How to upcycle your wagons for your model railway

14 August 2019
IMG_7361-lead-web-34858.jpg upcycling wagons
With so much second-hand stock on the market, upcycling a wagon is an economical way of improving your stock as well as being great fun too.

There are several programmes on television looking at upcycling household items to give them a new lease of life. This is economical and makes good sense from an environmental point of view, too. When you go to railway exhibitions, you’ll see at least as much older second-hand stock for sale as new items.

Here we’re upcycling a model freight wagon from the 1970s-1980s to see if it could fit in with the high standards of modern model railway equipment. The item chosen is a Playcraft 24.5T mineral wagon, however, the techniques could be applied to much of the older stock that is freely available.

The first thing with this wagon that is an issue is that the wheels are made of plastic. This isn’t a good idea and they will need upgrading. The braking system is particularly poorly represented, the buffer heads are undersize and the couplings are incompatible with modern stock. They are also unpainted. Now we know what needs to be done, let’s get started.

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Second-hand items are often quite dirty. Lever out the wheels and undo the screws holding the couplings in place. Now gently wash the item in soapy water, brushing into all the corners, and allow to dry.
upcycling wagons


Remove the raised detail starting with a knife and then moving to a coarse file, then a fine file and finally fine grit paper.
upcycling wagons


Remove flash and seam lines from the body and chassis using a knife and files.
upcycling wagons


Remove all the brake gear except for the ‘V’ hangers and the brake levers using a pair of side cutters. File the remaining cut parts away smooth. Save the brake shoes as you’ll be using them again.
upcycling wagons


The brake levers are very thick so whittle them down using a knife. You may find it easier to remove them and fit a new piece of strip instead.
upcycling wagons


Many of my second-hand trucks have buffers missing. File the remnants of the old buffer away and then fit a new item using plastic rod or sprue left over from a kit.
upcycling wagons


If you wish to fit new couplings then remove the old fittings using a rotary milling tool. Use a slow speed and work slowly to minimise production of toxic fumes. Work in a well-ventilated area for this operation.
upcycling wagons


You will want to fit a coupling hook, no matter which coupling system you actually use to couple your trains. I made my own from scrap brass, but couplings are available from various suppliers.
upcycling wagons


Glue NEM mounting blocks from Parkside Dundas in place using Liquid Poly. To get the spacing correct, fit the coupling pocket and ensure that it is level with the buffer beam.
upcycling wagons


Fit larger buffer heads. Stamp these out from thin plastic card using a 5mm hollow punch. File the old buffer head flat first and then round the new buffer faces after fitting.
upcycling wagons


Drill 0.45mm holes in each 'V' hanger and thread through a piece of 0.45mm brass rod. Secure with cyanoacrylate.
upcycling wagons


Cut the brake blocks out from the brake gear you previously removed. Drill two holes in each and glue in 0.45mm brass rod of lengths 20mm and 10mm as shown. Note that these fittings are handed – drill where the cuts were made.
upcycling wagons


Fit the new wheels in place and check that they turn freely. If not, then adjust the fit using DCC Concepts’ bearing reamers.
upcycling wagons


Drill two 0.45mm holes in the floor of the wagon so that the brake blocks will fit in line with the wheels.
upcycling wagons


Glue the brake linkage in place on the floor and to the transverse member between the ‘V’ hangers. Note how one linkage goes under the transverse shaft and the other above. Ensure to leave enough clearance for the wheels to turn freely.
upcycling wagons


Use a rotary tool to clean up any brass rod protruding on the inside of the wagon.
upcycling wagons


Using 0.25mm plastic card, make up 12 pieces to finish off the verticals on the bodysides. These need to be 2mm x 3.5mm in size. You need to cut off one corner and cut out a rectangle to account for the shape of the solebar. Fill in any small gaps with filler.
upcycling wagons


Using 0.45mm brass rod and pliers, bend up some door stops, one for each door, and fit in place with cyanoacrylate after drilling a suitable hole.
upcycling wagons


Using 0.25mm plastic card, cut out pieces 1mm x 52mm and glue below the axleboxes. You will have to file off a small amount of rivet detail to get a good surface for adhesion.
upcycling wagons


Undercoat the metal parts with a primer applied with a brush.
upcycling wagons


Spray or brush the body with grey paint (Humbrol 87) and the chassis with black (Humbrol 33). We opted to spray the inside with a darker grey (Humbrol 67). Paint the buffer heads with Humbrol MetalCote Steel (27003) and polish when dry.
upcycling wagons


Add masking tape and stripes with an airbrush and white paint, or use a bow pen. To get these in the right place, remember that the stripes denote where the end doors are located.
upcycling wagons


Mask and add black data panels using black paint. When dry, apply lettering using a cocktail stick and white paint.
upcycling wagons


Glue lead balls to the underside of the wagon with either superglue or epoxy. Work over a tray to catch errant lead pieces. Avoid using PVA adhesive or the mixture will expand over time and break the model.
upcycling wagons

If you’re just starting out on your modelling journey then this is a good project to tackle as mineral wagons like this do not require a high-quality finish – in fact, you could distress the bodywork quite a bit and it would fit in with a prototype example as they had a hard life. If you haven’t got much time then the quickest way to improve them is to paint them – bare plastic really doesn’t look right at all. We would also strongly recommend that you weather these wagons to finish them off and you can find out how to do so here in our online guide.

If you’d like some more advice, take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.