Constructing "old school" craftsman-style stripwood kits can
be very rewarding if you take your time and break the process down into a series of simple steps.
Building Craftsman Stripwood Kits:
Twelve steps to overcoming your fear of stripwood
by George Riley/photos by the author
There is a certain mystique to building "old school" so-called "craftsman kits." Open the box and you'll find nothing inside but a box of toothpicks and a sheet of instructions. Most folks take one look at the scale lumber yard contained inside and run for the hills. Even experienced model builders will turn tail at the sight of the seemingly hundreds of mysterious unidentifiable splinters of wood.
Craftsman stripwood kits provide a wealth of model building opportunities. In most cases they offer prototypes that are not available in any other form. This is particularly the case if you chose to model the "golden age" of railroading from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. They also provide a time-capsule look back into model construction practices from a different era. Probably their most important attribute is that wood is easy to modify to represent any number of variations on a theme. One can go as far as they want to with the level of detail desired.
Getting in the right frame of mind is the most important part of completing one of these kits. Basically, they can be viewed as a scratch-built model where all of the parts and instructions are provided in one convenient box. Once a couple of these models have been completed, the builder will have acquired all the tools and skills needed to take the plunge into scratchbuilding, super detailing and other advanced modeling activities. No matter what level of success is achieved, these kits are solid skill builders for any model railroader.
If this is a first attempt, don’t go overboard. Start with a basic kit and progress to more complicated models as your comfort level increases. Many times perceived failure is more a matter of aiming too high, rather than inability. Keep in mind that the model is being built for recreation! Don’t rush the process. These kits were not designed to be built in just a few hours, but rather over several days a few hours at a time. Take time to enjoy the construction process and appreciate your new found modeling skills!
It does not matter whether you choose an old kit that has been tucked away in the closet for years or buy a new kit that is currently in production, the basic steps will still be the same. For those looking to get started, LaBelle Woodworking or Ye Old Huff n’ Puff offer some nice wood kits in both O scale and HO scale.
For our project we have chosen a model of the Lindsey Brothers 34’ box car currently available from LaBelle Woodworking. While at first glace the model would appear to be a rather common prototype, it has several unique features. Firstly, the model represents a composite under frame car that has both truss rods and a steel center beam. This was the latest feature when the prototype was built for the Milwaukee Road in 1897. Secondly, the model features "billboard" decoration on what would be an otherwise plain car. The prototype was leased to Lindsey Brothers who decorated the car as a rolling advertisement for their products, which was typical of the period.
This is what your typical craftsman kit looks like just prior to leaving the factory.
Step One: Get Organized!
So let’s get started! This is probably the most important step in the whole project. Open the box and identify the various parts and pieces against the instruction sheet. Not only will you make certain that all the parts are there, you will also get familiar with the parts and when they will be needed. An inexpensive cutlery tray is a good investment for sorting through the various items. Most of the smaller strip wood will have one or both ends marked with colored paint to help with their identification. You may want to take some time to work up a list on a scratch pad to identify which piece of wood is used for which part of the construction.
Now it's time to read the instructions (even if you never read instructions). Some instruction sheets are detailed and clear, others less so. Make sure that you understand this provided document, it will help you to avoid any missteps later. Collect your tools and keep them handy. You will need a surprisingly small assortment of tools to construct any of these kits. However, if you get all of the necessary tools and adhesives together before you start it will save time and searching later.
Step 2: Seal the Wood Parts
Wood is a "live" product. It expands and contracts with changes in humidity and temperature. If wood is left unsealed your model will develop cracks and buckle over time. Before any assembly begins take the time to seal all the surfaces of the wood. This is easily done by laying out the pieces and spraying with a lacquer-based sanding sealer available at most hardware stores. Once one side is dry turn over the pieces and apply sanding sealer to the other side. Depending on the temperature and humidity the sealer should be dry in a couple of hours. However, to be on the safe side you will want to let the sealed parts dry over night before proceeding further.
