The Joy of Kitbashing

—Model and photos by Miles Callan

The Joy of Kitbashing

May 2024by Miles Callan/photos by the author

Every day, manufacturers are coming out with more finely detailed, higher-performance, and better-sounding locomotives than ever before. What does that mean for that older diesel you have lying around? You could sell it, or even pass it down to younger friends just getting started, but you could also enjoy some hobby time turning it into a show-stopper at the next meet. Even today, with so many new offerings coming out one after another, it’s refreshing to break that relentless cycle and look at older models.

Having options for financially accessible models is important, especially when it’s an invitation to spend quality time having fun building something special rather than just unboxing another seemingly perfect model. Of course, purchasing the occasional ready-to-run model frees up more time for other projects.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the hobby is learning how to “kitbash” models to make them truly your own. I love taking older diesels and steam locomotives and “superdetailing” them with parts and paint to create finer models than I can buy in the stores. It’s also fun to find older structure kits and turn them into something that’s a perfect fit for your layout.

Not all older models are gems, of course. Some older models have dimensional inaccuracies and crude details, others may come in bogus paint jobs, and some have clunky drivetrains. It’s wisdom won through experience and asking fellow modelers which models are diamonds in the rough, and which are just lumps of coal. Some of them are rightfully rare collectibles, either lurking in antique store cases marked up to the stratosphere or buried in a plastic tub at a train show for a dollar.

Finding models with “good bones” for kitbashing projects is almost a hobby within itself. Freight cars from long-defunct manufacturers like Ulrich or Lindberg may be exactly what you need for that industry on your layout. You might consider a 60-year-old Mantua 0-4-0 switcher to get the right small steam locomotive for your layout because they’re not currently available to suit your needs. A “cheap” train set diesel may contain one of the finest mechanisms in modeling history by sheer accident. Some even have fine detail parts worth salvaging, like handrails or pantographs.

You can kitbash without fear knowing you paid a princely sum of $9.00 for an Athearn “blue-box” SW7 at a train show. Buying old Tyco shells to practice applying paint and decals without ruining your newest fine scale diesel is worthwhile. So many models from the last 30 years and earlier are inexpensive and plentiful fodder for honing your skills.

Or perhaps you have dark and twisted desires to make an F40PH B-unit? Or a DD70ACe? Want a Great Northern 2-6-8-0 but don’t want to empty your wallet on brass? How about a 21st-century version of the electrified Milwaukee Road from Tacoma to Chicago? You’re going to need locomotives you can’t buy at the hobby shop!

Luckily, detail parts manufacturers like Precision Scale, CalScale, Details West, Cannon & Co., and others keep the detail parts world alive. I find it amusing that you can find more replacement parts for HO scale Alco and EMD locomotives than the 1:1 scale for the real units! Everything from sanding hatches to entire cab assemblies, replacement trucks, fans and horns. It’s all something you can add to make something memorable and perfectly tailored for your needs.

Upgrading older freight cars can be as easy as stripping off the paint, and shaving off cast-on grabs and ladders. Simple upgrades like adding see-through roof walks or better-performing trucks can bring a car out of the junk pile and onto your layout for revenue service alongside much more expensive contemporary models. A surprisingly large number of freight cars produced decades ago haven’t been made since. So if you really need that Union Pacific BF-50-3 grain door boxcar, U.S. Navy helium car, or Pittsburgh & Lake Erie integral cover steel coil gondolas, you’ll have to look to kitbashing old Athearn and AHM models respectively; and that’s part of the fun.

As a hobbyist, kitbashing brings me the greatest joy. I’ve made it the cornerstone of my YouTube video series, “The Joy of Kitbashing,” where I upgrade often-forgotten models and make them exactly what I need. I’ve built dozens of wonderful things from older releases. Most of the locomotives on my Alta California Railway are decades-old models, superdetailed, kitbashed, custom-painted, and weathered.

Inspiration can be found in any train show or auction website listing. Many books and articles have been published about customizing them to exactly what you dream of. Don’t be afraid to modify those old trains! The only limit is your imagination.

May 2024This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Subscribe Today!

This article was posted on: April 17, 2024