Build a steam-era sand house

| February 26, 2012

This is recycled from my participation in a sandhouse “token-build” on OGR a few years back… now long gone.

It was my first scratch-build since I was in Middle or High School, some 30+ years earlier.

Since I run mainly steam on my layout and have limited space, I chose to model a very traditional sand house complex circa 1900.  It would have a wet sand storage bin, a drying/pump house and – of course – a sand tower.


Other OGR forum members participating in the “token-build” posted photos of actual sand towers and finished model kits in other scales.  They got my brain turning, but weren’t exactly what I wanted.  Fortunately I found the perfect source in Google Books, “Railroad Structures and Estimates” by John Wilson Orrock, originally published in 1918 (second edition).  On page 491 and following was exactly what I wanted – with plans, dimensions and materials for the real thing all listed!  If you like scratch-building, and especially if you model the steam era, this is a great resource:  You can view the book online, on your phone using Google Books, or download the whole work as a .pdf file (free).

So that’s what I used as my starting point.  I had to make minor adjustments for the actual space I had available, but my plan is based entirely on Mr. Orrock’s sand house.

Drafting plans

Thanks to my years in the US Army, I’m a PowerPoint Ranger – so I used it to draft my scale plan.  Taking the time to draft a scale plan saved  hours during assembly.  By following the plan exactly when cutting and trimming parts, I completely avoided unpleasant surprises and crooked angles.

You can download a .pdf file of my finished plan here:

It’s no great shakes, and Mr. Orrock gets all the credit – but you might find it a good starting point for your own plan or ideas.


  • base is scrap 1/8″ masonite, with a “concrete pad” above made from 1/8″ foam-core.
  • drying/pump house walls are thick cardstock/bristol board, glued to 1/4″ basswood framing, and covered with thin plastic “board and batten” sheathing.
  • doors are thick cardstock with thin cardstock (heavy paper) for trim.
  • pump pipe and sand spout are metal coat hanger wire cut to length.
  • roofs are made from cardstock, covered with strips of 400-grit sandpaper to represent tar paper.
  • chimney is thin brass tubing – plastic would do just as well.
  • sand is real sand (too coarse).


I use regular carpenter’s glue – readily available in large home stores – for wood projects.  Since I was staining the wood parts dark walnut, I used a darker colored wood glue.

The heavy cardstock walls were cut to size, two sides (a long and short) in once piece, then scored to bend the corner.  The two cardstock wall sections were glued together around a frame made from 1/4″ basswood (photos 1-3).

The wet sand pile retaining walls were assembled from 1/16″ x 1/4″ boards attached to 3/16″ square uprights.  I had a duh-huh moment assembling this:  on the first attempt the upright support posts were inside the retaining wall.  I realized this made no sense structurally (with help from the other token-builders), and reversed them (photos 3 & 4).

The drying/pump house and retaining walls were glued to 1/8 foam core, representing a concrete base (photo 4).

Cutting and assembling the tower parts was the most time-consuming part of this build.  I cut the parts directly over the plans to ensure all the angles and lengths were correct.  I laid a piece of waxed-paper over the plans, then glued the tower sub-assemblies together directly over the plans too (photo 5).  Excess glue was trimmed with a knife and then filed (where needed) with a needle file.  The reward for that time and effort was that the tower legs fit perfectly on the sand house roof:  no wobbling, and no trimming required.  After the sub-assemblies were glued together I stained all the timbers dark walnut with a water-based stain (photos 6-11).

The sand pump pipe made from coat hanger wire helped hold the tower in place on the roof:  the tower legs were glued to the roof.

Plastic “board and batten” siding was glued on over the cardstock walls.  Window and door frame trim was thin styrene strips (photos 12-14).  The roofs were finished with 400-grit sandpaper strips painted grimy black to look like tar paper.

The sand pile is made of real sand glued over a shaped pink foam base, and it’s far too coarse.  One of these days I’ll find a more suitable material and glue a layer of it over the current sand.  Another missing detail is a coal bin along an outside wall, to provide fuel for the sand drying oven.

The sand spout from the tower out to the locomotive is another piece of coat hanger wire.  The supports were made from scrap balsa/basswood, and very thin steel wire was used to represent the cables/ropes used to raise and lower the spout.

The window glazing was clear styrene, lightly sanded to frost it.  I added a light pole made of basswood sanded roughly round, with a grain-of-wheat bulb as a security/night light.  I twisted the light bulb leads together and made sure they draped realistically to the sand house.  Inside the leads are attached to the terminals of a lamp socket that also holds a white (frosted) 18V bulb.  At 12V it provides a nice warm glow of light through the frosted window.

Weathering and Detailing

  • all timbers were stained with a water-based dark walnut stain to represent weathered creosote.
  • concrete pad was painted PollyScale “Concrete”.
  • roofs were painted PollyScale “Grimy Black”.
  • walls were painted a medium gray – I can’t remember what I used.
  • an India ink wash was applied.
  • light dry-brushing was applied with cream-colored cheapo acrylic art paint.


In all, it took a few days to complete – mostly waiting for glue to dry.  You could do it in one weekend, I think:  the most intricate part is the tower assembly.  Ensuring that was assembled accurately was time well spent.

I hope you find this useful, either by inspiration or by providing resources to help you plan and create your own structures.

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About the Author ()

Chris ("Cubbie") inherited a love of trains from his father. He grew up in the Chicago area — frequently riding the C&NW, CTA El and Amtrack — but spent summers in DL&W, D&H and Erie country (Northeastern PA). Chris collects, restores and runs Prewar toy trains on a 16' x 7-1/2' garage layout that is perpetually unfinished.

Comments (3)

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  1. Casey Jones says:

    This is a wonderful article and a fantastic build. I wish I had seen this prior to buying an inexpensive kit and a brass tower.
    Totally cool.


  2. Cubbie says:

    Thank you, Casey! Your Munoz Lines layout is magnificent.

  3. Jim Teeple says:

    Thanks Chris, I used your design and built it Photos in the Structures section of the forum

    Jim Teeple