Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Grab Irons - Bending Your Own Custom Grab Irons

All freight car types we build have grab irons ( also called handholds).  I wanted to bend my own custom grab irons so I thought I would gather some basic data as to size and application.  My research began by looking up grab irons in the Dictionary of Car Terms, section one, in the 1949-1951, 18th edition, Car Builders’ Cyclopedia, published by Simmons-Boardman.  It states to see “handhold”.  When I looked up the term “handhold “ I found, see “Safety Appliances” which it defines as devices required by the Interstate Commerce Commission to assure safety in operation of cars.  I turned to the Safety Appliances, section 13, to find additional information.  Here, I read: “the “Safety Appliance Act,” established by act of Congress, was approved April, 14, 1910.   In 1911 the United States Safety Appliance Standards, as contained in the order of the Interstate Commerce Commission, dated March 13, 1911, were adopted as a standard.”  These rules have been added to and changed from time to time. One change adopted in 1932 for box and other house cars added the second grab iron on the sides.

The standards identify the type of appliance to be used ( in my case box car grab irons), the number required on each car, their location, manner of application and the minimum or maximum (or both) dimensions.  While standards have been established for each type of freight car those pertaining to box and other house cars embrace all the rules.  I found data for side handholds, horizontal end handholds, vertical end handholds and roof handholds.  From the data provided for each type, I found each type to have the following: dimensions -minimum diameter, five eights (5/8) of an inch, wrought iron or steel, ,minimum clear length, sixteen (16) inches, preferably twenty-four (24) inches, and minimum clearance , two (2), preferably two and one-half ( 2 1/2) inches.  All types have other specifics and exceptions.   One such exception, end handholds fourteen (14) inches in length may be used  where it is impossible to use sixteen (16) inches in length.   I will not cover the specifics listed for each type here. If you wish read all specifics of each type as well as those of other freight car types you can find them in one of the Car Builders’ Cyclopedias.  Two other out of print sources that contain the safety appliance standards data are Train Shed Cyclopedia No. 81, Freight Car Const. Details, Safety Appliances & Trucks from the 1943 Car Builders’ Cyclopedia published by Newton K. Greg or Freight Car Design Manual, published by Wm. K. Walthers in 1946.

Out of print publications with Safety Appliances
(click or tap on any photo to enlarge)

Armed with my research data, I  was able to bend custom straight, drop type or roof ( corner ) right-angle grab irons (handholds).  Using my research data I first had to choose a wire size for the grab irons I was going to bend.   The standards specified five eights 5/8 of an inch which translates to .008” diameter in HO scale which, in my opinion, is too fragile on a HO scale freight car running on an operating railroad.  Additional research in the hobby press found majority of modelers use .010, .012 or .0125” wire for grab irons.  I am comfortable using any of these sizes; however, my preferred size is .0125” diameter.  Brass wire sizes except for .0125” are available from Details Associates  and Tichy Train Group has them available in phosphor bronze wire except for .012” diameter.

Note hair pin used to hold package closed
To bend a grab iron using the wire size chosen I need some some tools: pliers, wire cutters and a bending jig.  The jig is made from .040” x sheet styrene with holes drilled from the right edge to bend grab irons of  various length. The holes were added when a certain size grab iron was needed.


To make the jig I used a piece of .040” sheet sheet styrene cut to 3/4” x 2 1/2.”  A hole, using a #80 or #79 drill, was drilled in the jig for each grab iron size when needed.  A caliper was used to obtain the length measurement of a grab iron needed and transferred to the jig by holding the caliper so one bar edge touches the edge of the jig and a mark is placed at the point of the other bar on the jig.  The mark is used to drill a #80 or #79 hole.  If you do not have a caliper, a divider, or a piece of paper with marks showing the grab iron length can be used to transfer the grab iron length measurement to the jig.

Caliper used to mark hole for drilling
I bend a straight grab iron by first making a right angle bend in a chosen wire size creating the first leg.  The leg is inserted in the hole of the jig with remaining wire extending over the side of the jig.  Using a plier, you grab the wire at the edge of the jig with the plier held in a horizontal position to the jig.  With plier closed on the wire, I lift the wire out of the jig and bend down making  a second right angle bend, creating the second leg of the grab iron parallel to the first leg.  I now have bent a straight grab iron ( U shape) with the length of grab iron needed.  Now the second leg is cut off , equal in length to the first leg, from the starting wire with the wire cutters.

Right-angle bend in wire
Pliers held horizontal to jig
Wire lifted off jig
Finished straight grab iron
I can also use my jig to bend a roof (corner) right-angle grab iron.  I make the first right-angle bend in the wire to create the first leg and insert it in the jig.  I take pliers and hold them in a vertical position when I close on the wire at the edge of the jig.  With pliers closed on wire, I lift the wire out of the jig and bend the wire sideways to create a right angle with the pliers to form the right-angle corner grab without the second leg.  The grab iron is now put back into the jig with the formed right-angle corner on the jig.  I now take the pliers and grab the wire at the edge of the jig with the pliers held in the horizontal position to the jig.  I take the grab iron out of the jig and bend downward to creat the second leg of the corner grab iron.  Again use the wire cutters to cut the second ledge to equal that of the first.  I now have bent a right-angle corner grab iron that per safety standards is to have extra (third) leg which is securely fastened to car at the point of the angle.  I use an eyebolt, commercial or one I bend, to make this third leg.
Pliers held vertical to jig
Bend wire sideways to create right-angle

Right angle placed back on jig
Finished roof (corner) right angle-grab iron
Roof (corner) right-angle grab with eyebolt for third leg

To bend a drop grab iron I first bend a straight grab iron and insert the completed grab iron into a square jaw pliers to the depth, marked with a marker or tape on the plier jaw, I want the drop grab iron portion to be.  I close the plier jaw to hold the grab iron and bend the exposed  two legs down.  I have bent a drop grab iron.  I find this method much faster than using a simple styrene jig I have made and used in the past.

The jig was cut from sheet styrene, the thickness matching the portion of the drop grab iron, and had two holes drilled in line into which a straight grab iron could be inserted (see the top portion of the jig photo).  Once the straight grab was inserted the legs on the back side were bent flat against the jig.  Again, a drop grab iron is formed. 

Straight grab iron inserted into square jaw plier
Finished drop grab iron


Of course, you can buy manufactured grab irons from several model manufactures; however, they are available only in certain sizes.   If you choose to use the manufactured grab irons you still can use the methods I have shown you here to bend the custom sizes when needed.

When grab irons are installed the safety appliances standards state they need to have a minimum clearance , two (2), preferably two and one-half ( 2 1/2) inches from the surface of the car.  I made a clearance jig from .022” styrene to help me get the clearance correct when I install the grab irons I have made.

If you have not made grab irons (handholds) before reading my blog I hope my methods I have described here will help you to do so.

Thank You for taking time to read my blog.  You can share a comment in the section below if you choose to do so.  Please share the blog link with other model railroaders.
Lester Breuer


  1. Thanks for the writeup. Making consistant grab irons has been a challenge and your methods will help fix that problem. Thanks for sharing

  2. Great tips. I love seeing the jigs people make. Thanks.