Painting Model Trains Is Easy
With Tried And Tested
Tips And Techniques

See my note at the bottom of this page about the discontinuation of Floquil and Polly Scale paints (June, 2013)

Painting model trains does not need to be difficult. Here are some basic model railroad painting ideas you might like to try.

Ground cover: 

  • For instant landscaping, use a flat tan or light brown acrylic house paint. 
  • Apply over a small (2 foot square) area with a 2" or 3" brush.  
  • Sprinkle on some medium and fine Woodland Scenics ground foam in various shades of green. 
  • Let dry. You can add more ground cover and bushes later.

If you're looking for information about painting scenery, go to my Scenery page. 

  • Avoid using a dark brown. The earth only looks dark brown when it's wet mud.

You can also use Woodland Scenics liquid pigment Earth Undercoat that you thin with water. Other shades are available for coloring rock.

Hardshell cliffs:

  • Use washes of India ink with 70% isopropyl alcohol or thinned black leather dye.  

At first, try a few drops in an 8 ounce measuring cup. Try it on a scrap piece of plaster. Keep adding a few drops at a time until you get a color close to what you want. Let it dry before deciding. It is easy to make it darker but hard to get it lighter without putting on more plaster.

The same mixtures can be used as a wash on wood ties and structures.

  • Trickle some bleach down a cliff face. 

Use an eye dropper. The bleach will settle in the cracks. Dry brush a little white on the rock edges to bring out highlights. Dry brushing is a technique of loading a paint brush with some paint and then wiping most of it off on a paper towel or rag. You slowly add a hint of paint to the rock work.

Paint choices

cheap acrylic paintsCheap acrylic paints

I prefer acrylics and poster paints because you wash up with water. Inexpensive acrylic paints can be found at dollar stores, Wal-Mart and Michael's. Here are some to be found at dollar stores and the like. I have seen modelers at NMRA "Craftsmen Corners" at regional train shows get terrific results with these paints. There are many colors to choose from.

More expensive but ideal for styrene structures and rolling stock are model paints because they have very fine particles. They can be brushed or sprayed. Check out military colors, too. Some of the camouflage shades military modelers use can add to a scene.

Badger has a line of model paints that I have used. They spray wetter when using an airbrushI still have bottles of Floquil and Scalecoat solvent-based paints that I use occasionally. 

  • You need to wear a good filtering mask. The fumes are not only smelly, they should be inhaled as little as possible. 

I try to work outdoors with these or, at least, keep the windows open and a fan running.

Oil paints are good for scenery work, but the odour lingers a long time as the paint dries. Linseed oil is used for thinning. Cleanup is messier as it is when painting your kitchen or bathroom with oil-based paints.

Paint holders

model paint brush holderPaint brush holder

I stole this idea from my wife. It is from a set she bought from Donna Dewberry. It's great for holding acrylic and water color brushes and keeping them moist while you work. You can take it to where you're working. It also makes cleanup easier. This "Donna Dewberry" tray makes a terrific paint brush holder. Wear gloves (bottom) to protect your hands. I buy mine at the drug store.

  • When working with acrylic paints, keep a supply of Chinet or paper plates left over from your last bar-b-que handy. 

Use them as palettes for mixing small amounts of paint. Throw them out when you're finished.

Painting structures

  • Use flat, not glossy or enamel, paints.

Whether you hand paint or spray, paint the parts before installing them. This is particularly important when working with wood because glue will keep the paint from adhering or washes from soaking in. It's also far easier to touch up a trim piece like a window or fascia strip than it is to paint it after the structure is built.

  • A good trick is to put some paint on a rag and pull the stripwood through your fingers. This gives the effect of aged paint. 
  • Normally you start with the lightest colors and then paint the darker colors because it is easier to apply a darker touch up than to add light paint over dark. 

However, at a NMRA Northeastern Regional Clinic (NER) I saw a demonstration where brick walls were painted black first and then lightened with thinned washes of reds and browns. The effect was quite stunning.


Painting figures

Here's a situation where it's better to start by painting the figure black and then adding the colors for clothes and skin. 

This way you don't get shiny metal in missed spots. Whatever you miss just looks like shadows.

Painting vehicles

Vehicles pose a different challenge. This is one place where you might prefer to use Testors enamel paints for that shiny, just out of the car wash look. 

  • The enamel paints are also good for stainless steel passenger car sides and instances where you want to use colors like gold and copper.  

The trend is to weather everything to dull it down. However, once in  awhile you want that special freight car or vehicle to look like it's just come out of the shop. The other approach is to use a gloss finish spray like those manufactured by Scalecoat.

An excellent website where you can find out a lot more about painting vehicles is this site with pages about Tamiya Model Paint and everything else you could possibly want to know about radio-controlled (RC) cars.

Special Considerations
when Painting Model Trains 

  • It is advisable to wash models before painting to remove any finger grease or release agents that were used in the molding process. 

I had always used dishwashing detergent and a toothbrush to clean both plastic and metal parts. At another clinic (I love clinics at train conventions!) I learned to use plain Sunlight soap because it doesn't contain any lanolin or other additives. The additives were spoiling my cleaning efforts.

Brass can be cleaned with an ultrasonic cleaner. I don't have one so I use vinegar and water or lacquer thinner. Brass engines often have a lacquer coat to protect the metal and keep it looking shiny in the box. You want to end up with the metal having a bit of "tooth" for the primer and paints to adhere to. You can also buy special preps from the model railroad manufacturers.

  • Vinegar or electronic circuit board etchant can be used on Campbell roofing aluminum to make holes and rips. Dry brush on rust.

I often use automobile primer as the first coat on metal. I learned this trick years ago. It's cheaper then model paints. By the way, leaving brass engines in the original foam packagine can be a problem. The foam deteriorates and sticks to the metal.

  • Wrap the engines in plastic wrap before putting back into the foam blocks.
  • Priming wood siding is important if you are trying to make it represent metal. 

Before kits were made from plastic it was standard practice to use a sealer to close the wood pores and remove the fuzziness. I use Scalecoat sanding sealer.

Finally, always clean the brushes and close the bottle caps right away.

  • Cut squares of aluminum foil, place them on top of the bottles, and then screw the caps onto the bottles. 

Air is your enemy unless you want dried out paints and rusty metal.


Note: According to Model Railroad Hobbyist (MRH) magazine in their June 2013 issue Testors is discontinuing Floquil and Polly Scale paints although they are adding them to their Testors line of acrylic and enamel paints. Scalecoat is still available and their Scalecoat II is an acrylic paint. My old bottles of Scalecoat I are still useable. It can be used on plastic if a barrier coat is applied first. Other alternative paints are made by Accupaint, Tamiya, Humbrol and Vallejo. I use some Humbrol small cans of enamel and have both Tamiya and Accupaint colours in my repetoire. I also have tried airbrushing with Modiflex. See the June issue of MRH for links to the companies' catalogs. MRH is a "forever free" Internet magazine. If you don't already subscribe, you should. It is loaded with good information. You can download any of their issues in a pdf format.



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