november 2011 railroad model craftsman
N Scale Ann Arbor Transfer Caboose
When I last wrote about my modeling efforts in the August 2008 Railroad Model Craftsman, I closed the article by speculating on the N Scale width and length of the Ann Arbor Railroad’s car ferries. While those measurements for a massive scratch-building project are still percolating, I thought I would first try my hand at kit-bashing and scratch-building components for a much smaller piece of equipment.
The Ann Arbor Railroad featured a sizeable fleet of Wabash-style steel cabooses with signature streamlined cupolas, but by the early 1980s they still had a couple of ancient wood transfer cabooses in service. Cabooses #2700 and #2701 were both built in 1925 for the DT&I (DTI #69 and #98), but by 1980 had long since been transferred to the Ann Arbor and were marked with a large letter “R” near the road number as an alphabetic designation meaning “Restricted” for use only in yard and transfer service. Consequently, these cabooses were typically found either in Owosso, Michigan or Toledo, Ohio, serving as crew offices and shoving platforms for short local moves where the Ann Arbor was exchanging cars with one of its many interchange partners.
A bit of research revealed that many railroads had such equipment: old camp cars or regular cabooses that were too old or ill-equipped for long-haul use, but too decent to be scrapped and too serviceable to be retired. While this “how-to” narrative focuses on Ann Arbor caboose #2700, the methods and materials referenced herein can easily be adapted to any other type of transfer caboose or specialty rolling stock that your favorite railroad might have on its roster.
My model started life as a Con-Cor steel-sided Santa Fe bay window caboose, whose previous owner assessed its broken couplers and missing end ladders and put it up for sale as a train show bargain. They packaged the car with a set of surplus Micro-Trains caboose ladders and slapped a $2 price tag on the jewel case. As fate would have it, I happened to be looking for a set of Micro-Trains caboose ladders and I obtained the damaged Con-Cor caboose by default!
The broken caboose sat on my workbench for two years. Every time I saw it, I thought that maybe I should try to convert it into an Ann Arbor transfer caboose. And every time I thought about it, I worried about the fact I had never kit-bashed or scratch-built an entire car before and I worried that I would likely create a complete disaster: an off-balance, rough-riding, derailment-prone embarrassment. Finally I decided to take the plunge. If it turned out awful, no one would ever know and I would only be out $2, a few nights of effort and a little bit of pride and ego. If it turned out nicely, it would be a unique addition to my fleet. And either way, I would probably learn some good lessons and gain some valuable experience.
I started by removing the body of the caboose, the wheels and the broken couplers. Then I took my Dremel motor tool with a cut-off wheel and chopped roughly 3/4 inch out of the frame, as I had noted from looking at a photo of Ann Arbor caboose #2700 that its wheelbase was significantly shorter than the Con-Cor model. I took care to make the cuts square and I used a burnishing tip on the Dremel tool to smooth off any burrs.
When the wheelbase and body length looked proportional, I used epoxy to graft the frame back together. To aid in this process and to ensure that the frame would be on a level plane with a material suitable for affixing the new body, I installed two 1/8” square strips of Evergreen styrene parallel with the outer edges of the frame, inset by 1/8” – the reason for this will become evident later in the article! I coated the frame halves and the Evergreen strips with epoxy such that the modified frame was reinforced by both vertical and horizontal bonds.
Next I turned my attention to the car body. Studying the now-removed Santa Fe bay-window design, I observed the door ends of the body had a series of small tabs that extended down into corresponding slots in the frame. I also noted the roof was slightly arched and smooth-surfaced, which was a reasonable match for the roof on the Ann Arbor transfer caboose.
Using a combination of sharp hobby knives and my Dremel cut-off wheel, I removed the roof from the old car body by carefully slicing along the very top of the body where the roofline met the walls. I set the roof and the roofwalk aside for later use. Once the roof was off, I removed one of the door ends by cutting along the outer sides of the shell. This resulted in having a complete end wall that could be used as a template for creating the new door ends. I was now ready to proceed with making the new body.
