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THE BIG RIVER, my 1:24 scale narrow gauge railroad, operates on a shoestring. When it needed rolling stock, I scratchbuilt six basic flatcars, then modified some into gondolas and tank cars. Making several cars at the same time dramatically cut how long I spent building each one. Fabricating most parts by hand dramatically cut costs. Here is how I did it:

First I decided what couplers to use because that affects the frame's draft beam dimensions. I settled upon a modified version of Precision Scale's coupler with a working lift pin. If you prefer Kadee« couplers, you should cut the draft beams shorter to fit Kadee's draft gear box.

You also must decide how to mount the trucks. I use a 6-32 screw with a shoulder spacer and nut. A round head wood screw would work well, too.

Next I drew a plan for a Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge 30 foot flatcar. It showed me how many and what size of each part I would need. I made a cutting list of all the wood and chose Western Pine because it machines very well and is easy to find. I ripped the stock sizes on a table saw and used a wood plane to finish the surface of the wood; it produces a satin smooth surface with crisp corners in much less time than it would take to sand each piece. I clamped the plane in a bench vise and smoothed each piece on all four sides. Then I cut the pieces to length on a radial arm saw, clamping a cutting stop onto the fence to make it easy to duplicate pieces any length.


With all the wood separated by size and ready for assembly, I set up a jig over a full-size plan of the frame. I fit the frame members between the spacers and cemented them together with CA and an accelerator. I apply medium viscosity cement to one piece and spray the accelerator on the other. Hold the pieces together for a few seconds and the joint is set.

Begin by gluing together the two center sills. Use smaller blocks of the same stock to determine the spacing and to serve as anchors for the coupler and truck screws. The size of those pieces will depend on whose couplers you use and how you mount the trucks. Glue the resulting assembly to an end beam, attach the two intermediate sills and add the other end beam. Be sure the frame is square.

You must notch the side sills (side rails) to fit over the end beams. Fit each piece separately for a tight joint and check again to be sure the entire frame is square.

Now it is time to add the body bolsters. Trim them to fit between the side sills and cement them in place. Notch the needle beams to fit over the side sills and glue them in. Finally, install the buffer blocks and draft beams. Bevel the inside ends of the draft beams.

Cut the truss rod support spacer blocks to fit and install them along the centerline of the bolster. Reinforce all the glue joints with a fillet of CA on the inside corners. Sand the top of the entire frame to insure a flat surface for the decking.


Decide what style of queenpost you prefer and draw a full-size illustration of a truss rod. I use 1/16-inch diameter brass brazing rod. In 1:24 scale, it works out to 1 1/2 inches and I can thread it for an 0-80 nut. Any welding supply house will have a good supply. Cut the rods to length, thread the ends, and bend them to shape.

Mark and drill the end beams for the truss rods and mark and drill the needle beams for the queenposts. Install the outer truss rods using 2-56 washers. The center rods are longer, hug the center sills, and terminate at the buffer blocks.


It would be faster to buy stake pockets from Ozark Miniatures, Shortline Car & Foundry, or some other parts manufacturer, but I made my own. I use .020-inch thick copper sheet. You may find it at any sheet metal shop. Its primary use is for high quality roof flashing. I cut strips 11/32-inch wide and any convenient length. Then I anneal the strips by heating them red hot and allowing them to cool slowly. Scribe lines to locate the mounting holes.

I made a mating stamp set to punch the strip into the "U" shape. I punched a lot of those "U" shapes in each annealed strip. I used 18 gauge copper wire to mount the stake pockets. 18 gauge wire is .040-inch in diameter. In 1:24, that works out to one scale inch. I drill .046-inch holes on either side of each "U" pocket while they are still all in one strip.

Cut the individual pockets apart and clean up the edges with a file. Mark and drill the side sills for the mounting wires. Bend them over on the inside and secure them with CA.

Use .020-inch thick copper sheet to fabricate bolster tie rod plates. Their function is to help transfer the load of the car from the side sills to the king post at the center of each truck. Make the rod ends from 19 gauge wire brads.

Use the same brads to model a simplified grab iron bolt. Make the grab iron itself by bending 18 gauge copper wire into a "U" and mounting it in holes in the side sills and end beams. First install the brads. Then drill the holes for the grab irons just above or below the brad head. [Larry Larsen and I find Atlas Track Nails excellent for such applications. They have a round head similar to a rivet and the size is appropriate.-Ed.]

You will need a jig to make all the grabs the same size. Drill a hole the correct distance [usually 16 or 18 scale inches-Ed.] from one edge of a scrap of wood. Bend one leg of the grab iron 90-degrees with a pliers, insert the bent leg in the hole, and use the edge of the wood as a guide to hold the wire for bending the second leg.

Install all the grabs. Trim the brads and wire flush with the inside frame members and secure everything with CA. Notice all the grabs are above the "bolts" except for the left hand one at each end. That allows clearance for the coupler lift bar.

