On December 1, 2014, a few modelers from across the country began to build HO scale models of the Southern SU, 36-foot, double-sheathed box cars. Models by Funaro & Camerlengo and Westerfield were used in this group build.
Ray Breyer sent along his build updates though December and approved sharing them here on the blog. I hope to share a couple more of these builds very soon. Here are Ray’s thoughts and processes for his Southern SU box car build. Click on any image here to review a larger size.
It’s time to dive into another resin freight car kit build! This time around a few of us will be attempting a Southern “SU” boxcar kit. With over 21,000 similar boxcars of this type built between 1916 and 1926 for the Southern, its subsidiary roads, and for the Mobile & Ohio (which the Southern owned at the time) this is a “must have” boxcar type for anyone modeling the 1920s through early 1950s. Both Funaro & Camerlengo and Westerfield produce HO scale resin kits for these cars. A decent stand-in model can also be built around a Roundhouse short wood boxcar kit as a core, with Westerfield Hutchins or T-section end detail parts and scratchbuilt roof, doors, and details.
My first step in any freight car build is to gather prototype info. Usually, that means just finding a few photos, gathering supplies, and diving in. But I’m a huge fan of the Southern (having chased 4501 a few times with my Dad as a kid, and having ridden the last of the Southern’s passenger trains at least once), so I decided to take a closer look at these boxcars. Sadly, there’s very little out there on the pre-1960 Southern Railway freight car fleet, including these extremely well-known cars.
I gathered as much data as I could on the Southern’s pre-Depression freight car fleet. The work ended up as a full roster of these cars, tracking quantities from 1917 to 1959. Nearly 100 photos of the cars from various sources were collected. Armed with all of this information gave me a far better feel for the prototype, its usage, and the way the cars changed over the years, than anything available in the hobby press or supplied with the car kits. Sharing this information with others involved with the car build helped them make more informed modeling choices, too.
The next step of any of my builds is to inspect the kits themselves, figure out what all the pieces are, and to gather supplies not included with the kit. There’s always some of that sort of thing with even the best kits available, but this particular build required that I dig into my supplies bins more than usual.
In my modeling stash I’ve got two of the F&C kits as one piece bodies, and one of the Westerfield flat kits. Overall, the Westerfield kit is superior in all regards, as expected. The F&C kit will give you something that definitely looks like a Southern SU, but the overall details are simpler and cruder. The Hutchins ribs are especially bad, and poorly formed at the ends. They’re also smaller in height than the Westerfield ribs, which look more like the prototype. That said, the F&C kits only cost me $17 apiece as a 2-for-1 buy, making them very fleet friendly. Dimensionally, it’s very close to both the drawings I have of the cars and to the Westerfield parts. Since Eric has a pair of Westerfield car rolling in the build, and since my Westerfield model was a less common M&O T-brace end version I decided to drag out one of my F&C kits to build. If nothing else it’ll definitely show the differences between the two manufacturers, which should help Southern modelers decide which one’s best for their needs.
One liberating thing about F&C kits is that their instructions are possibly the worst I’ve ever seen for resin freight cars. Honestly, nobody really has quality instructions included with resin models, but theirs are the worst. F&C often leaves too much to guesswork, they include few illustrations, and have instructions in an odd order. Westerfield instructions aren’t a whole lot better as they are too wordy, printed in small text on a large sheet of paper, and have small, badly copied photos. Sunshine’s instructions are the best of the bunch, but are biased towards the post-WW2 era and generally generic for similar car kits. Since F&C’s instructions are so bad, I long ago learned to just ignore them completely, and to rely on prototype photos and the line drawings that they provide for most kits, which are generally from old Railroad Model Craftsman or Mainline Modeler articles.
