the whole, Famoco must have thought it to be an upgrade on the standard switch kits of other makers, it was different! But really this is not a great product.

The whole topic is a niche topic to be sure. I’ve written on two other brands of standard rail OO turnouts before, Scale-Craft and Trackmaster, more on those below:





Saturday, May 2, 2020

2 Vintage boxcars, before (and after) painting

With the nice weather and working from home, I’ve set up my shop in the garage for working on a group of vintage freight cars that came to me in various states at various times.

The truth of why a number of the projects were stalled, sometimes for years, is I just don’t like gluing on roof ribs. Step one was organizing my supply of mostly Eastern/Famoco ribs, I had a lot of them but loose, some not being very usable. Step two was bending, cutting, and gluing them on the cars. Still I think four more cars to go! Will keep pushing, hope to get them all done.

One pair that is done is this pair of boxcars. These, I’m almost ashamed to say how long I’ve owned these bodies but it is something like 25 years. They were part of a group of unfinished projects in a lot I purchased. Someone had a big idea to take Picard bodies and cut in the lines like a steel boxcar, and they had roof details, ends, and doors. Also the builder had done a nice job with sanding sealer, which would help them to look more like steel boxcars.

By the time they got to me, the roofs were falling off and everything needed help. I stripped them down to just bodies, sanded, sealed, and got to work. Besides the Eastern roof ribs you see on the cars Scale-Craft doors, Selley ends, and reproduction Nason frames. They have quite the retro look!

Part of what stalls a project – or moves it forward – is the availability of decals. In one of my recent Tichy decal purchases (more here) I got two pair of nice “Frisco Fast Freight” boxcar decals that will go really well on the flat sides of these models.

I built one more of these cars up a few years ago with GN decals, it came out better than expected and led me to do these. I can’t find the article on that model on blog (if there is one), and I actually have two more of these very cars to still do from that original batch. A project for a year or two down the road.

UPDATE. And the finished cars. One thing not yet mentioned and you would notice seeing the actual cars, they look visually a bit underscale. The issue is that Picard bodies were sized so that you glue sides on them, and these were built with no sides so they are visually narrow. For all I know, this may be why the original builder abandoned the project and did not complete the cars.

On the plus side, I have several engines that are somewhat underscale too, and these look good with them, so they will get use! They are on Nason trucks with Ultimate wheelsets and operate very well.