Tarped Loads

One thing I had been planning to get to was to build some tarped loads for flatcars for the new switching layout I was finishing up. The first thing that I realized is that the stuff they haul around covered with tarps is pretty much unrecognizable under all that canvas. The only real notable details were all the "protrusions" that created waves and bumps in the tarps. I realized that all one had to do was create some "non distinct" shapes and cover them with "model" tarp material to get the same effect in scale form.

So how do you do it? Glad you asked ;o)

I've tried two methods so far, each has it's pro's and con's. Try them both and see what works best for you.

Both methods starts with a little dumpster diving, well at least trash can diving. Look at all the stuff in there, think small and picture it covered over, would that little thingy look like something cool under a tarp? I have found that taking apart an old radio, vcr player, printer can yield enough junk for many railroads to use. Gears, belts, pulleys you name it, this stuff is full of really cool junk. ( I have taken the gears out of an old vcr, cleaned the grease off and strapped them down on a flat car as is, they look great, you don't have to cover everything you know)

Here are all the parts used to create this project. I went to great lengths to be sure that every scrap I used really did come from the garbage. On the extreme left are a couple of cotton swabs. In the upper left are various little bits of junk that no longer had any "original" value a broken knob, a cracked mirror tab, an old strainer off the faucet, a drinking straw and a, um, thingamajig from something. The card stock from the glue package is used for the base, cellophane for the tarp.

Method 1:

The first step is to glue all the little bits together into something that might resemble a piece of machinery. The important thing to consider here is where things can be placed to create "elevations" in the tarp.

The next step is to cut off a piece of cellophane that when draped over the model leaves about a half inch on each side.


Start by wrapping the edge of the cellophane under one side and glue it to the base. Then do the other side, stretching it a bit as you go. Try not to keep it too smooth or you will end up with a perfectly even surface (works good for hamburger patties, but not here). Next, do the ends in a fashion similar to what one does when wrapping a gift. Basically, push in the center, then fold the sides in and over the center and pull down around the base. Glue each fold as you go.

Next, I poke around creating "ripples" in the cellophane by stretching certain little areas that border details glued on the model. I do this by carefully stretching the cellophane with my fingertip. This reduces the "perfection" of the wrap.


The next step is use a hair blow-drier (or other mild heat source) to warp and stretch the cellophane further. Be careful as too much heat will melt holes in the thin plastic.
Finally, I spray paint the tarped load with a flat oil based paint. I use cheap spray paint as it has a tendency to "craze" plastic due to its caustic nature. Here, this is a good thing. It will add more detail to the tarp. I then add a final layer of Dullcoat.

Here is the finished project sitting on a flatcar. Total amount of time spent on it? About 5 minutes (not counting the time it took for the paint and decals to dry). Notice that most of the detail of the original model is covered up. all that is showing is the indistinct shape of the original piece with a few things sticking out here and there.


Another great thing about this project is it allows one to use all those little bits of decals left over that just don't seem to have a use on specific models. I have noticed that tarps have all sorts of things stenciled on them that only make sense to the user or shipper. I also try not to get the decals lined up too squarely as they are rarely even on a tarp that has been wrapped around am "imperfect" shape.


This particular load is painted olive drab and is one of a set of military loads. Use a lot of numbers on military loads, they are plastered with them.

Here are a few more loads sitting on a flatcar waiting for delivery to who knows where... The one on the far left is an old audio transformer I tore out of a junked tape deck, the next one is a burned out capacitor with a few cotton swabs glued to it, the third is the one detailed in this project and the fourth started life as a broken key off an old computer keyboard with a few bits of "this and that" glued on.

Method 2:

Collect your junk, but this time do not use anything plastic, try and use cut some small wood squares, rectangles for boxes or crates, and find some metal objects that would protrude nicely under a tarp. Why you ask? Because we are going to heat shrink this load and the plastic under neath would just melt away, not to mention be really messy. Did I mention, don't do this while the load is on the car! Find an old board or work surface that you don't mind getting HOT.

I happened upon some really thin plastic sheets but you could use the clear plastic that come wrapped around all that stuff you buy today. I took a ruler and measured up one side, across the top and down the other side and then added about an extra two inches for shrinkage. (You can always trim off any extra when you are done.)

This method requires a heat gun or really good hair dryer. This depends on the thickness of the plastic, the thicker the plastic the more heat will be required. So, I build my junk pile load, glue it together with some hot glue to hold it in place for the time being. Next lay the plastic sheet you cut out on top of the load and grab your heat gun.

Start at the top and move the gun around the top surface. It will start to bow downwards from the heat, you want this to happen. As it starts to go down on all four sides, move the gun down the sides and continue to apply heat so the plastic melts and conforms to the load. Be careful, to much heat in one spot can melt a hole through the tarp. Actually this is ok, because it turns into a torn tarp which does happen in real life.

Continue the melting process until you are content with the way the load looks, all the protrusions and bumps look the way you want. If you have a pair of garden gloves or leather gloves, you can pinch the soft plastic here and there to form ripples in the tarp. Be careful, to soft and it sticks to the gloves and messes everything up. Practice makes perfect here haha.

Once the load has cooled I spray painted the load with auto primer, some reddish, some black, some green or tan. What ever colors you might have around. You could also brush the colors on to I guess, but use FLAT paints.

Trim the edges around the bottom. I leave about a 1/4 or so laying flat. This looks like the tarp is laying flat on the flat car surface. Apply your decals now.

When your all done, you can glue your load down to the top of a flat car or put it in a gondola. Maybe chain it down on a flat car would look good or some thread to look like rope.

So next time you see someone digging in the garbage, don't get irritated, go join them!