What’s that you say about a lumber shortage?

As I’ve spent more time analyzing train traffic on BN/BNSF’s Seattle Subdivision it’s become apparent that though the timber industry had lost much of its pre-World War 2 luster by the 1990’s, forestry-related products still made up a very large percentage of loads headed south. Though standard and bulkhead flats could still be found moving this traffic, the center beam was king.

With that in mind, I took a look at my ever increasing roster of completed rolling stock and decided it was high time I added a few of these ubiquitous cars to the mix.

The Prototype

BN 624434. Caught in Seattle, WA on July 15, 2006 by Ian Clasper. Used with permission.

For this project I picked through my stash of NIB rolling stock and chose three Exact Rail 63′ Thrall “Opera Window” cars painted for Burlington Northern. Thrall delivered two orders of this type to BN: The first series of 190 cars (624100-624289) were built in Jan. and Feb. of 1977 the second series of 300 cars (624400-624699) were built from May – Sep. of 1983. Visually the two series are very similar with the only major differences being the addition of roping staples to the bulkhead sides on the later series and a slightly different shape to the end plates and corner posts. I found Eric Neubauer’s e-book: “Center Beam Cars” to be very useful in gleaning this info. His website has been offline for awhile but if you’re able to get in touch with him, I highly recommend buying a copy.

The Exact Rail cars match the first series and the numbers I chose (completely at random) are 624224, 624267 & 624280. As usual, when I begin to plan a project like this I seek out reference photos that fit one or more of the following criteria:

  • The car series (624100-624289).
  • My modeling region (the Pacific Northwest).
  • My era (the mid – late 1990’s).

The first photo I came across was by Frank Valoczy and can be found on rrpicturearchives (I wasn’t able to contact Frank to ask for permission to use his photo so a link will have to do). His shot is of car number 624142 (the car number on rrpicturearchives is wrong). That puts it in the right series and it was taken at New Westminster, BC, so the region is correct as well. It’s a bit late for me (2007) but that’s ok. A bit more searching turned up the photo you see above. Ian Clasper took this shot of 624434 in 2006 in Seattle, WA. Again, it’s a bit late for me and it’s from the second series but the location is perfect and it’s hauling a similar load. Note that the car to the right in Ian’s shot, though mostly cropped out, is just visible enough to show that it too has a load of unwrapped WFP dimensional lumber. Evidence that a small block of these cars with identical loads wouldn’t be out of the ordinary and a pair would look pretty cool together.

I decided to model the third car empty, as it would appear on a northbound manifest. Finding photos for this car was a bit trickier. Since so much of this car would be visible, I needed something from my era so as to understand how the paint would have weathered. Unfortunately everything I found was either from the 1980’s when the paint was mostly intact or the 2000’s by which point the green had turned brown. In the end I just cycled through various photos from both those time frames and tried to keep my weathering somewhere between the two extremes.

As for the service these cars were in, my assumption is that they were being loaded somewhere in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. I’ve read that BN contracted with truckers to haul finished lumber from sawmills in northern B.C. to the Vancouver area as a way to provide competition to BC Rail. Whether or not this continued after BNSF was formed and CN took over BCR, I have no idea. If anyone knows for certain I’d be interested to hear more about these loads in the comments.

The Models

A rule I adopted when my daughter was born at the same time that construction on my layout ramped up, is that if a car comes assembled and painted, I don’t mess with it unless it’s broken or something is glaringly wrong. That was a bit tough with these cars because due to the design (a photo etched brass center girder with plastic uprights and ends) and the amount of tiny, fiddly parts, they must have been a real headache to assemble at the factory and it shows. I did need to tighten up the joint between the brass girder and the tie down flange across the top as it was coming unglued in some places. I also had to reattach the brake rigging on one car. A couple of mine from the first run also have a slight warp (though not as bad as some people reported) but they track fine so I left that alone. I would have loved to dissolve all the glue and reassemble them to fix the fit in a few spots but this project took too long as it was. I did look over all three closely and chose the best one to represent the empty car. The loads help to hide some of the issues with the other two.

