Modeling Philosophy
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Scott's Modeling Philosophy

Webmaster's note: A big Rocky "Thank You!" to Scott Thompson for putting together this most useful section which should be a boon to you GN modelers out there.

Great Northern Railway
Freight Car Modeling Notes
Prototype / Model List

By Scott R. Thompson

I have enjoyed researching prototype freight cars for several years for the specific purpose of building HO scale models. The focus of my overall modeling effort is the Great Northern Railway circa 1969 as it was in Northern Minnesota. This unique period in railroad history allows me to prototypically model the newer (at that time) specialized cars like airslide hoppers along with much older wood side box cars.

One of reasons that I like the GN is because it had a unique and very colorful freight car fleet. In fact, I like GN freight cars so much that I authored three books on GN rolling stock: Great Northern Equipment Color Pictorial, Book One - Box Cars and Stock Cars, and Great Northern Equipment Color Pictorial, Book Two - Freight Cars, and Great Northern Equipment Color Pictorial, Book Three - Western Fruit Express, Cabooses, Maintenance-of-Way (published by Four Ways West). Dave Hickcox’s color guide of GN equipment (published by Morning Sun) is another good reference source for GN freight cars along with the recent edition of Lines East by Patrick Dorin.

This text is not a crass advertisement for my books and the purpose of this dissertation is to outline what I have done to model GN freight cars. I have included pages from my books in order to provide additional reference sources for prototype cars. I have also included comments on my modeling philosophy and why I have made some of my modeling decisions. I want to be very clear; this document is only an outline of what I have done - I am not saying in the following material that my approach is the end-all-be-all of how to model the GN. I am more than positive that many of you have equally good, or better, ideas on how to do stuff.

My Soap Box Editorial

Contrary to popular belief there are a huge number of off-the-shelf kits that are accurate or very, very close to GN prototype cars. This situation has recently been enhanced by several, and upcoming, model releases that are perfect representatives of GN prototype freight cars.

Many modeling articles (on GN cars and others) often discredit a particular off-the-shelf model because a minor detail(s) may not exactly match the prototype. To me, this is disingenuous because (to me) what is more important is the overall context of the model. For example, in order to determine if a model is correct for a particular prototype car I will match the model to a photograph of the car and specifically look at the main feature items: roof, doors, side configuration (sills) and ends. If the main feature items on a model are the same as the prototype (or very convincing) I go with the model. Often, only a few minor detail changes will make a marginal model an accurate match to a prototype (for example, changing a door, or bottom side sill).

My Modeling Approach

I model only prototype based cars and always reference photos of a specific car type from books, magazine articles, or individual photographs (or slides) in order to determine a match between the model and the prototype. I match details, paint colors and lettering from photographs of the prototype. If I model multiple cars from the same car series I typically use multiple photographs (if available) to match specific cars. If I have only one photograph of a car from a series, and I plan to model multiple versions, I simply follow the one reference photograph and number the other models with an appropriate number from within the series.

I typically use off-the-shelf models that are accurate as is, or with a few changes can be made into a more accurate representation of the prototype. Even so, I will make compromises in order to replicate some types of cars. If a model has one extra side rib but it “looks right”, and it is very difficult to distinguish any differences between the prototype and the finished model, I may use the technically incorrect model. I scratchbuild some types of cars if that is the only way to capture the prototype. However, my primary goal to build a model that accurately represents the prototype to a point. If specific details on a prototype are not obvious I may not include those details - it is all a judgment call.

Often the issue of detail quality is confused with the issue of overall prototypical accuracy of a particular model. Some of the more recent models have finer detail than some of the older models (e.g. Intermountain vs. Athearn). For example, the Athearn 40’ wood sided box car is based on a GN prototype and although the detail may not be as good as some of the more recent model releases it is a reasonable representation of prototype GN cars of that type. Even so, I have found that adding simple details like extended grab irons, drop steps, air hoses, tack boards, scale brake wheel, metal wheels and an etched roof walk will make a relatively bland model look great.

