Freight Car Modeling Tips

Freight cars are an important part of any railroad - prototype or model. While locomotives tend to get most of the attention and glory, there is a lot to learn about the freight cars which carry the loads. Whether you're a modeler or just interested in technology and engineering, the history, design, and evolution of freight cars is a fascinating study.

 Most modelers don't need to be rivet counters or fully versed in how trucks are equalized to build accurate models or enjoy their layouts. But some basic knowledge of what different cars are used to haul and when major new designs and technologies were introduced can go a long way towards building a credible model railroad.

 The links ahead will dive into major freight car types in greater detail as well as covering some universal basics and general modeling tips to help your freight trains the best they can be the first car to the caboose!

  • 01 of 11


    Open doors reveal a very messy floor on this empty boxcar. From the loads left behind it would appear this car is in paper service. by Ryan C Kunkle

    Once the most common car on the rails, the "basic" boxcar actually comes in many specialized versions today. From the general service car to insulated cars for food and jumbo boxes for auto parts, The Boxcar is anything but boring. 

  • 02 of 11


    These two John Deere tractors are on their way to the Port of Baltimore for export. Note the extra tires stacked on pallets and the tie-down chains anchoring the load. Modeling these details makes all the difference. by Ryan C Kunkle

     You may think that nothing could be more simple than a flatcar. These cars also must be carefully designed to accommodate the unique traits of the loads they are called to carry. From lumber to large machinery, the open loads carried on flatcars can be just as interesting to model as the cars themselves.

  • 03 of 11

    Hopper Cars

    LBRR 50560
    Lowelville and Beaver River hopper No. 50560 started its career on the P&LE. by Ryan C Kunkle

     Emerging in the 1880s and 1890s, hoppers evolved from gondolas as the primary car for carrying one of the rail's most common commodities -  coal. Hoppers can also be found hauling stone, sand, coke, ore and other aggregates

  • 04 of 11

    Covered Hoppers

    UP 77782
    This Union Pacific Covered hopper would make an interesting weathering challenge. by Ryan C Kunkle

     For as common as they are today, it is surprising that the covered hopper didn't emerge in a big way until the 1930s. Taking advantage of the hopper's easy unloading with the added protection of a roof, covered hoppers can be used for any number of bulk loads from grain to plastics. The variety in designs makes covered hopper modeling an interesting opportunity.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Tank Cars

    Reading Tank Car 90980
    Reading Tank Car 90980. by Ryan C Kunkle

     For liquids of all types, tank cars are the vehicle of choice. Although most commonly associated with hazardous materials, most tank car commodities are harmless. Like other cars, tank cars may look similar at first, but closer study reveals dozens of construction details which make each car especially suited for its load. Tank cars are often restricted to a single commodity their entire service life.

  • 06 of 11


    LV Bobber
    Lehigh Valley "2606" at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. This car was heavily restored by a previous owner using the frame of a Lehigh and New England tunnel car. by Ryan C Kunkle

    Once the exclamation point that punctuated the end of every train, the caboose has faded into history but remains an iconic part of the railroad lore. The caboose was more than just a vantage point, it was an office and home away from home for the crew.

  • 07 of 11

    Intermodal Trains

    NOKL 210174
    NOKL 210174. by Ryan C Kunkle

     The hottest trains on the rails today carry express traffic and less-than-carload freight in containers and trailers on board specialized rail cars. From spine cars and double stacks to traditional flatcars and even car-less "roadrailers" intermodal equipment comes in all sorts of interesting varieties.

  • 08 of 11

    Freight Car Photos

    NS 169234
    The Norfolk and Western heritage of this car shows through, despite recent repairs. by Ryan C Kunkle

    Looking for more modeling inspiration? Check out these freight car photos for a great variety of cars. 

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11


    All the weight of the train is still carried by one little pin. by Ryan C Kunkle

     Don't overlook these important details! Couplers are a small but critical part of any train. Learn more about the prototype as well as models and how you can make them work better.

  • 10 of 11

    3 Steps to Improve the Operation of Your Freight Cars

    gauging wheels
    The flanges of the wheels should fit in the notches on the side of a NMRA standards gauge. by Ryan C Kunkle

     If you want your trains to run as good as they look, these three simple steps will ensure your cars track well. These essential tips will work on cars on any scale.

  • 11 of 11

    Weathering Techniques for Model Trains

    gondola floor
    The floor of the gondola is weathered with paints. by Ryan C Kunkle

     Modeling freight cars usually mean modeling the effects of weather and service. "Weathering" is an important part of the hobby. These techniques can be used on all sorts of cars as well as locomotives, buildings, and more. You don't need special tools or skills to add realism to your models.