Kitbash Free Or Die

or: How to Salvage a McKean PS-1 Kit and Create a Cool New England Boxcar

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NSRC 481, a typical North Stratford Rail Corp 40ft PS-1 boxcar, was photographed rolling through Pomona, California on 07 June 1982. – Tim Brooks photo (courtesy canadianfreightcargallery.ca)

This latest project originated from an evening bout of model train show withdrawal symptoms, as the lack of flea markets and swap meets during the pandemic restrictions caused me to review my boxes of surplus models. There I re-discovered all the old McKean and Front Range rolling stock kits that I’ve been offering for sale over several years worth of Kitchener Train Shows.

NSRC_logo1Looking over these kits my mind began to meander and imagineer various modelling possibilities, somehow wandering back to the late 1980s where I recalled seeing North Stratford RR boxcars rolling though southern Ontario. They were curiosities back then, not only because they were probably the last 40-foot boxcars still in interchange service, but from their bold logo and distinctive ‘Live Free or Die’ slogans (the state motto of New Hampshire). But then I remembered the kitbashing involved to get these kits up to modern modelling standards, and reasoned there must be some manufacturer out there that produced a good ready-to-run North Stratford RR boxcar.

Well a quick internet search found there were none, but there were decals available for the project. That caused more research on the real North Stratford Railroad, and whether the WRMRC’s CP Sudbury Division layout could see any of their boxcars. The short answer was yes, which caused me to pull an 8-foot door undec McKean kit from the surplus box, followed by an online decal purchase. The kitbash was on.

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Left-hand (tall-ladder side) view of the kitbashed McKean model, ready for primer. You pretty much have to toss all the manufacturer-supplied details when bashing these old 1980s kits.

A brief history of the North Stratford Railroad can be found on their Wikipedia entry, and a Google search will provide you with plenty of information if you wish to learn more. From this research, for the purposes of club operating sessions, it was plausible that NSRC boxcars could be hauling furniture from the former Ethan Allen furniture factory in Beecher Falls VT to the greater Chicago area over the CP Sudbury Division. CP trains 911/912 captured a lot of New England – Chicago bridge traffic through the 1970s, as shippers used whatever means possible to avoid the lengthy transit times caused by the Penn Central merger mess.

I’ve written before about my old kit salvage jobs, specifically here and here. Basically my goal is not to create a contest model, but to make a reasonable representation utilizing the many boxes of spare parts I’ve accumulated over the years. The challenge is to create a boxcar that will not melt if coupled between a Kadee and Tangent model, and not to spend any extra money aside from decals and maybe paint.

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Right-hand (shortened-ladder side) view of the model. The various detail parts used came from the author’s spare parts collection. Roof-walk and ladder supports were fabricated from styrene.

Before you copy my work, please note there was a mistake made because I began kitbashing the car before thoroughly researching the prototype. Bashing enough of their kits over the years, I habitually began by adding the roof walk supports that McKean inadvertently missed on their model. This was done using .060” styrene angle, chopped to the appropriate length, and glued on the roof rib peaks. After doing this I came across a good roof-view photo of an NSRC boxcar, and discovered the roof had been completely rebuilt with no roof-walk supports. It turns out their entire fleet of 100 reconditioned 40-foot boxcars had rebuilt roofs. So I actually went out of my way to goof this boxcar up. Oh well, good thing this isn’t a contest model.

As for the other details utilized, most came from my collection of left-over parts from old Intermountain, Branchline and Proto-2000 models purchased over the years. The ladders, grab irons, and tack boards were all surplus left-overs from those kits. The 8-foot Superior doors were excess parts from a Sylvan Scale Models double-door boxcar kit. I never throw any good spare detail parts away. Additionally there were some wire 18” drop grab irons on the car ends, and a a wire corner-grab on the roof utilized also. I often re-bend staples to create new metal stirrups on my kitbash projects, but went the easy route and used A Line Products stirrups on this one.

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‘B’-end view. The McKean brake housing was salvaged, but with a Kadee brake wheel and metal wire used for the brake and air lines. A couple of re-bent staples support a Details Associates photo-etched brake platform. That jade green tack-board must have come from an old NYC kit.

They might have been good for their time, but the underbody on these McKean kits needs a lot of work too. First I body-mount scale #158 Kadee couplers in their own boxes (nothing works better than a Kadee in it’s own box), which requires you to remove the molded-on McKean coupler housings. Doing so will expose a square hole which needs to be filled with styrene. After that’s plugged you can drill and tap a #2-56 screw to mount the replacement Kadee coupler boxes.

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Underbody view. Most of the original details were cut away, and a new Accurail 1-piece underframe brake rod set was installed. Kadee #158 scale couplers were also added.

Though the underframe brake rods look complicated, they are actually very easy to add. The hard work was cutting away most of the old McKean details in order to add them. Once that was all done and cleaned, I installed an Accurail one-piece underframe brake rod set which gives your model the appearance of having a super-detailed underbody with minimal effort. To finish, I installed a set of 50-ton roller bearing trucks equipped with Intermountain 33” wheels. All the NSRC 40-foot PS-1 boxcars rode on these style trucks.