Everything stripped down and partway through weathering.

I did do some of my usual things though: The wheelsets were replaced with Arrowhead’s Nickel Silver, semi-scale offerings (my go-to when I have them in stock) and the Kadee’s were swapped out for Sergent’s. Towards the late 90’s BN/BNSF began swapping out standard Type-E couplers for lower shelf Type-E’s, so I added those to one of the cars.

I painted the wheels with Rustoleum Rusty Metal Primer which I decanted and sprayed through my airbrush. I left the trucks as they came from ER, painted in a sort of charcoal gray, since they already had their car numbers printed on the sideframes and I always try to avoid decals when possible.

For weathering I wanted to do something a bit different. I started with my usual mix of Ammo enamel washes but after that I decided to try some AK Interactive weathering pencils which I’d had sitting around for awhile. I used various colors from two sets AK10041 “Rust & Streaking Effects” and AK10042 “Chipping and Aging.” The interesting thing about these pencils is how they can be applied. You can sharpen them and write directly on a model (this seems to work best on a dull finish) after which you can go back and smooth them out with a damp brush or leave them to dry if that matches the effect you’re going for. You can also wet the pencil with water before application which is sort of like painting with a very fine brush. My favorite method and the one I used the most was collecting the shavings and wetting them down, then applying the resultant sludge with a brush. The consistency of this mixture is somewhere between a thin wash and paint. You get a lot of control but also very thin layers that can be built up, modified and even wiped away pretty easily. I used all of these methods liberally across any part of the car that seemed like it would be chipped, rusty and otherwise grimy.

After working with the pencils I went back over the cars with some oils that were stippled on, mostly along the decks, sills and frame followed by a heavy application of pigments all over each car, carefully choosing my colors based on what would be affecting each surface. Horizontal surfaces near the top got light (even white) pigments while worn areas got darker, rusty, shades and any place with bare metal where paint might have worn away got black or gunmetal. I don’t usually seal pigments so I always apply them heavily knowing that some will wear off over time as the car is moved and handled.

Stippling pigments on to some of the vertical supports with a short bristled brush.

Once I was done with the pigments I made a final pass with a standard #2 pencil to burnish high-traffic edges at random to simulate wear.

Load ’em Up

With work on the cars mostly sorted I turned my attention to the loads that two of them would be carrying. I call them “bundles”, but “stacks” is probably also accurate. As far as I can tell the car in Ian’s photo is carrying 2×8’s. The copy of Frank’s photo isn’t clear enough to make out what size lumber that car is carrying but they appear to be 2x stock of some sort, so I felt it was fine to assume they’re 2×8’s as well. These cars are running together after all and we’ll just say they’re taking a particularly large order to the same customer.

I first attempted to make these bundles out of real wood, ripped on a table saw, cut to length and then scribed to create the appearance of individual boards. As it turned out though, real wood doesn’t actually look very much like 1:87th wood and these bundles still needed to be painted and weathered, eliminated much of my anticipated time savings. I also found that it was nearly impossible to scribe scale sized boards on these blocks and it was absolutely impossible to scribe anything on the end grain. At that point I set the blocks aside (they’ll work great for wrapped loads and went in a different direction.

The first test with a wood block representing the bundle

For some time I’d been wanting to try out my resin 3D printer with a more involved project than the few details parts I’d printed in the past. I would need about 76 individual bundles to create the loads I had planned which would mean printing at least 16 batches (I could only fit 5 bundles on my OG Anycubic Photon build plate at one time) plus however many it took to dial in the supports and resin settings. This would also be an opportunity to dive further into Fusion 360 with a simple shape that had quite a bit of repeated detail and needed to be easily modified so as to get different lengths.

