These high-end 1880s-style rail cars currently parked in Contoocook can take more than six months to build, but once done they evoke another era

Playing with trains is a near-universal pleasure, but few of us have taken it as far as Chi Hofe.

Behind the barn alongside his Contoocook home sit two gorgeous rail cars – a boxcar and a caboose – that Hofe built aided by plans by Ed Evans, a subcontractor friend. There’s the 24-foot Boxcar Pub, with arched ceiling, handsome bar stools and a lovely internal scent from the 3-by-6-inch hemlock beams central to its timber-frame construction. And there’s Lucy, a caboose with a queen bed in the cupola and antique train stove down below near the mini-fridge, sink and bathroom, all ready for a very upscale version of the hobo life.

Liam Donnelly, 5, of Hopkinton inspects the caboose on display at Hopkinton High School on Sunday, May 15, 2022 as he and sister Ava, 6, checked out the rail cars built by Chi Hofe. Photo by Geoff Forester

These reproductions, built on road trailers for truck towing, are the heart of a small business that has seen its plans derailed, so to speak, by regulations, the pandemic and supply chain problems. But Roundhouse Workshop is still chugging along as Hofe, like many business owners, pivots and then pivots again.

“At first we were thinking of selling into the commercial market but then tiny houses took off and we targeted that,” said Hofe, 46, who lived in Concord when he was younger and graduated from Tilton School in 1994, then returned here 14 years ago to start a carpentry business and raise a family.  “But New England is slow at tiny house regulations, and we’re still waiting.”

Roundhouse Workshop’s first reproduction cars drew lots of attention, displaying at fairs and shows when Hofe started taking them around in 2018. They sold a caboose and things were looking up but COVID-19 put an end to that momentum.

Now Hofe is concentrating on the rental market, making his two cars available for outdoor weddings, big events, funky overnight stays and anything else you can think of, although he’s still open to anybody who wants to spend roughly $70,000 to buy the boxcar or $150,000 for the caboose (putting that cupola on top roughly doubled construction expense).

The rail car built by Chi Hofe on display at Hopkinton High School on Sunday, May 15, 2022.

The cost is so high because the cars are built like narrow-gauge railroad cars were built in the 1880s, a verisimilitude that has been the point for Hofe all along. Rather than stick-built construction using 2x4s (or smaller), as is the norm for many tiny houses or RVs, he uses the hemlock beams with mortise-and-tenon joints and other aspects of timber-built homes. The beams allow more room for insulation within the 8 1/2-foot-wide confines of the car, and the insulation itself is sheep’s wool, which handles moisture better than alternatives. Along with such things as steel rods to hold the structure together under compression, the result is strong – “it can handle a huge snow load” – but, surprisingly perhaps, actually uses less wood.

But it’s an expensive process and not a speedy one, with a complete car taking Hofe at least six months, assuming he can get the materials right now: “I’ve been waiting five months for a trailer.”

With the cost and amount of time it takes to design and build each car, Hofe knows that this will never be a huge business. He has developed some side products such as timber-frame outbuildings, a branded railroad-style step stool and mobile decks that resemble old-time railroad loading docks. He still does his original construction business on timber-frame buildings even as he dreams of finding land to place a seasonal Airbnb complex of boxcars and cabooses.

But if nothing else, he’s living just about everybody’s childhood dream. “This is a full-scale model train,” he said.

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