scratchbuilding shipping containers - in bulk

Quinn Intermodal
Quinn Intermodal Yard

This article describes how to mass-produce lots of shipping containers for cheap. These are not great, detailed models; but intended for scenery where you need lots of containers to stack around an intermodal yard or industrial park. These are made by gluing images onto solid wooden blocks. This has several advantages over the fold-up cardstock type found on the internet:

Step 1. Obtain some 1" x 1" SFS (Sanded Four Sides) wood molding. Home Depot sells it by the foot for $1.25 per foot. An 8-foot piece will make about 22 containers. (For N scale use 11/16" square molding instead). Cut to container length. Standard containers are 20' and 40' long. (Specifications and dimensions) I use a small mitre box as shown in the photo. The 1x1 molding is slightly undersized for HO, so to keep the proportions about right I cut mine for 35' long instead of 40'. Plus, this length will fit nicely into a 40' gondola. Sand off any saw fuzz - but go lightly! You want the edges sharp, not rounded. I noticed the stock I purchase has a sticker on it stating "Made in Chile" which means it probably arrived here inside a shipping container anyway!

Wood blocks cut to size
Cut wood molding to length

Step 2. Obtain images to use for the sides. Go to this page. Select the ones you like and save them to your computer. Using a drawing application, copy/paste the photos onto a page and resize until they are slightly larger than your container sides so you can trim to fit if needed. You can fit a bunch onto one sheet of paper. I print on ivory resume paper, which is a nice off-white and thick enough to handle the glue to be used.

container images
Copy/paste images on resume paper

Step 3. Cut the sides apart using a hobby knife.

container sides
Cut container sides apart

Step 4. Mix acrylic paint to match the side color, and paint the top and ends of the wood block to match. Overlap the color onto the sides too, so any gaps at the edge of your image won't show. Ink roof panel lines across the top. I use a 4' interval. You can stack a bunch of them up and line across all of them at once. Weather the tops if desired. I like a slight rust along the roof panel lines.

painting the blocks
Paint tops and ends

Step 5. Test-fit the images in place and trim if necessary. Glue the images onto the sides using 50/50 white glue/water. If you want the ends covered, you can cut up portions of the sides and glue them on the ends.

glue images on
Glue images onto sides

20 foot containers
20' containers made in same manner

Additional resources: All About Shipping ContainersSpecifications and dimensions

Home • Revised June 24 2015