It took some time to figure out how to draw the blocks in a way that was accurate and seemed to follow good F360 practice. For some reason my brain has a hard time with the workflow that most 3D CAD programs want you to follow: Draw a shape in some random place then add dimension and location info. To me this just seems backwards and more work but perhaps it makes it easier when you’re dealing with very complex drawings. Nevertheless, after a lot of trial and error I figured it out and ended up with a scale 12′ bundle that I could adjust lengthwise with minimal fuss. Ultimately I ended up with five different lengths, which I researched and confirmed 2×8’s are cut to: 10′, 12′, 14′, 16′, 18′ and 20′.

Each bundle has detail on both sides, the top and one end. The other end is flat and the bottom is hollow. This allows them to be positioned such that all visible faces have detail no matter which end of the car they’re at. The visible end has each board extruded at different lengths to give the appearance of a slightly imperfect stack. All board detail is oversized to compensate for the printer’s low resolution (these are actually more like 3×10’s). The final output ends up looking close enough to scale for our purposes.

With the design finished I had to figure out how to orient and print the bundles. I had hoped I could print them horizontally so that the layer lines would work in my favor (they would be going with the grain of the wood) however when I ran a test I discovered that there was a noticeable line running around the bundle exactly the same thickness as the interior of the top face. I tried adding a fillet to the interior in case this was due to the weight of the top pulling the sides inward but that didn’t seem to do anything. After some more testing at various angles I concluded that about 42 degrees worked quite well. Though there are some layer lines running diagonally across the sides and horizontally along the top, these were rendered invisible by primer and paint.

With testing done I moved into production mode printing the necessary amount of each length bundle plus a few spares. I mostly used Siraya Tech Fast resin but switched partway through to Siraya Tech Build (the darker color) due to it’s ability to render fine detail better. For the most part every print was successful. With the only failure occurring because I neglected to add enough resin to the vat.

While I was working on the bundles I also set to work figuring out how to close up the underside of each one. In retrospect this wasn’t really necessary as the scale 2×4 risers I used under each bundle aren’t high enough to allow one to view the underside. If you decide to do your own project based on what I’ve done, I’d recommend skipping this step as it adds a lot of extra work. Nevertheless it was a chance to experiment with cutting styrene on my Silhouette Cameo so I don’t begrudge the time that was otherwise wasted.

Each bundle is modeled with a .020″ rabbet cut into the bottom of all four sides. This allows for a .020″ plate to be glued in place. Ideally I would have just exported the correct shape from Fusion 360 into Silhouette Studio but the only format the two have in common is .dxf and F360 only allows that with the paid version. Instead I used the dimensions from F360 to draw the bases myself in Adobe Illustrator and exported that drawing as a .dxf. I may have been able to just draw the bases directly in Silhouette Studio but I find Illustrator to be easier for actually design work.

The Cameo cuts .020″ styrene pretty well with only a single pass if you set it to use quite a bit of force. the pieces do need to be worked out of the sheet but the cut is decent and only requires minimal cleanup. Thickness’ up to .040″ can also be cut but it’s harder to remove the parts from the rest of the sheet and the cut isn’t quite as nice.

With jaws gaping the Tsunodas are ready to cleave the supports from another bundle.

Returning to the bundles, I found that my beloved Tsunoda TN-120 sprue cutters were the cat’s pajamas when it came to removing supports. I’ve always removed supports after the parts are fully cured since that seems like the best way to avoid handling uncured resin, which is somewhat toxic in that form. Since then I’ve learned that most people remove supports before curing. I believe this is because they tend to be easier to remove. However on models this small with such fine supports that really isn’t an issue.

Though the Tsunoda’s do an excellent job they don’t fully remove the buildup of resin around each support. You can file or sand the surface smooth, but this generates a lot of messy dust, takes forever and can round over the edges. I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to see how well resin could be milled.