The next step in the sealing process is to polish the parts. For the large pieces use 220 to 320 grit sand paper to smooth out any fuzz and grain. Use 0000 ("quadruple-ought") steel wool to polish the small strip wood. Draw the wood through the steel wool to avoid breaking the strips. Once polished, all of the wood parts should be smooth and silky to the touch. If a part is still rough re-seal it and polish it again. Once this procedure is complete assembly of the model can begin.
Step 3: Assembling the Under Frame
Experience has shown that the first stage in building a rolling stock model should be the laying out of and assembling the under frame. This is particularly the case if the model has truss rods that will need to be secured inside the car body. Measure from your plans and lay out the truck bolsters, queen post members and any other structural under frame pieces. You will also want to install the truss rods and turn buckles at this time. Don’t worry about the brake rigging or other details since they will be added later and could be damaged at this point in construction.
Step 4: Build the Box
When constructing a rolling stock model or a lineside structure, inevitably we are constructing a box to which we will gradually add details to. At this stage the end blocks are glued to the under frame and the roof stock is then assembled on top of the end blocks. Check the fit and size of these parts carefully since many times the pieces may be either under or over size. If this is the case, trim any over size parts until you have a perfect fit. It is a lot easier to take extra time and care at this point than it would be later trying to patch a mistake.
Step 5: Adding Reinforcement
Most craftsman kits require the builder to build up the side sheeting from several pieces butt glued together. Short term this is neither difficult nor does it affect the construction process. However, over time these pieced-together sides have a tendency to separate leaving wide gaps in the finished model. To minimize this, build an inner wall from thin aircraft plywood. These are available from most hobby and craft stores in thicknesses down to .04mm. This structural reinforcement won’t be seen on the finished model and will add years of life to the project.
Step 6: Turning the Box into a Box Car
At this point the model really begins to take shape. The sheathing is applied and various wooden details are added to the upper body. When all of the wood work has been finished, spray the entire model with another coat of sanding sealer. As work proceeds the locations will need to be laid out for the various applied detail parts. A small square, sharp pencil and metal ruler are all that is needed for this step.
Step 7: Adding the Details
At this point all of the various detail parts can be added. A small pin vice is used to drill the holes for the grab irons and they are installed. The brake rigging is added to the under frame. Brass wire is used for the brake stands and rods. Sand the brass wire with fine (400 or 600 grit) sand paper before installing these parts; this will allow paint to adhere better. You will want to hold off on adding the stirrup steps until after the car has been given a color coat to make masking easier.
Step 8: Priming and Finishing
At this point the model’s assembly is complete with only a few items to be added. The box car has the look and finish of a fine piece of furniture at this point! It almost seems a shame to cover it up with several coats of flat gray spray primer. The primer coat is probably the most over looked step in the finishing process. Not only will it yield a superior finish but also it makes any errors visible. These can be cleaned up with a hobby knife and some fine sand paper or steel wool. After cleaning up any blemishes on the model, re-spray with a light coat of primer and allow to dry over night. There are a number of inexpensive gray spray primers available from various paint and hardware stores. All of them yield good results when sprayed on in light coats and allowed to completely dry.
Step 9: Color Coat
Painting models should not a mystery. Whether you use spray cans, hand brush or air brush a model you can get good results if you take your time and use some patience. Also, you don’t necessarily need to use fancy model paints, all you really need is good quality flat paint. The box car model was finished using commercial spray cans from the hardware store. Flat red oxide primer was sprayed over the upper body and allowed to dry. The top was masked off and the under frame was given a coat of dead flat black. Some highlights were then air brushed over the basic color coat to enhance some of the details, however, this step is optional.
Step 10: Final Assembly and Gloss Coating
With the paint completely dry, trucks, stirrup steps, a stained roof walk and couplers are added to the model. This is also a good time to check all the mechanical features such as coupler heights, truck swing, etc. At this point it is easier to adjust the model than it would be once the car is finished. In preparation for decaling the entire car body is sprayed with two coats of Testors Glosscote clear lacquer. This step provides a smooth surface for the decals to be applied over. Allow the lacquer to dry hard before proceeding.