In order to blend together all the different coloured detail parts before paining, the model was first primed with light grey Tamiya Fine Surface Primer.  Yes, right from a rattle can, and you get a wonderful finish. I then looked for whatever green the WRMRC paint collection had that best matched these NSRC boxcars. Photos show a dark green / bluish colour when new, fading to a lighter, truer green as they aged. Needing to replicate a nearly new car I chose PolyScale F414188 CNW Green, unfortunately now long out of production. If you need help, I’m certain the CNW modellers know of a good replacement paint match. I then sprayed Tamiya clear gloss coat, as PolyScale paint is flat and a gloss finish helps with decal adherence.

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In progress photo of the decal application. K4 Decals go on well, but you should always read the manufacturer’s instructions beforehand, and apply on a glossy finish to maximize adherence.

As noted earlier, an online search turned up the appropriate NSRC decals from K4 Decals. They are well-printed, good quality decals, fairly easy to work with, and yield excellent results as you can see from the photos. K4 were a new supplier for me, but I’ll definitely buy again from them when the need arises.

However there were some minor miscellaneous odds and ends I needed to add that were not supplied by the K4 sheet. Specifically the near-microscopic bank trust stencil lettering found on the top left of the car, along with the tiny ‘Retaining Valve’ and ‘Defect Card Holder’ stencils along the bottom side-sill of the boxcar. For that I used some Microscale decals I had in my collection to replicate those. For the bank trust lettering I used some N-scale tank car decals I purchased specifically for cases like this. If anyone is able to read them directly off my model with the unaided eye, I’ll buy you a coffee.

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Completed model. Some light weathering was added, mainly road grime around the underbody, and some grunge coming from the roof eaves. A clear flat finish was then sprayed to protect it.

I probably over-weathered this model considering it should still be shiny after it’s rebuilding in 1979, but it just didn’t look right mixed with all the other really grunged-up rolling stock on the club layout. So I airbrushed a light coat of grime along the underbody, and added some dark grungy weathering powder along the roof eaves along with some running down from the door guides. A clear flat coat was then applied to protect the weathering. Combined with the original base gloss finish the model still has a bit of a shine to it, so I’m happy with the over-all result.

In closing, I just wish to reiterate that this kit was up for sale for $5 at the WRMRC table over several Kitchener Train Shows, along with a lot of other surplus ‘fleas.’ For all the complaints on model train forums about the high cost of our hobby, here is proof that if you have the time and are low on cash, you can create quality models while on a budget. You also get the added satisfaction of owning something unique. Personally, I get a kick out of re-creating something I’ve seen in the past, and the research and efforts towards that goal are what make the hobby rewarding. I hope this story inspires others to dig around in future train shows, and look beyond the latest ready-to-run models.

When a Plan Comes Together

It has taken a long time to collect all the information we have about CP operations over the Sudbury Division. Most of it has been acquired through dedicated research, photo studies, and conversations with former employees. Even though the WRMRC has been at this for, literally, decades now. there will always be new things to learn. Research and education are lifelong pursuits after all.

A case in point; within our photo archives we have discovered three separate instances of CB&Q 2-bay Center-Flow hoppers travelling over the Sudbury Division. As the WRMRC’s chief operations guru, I’ve developed some plausible waybill information for mid-western US covered hoppers to run over our layout (note – we will be publishing a series of club operations posts in the future). However, finding out the prototype shipping information for why these specific CB&Q railcars were showing up in Sudbury would be our desired goal.

Despite the hardships one should normally expect with prototype research, sometimes good stuff just falls into your hands when you’re not even looking. Recently, Mike Confalone‎ posted a model photo on his Allagash RR Facebook page of Minnesota Dakota & Western (MD&W) boxcars being loaded on his layout. He had seen these being used in Maine in real-life back in the 1980s, and had always wanted models of them for his own layout. The problem was that despite these FMC-built combo-door boxcars being available in HO-scale for years now, they were never offered in this particular ’80s re-paint scheme. So he painted and decalled his own.

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Mike Confalone’s MD&W boxcars on his Allagash RR layout.

Mr. Confalone is an incredibly skilled modeller, as you can see, so it is no surprise his efforts would be top notch. The surprise for us was; why the heck are Minnesota Dakota and Western boxcars being used to load paper in Maine? The answer is forestry giant Boise Cascade (parent company of the tiny MD&W RR) owned a paper mill in Rumford ME. Apparently some of these boxcars even had “Return to Rumford ME” stencilling applied to them.

This one model photo along with the real-world information about Boise Cascade’s Maine paper production helped to resolve a number of CP Sudbury Division puzzles, ones we didn’t quite remember even existed. This explained occurrences of Boise Cascade MDW boxcars on prototype photos of CP train 911, a manifest freight that had rolled daily through Sudbury ON. This train operated from St Luc Yard in Montreal to Sault Ste Marie ON; then continued via CP’s US-affiliate SOO Line to their Schiller Park IL Yard within the greater Chicagoland area. CP #911 carried a lot of New England paper traffic bound for Chicago during our 1970s modelling era, as many shippers were avoiding the transit-time mess created by the Penn Central merger. Service was so good in fact that CP Rail continued to ship a decent amount of New England rail traffic well into the 1980s.