Scott Thompson’s Freight Car Modeling Maxims:

* Prototype based cars, refer to photos and match models to prototype cars
* My primary goal is “overall effect” = prototype based details, lettering, colors of cars from photographs
* I like details (extend grabs, etched woof walks, etc.)
* I do not model details that no one will see; for example, I do not worry about the car underside
* Every car is built to run on a layout (Kadee couplers with the “hook” removed, metal wheels)
* Every car is weathered
* Compromise = progress (sometimes good enough is O.K. because you can always rework a model later)

Finally, I do not assume that articles in modeling magazines on modeling a particular car are the bible. I take a look at the information and make my own decisions on what is good enough or what may look right. Some modeling articles make erroneous statements about a prototype car that are based on limited, subjective or incorrect information. Look at, and analyze, photographs of the prototype - after all that is about all that exists of the once huge GN freight car fleet. I never rely on some one telling me that a car was such-and-such, or it was “never this or that” based solely on their word. I always remember that the GN freight car fleet in the late 1960s numbered over 40,000 cars and the likely hood of diversity even within the same car series is very real.


As far as I am concerned there is no such thing is a “non-weathered prototype” thus, I weather every car that I build even if it is representing a new car. My definition of weathering includes the idea of shadowing, painting the wheels and truck bolsters in a prototypical appearance (example, new roller bearing wheels are usually rust colored or light gray), and adding the little film of grim that is quickly picked-up by every freight car (example, the wheel spray on covered hopper ends).

Freight cars exist in the open outdoor environment 99% of their existence which means that even new freight cars develop a film of dust on the car within one or two months of existence. For doubters of this premise - go to the nearest freight yard and just look around. Weathering on cars today is the same weathering as in the 1960s. One thing to bear in mind is that freight cars are no cleaner or dirtier today than in the past. Reference color photographs of cars in a freight yard from the GN era (pre March, 1970) and you may see that a similar proportion of cars that were around at that time are just as dirty, grimy, and rusty as car running the rails today.

Paint Colors

The color of paint is definitely in the context of the eye of the beholder. I do not believe in the idea that there is a “perfect” shade of any color. The concept that you, or me, or Joe whoever, can create a “perfect” shade of Glacier Green or GN Orange is a fallacy - because there is no such thing as a perfect shade of any color based on the following precepts:

* Colors (paint) fade over time, sometimes very quickly
* A color may appear to have changed when it becomes dirty
* Paint color shades vary even though the color name may be the same. Paint manufacturers make batches of paint that may be slightly different than the last (even though it may carry the same identification name)
* Railroads buy paint from different manufacturers which may not manufacture a color in the same manner consistent with another manufacturer
* Photographs can be deceptive when attempting to determine a specific shade of paint
* The eyesight of some individuals perceives shades of color differently

I have not included a recommendation on specific hobby paint colors in the list. I have included the reference color names as used by the GN along with recommendations on appropriate decals for lettering. In order to determine appropriate paint colors reference color photographs and make a judgment call on your own as to what hobby paint color best matches a prototype car color.

I always bear in mind that colors are notorious for fading on the prototype. To make my point, look at the photograph on the back cover of GN Equipment Color Pictorial, Book One - Box Cars and Stock Cars and you may notice that the three box cars behind the units were all painted in Vermillion Red, although each car has a different shade of the same color!

GN Prototype / Model List
Freight Cars


* The list is not complete and it is a work in progress and additional updates will be included in the future
* The categories are referenced by prototype car type and by series (car numbers)
* This list does not include brass models
* The list focuses on GN cars on the roster during the late 1960s
* Some of the modeling notes are rightfully credited to authors of articles that provide more detailed information
* Page Reference includes the pages of prototype cars in GN Equipment Color Pictorial, Book One - Box Cars and Stock Cars (listed as Book 1), and GN Equipment Color Pictorial, Book Two - Freight Cars (listed as Book 2).

* I add details like air hoses, roof walks, extended grab irons, stirrup steps, brake detail on the car end, tack boards, etc. to almost all cars that I build or modify. This information is not repeated for each car type in the list. I use a variety of different truck and wheel set manufacturers, so use your own discretion. This information follows through in each item under the modeling notes / modifications column.

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