Scratchbuilding, Marx-style

I saw a modern-production Lionel box car in a hobby shop one weekend. I wanted it, but I really wanted it in Marx 3/16 style, so it would look right with my Marx #54 KCS diesels pulling it. But I face very long odds of ever getting that car in Marx 3/16 unless I build it myself.

So I started building. And you can too.

It’s certainly possible to build cars from thin metal sheet in the same manner as Marx did, though most home workshops lack the tools required to produce the embossed roof and ends. Rather than go that route, I chose to go more along the lines of how an enterprising hobbyist at mid-century would have created something resembling what Marx did, using wood and metal construction. A hobbyist at mid-century would have had a large variety of printed tin car sides to choose from. Today we have to produce those ourselves. The rest of the effort is easy to accomplish using common tools and inexpensive materials.

The way Marx produced the cars makes perfect sense for mass production, and the design is ingenious, producing a boxcar shell with literally two pieces of metal. But on a small scale, using this method is more accessible. Marx’s model builders used it too, when brainstorming ideas. Greenberg’s Guide to Marx Trains shows photographs of wooden prototypes in the Marx archives that were produced in a manner similar to this.

Building boxcars from wood was well documented at the time. Jim Corrick, among others, published articles in the mid-century magazines about building cars in this manner. It helps that we’re not building superdetailed cars for NMRA competition; we’re trying to make something that looks like a Marx prototype. Start small, make it easy on yourself, and if you want to work your way up to superdetailed, competition-grade material, more power to you. If you’re happy staying at this level of detail, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Remember, above all else, this is supposed to be fun.

Note: I have Amazon links to almost every tool and material mentioned throughout. If you buy them from Amazon, I get a small cut. But the links serve another purpose. You may or may not know what these tools are or where to buy them, but if I provide a link, at least you get to see a picture so you can see what I’m talking about. These days, you can’t assume anything about anyone’s knowledge of tools.

The actual build starts with a 7.75″x2″ four-sided wooden box. I had difficulty finding boards 2-inch boards locally, but you can get them from Amazon. I recommend a thickness of a quarter-inch; it’s substantial enough to be easy to glue while being thin enough to cut easily with hand tools.

Cut two 2-inch boards to a length of 7.75 inches, using a miter box and a fine-toothed saw to keep the cut straight and smooth. Measure the thickness of the boards, then subtract that to get the height you’ll need for the ends. If the boards are .25 inches thick like the Amazon boards, the ends will need to be 2 inches wide and 1.5 inches high.

Use the smoother of the two boards for the top, and the rougher of the two for the bottom. Before gluing, mark the position of the trucks on whichever 7.75-inch length you’re going to use for the bottom of the car–dead center, and 1 3/16″ from the end–and drill pilot holes for them, using the smallest drill bit you have. If you have a drill press, that helps to get the pilot holes perfectly straight and prevent wandering, but if not, you can get adequate results with a hand drill if you take your time.

Once you have the boards cut and measured, glue them together. A pair of corner clamps–even really cheap ones–helps immensely. The legendary scratchbuilder Wayne Wesolowski recommends building boxcars in halves, noting that if you get both halves square and the lengths match up, it’s nearly impossible for the whole to be anything but square. Glue one top and end together and clamp them in one clamp, then the other. I use and recommend Titebond glue; I’ve used it to make wooden train cars for my preschool-aged sons and they’ve held up well under their sometimes rough play.

Leave the pieces clamped and let them dry according to the instructions on the glue bottle. Titebond sets up in 30 minutes, which is pretty fast for wood glue. Leaving them clamped longer won’t hurt anything, of course.

Once the halves of the wooden box are dry, take them out and verify their lengths match. If they don’t, you can probably shim the difference with a strip or two of thin cardboard. Trim a piece to fit the end where you need the shim, then glue it into place.

With the two halves shimmed so their lengths match, line them up and glue them. Most corner clamps are too big, so you’ll probably have to get creative. Bar clamps would work well if you have them, but I’ve been successful with simple rubber bands. Let the assembly dry for at least 30 minutes before removing the rubber bands or clamps.

Next, we’ll talk about making the roof look like metal–and, like a boxcar roof.

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