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MLW C-424 #4232 leads train 911 at Sault Ste Marie ON on 05 Sept. 1981. Note the four MD&W boxcars behind the CP steel-coil service gondola trailing 911’s locomotives.

Our original assumption was that these MD&W boxcars were lumber empties being returned to the US mid-west, with no idea of their true origins. The truth was they were hauling newsprint bound for the Chicago area, and for all intents and purposes are as New Englandy as any paper-service boxcars painted for the Maine Central or Bangor & Aroostock.

Topping this off, one of our club members had purchased two recently released Athearn HO-scale models of FMC-built combo-door boxcars painted in the 1970s as-delivered MD&W white scheme to operate on the WRMRC layout. Being uninformed at the time, they were placed within our “Pool 733 – US mid-western misc boxcars” category (more information about our pools when we publish operations articles) and tried to stretch excuses for why some lumber might be rolling through Sudbury from International Falls MN (where the actual MD&W RR is located). Knowing the real story about why these boxcars were rolling though Sudbury, they have since been re-classed into our New England newsprint service boxcar pool. In fact our layout could now use a few more models.

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Produced by Athearn, MD&W 10009 wears the as-delivered 1970s white Boise Cascade corporate scheme. This car is now in New England paper-service on the WRMRC layout.

This information comes at a great time, as the Coronavirus break from operating sessions has given our club a chance to update and fix a number of older waybill shipping inaccuracies. But this MD&W boxcar mystery has to be one of the easiest puzzles we’ve had solved. When something just falls together like this, one is reminded of that old catch-phrase that Lt Col Hannibal Smith used to say on the old ’80s television series ‘The A-Team’ – “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Rescuing Old Kits

A while back I wrote a blog post on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum about resurrecting old rolling stock kits developed in the ‘80s, back when the hobby finally began to move past the ‘blue-box’ era. Over the course of that decade, companies like Robin’s Rails, McKean, C&BT, Front Range and Innovative Model Works had sprung up to challenge Athearn and MDC. This was a big leap forward for HO modellers; as these kits were based on specific prototypes, were well researched, and offered a core model with all details applied separately.

Since those times we’ve moved into a model railway world of ready-to-run (RTR) pre-assembled models of exquisite quality. New manufacturers like Tangent, ExactRail, Scale Trains and Moloco (just to name a few) now offer 1:87 rolling stock replicas that truly are museum-quality models. However for those who crave the days when we used to build our models, and paid less than $10 for a freight car in the process, there is something to be said for resurrecting these old kits.

My latest example is this old McKean 40ft PS-1 boxcar painted for the Louisville & Nashville RR.

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A good friend and fellow WRMC member had this kit for sale amongst a pile of surplus model train stuff at a previous Kitchener Train Show. It went through two shows without anyone showing interest. What struck me was its 1960s paint scheme, a relative minority in a model railroad world where the popularity of the ‘40s-‘50s transition era dominates how manufacturers paint their products. However it was dismissed at the time due to it being a southeastern US boxcar, which I assumed would be a rare traffic event over the CP Sudbury Division in the 1970s.

My thoughts changed recently in my continuing efforts to update the club’s traffic/waybill system. It turns out the southeast US offers northern Ontario a lot more than just orange juice and kaolin. Using the OPSIG Industry Database I’ve found a long list of products that one could see routed through the Sudbury Division which are mainly supplied by the southern states. Cotton, rice, peanuts, casting sand and even mining equipment are just a few of the commodities that were uncovered over a couple of hours of research and coffee consumption. So it turns out the WRMRC had been neglecting a traffic source, and  this L&N boxcar was resurrected from the flea market table.

This photo shows it fresh from the ‘grunge factory’ (a.k.a. – the spray booth) after all paint, extra decals and final weathering had been applied; along with one of the prototype photos used to aid in its kitbashing.

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As described in the MRH blog, you pretty much have to throw away all the kit-supplied detail parts. I used better ones which are stuffed away in my surplus parts boxes. The underbody was completely gutted, and replaced with Intermountain underbody details – yes, they sell their detail parts separately. The brake detail on the ‘B’ end was fabricated from brass wire, a brake wheel and housing I had lying around, a bit of photo-etched roofwalk material, and a couple of staples I re-bent to hold the brake platform. Likewise I used staples as stirrups to replace the crude ones supplied by McKean.

It should also be noted I used the internet to research these cars, in order to find as many prototype photos as possible. Turns out the L&N 11xxx-12xxx series cars were 1960s rebuilds, with DF loaders, moveable bulkheads and other features added for specified commodities. However with more modern 50-foot cars being purchased, I’m certain that by the 1970s these cars were already relegated back to general service by the L&N.

Though it took a few evenings worth of kit-bashing and research, these efforts are what make the hobby rewarding for me. As the price of RTR models continue to climb, I hope more modellers come to discover these old kits from the ‘80s. There is real value to be found here, and you don’t need to dig too deep to uncover them at any train show.