Step 11: The Black Art of Decaling over Wood
Applying decals is considered by some a dying art form, however, be assured it is alive and well, and with the advent of computer-generated artwork, making a strong comeback. Like every other step in this project, success with decals is a matter of taking your time and being patient. To make decals settle down on the surface being decaled there are three proprietary solutions that you will need to have on hand:
Micro-Sol – Manufactured by Microscale Industries, this solution is a wetting agent. Microsol lets the water that the decals are soaked in better penetrate the ashesive on the decal. It also helps to brush a little Micro-Sol onto the surface of the model where the decal will be applied.
Micro-Set – Also a Microscale product, Micro-Set is a softening solution that when applied to a positioned decal softens the decal film and allows the transfer to conform to the surface. This is especially useful when dealing with irregular surfaces, like wood siding.
Solvaset – Available from Walthers, Solvaset is a heavy duty decal softening preparation. Best used on older decals with heavier film stock, it can be used with newer decals if used sparingly.
Since scribed siding has deep grooves machined into it and the provided decals are fresh, Solvaset is used predominately on the box car model to help the decals conform to the undulating surfaces.
Begin the decaling process by cutting each of the decals for a side trimming as closely to the printing as possible with a sharp pair of scissors. Avoid using a knife or razor blade since this may cause the decal film to tear. Generally, you should do one side at a time with that side laid horizontally. By only applying the decals in this way you will minimize to chances of the decals sliding around and setting crooked.
Dip the decals in water and allow to stand for about a minute or two so that the glue on the back of the film completely releases. Micro-Sol should be brushed onto the decal as well as on the surface of the model that will be decaled.
Position the decals on the car side using tweezers and a soft brush. Try to remove as many air bubbles as possible by brushing over the surface of the decal with a soft brush dipped in Micro-Set. Use a cotton bud to remove any excess water from the car side once the decal is in position. Liberally apply the softening agent (either Micro-Sol or Solvaset) over top of the decal. Allow the decal to dry at least four hours before moving on to the next step.
When you return to the model you will notice a number of trapped air bubbles under the decal. Usually the larger the decal the more air will be trapped. Also the decal may not have completely conformed to the car’s side causing a condition known as silvering. Poor decaling with silvering can ruin the overall appearance of an otherwise nicely built model.
Using a brand new, sharp single edged razor blade carefully slice through the decal film where it has not completely settled into the wood scribing. Air bubbles that have been trapped on the surface of the car can be pierced with a pin. Liberally brush on more softening agent over the decal and allow everything to dry. This process may have to be repeated several more times until the decal fully conforms to the surface of the model.
Repeat the process on the other side of the car as well as the ends. Once all the decals have settled down to your satisfaction and have had a chance to dry, use a cotton swab with a little window cleaner to remove any decal glue residue from the model. Allow the model to completely dry for at least a day before proceeding. Some times decals will appear to be dry when some residual moisture is still trapped underneath their film.
The last step of decaling is to spray on two light coats of Glosscote lacquer. This will seal the decals and give the model an even finish. Set the box car aside and allow to dry completely.
Step 12: The Big Finish
The last step of building the model is applying a final clear coat over the entire project. For freight cars you will probably want to spray the entire car with a flat lacquer such as Testors’ Dullcote. To replicate the well maintained finish on passenger cars one may want to use a semi-gloss or satin finish such as Testors Model Master Semi-Gloss spray. Gloss and semi-gloss finishes can be applied as one wishes, for example by spraying the roofs and under frames with a flat finish and the ends and side with a semi-gloss finish. At this point with the exception of some discretionary weathering the model is complete. By now you should have fully overcome your fear of stripwood, and be ready to tackle the next project!