I found that the resin being brittle tended to chip on the narrow lip around the base if the cutter was moving too slowly, regardless of whether I was following a conventional or climb milling process. Larger diameter end-mills also tended to catch on the styrene base and rip it apart. 1/8″ seemed to offer the highest likelihood of success while requiring many fewer passes than 1/16.” I tried both Carbide and HSS end-mails and found that HSS was a bit better at preventing chipping. Ultimately the stuff can be milled but it requires care and you’re going to get some chipped edges and corners no matter how careful you are. The type of resin comes into play as well SirayaTech Fast being a bit less brittle cut better than Build did.

Ultimately it took forever to mill all these. I had hoped to put a couple of them at a time in the vice but slight inconsistencies in their size and my unwillingness to mar the detail by really cranking down on the vice jaws meant that I could only properly secure one at a time. I ended up doing 7-10 cuts a night for a number of weeks doing all the rabbets, then all the bases and finally all the end-faces so as to avoid resetting the mill for each block.

Would I do this again? I don’t know. Sanding all of them would have been a lot of work too but the setup would have been simpler. However If I did away with the bases and only had the one cut to make on the bottom that would cut down the work by 1/3 and perhaps if I thought about it a bit more I could come up with a jig that would securely hold multiple bundles in the vise.


One thing I noticed about the loads in my reference photos was the considerable variation from bundle to bundle. I assume the wood is all the same species but I suspect that the different shades are due to where in the tree each board came from. To simulate this I divided the bundles in half and primed one group with black and the other with grey. Then I went through my stash of AMMO acrylics and picked out a couple of wood colors that seemed about right: “New Wood” – A.MIG-037 and “Light Wood” A.MIG-038. Some bundles got only one or the other of these colors. Others got a couple coats of both. Some received more coats than others.

Next I got out some AMMO Enamel washes, the exact shades were chosen at random (I’m not going to bother listing them here as you’ll see them in the photo below) and applied them in varying combinations to the bundles. I followed that with a blast of Dullcote and a light application of “rubble” colored pigments.


One of the reasons why I bought my Silhouette Cameo 4 was because I wanted to start using stencils to paint markings instead of using decals. I don’t think decals do a very good job with large logos or anything that has to be applied over a raised detail. This project was a good introduction to stencils because A) the markings would likely have been applied with a stencil in 1:1 life, and B) I’d be able to see how small the Cameo could cut legible letters and numbers.

The design was fairly straightforward and I was able to do everything in the free version of Silhouette Studio that can be downloaded here. The markings on the left of each bundle identify the length (the larger number in the upper left corner), the size of each board (the two numbers in the lower left corner) and some other identifying information about the quality and/or the sawmill where the load originated. The marking on the right is a slightly modified version of the Western Forest Products logo. I did a Google image search and found a high-res version that I then imported into Silhouette Studio and used the trace function to determine the cut path. I did have to increase the spacing between what looks like an EKG output on the top (I think it’s mean to look like tree tops) and the WFP underneath and you’ll notice that I didn’t include the word that’s under the logo on the prototype bundles. I couldn’t actually read this word in the photos and it wasn’t on the copy of the logo I downloaded. Since it would have been very tiny and difficult to cut I opted to just leave it out.

With the artwork complete I went to Michael’s and picked up some Oracal 631 Removable Vinyl. This comes in a roll that can be attached to the front of the Cameo 4 and fed through to cut an image as big as 1’ x 5’. I laid out my artwork in Studio such that I could cut out a strip of markings and logos in one go, set the cut settings for Matte Vinyl and let er’ rip. I had to muck about with the exact cut depth and pressure but after a couple of tests I was getting pretty good results. When printing on a roll of material you can feed it out the back after your artwork has been cut and use the built in slicer to remove it from the roll without removing the roll from the Cameo.

“Weeding” the vinyl is the next step. This involves using fine point tweezers to pick the cut pieces of vinyl off the sheet. The Cameo does completely cut them but since the backing is sticky they tend to stay stuck or get picked up by the blade and stuck down somewhere else. At first this was not a lot of fun since I knew I had to repeat the process for 76 data masks and 76 logo masks (I tried reusing them with mixed results). When I began weeding I started watching Star Trek TNG from the 1980’s weirdness that is Ep. 1 “Encounter at Farpoint” and finished about the time I began Season 2 albeit with a few other projects going on at the same time.