The pattern and size of Evergreen N Scale car siding is a very close match for the type of wood sheathing used on the Ann Arbor transfer cabooses. Taping the door end template to a sheet of Evergreen siding, I simply traced around the edges with a sharp hobby knife taking care to match the tabs as closely as possible. I repeated this process to make the opposite end, then I carefully test-fit the new ends into the slots on the frame. It was not a perfect fit, but with some careful trimming and filing I was able to clean up the new tabs so that the ends seated nicely in the frame.
Once I confirmed the end walls were accurate, I marked the center of the wall and cut new door openings. As for the end doors on the caboose, each had a single two-pane window and the doors were inset from the car body. In order to match this design, I cut a rectangular piece of siding, marked out a window five siding strips wide and then simply trimmed away two strips of siding on either side of the center strip.
This assembly was then glued to the back side of the wall. To further accentuate the inset look of the door, I added trim around the front of the opening by using a Micro-Mark “Chop-It” tool to cut several individual strips of siding from the Evergreen sheet. These strips were then cut to size and used to frame the door. This technique was also used later for framing the windows on the sides of the caboose.
I made the sides of the caboose by temporarily inserting both door ends into their frame slots and measuring the necessary width between the ends. I then removed the end pieces and used them as a template to set the height for the side walls. This was a very simple procedure, as the walls are just two rectangular pieces of siding material. I measured and cut carefully, then matched the pieces back to back to assure they were identical, sanding or trimming as necessary. Window locations were identified by counting in by 15 strips of siding, to match where they were located on the actual caboose.
However, installing the inset windows in the sides was a bit more complicated, as prototype photos showed a framed window with a large bottom sill. To replicate this appearance, I cut small pieces of styrene and glued them to the back side of the wall, allowing for each side piece to very slightly extend into the opening, and for the bottom piece to extend approximately twice as much.
Now that the sides and ends were complete, it was time to assemble the body. If you recall, back in the first step of this project when I modified the frame, I mentioned using two 1/8” square strips to help align the frame and provide an attachment point for the car body. Because I had installed these strips 1/8” in from the edge of the frame, I was able to use the same 1/8” square strip material for internal bracing of the car body. Consequently, when I was ready to attach the car body to the frame, I knew the 1/8” strips on the interior walls would match up next to the strips on the frame to provide a foundation for gluing.
I cut braces for each corner and each long side, and then added two cross-sectional braces in the middle of the car. Each piece was measured and test-fit to the frame before final attachment to the interior walls of the car body. Then I simply glued the body together, allowing the square strips to automatically align the 90-degree corners. As the Ann Arbor transfer caboose had a single horizontal trim panel running the full length of the exterior roofline, I used a thin strip of styrene to replicate this effect.
At this point, I primed the entire car body inside and out. When the primer was dry, I left the interior gray and painted the exterior caboose red. I installed Ann Arbor decals and numbers leftover from a batch of my streamlined cupola caboose projects, then added the “R” designation from a MicroScale alphabet set. When the paint and decals had cured, I carefully added window glazing to the interior walls and doors.
The car body was now ready to be reunited with the frame. Thankfully all of my measuring paid off and the body fit neatly into place. As I had chopped about 3/4” from the original body, I took the same amount from the original roof and roofwalk. I used a couple of small styrene splints to assure the roof was grafted back together smooth and level. As the roofwalk had built-in tabs that fit the roof, it was simply a matter of matching those tabs and gluing the roofwalk back into place. Each of these pieces was painted black, and the roof was mated to the assembled carbody.
I added Micro-Trains couplers into the end platform pockets and the final challenge was to find the missing end ladders, as the base of the end ladder seals the top of the coupler pocket and holds the couplers in place on the Con-Cor frame. As luck would have it, a trip to my local hobby store yielded a Con-Cor extended vision caboose with suitable end ladders.
After adding Micro-Trains caboose trucks and some side grab irons made from .010 piano wire, my transfer caboose was ready to go. I am pleased to report it tracks along nicely and looks decent attached to a string of Ann Arbor hoppers. With a few simple techniques and inexpensive parts, you too can add a unique model to your inventory. Go ahead and give it a try – in the meantime, buoyed by the relative success of this modest scratch-bashing project, I’ll still be plotting my strategy for constructing an N Scale car ferry!