I decided to model the buffer plate using .020-inch thick copper sheet. The 0-80 nuts and washers on the center truss rods hold it in place. If you decide to leave off the plate, use 2-56 washers as you did on the outside truss rods.

The coupler screw is 4-40 x 5/8-inch and threads through from the top. Countersink the head, then CA it in place. Make the box lid by folding .020-inch thick copper at the edges and soldering in a pair of 1/16-inch rods for reinforcement. The rods fit into holes in the draft beam and provide additional strength to the coupler installation. A nut secures the lid.

At this point, add a shim to the bolster to bring the coupler to the correct height when you mount the car on the trucks.


Although several fine "K" brakes are on the market, I made my own by turning half inch birch dowel. Install the brake cylinder and the rigging. The cylinder supports are 1/16-inch thick pine. Make the rods from 18 gauge copper wire and the clevises from .020-inch thick copper sheet. Solder the clevises to the rods.

The brake levers are .030-inch thick styrene and the lever support straps are 18 gauge wire. Use CA to attach the clevises to the levers.

The corner steps are 1/8-inch by .020-inch thick copper. I bent them to shape, drilled them for 19 gauge brads, and the brads secure them to the side sills.

Fabricate the brake staff support bracket. I designed it to accept a Bachmann brakewheel and used .020-inch thick copper sheet and 1/16-inch diameter brass tube to build it. Secure it to the end beam with 18 gauge wire in the same way as you did the stake pockets. Wrap a short length of chain around the brakewheel shaft and connect it to the loop at the end of the brake rigging.

Part of the goal of the Big River is to switch cars so, as I said at the beginning, my couplers have working lift pins. That means working lift bars are also necessary. I bent them to the correct shape from 1/16-inch diameter rod. Note the "B" end (the brakewheel end) has to jog around the brakewheel shaft.

I bent eyebolts to secure the lift bars from .040-inch diameter wire, then soldered them for strength. After that I drilled out the eye. I also soldered a .040-inch wire ring to the coupler end of the lift bar so I could attach a piece of chain. Another ring connects the chain to the top of the lift pin. The eyebolts press into holes in the end beam.

An easy way to make rings is to wrap wire around a drill of the desired size. Make about 20 wraps, then slide the coil off the drill. Use a fine jeweler's saw to cut the coil along its length, producing individual rings. I make a bunch anytime I need one. That way I have them for future projects.

I used 14 gauge solid electrical wire for brake hoses. It is the correct diameter for half-inch scale and bends easily to shape. Secure one end by mounting it in a hole in the end beam. Then install a "U" shaped piece of .040-inch diameter wire for more strength. Hold everything together with CA.


The basic car is now ready for paint. These cars are so big, I use exterior latex house paint instead of model paint. I mixed up a color to match sun bleached red oxide (boxcar red) and spray painted the flatcar frames without the couplers, the truck sideframes and the wheels.

I "rusted" the couplers with RustAll and lubricated them with graphite until they worked smoothly. Then I buffed the paint off the wheel treads. I lubricated the trucks with LaBelle plastic compatible oil, assembled them, and installed them. I used metal wheels in Bachmann sideframes because I had those sideframes on hand. The cars track so well, additional weight is unnecessary.

Letter the car with dry transfers. I use an alphabet sheet but plan to invest in more complete custom reporting marks.


Install the deck last. Remember to cut back the boards above the stake pockets and over the side grab irons. Distress individual boards with a hacksaw blade or whatever other implement of destruction comes to mind. I arrange the boards as they will go on the car and tape them together. Then I stain the entire assembly with a mixture of very dirty thinner and rub in splotches of paint with more thinner.

Glue the boards to the frame.

Finally, airbrush the entire car with a very light and very dilute mixture of black and brown, or a shade similar to Floquil Grimy Black, to simulate dirt and grime.

Altogether, I spent $8.00 and eight and one-half hours on each flatcar. Each gondola cost the same but required ten and one-half hours. The tank car took 17 hours to build and cost $10.00. None of the prices includes trucks, wheels, or couplers.

For Each Flatcar

Stock Dimension	Length		  No. Required	        Function
3/16" x 7/16"		x 15"		2		Side Sills
3/16" x 5/16"		x 14 1/2"	4		Center Sills
1/4" x 5/16"		x 3 3/4"	2		End Beams
1/8" x 9/16"		x 3 3/4"	2		Body Bolsters
3/16" x 5/16"		x 3 3/4"	2		Needle Beams
5/16" x 5/16"		x 1 3/16"	2		Buffer Blocks
3/16" x 1/4"		x 2 5/16"	4		Draft Beams
1/8" x 1/2"		x 3 7/8"	30		Deck Boards
5/16" x 3/8"		stock				Coupler and Truck Screw Blocks
3/16" x 3/16"		stock				Truss Rod Spacer Blocks


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