Once I had all of my prototype information and the kit on my workbench, I immediately saw two large detailing issues with the F&C SU model. The model reflects a post-1930 car that lacks the lower edge batten strip. This is a fairly major spotting feature for me, since I’m trying to model a period before the Depression. The Westerfield kits do have this detail, at least on the one kit that I have. This detail part will have to be added to any F&C kit built for a pre-1930s themed layout. The Southern kept their shop forces busy during the Depression by rebuilding most of the earlier SU’s, and for some reason decided that the batten strip was unnecessary.
The other major problem lies with the end ladders. F&C gives you the inner upright with cast on bolts and little dimples for drill guides as separate pieces, but the uprights themselves are not straight and true, and are very wavy. Since these parts are small and delicate, it’s actually easier to just fabricate all-new ones out of small strip styrene than it is to try using the kit parts. Overall, the end ladders on either car are the fussiest part of the kit to build, since everything else on these cars is pretty basic.
There are other detail issues with my F&C kit:
- There are no mounting brackets for the running board diagonals and end tack boards.
- The needle beam braces are very clunky, and overly thick.
- The needle beams and queenposts also seem questionable. These are two piece parts, consisting of a T-beam and the queenposts mounted on a 1×4. This is a fragile part, especially considering fishing line trussrods will be added under tension. These parts MAY need to be replaced, as scratchbuilt, all-styrene components will be stronger.
- The sill steps with the indent at the top may be an issue.
- The kit provided decals do not reflect prototype lettering. (Overall, F&C decals are pretty bad. I can usually get them to work, but it’s not a happy experience using them. And in general, the artwork is crude, often wrong, fuzzy, and usually post-Depression specific)
On to the Build
An early step in any resin build is to remove the excess flash from all of the major components and then to fit the floor into the one piece body. Overall, that process went smoothly, as the excess resin was thin and mostly snapped off of the parts cleanly. The one piece body was a bit of a pain, since the edge of the inside has several mold vent gates that need to be carved/chiseled off with a hobby knife and #17 blade. I only ended up with one hole in my thumb from that process, and I didn’t bleed on the kit at all! About 1/16-inch of material was removed from each end of the floor so it would fit snugly into the body. The F&C body has a shelf on the inside, so there’s no guesswork as to exactly where or how deep the floor needs to go, which is a nice feature.
I ended up using the parts provided with the stock F&C kit for all of the underframe details, and it came out fine. There was a fair amount of flash to cut and file away, especially for the queenpost end braces. Everything went together smoothly enough, partly because the prototype car is so basic. There is absolutely nothing on the floor that indicates where the bolsters and queenposts are supposed to go, which can be a problem for novice builders. Thankfully, the car plans provided with the kit are printed in HO scale, so it’s a simple matter of lining up the parts with the plans, and marking off where everything needs to go with a fine-tipped Sharpie. The center sill is just cast resin U-channel stock, cut to length and glued to the floor.
Surprisingly, the beam and post parts worked. The “T” portion wasn’t an issue at all, and the flange with the queenposts slipped under the center sill flange for a snug, fairly secure fit. As typical for my builds, I “measured not at all, glued twice” for these parts. It’s far simpler for parts like this to not measure them at all, glue them into place, and then trim them to their final lengths after the glue has dried. It does seems like cheating, or modeler’s heresy (and it is!), but it also works really well, and speeds up model build time significantly. Once the glue for the beams dried, the rest of the underframe parts went on. I built this kit to be “layout friendly” and not a showpiece, so the details are cruder and more generic than on most resin kit builds seen in the hobby press (which generally focuses a bit too much on the absolute best in modeling, thus possibly turning people away from building resin freight car kits). My trussrods are always eight-pound fishing line added to the car as a single piece, so I drilled eight holes through the underframe, again using the plan as a guide.
The needle beam end braces are a distinctive spotting feature on these cars, and are almost unique to the SU’s. Since I was attempting to build this kit using as many of its parts as possible, I decided to use the cast resin braces rather than bending brass shim stock for them (which would be more to scale). By CAREFULLY cutting and filing the parts I was able to make them work and not look overly clunky. The parts did end up being a little too short, so I had to shim the brace ends with 1×2 styrene stock so they’d reach the side sill.
