Athearn Refrigerator Car

Athearn Refrigerator Car

By Morgan Jones.

I needed assistance on how to assemble a model railroad car kit - my most perplexing problem centered about wanting to use knuckle (e.g.: Kadee) couplers when many kits come with the hook-horn variety. Why should I reinvent the wheel when my friend Rick Shoup (a Master Model Railroader) was available? What I didn't realize was that I needed instruction in more than just the couplers. So much for years of experience in building and assembling the many things one encounters in 69 years of living. For my initial venture into the assembly procedure, I happened to start with an Athearn reefer kit.

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I would suggest that the first thing to do would be to look at the directions and compare that to the parts, which came in the box. It seems that most kits these days comes with visually oriented directions. There may not be much value in plunging ahead if you don't have all the parts.

In my case, choice of couplers was an issue. Rick not only supplied me with knowledge; he also gave me a pair of knuckle couplers to substitute for the hook-horn ones provided in the kit.

Having looked at what came in the box, I took a minute to plan an attack. OK, start getting the "little things" ready e.g.: opening up the plastic bag and put those now loose little things in the lid the box so they wouldn't disappear. The first thing I did was to "pre screw" ("tap" for you metal working types) the screws which attach the trucks to the body. When you begin the actual assembly, you don't want to be doing things that require a lot of physical strength. By the same token, try to defer attaching the details to the final step of your assembly - fragile things get bent/broken when you have to tightly hold the car.

After backing the screws out (and put them in the box lid of course), the first assembly step was to attach the weight to the bottom of the underside of the body. I used GOO (something like Liquid Nails) as an adhesive. While this was drying, I began the attack on the coupler issue.

If you don't have a Rick to guide you, I would suggest that you read the article on "Knuckle Couplers" located just a click of the mouse away in this introductory series. A couple of notes on couplers: place the coupler in the box so that things are dangling down, and that the metal lid has to be squeezed rather hard to get it to click into the locked position.

By now the GOO had sufficiently dried so I could attach the roof/ends to the body. This took a while because I had to file the side of the car for the locking tabs to fit. I discovered that it only takes a few light passes with a file to get plastic things to fit properly. I had to unlearn my years of taking down cherry wood end grain with a rasp.

The last major step in the assembly was to screw the trucks through the underframe and into the body. You will now see why it is advantageous to pre thread screw holes. Don't hold the body too tightly or you could be going back to your dealer to buy another kit. How tight do you get the screw? Just before the truck begins to bind when you try to turn it. Too tight will get you a derailment, too loose allows the car body to wobble from side to side.

Before you get involved in putting on the details, now would be a good time to check to see if the couplers are the correct height. Again refer to the "Knuckle Couplers" article.

OK, now cut the fragile detail pieces off their sprue with your hobby knife and attach/glue the pieces to complete your project. I couldn't figure out how those ice hatch latches were supposed to fit, so I omitted them. I made a management decision: the reefers on my railroad will have to run with the hatches closed.

Parting Shots: By dumb luck, I had access to an assembled reefer; with this as a prototype, I was better able to see how parts were supposed to fit together. Only glue where necessary - CA glue is "permanent" and you will have to do some fancy footwork to get around a mistake. And above all, take your time assembling your railroad car – our hobby is supposed to be fun, so you might as well prolong your fun a little.


  • Hobby knife -€“ e.g.: Xacto knife
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Small blade (1/8") screwdriver
  • Set of small files
  • Magnifying glass if you're my age
  • CA glue -€“ e.g.: Krazy Glue - or - liquid plastic cement (Testors or others)
  • GOO or something like adhesive silicon caulk
  • Kadee washers if you need to raise the coupler height

Note from Rick Shoup, MMR:
All Athearn cars need to be raised about 30-40 thousands. That is the amount of coupler droop.
An alternative is to slip a thin piece of plastic under the shank of the coupler. That will raise it enough.

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Page last updated January 9, 2015