Painting Track Improves
The Appearance
Of Your Model Railroad

Track is scenery, too.

Painting track makes a big visual improvement to your layout. Taking the time to add some paint will really make a difference in how your railroad looks. Colors like rust and rail brown help lower the profile of Code 100 rail by taking away the unrealistic metal shine.  Works on N gauge track also.

Unpainted switch vs painted track
Unpainted Peco HO switch

Above is a comparison of a newly-inserted Peco turnout into a scene where the other rail has been painted.

Painting track comes before ballasting

I usually hand paint the rails with a small brush before ballasting the track. It is a tedious job that I do when I don't feel like starting a more complicated project. You can buy pre-stained ties and mix them in with ties you stain yourself. Sometimes I'll use pre-weathered rail or, if I'm feeling lazy, spray paint the rails and ties after they are in place. 

Spray-painted track before ballasting
painted turnouts

This is what I did on the free-mo module I was building. This track has been spray-painted with an initial coat of rail brown.  Individual ties will now be repainted by hand with various shades of black, brown and tray. I don't spray-paint track with a can very often because it stinks up the house. I wait until my wife is out. Wear a good mask!

Clean rail tops immediately

It's much easier to remove wet paint from the rail top than waiting for it to dry. I use a piece of cork roadbed to wipe off the rail tops after painting a few feet. A rag works too but tends to drag and snag. I use a Bright Boy eraser on stubborn parts that have dried.  If you use the eraser when the rail top is wet it tends to spread little bits of paint around as a pencil eraser would do on paper.  Some modellers don't like using the eraser because it leaves microscopic scratches in the rail that can attract dirt. 


Weathering mix
weathering mix

This is the Hunterline weathering mix I prefer to use. You can also mix your own with India ink and alcohol. Experiment with a few drops of the India ink mix and gradually darken it until you get the color you want. I keep mine in old jars.


Below are paints I like to use for painting track and wooden ties. Unfortunately, Floquil paints are no longer available so I use whatever flat paints i can find that will give me the colours I want.  

Track paints
Polly Scale track paints

Tip: Wipe the top of the bottle and use squares of aluminum foil or cling-wrap when you put the cap back on. This will keep the paint sealed and fresh so it will last longer. The brushes in the photo are used to spread the ballast. The small micro brush is good around switches. Cheap dollar store brushes are fine for painting the sides of the rails.

Tip: The cut-off piece of hacksaw blade in a wooden dowel handle is a useful tool for cleaning out HO turnout frogs. (Fast Tracks frogs don't require this.)

In these next two photos, you'll notice that I've mixed rail sizes.The siding at the back is Code 55. The track on the right at the back is coming off a 3-way Code 70 Shinohara switch. The track in the foreground is Code 100. The ballast on the rear siding is black to distinguish it from the grey ballast on the mainline.  Some of the siding ties have been painted individually in grey.

Note the acrylic "freight car" on the right in the first picture. This see-through plastic car is from Micro Mark. It helps to locate track problems such as low and high spots or where points and frogs are "picking" the wheels as they roll through. I added some weights on top to help it track better and mimic the NMRA weight standards for a 40-foot boxcar.

Rail sizes
track sizes
Utopia yard tracks
Utopia yard tracks

A lot of my track is laid directly on homasote because it hold spikes well. I also use cork, especially on foam. Although I use construction adhesive to glue foam down, I've stopped using it to hold track in place. The first time you need to lift a piece of track you'll understand why. 

Destroying a turnout you just paid $30 or $40 for will send you looking for a better way. There is a better way.

The photos were taken of my previous layout. My current layout follows the same procedures except that most of the track (except in hidden sections) is hand laid Code 83 using Fast Tracks jigs or laid with gauges. When hand-painting ties the metal circuit board ties usually require a few coats of paint.  I am not spray painting this time. It is tedious to do it by hand but the layout is smaller. I simply do a little at a time when I'm in the mood.

Go to Ballasting tips page.

Go to hand-laying track.

Return to track track overview.

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