Next, I worked on the body. Overall this was a simple process that didn’t take much time at all for the core details, but which was frustrating for three specific details. Using a Dremel tool with a flex shaft attachment made drilling the many holes for the grabs a fast and painless task, and the car sides only took a few minutes to complete. About the only finicky part are the lower right corner grabirons, which have to be hand formed. I hand bent mine out of 0.011” diameter wire, as I didn’t have any 0.012” handy (the supplied, pre-bent grabs are actually .013” diameter or so). Each is custom bent for their specific corner since the two sides aren’t quite identical. My grabs extend down a tad too much as compared to the prototype, but I had to exaggerate that detail a little in order to actually get the drop onto the part. You can compare the model and prototype details in these images.
The nut-bolt-washer castings (NBW) and drilling dimple are a bit too high on the model to exactly match any of the prototype photos that I found, but that didn’t bug me a whole lot, since there seems to be a lot of variation in the prototype.
The only non-stock detail I added to the kit’s sides was the lower edge batten strips. On the prototype those are very thin, L-shaped pieces of steel that are relatively hard to model in HO scale. If I were making a master pattern for a resin car I’d bend narrow pieces of thin brass sheet to create the parts, but that’s not something I really wanted to do for a “fleet build.” One of our online modeling friends needs to build 20-plus of these things for his Southern fleet, so I was experimenting here mostly for his benefit. Nobody makes thin-enough styrene or brass L-channel, so an off-the-shelf part won’t work. I did try bending clear Mylar to fit, but the bend didn’t want to retain its shape. I ultimately decided to only add a representation of this batten strip by gluing a strip of scale 1×2 to the lower edge of the body. I thought about adding the upper flange of the part to the model, but trying to glue a long, thin, wiggly piece of plastic onto another thin piece of plastic usually doesn’t work well when using super glue (CA), so I didn’t bother. Once the car is painted and weathered nobody will even notice that the detail is “wrong.”
After the sides came the end work, which are far harder to detail as this is the worst part of the model. Essentially every part for the ends that came with the kit was thrown out and replaced, with scratchbuilt components.
The kit didn’t come with a brake relief valve, which actually isn’t all that uncommon. Most freight car models lack this detail. I made the relief valve line out of 0.008” diameter brass wire. The line goes over the cut lever, as per prototype photos (for the Hutchins ends only!). My line is a little wobbly and not perfectly vertical, which reflects prototype practices. Relief valve lines often seem to be added to cars as an afterthought. The valve itself came from my parts bin, and I think is a Precision Scale part. The part doesn’t fit onto the edge of the roof as on the prototype, so I had to add a small piece of 1×2 scale styrene as a shim and mounted it onto the end.
As I said before, the ladder stiles provided with the kit were horrible, so I replaced them with simple pieces of 1×3 styrene. Once the CA had dried I marked and drilled the holes for the rungs, glued the wire grabs into place, and added small NBWs above each rung.
I have no idea why, but neither of my F&C kits came with tack boards, so I had to scratchbuild them. These aren’t hard to do. Mine are 0.020” x 0.156” Evergreen stock cut to ¼” long. The braces are brass 1×2 stock hand bent to shape. I didn’t bother making a bending jig or guide of any kind for these parts, since I only needed four of them. I simulated the boards by scribing two lines into the styrene stock. The outside tack board braces are 1×2 styrene, which still need a final trim to length in the photo.
The components for the stemwinder brake staff and platform all came with the kit. I made the staff from 0.020” diameter brass wire, which is thicker than the prototype but far more robust for layout use. The real cars seem to have come with a variety of brake wheels, so I didn’t bother trying to match one perfectly. The Tichy brake platform components really don’t match the prototype well, so they were jury-rigged to fit. Ultimately, I had to shim the platform supports with pieces of scale 3×3 stock. That wasn’t the best solution to that problem but it was simpler than bending new supports out of my precious stash of brass 1×2 stock!