After weeding it’s just a matter of applying the stencils, masking the remainder of each bundle and hitting it with some appropriate green paint. I originally tried to complete the masking with extra vinyl, but I found that the adhesive on a large piece was a bit too strong and tended to leave behind a residue. So I switched to Tamiya masking tape. The masks themselves didn’t seem to be a problem, I guess because there was less surface area for them to stick to. As for paint, I \tried straight BN green but decided that was too light. Next I tried BNSF green which was too dark. So I combined the two 50/50 and got a color that looked about right. I applied a few light coats to the markings (I only did the visible side of each block) and both ends. When you are deciding which side to put the markings on, make sure you determine which direction the bundle will be facing so that the detailed end is visible. I didn’t take this into consideration on a couple of the very top bundles on one of the loads and had to redo the markings on the other side.

I decided not to apply another coat of Dullcote after painting the stencils. The markings are supposed to be fresh, somewhat shiny paint and I didn’t want them blending in too much with the wood.

Final Details

To complete the bundles I attached risers underneath each one. These I made from strips of Northeastern Scale Lumber 2×4’s. I decided to add the risers separately instead of drawing them in CAD so that I could somewhat randomize their positions. The contrast between the painted bundles, representing high quality lumber and the risers, representing low quality scrap material is nice as well. I glued these down with a bit of CA, being careful to take into account the built in risers on the cars when I was working on the first rows. 10’ to 14’ bundles have two risers and 16’ to 20’ bundles have three.

Once the risers were attached I used green “fine” EZ-Line from Berkshire Junction Model Railroad Supplies to simulate banding. I started each band with a dot of CA on the back of the bundle, ran it around and under the riser (where present) and secured that end with another dot of CA before trimming off the excess. It’s important to avoid glue build up if the band will be directly against one of the centerbeam’s vertical ribs. Even a small amount of glue will result in the bundle looking as though it’s not properly loaded. Since we’re trying to run a safe operation here, we certainly don’t want that.

When I first started applying bands I figured that there was one band per riser but a closer inspection of my reference photos showed that most bundles had a middle band even if they didn’t have a middle riser. That kind of made sense, but I soon discovered that this was not a consistent practice. One bundle would have two risers with an extra band in the middle and the identically sized bundle right next to it would only have bands on the two risers. I followed my reference photos for the first side on each car and just did what I wanted to do for the other sides.

Loading the cars

By the time I had finished all 76 bundles I was thoroughly sick of looking at them and decided that I would add the tie downs to the unloaded car first to give myself a change of pace. For this I again used fine EZ-Line but went with black instead of green. During my research I found empty cars with tie downs that were tightened, just so, to the same point on the corresponding rib. I found others that ran in angled patterns across the car in a cats cradle sort of effect. Still others were hooked to whatever random point they could reach and not tightened at all. Finally I found some that were hooked to random ribs yet still tightened down properly. Another modeling rule I abide by when it comes to modeling is that anything that is too perfect will appear to be just as wrong as anything that is too imperfect. For that reason I went with the last option and randomly selected the rib to attach each tie down to but tightened them such that anyone viewing the car would know that the crew who had unloaded it were at least paying attention to safety if not appearance.

I’ll go into the process I used to secure the tie downs when I discuss the loaded cars as it’s pretty much the same. I should point out though that I made a mistake with the empty car and ran the cables between the winch and the sill when they ought to go around the outside of the winch. If you happen to notice that, there’s no need to point it out, I’ll never forget!

Tie down cables properly secured.

