The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 170


© April 9, 2011   

 ©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.


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New Life for an Old Caboose


Written by Allen Crowley  

The following is a history of an old caboose that had been taken out of service and was sitting next to the tracks that it had once proudly traveled.

Like all equipment on a railroad, it sooner or later reaches the end of its useful life for one reason or another. The Atlantic Coast Line caboose #0322 sat abandoned next to the mainline subject to the destructive power of the weather. After passing it each week for a year I negotiated a price with the current owner and loaded it into the back of my van. The original idea was to salvage some of the hardware and frame, then build a new body. 

Once it was in the shop, I started an inspection to see what was missing and what was salvageable. I was surprised that the basic body was in reasonable shape - only the trim and detail components had suffered. I began by removing the detail components and all of the damaged wood on the roof. The structure under the roof turned out to be in better condition than I expected, so I stripped off the old roof and cleaned out the current transient resident of the car.

The first parts to be replaced were the roof and letter boards. I ripped new solid boards from hardwood to replace the laminated plywood formerly on the letter boards and roof. I also added access to the one end compartment of the caboose that had been closed. This allowed me to get at the window openings to repair any damaged panes in the future. It also allowed limited access to the wiring for the marker lights should they need replacing. The access was done by making the roof walk removable. This hides the lines for the opening and adds some protection to keep the water out of the closed compartment. 

The stairs and the end platforms had been made from the same material as the roof, so the next project was to disassemble what was left of the originals and use the parts for a pattern to make a new set of stairs and platform planking. They were made from the same solid material as the roof and should serve for a year or two. I plan to replace the stairs with steel at a later date, as wood stairs are more delicate when handling in and out of a van.

When the roof was off I found the missing hardware parts that had been broken off in the one end compartment of the caboose. That was the highlight of the tear down. I was not going to have to remake the missing pieces. I removed the damaged parts and took them to my workbench for cleaning. Once they had been cleaned, I matched up the loose pieces and began the job of soldering everything back together. It was somewhere about the second day when my wife saw the small torch she had in the cupboard for caramelizing the meringue on the pies sitting on the bench. It took a quick explanation that I only needed it for a few minutes and did not want to buy one for just one project. She decided it would be okay this time, but next time I should get my own. After receiving a small chewing out I was back to soldering the rest of the railings and ladders together.
All of the windows were removed and cleaned. The prototype caboose had 4 small panes of glass in the windows when it was built. The model had the later single pane windows. I decided to back date the model to the earlier version while I had the windows out. The ladder to the roof had also been changed from the original design, so I decided I might as well change that at the same time. The original caboose had arch bar trucks, so I might as well change that also. Sounds a little like any rebuilding project - “while I have that apart I might as well - - - -”.

At this point, I have the roof close to being finished. It only lacks the final finishing and coat of paint. The end platform has been redecked and the stairs are in place. They only need the screws driven in from the bottom. The roof walk material has been milled and the risers fit to the large removable part of the roof on this end. Up until this point, I had left the hand grab rails in place since they appeared to have been fit to specific areas. When the rest of the rebuilding is complete, they will be removed along with the balance of the detail parts for finish painting. With one end of the roof complete and the other end nearing completion the caboose is starting to look like it will be a great addition to the rolling stock. The new letter boards and most of the roof are in place - just the center removable roof walk section needs to be fabricated.

With the last section of the roof nearing completion, I will again have a “C” clamp when I need one. The last remaining section of the roof is ready for installation. The inside has received a coat of paint and, as soon as the clamps are off, the last section of the roof can be installed.

With the roof completed, the ladders were mounted temporarily to get the position for end roof walks. The roof had a coat of primer applied and it was time to get the final covering in place. I had seen a picture of an  abandoned passenger car years ago and the roof appeared to be coated with painted canvas.

This time I asked my wife if she had about a half yard of a fine weave cotton like in a white shirt. She reached into a pile of material she keeps for odd projects and pulled out a piece large enough for two cabooses. It was salvaged drape lining from a recent project of hers and was exactly what I was looking for. I took it to the shop and cut a piece big enough for one roof section. First I applied a coat of black paint and them laid the cloth in the wet paint and rough trimmed it to fit. I applied a second coat of paint over the cloth and left it to dry, As the material dried it shrank slightly and the small wrinkles were pulled out.  I finished the remaining sections and replaced the detail hardware, this time fastening things permanently in place. 

Time for the final coat of paint. The hardware had been painted before installation but needed some touch up and the roof needed a final coat before installing the windows. With the painting completed, it was time to apply the lettering. I had found the correct fonts and a friend agreed to make a set of vinyl letters. The small letters were expected to be a problem, so I told him to just cut them and I would figure how to make them work.

After applying the first “WATCH YOUR STEP” on the back of the step, I sent an email to my friend that it looked like they would work. While I was typing, I had one of those flashes of brilliance that comes out of nowhere and solves all of the problems. Because the small letters were so hard to handle, he had left them in the sheet they were cut from. My thought was to remove the letters and use the surrounding material as a stencil. The lettering was in a stencil font, so why not use the backing as a stencil. For the next set of steps I applied the stencil and used a small stencil brush to apply a white acrylic outdoor enamel. My idea worked on the first try. The vinyl material peeled away from the damp paint and left a perfect set of lettering. Encouraged I applied the larger lettering in the same fashion with equal success. The large letters for the Atlantic Coast Line did not come with the backing, so I applied them in the regular way. To stencil them I would have needed to reduce the size of the letters or make the letter board wider since you need about 1/8 inch minimum outside the stencil for strength and somewhere for the brush to hit outside the letter.

The only thing left is to finish building the last arch bar truck, but that is another story.


Written by Allen Crowley

Member  National Model Railroad Association
HO & 1.5 Scale- The Port Huron Northern Railroad
PHN Website -


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