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Reading Caboose, Part 1 of 2: Modifications

A photo of the previous version of the layout featuring a Pensy caboose was actually the inspiration to tackle the problem of ride height. Micro-Trains Z scale cabeese sit so high that they almost look like tinplate toys. So, my Reading caboose became the first piece of rolling stock to receive corrective measures.

My intent was not to make the model "prototypically accurate"; likely this would have meant virtually starting from scratch. My intent was to improve its appearance as much as feasible within practical limits (no new major parts, no milling or large-scale grinding). With respect to ride height, when compared to reference photos, the end result is dearly dead-on.

Naturally, coupler height would be affected by the process of lowering the frame. Since I was planning on lowering my freight cars as well, the only sticking point would be the locomotive coupler, which was a bridge I decided to cross much later.

The first change was to remove the storage compartment, as many Reading cabeese didn't have one. The metal used for the chassis is remarkably tough, and required a Dremel motor tool. I used a cutoff wheel to remove the bulk of the metal, and then some dental bits to clean out the remainder.

While I was at it, I decided to make a few cosmetic improvements to the frame. It mystifies me why certain details are included when the casting process forces them to become eyesores instead. Specifically, the brake rigging rods are rendered as solid vertical plates. Looking at them from the side, they are actually deeper than the frame itself and obscures it from view. It would have been better to leave these details off altogether, in my opinion.

I removed all of the simulated brake rigging rod parts with dental bits, but left the equalizing levers in place and ground out the areas under them. The grinding job wasn't perfect, but it didn't have to be; the goal was to get rid of unnecessary bulk.

To clear the flanges as the trucks turned, the four shallow ribs cast into the frame near the bolsters were ground off. Then the bolsters were carefully brought down by hand using a jeweler's file, a little at a time. As I neared the limit of what could be removed, I used a calipers to make sure the two bolsters were the same height and also level. The total amount of height reduction was 45 thousandths of an inch, or 9.9 scale inches. It may not sound like much, but it made a huge difference in the appearance.

I used the time spent filing the bolsters to think about ways to deal with coupler height. That's when it dawned on me that I might be able to gain some coupler height by doing away with the lid on the coupler pocket. A quick test confirmed that indeed I could do this by drilling a dimple next to the mounting screw hole and grinding a shallow relief for the spring—essentially replicating the features of the coupler pocket lid's inner surface on the frame itself.

This coupler modification not only brought the coupler up significantly, but it improved appearance as well by reducing the bulk of the standard coupler pocket—a nice little win-win bit of luck.

The last thing I did to the frame was hit it with a wire brush in the Dremel. This deburred all of the filed and ground edges and smoothed out a lot of the imperfections. Also, I replaced the brake rigging rods with pieces of .010 steel wire, which were bonded in place with thick CA.

Very little work was done on the shell. One task was the removal of the exterior storage compartment, which took about two seconds using a flush cutter and some Flex-I-Grit sanding film. The other modification was filling in two of the end railing holes in the roof. To do this, I softened a tiny scrap of styrene with liquid cement and smeared it into the hole with the tip of a knife, then sanded it smooth.

The rest of the job involved painting, weathering, window glazing and reassembly, which is continued in Part 2.

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This is the photo that got me working on improving caboose ride height.

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The bulk of the storage compartment is sliced off with a cutoff wheel.

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Dental bits are used to remove unwanted material.

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The bolsters are carefully filed down by hand with a jeweler's file.

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A before-and-after comparison of the caboose frame.

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The frame is modified to simulate the lid of the coupler pocket.

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The cast-on brake rigging rods are replaced with steel wire.

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The holes in the smooth side of the roof are filled in.

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Close-up of the modified coupler pocket.

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The modified caboose is compared to an unmodified version.

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