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An easy DIY Lionel-compatible high-side gondola

My preschool-aged boys and I made train cars this weekend. Yes, I introduced my boys to the idea of making train cars from scratch–scratchbuilding.

They aren’t finescale models by any stretch. But the project was cheap–no more than $30 for the pair of cars, total–and it was fun.

Here’s how we made these simple train cars, so you can too.For this project, you’ll need a couple of feet of 1/4-inch board, 1.5 inches wide. You’ll also need a foot or so of 1/4-inch square dowel. Both are available at hobby shops, craft stores, home improvement stores, and hardware stores.You’ll need some wood glue. I used Titebond, and was impressed with how quickly it set up and the strength of its bond.

Last, and most expensive, you’ll need some Lionel trucks. I found some for $5 apiece at the last train show. New, expect to pay $15-$20 per pair. If you have a good train-oriented hobby shop near you that deals in used equipment, you may be able to save some money by asking if they have any used trucks with fixed plastic couplers in stock. Frequently these get cast off in favor of trucks with operating couplers, so if you can find some, they’ll be cheap.

Got all that? Let’s build.

Decide on the length of car you want. Subtract .5 inches. An O27 gondola is 7-8 inches long, while a proper 1:48 O scale gondola would be 10 inches long.

Cut three pieces of .25-inch board, 1.5 inches wide, to that length. Craft and hobby shops sell basswood; home improvement stores sell aspen and oak. Basswood is easier to work with, oak is much more durable, and aspen is somewhere between the two while being cheaper.

Two of these lengths will be your sides, and one will be your base.

Cut two 2-inch lengths of .25-inch board, 1.5 inches wide, to be your ends.

Glue the sides and ends into the shape of a box. Corner clamps help tremendously.

If you wish, cut 1.5-inch lengths of coffee stirrers to make outside braces. Glue those vertically and evenly spaced, to the sides of the box you just glued up.

To help support the car and give it some simplified detail, cut one length of .25-inch square stock four inches shorter than the length of the car. Then cut four .875-inch lengths of .25-inch square stock. For better realism, taper them to a 60-degree angle, but you can use them as is. We did. My boys aren’t rivet counters.

Glue the long length of square stock to the center of the underside of the car. Glue the shorter lengths .25 inches from the end of the longer piece, on either side, making an elongated “H.” The shorter pieces will protrude past the edges of the base slightly.

Drill two holes at the center of the base, 1 inch from the edge, for the trucks.

Let the base and the body set up.

Glue the base to the body after letting both set up for 30 minutes. After letting that set up for 30 minutes, paint and letter or decal as desired.

Attach the trucks, either using wood screws screwed into the base, or using a machine screw and stop nut.

As I said before, this project is simple enough that I was able to do it with my two preschool-aged sons. I did all of the sawing and gluing, and they painted it. I took them to the nearest craft store to pick out the acrylic paints they wanted. Older kids can be involved in even more of the process.

The result isn’t anywhere near as realistic as a store-bought car, but I think this was more fun. And we can do it over and over again, as the boys and dad gain more skills.

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