Finally, I got to the end of this build. I added an ounce of self-adhesive tire weights to the inside of the floor, which I’m keeping separate from the body to make it easier to paint. After I test fit the floor to the body, I temporarily mounted the trucks and couplers. For trucks, I’m using Roundhouse archbars, which are an almost exact match for the trucks under the early SU’s. Couplers are Kadee #58, which lined up nicely with my coupler height gauge without any fine tuning. The last parts I had to add were the sill steps, which may well be the most disappointing part of the entire kit. F&C provided Tichy side mount sill steps, which are almost the only way you can get these parts. Precision Scale makes cast brass ones but they’re usually unavailable. The parts are crude, clunky, don’t fit the model well, and are cast in slippery engineering plastic, so they are nearly impossible to install on the car properly. I managed to (mostly) get them onto the car, but I’ll replace them with A-Line sill steps that are modified for side mounting, once my local hobby shop gets more in stock.
The car will remain unpainted for now for two reasons. It’s the dead of winter here in northern Illinois and because the F&C decals are completely worthless. There’s no point in painting a car that I can’t letter! I’ll have to hoodwink a friend into making good decal art for these cars, and have a few sets custom printed.
Overall, I feel that the kit was a fairly good value and not really all that difficult a build, but did have some very frustrating parts. I ended up using as many parts from the stock kit as I could, but that still left far more hand-crafting to do than I had anticipated for such a “basic” car. The fit was OK for the core parts, but virtually all of the small details were a disappointment and required extra work to be acceptable. Even so, I ended up making too many of the small details.
After building this kit, it seems that F&C did some things well enough but screwed up on the small details. Many of the problems that I encountered with the parts were the result of them being cast in resin; having raw material stock (preferably brass) instead may have added a dollar to the overall cost of the kit, but would have saved a lot of time and effort in the long run. The cast on eyebolts for the cut levers are a prime example. The cast-on parts are more of a suggestion than anything else and are in a bad location to attempt to drill through. They are the exact opposite of robust. I just cut them away, drilled four new holes, and replaced them with real eyebolts.
This reminds me to share an inventory. Here are the extra parts I needed for this basic build:
- Six eyebolts.
- HO scale 1×2 styrene strip
- HO scale 1×3 styrene strip
- HO scale 3×3 styrene strip
- 0.020 x 0.125-inch styrene strip
- 0.010 x 0.020-inch brass strip
- 0.008-inch diameter brass wire
- 0.012-inch diameter brass wire
- 0.015-inch diameter brass wire
- 0.020-inch diameter brass wire (F&C uses 0.015-inch soft steel florist’s wire in their kits)
- Six 18-inch long straight grab irons
- One relief valve
- Four A-Line metal sill steps (or equivalent)
If you plan to build and modify a number of freight car kits for your fleet, it is best to stock up on many of these basics. Heck, you should have a stash of them all already on hand, if you’re any kind of modeler!
Would I build another one of these cars? Well, yes, if I could get them as a 2-for-1 sale, which brings them to the $18 apiece range. At that point they are cheaper than Westerfield and almost as cheap as kitbashing/upgrading a Roundhouse box car. Roundhouse kits are now scarce and the Westerfield ends will set you back $5 a car. A lot of the work that I put into this model actually has to be done for the Westerfield car too, so there’s little time savings in using one versus the other. And now that I know what detail parts and base stock to lay in, mass fabrication won’t as daunting. At the end of the day, if you only need one or two of these cars, go with Westerfield. But if you need more than that, or even a fleet, get the F&C cars on sale and start mass-producing all of the detail parts you’ll need.
Thanks to Ray for sharing his experiences and thank you for stopping by. Your questions and comments can be posted below. Please follow the instructions so your comment can be posted. All comments are reviewed and approved before they appear.