How to Model Boxcars

Boxcars are one of the oldest and most common designs of freight car. Until the 1960s, they represented the overwhelming majority of freight cars on most railroad rosters. Even today as more specialized cars and intermodal traffic have taken away many boxcar loads, the basic boxcar remains an important part of the railroads' rosters.

Seemingly simple and standardized in design, boxcars actually come in many variations. Even in the most basic "no frills" general service variety, cars...MORE feature a number of sizes and construction patterns.

Boxcars are commonly modified with special doors, vents, interior dividers and load restraints, insulation and even roof hatches to help haul specific goods. Some of these features are easily modeled, others may only be known by the markings on the sides of the cars.

Every model railroad needs at least a few boxcars. Here are some product reviews, modeling tips and prototype photos to help you choose the right cars for your layout, make them accurate and put them in the right roles for your operating sessions.

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    Prototype Photos

    SP 850060
    Beneath all that graffiti lies a former Southern Pacific boxcar now repainted in Union Pacific paint. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     The best way to learn about or model any freight car is to start by studying the prototype. These photos present a good overview of some distinctive boxcar variations.

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    Narrow Gauge Boxcars

    DRGW 3381
    D&RGW boxcar No. 3381 retains its original door hardware. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    These Blackstone HOn3 boxcars represent a boxcar in its most basic form. These beautiful models also prove that even a "simple" prototype can be recreated in amazing detail and become a show-stopping model. The company has also recreated the "economy door" versions of the Rio Grande's venerable narrow gauge boxcars.

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    Capturing the look of one of the PRR's last great freight cars perfectly, Tangent's X58 is a stunning model. ©2015 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     The general purpose boxcar had grown to a fifty foot standard length by the 1950s. Cars like the Pennsylvania's X-58 class were adopted by several railroads and could be equipped with a variety of interior appliances to serve specific types of customers. These common cars of the 1960s through 1980s have been recreated in both HO and N scales.

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    Soo Box
    The brown paint represents the distinctive Soo Line cars as built in 1968. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     Showing another variation of the "standard" 50 foot boxcar, these Soo Line-designed cars served in much the same capacity as the X-58. Subtle changes in design and construction could really change the look of a car. These differences are what makes freight trains and freight car modeling interesting.

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    left side
    The doors are both offset to the A end of the car. In other words they are offset to the left on the leftside and the right on the right. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     Showing how a simple modification can make a big difference, these unique "canstock" cars were modified for hauling rolls of aluminum for can production. Simply relocating the side doors to one end of the car enabled the easy loading of one extra roll of aluminum, increasing car utility with every run.

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    A combination of weathering, graffiti, and a repatched number make this boxcar model unique. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     A more common door variation was the double door car. This group of cars featured both a sliding and plug door arrangement. Use of the plug door increased the smooth wall area inside the car when the doors were closes while allowing a larger opening for loading and unloading. The largest fleet of these cars was owned by Railbox and given "ABOX" reporting marks.

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    Chessie box
    The new big boxcars from ExactRail are imposing and impressive - especially with that big "Chess-C" on the side!. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     Larger boxcars like these Berwick 7327 cu ft. cars from Exactrail are used for larger but more lightweight loads. These 60' "high cube" cars are commonly found hauling auto parts and appliances. These loads would fill the capacity of a standard boxcar before they would tax it's weight limit.

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    The Bluford Shops models capture the big look of these impressive cars. ©2013 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    The biggest boxes on the rails are the 89' High Cube boxcars designed for light-weight auto parts like body panels. These cars originated in the late 1960s. The large and often colorful cars have been a fixture on the rails ever since. In more recent years they have also been used to haul appliances and trash. In parts service, the cars regularly run in dedicated pools and can be seen repeatedly in the same trains running back and forth between parts and assembly plants - the perfect...MORE arrangement for model operations! 

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    NSC boxcar
    The NSC plug door boxcar has a distinctive look with its heavy diagonal door posts. Atlas has captured all the lines and detail variations of the prototype. ©2015 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     Plug door boxcars offer a tighter seal to protect temperature-sensitive cargo. They also provide a smooth surface inside the car, even with the side walls. Plug door cars are often, but not always, insulated as well. Common loads include paper and food products.

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    BLMA Bx-166
    The original 1974 paint scheme is also the most colorful. BLMA has exeuted these graphics beautifully. ©2015 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Most people think of refrigerator cars when it comes to hauling food, but many products don't require refrigeration for safe travel, just a more moderate control of temperatures. Insulated cars like this make that possible without the cost of refrigeration units. Beer is one of the more common loads in these cars. 

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    Detail a Boxcar Interior

    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. ®2009 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Although normally the doors are closed for transport whether the car is loaded or empty, it is not uncommon to see a boxcar with an open door. Adding some simple details to the interior of a car or two can be a great way to add interest to a passing train on your layout. Even an empty car can have interesting details inside 

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    Make Paper Roll Loads

    A boxcar of rolled paper awaits unloading. The yellow doors on this car indicate that the car was to be used for "clean" lading only, including paper. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     Rolls of paper or newsprint are a common load in boxcars. These are easy to model and are another great way to add a little character to a car in your collection.