The Hoppers Project, Part 1

Posted on June 4th, 2011, by Mike

Any West Virginia coal-hauling railroad worth its salt should have vast quantities of open hoppers, right? Not wanting to spend $15 per car for the multiple dozens I figure I will need, I decided to instead make use of the cheaper cars that I acquired during my high school years. These are all Bachmann and Model Power cars (some may have been offered by other brand names along the way, but they seem to be the same molds), which can be had for a few bucks each at train shows, and they feature overly thick grab irons, some inaccuracies, and the twin hoppers in particular are a bit out of scale. Still, I figured that with some “stage makeup” (i.e. heavy weathering), they could blend in just fine amongst the finer offerings from Micro Trains and Atlas.

Stage 1

First off, one must acquire the cars. As mentioned, I collected most of these in earlier years, at perhaps $3 to $4 per car average, maybe even less. They come in many roadnames, often brightly colored because they are staples in train sets. No matter, as they will be getting painted, but if you can get them with mostly black paint to begin with, then it might make things easier when painting. I haven’t bothered with stripping paint thus far, in the interest of time, but if you are so inclined this is the time to do so. Remove the trucks (the old Bachmann ones I have are screwed on, others are press-fit bolster pins) and break out some flat black spray paint, or an airbrush if preferred.

Stage 1 junky cheap 70 ton quad

Stage 2

Before painting the whole thing, though, it makes sense to add weights. My photo sequence shows weight being added after the base coat of paint, but that is just because I didn’t figure out how to weight them until I had already painted a batch. What you need is some lead sheet such as that made by A-line, which you can cut into thin strips and apply to the hopper interior. For the 70-ton quads, as shown, I glued it over the center sill using CA; some of the body castings have to be carved a bit to get a flat surface here. It’s okay if it ends up looking a bit dented or warped, as this could be plausible damage from rough loading, plus it will rarely be seen anyways. For the 55-ton twin hoppers, I cut the lead to fit over the center two slope sheets.

Adding weight to a 70 ton quad

Stage 3

Now you’re ready to complete the base painting. In my case, I spray paint using a rattle can of flat black, over the whole body. Then, I brush paint on the red on the sides and ends. I prefer brush painting to airbrushing, partly because it’s hard to mask the ends of these bodies but also because I hate fussing with airbrush maintenance. I use acrylic paint somewhat thinned in water, and I apply it in several coats to avoid brush strokes. This also tends to produce a finish that has some uneven tone (depending on how many coats you apply), and I use this uneveness to advantage, to represent partly faded paint. Once weathered, it looks good.

Base painting done, red and black for me

Stage 4

Time to apply decals! I had custom decals made up for me by Rail Graphics, after I generated the original artwork. I ordered a whole bunch at once, so I have plenty to keep me going for quite a while. I split my reporting marks into two sections on the decal sets, so the “WP” part is above a handful of different road number prefixes (“35” in this case, for 70-ton hoppers in the 3500 series), while the “P” is a separate decal above the last two digits. This way, I can easily create unique road numbers for each car. In this photo, I have yet to apply the load limit data and other smaller text; much of this comes from generic data set decals that Rail Graphics offers, so that I did not have to create custom artwork to include this.

Decals applied to 70-ton quad

Stage 5

I haven’t mentioned yet the trucks, but notice that these have been swapped out for Micro-Trains trucks and couplers. Now comes the awesome sauce – the weathering. I use a “chalk-wash” method, which involved application of powdered chalk followed by a light wash of black. This method is easy and quick, and it tends to get the grime into just the right spots without a lot of effort. It also can be reworked later, by re-wetting the surface, and often I get better results after a re-wet. This means that a too-heavy application can be removed to a certain extent. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as too much weathering!

Weathering applied to 70 ton quad

One thing I have noticed, though, is that it is important to use Solvaset or other decal solution to completely erode down the decal film prior to weathering. Otherwise, your weathering will highlight the edges of the film, and you’ll see a difference in color between the area protected by the film versus the exposed paint.

Stage 6

There’s a Stage 6? Yes, in fact it’s one of the most important. Your hoppers are built to carry coal, are they not? This means that they need coal load. Some brands like Atlas come with cast coal loads, but these cheapo hoppers do not. Thus, I had to come up with a method for making my own, and it turns out I prefer these to the ready-made ones anyway. The starting point (shown on the left) is to cut a base that fits loosely into the hopper. I use cardstock for this, but one could use basswood or other materials as well. It is important to size it such that it can fall out without prying; the reason for this is that I use magnets to provide a means to unload them. As you can see, I have used adhesive-backed magnetic material, similar to a fridge magnet, applied to the top of the insert. These magnets will get covered by the coal, and become a means for retrieval using a telescoping magnetic pointer that I found years ago. They’re not very strong, so there is just enough magnetic force to let the wand lift one end up, sufficient to get one’s fingers around the load and lift it out. This way, the car can stay on the tracks, and assuming the fit is loose enough you won’t disturb it when unloading.

In the middle, you can see the “coal” applied. I use a pre-mixed grout that I trowel on using an old spoon, shaping the humps as I do. Once the humps are shaped but still wet, I cover the top with regular ballast. I have an old rolling stock jewel case that I have set aside for this purpose, filled with ballast; I just turn the load upside down and press it into the ballast tub. Shake it off and run the back side of a knife blade down the sides to scrape off any grout or ballast that overhangs the insert’s edges, and press the ballast into shape if need be. Let this dry, and then you can paint it.

To paint, I use a flat black spray paint, but I go over this with two subtle touches. First, I do my chalk-wash weathering to it, using dark grey chalk and the black wash. This makes my flat black even flatter, as well as less uniform in color (dark grey to black). Of course, real coal isn’t fully flat, which is where the second touch comes in. I use some acrylic gloss medium to drybrush the tops of random grains. This makes it look as though some of the fractured faces are smooth and reflective, while the rest of the load is dusty and flat.

Custom coal loads

Body Modifications

The 55-ton twin hoppers require a little more work, due to the fact that they are slightly oversize. I cut them down a little bit by slicing out some material just below the top sill. As you can see in this photo, the car on top is the original oversize car. The bottom left car is one that has been reduced in height by a little over a scale foot, equal to the vertical distance between ladder rungs. It is next to a Micro-Trains twin hopper, and you can see that its height now agrees with this. The length is still about 3 scale feet too long, but there’s no real way to deal with this. I use a similar technique to convert 90-ton 3-bay hoppers such as those by Atlas and Life-Like into N&W’s unique class H-11 85-ton hoppers. However, I don’t have appropriate decals yet, so no photos of H-11’s, unfortunately.

Cut down the height of cheap 55-tonners

For more about hopper weighting, see my article about fixing Atlas 90-ton hoppers, using similar techniques:

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