Now that I’d had a break from the bundles I was ready to load them on the cars and get an idea of how they would look completed. I used drops of CA to secure each bundle to the one below it (or the deck risers in the case of the first row) and the vertical ribs. As I worked my way up I became alarmed at how the bundles seemed to be warped despite the fact that I didn’t notice much of a problem when they were sitting on my bench. I think the slight warp on the cars coupled with the slight warp on the longer bundles compounded over each row, turning a barely noticeable issue with the individual components into a somewhat noticeable issue when everything was assembled. I alleviated some of the unevenness by sanding down the 2×4 risers under certain blocks and choosing the best one’s to go lower down. Nevertheless this problem is still apparent in my high-res photos and when viewed up close (though in the photos at least there’s also some distortion from the lens and focus stacking). Fortunately, it’s not at all apparent from a normal layout viewing distance and the sides that match my reference photos are better than the other “freelanced” sides. Since only one side of each car will be visible on the scenic portion of my layout, I can just arrange them such that the sides I like best are visible where it counts. I can also just assume that these two shipments are destined for my local Home Depot where I have long suspected they purposely seek out the least straight lumber they can find.

Once I had all the bundles glued to the car I set to work tying them down. The first step was to simulate edge protectors. This is a detail that’s often overlooked but is very noticeable. For these I used 1/32” Matte Black Chartpak tape cut into tiny pieces and glued to the top row of bundles in line with the winches on the sill and the securement points. One thing to be aware of here: The securement points on the top of the beam are slightly offset from the tiedown points on the ribs. So make sure you are lining the chartpack tape up with the point you want to use for that winch. Only a 5th row of bundles would use the points on top of the beam.

With the edge protectors in place, I cut a length of EZ line an inch or so longer than needed and threaded it through the securement point I would be using. I had to drill out the holes on one car but the other two needed no modification. Next I tied about 3 knots, one on top of the other to end up with one large knot and cut off any excess. Then I pulled the EZ line taught but not too tight (it changes it’s shape if you do so) the knot being smaller than the hole provides a secure anchor and is totally hidden behind the flange on the rib. A very small dab of CA (it melts the EZ line if you put on too much) was applied to the vertical side of the edge protector and the EZ line was placed over it while I continued to hold it taught. Once the CA had time to cure, I ran the EZ-Line outboard of the winch then back up between the winch and the frame. I looped it around once, making sure it was taught and applied a drop of CA. Once cured I cut the excess line. Then I repeated this for the remaining 29 tie downs before moving on to the next car where 30 more awaited me.

The completed cars

Overall I’m happy with the result I was able to achieve. These cars will look great on manifest trains running over my version of the Seattle Sub. I definitely need to do many more lumber loads but I think the next ones will be wrapped loads. Maybe Doman or Tolko since those were pretty common. In case anyone is interested, I’ve uploaded the .stl files for the bundles and the Silhouette Studio files for the masks. They’re free for non-commercial use. Just head over to my newly created downloads page.

Finally, I received a lot of assistance with this project by way of answers to many questions and advice. I’d especially like to extend my thanks to Brian Bennett, Matt Bieringer, Ian Clasper, & Tom Murray.

This may have been my longest post yet, if you made it this far, thanks for reading! Here are some shots of the completed cars:

3 Replies to “What’s that you say about a lumber shortage?”

  1. Nice job, loads look great. When working with multiples in the same vise I use something crushable like paper. A handful of layers of something like post-it notes takes up the small differences between parts when doing work with relatively small cutting forces w/o wrecking much or racking the jaw. I do it all the time with styrene and ABS. Learned it from someone on insta of all places. Two vises are def better than one for this and most other work.

    1. Thanks! I had not thought about using paper as a way to equalize the size of multiple parts in a vice. That’s definitely something I’m going to do next time.

      I could fit a second vice on my mill. I’ll have to think about that. If I”d have enough use for it the cost might be justified.

      – Chris

  2. Wow i just happened upon your site doing some 1:1 scale lumber load research and congratulations man, this project is incredible! Well done! I’ve never heard of the Silhouette Cameo 4 machine or printing/cutting on vinyl, that’s very interesting. I always wanted to create a stencil for HO scale lumber loads myself but figured the small size would not allow for too much repeat use.
    I look forward to revisiting your site in the future. Keep up the great work!

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