Weathering Model Trains,
Structures and Scenery

Make your model railroad look more realistic

Weathering model trains can improve the look of your layout. It is not some arcane science. Start with an old building or a freight car you pick up at a flea market or train auction for a couple of bucks. 

Here are a few tips and techniques from my experience.

  • Weathering model trains with chalk 

You can buy chalk weathering or make your own. Make chalk weathering by scraping sticks of children's chalk onto a sheet of plastic or paper.  Choose earth colors for your basic weathering palette.

weathering chalkBragdon weathering chalks

Weathering model trains with chalk designed for model railroaders works well because it has a fixative in it that helps it to adhere to shiny surfaces like the plastics used for buildings and rolling stock.

 I like Bragdon and Bar Mills weathering chalks. You can buy packs with the primary colors you will use most often: black, rust, raw sienna, burnt sienna, etc. 

Weathering chalks are easy to apply. Use a soft brush to put them on. A makeup brush works well. With these commercial weathering chalks there is no need to overspray with Dullcoat if the model will not be too roughly handled. You probably will need to do so if you make your own powdered chalk.

  • Weathering washes 

Washes of very thinned paint or India ink and alcohol can either be brushed on or sprayed with an air brush. There are also commercial products like Rustall, Joe's Custom Weathering Dye, and Rusty Rails Custom Acrylic Paint.  Rusty Rails is formulated for painting model railroad track. It adheres to bare metal surfaces.

  • Sweet N' Sour rust 

A neat way to rust something like aluminum roofing is to mix up a "Sweet N' Sour" solution as explained by Dwayne Easterling and Jim Wild in the January 1986 issue of Model Railroad Craftsman

Soak some steel wool pads in household vinegar from a few days to a week. The steel wool will partially dissolve in the weak acetic solution. Brush the solution on the aluminum or on wood. The iron very readily combines with oxygen in the air to form rust.

The authors suggest putting the wood on a piece of glass that has been moistened with the mixture. Place the stripwood or siding on the wet glass. This will create adhesion to prevent warpage. Liberally wet the wood with the solution. Wait for the solution to evaporate or use a hair dryer to speed up the process. Repeat if you want the wood darker.

You don't have to pre-wet the glass because warpage is not a concern. 

This method will also work on plaster. Brush on the liquid, let it dry, and repeat as necessary until you get the shade you want. 

  • Paint pens

Faller sells paint marker pens. I've seen good results with ordinary marking pens. I have a broad point Paint Pen for putting on silver that I bought at Staples. It's excellent for painting signals and signal bridges. You can also make small puddles on a piece of waxed paper and use a small brush to get into crevices. 

Faller also advertises a Patina set of six water-soluble colors for use on vehicles, bridges and plastic buildings. Some Sharpie pens will also work. Experiment.

There are also small pens now available for painting the sides of rails. It's easier than using a brush. I use the ones made by Woodland Scenics.

Some modellers use plain old water colours. I never have tried this technique.

  • Paint brushes

My advice is don't go crazy. I have a few very good sable brushes for delicate work in the small sizes. 

Store them upright with their caps on or suspend them in a container like the Donna Dewberry  paint brush holder.  Mostly I use inexpensive brushes. The main problem with the cheap brushes is that the bristles can work loose. 

  • Flaking paint

Sometimes you want to distress a structure to look like it's seen better days. Paint on your base coat. A lighter shade than your finish coat works well. Then, when dry, dab on some rubber cement, let it dry, and then add your finish coat. When everything is dry, peel off the rubber cement to expose the base coat. 

(You can also distress the siding if it is wood by scoring and lifting a board with the back of an X-Acto knife). Now give the structure a wash of the India ink mixture mentioned earlier.

  • Weathering rolling stock

This is a subject unto itself which I'll delve into on other pages. For now just try dusting on a thin coat of earth or grime. Try some chalk. Do a couple of freight cars. Don't do a lot at one time because you want to vary the results. These are good projects when you only have half an hour or are sitting in front of the TV.

  • Weathering with pastels

I came across a new product at Trainfest 2011 in Milwaukee. It's called PanPastel® colors for models and miniatures.

The product is professional quality artist's pastels in a unique format like make-up. See my review at weathering model railroads with pastels. Some hobby shops now carry the line. I know Credit Valley Railway in Mississauga, Ontario does.

There are also lots of articles in the hobby press and on the internet.  Model Railroad Hobbyist had some excellent articles and Railroad Model Craftsmen ran a series on prototype freight cars.  It is a good idea to have a photo in front of you of the car or building you want to weather. Also have a look at magazines directed at military modellers and try some "earth type" paints designed for military dioramas.  

Tip: As with scenery, start light and slowly build on the colours. It is easier to add than to take away.

Weathering model railroads is an easy and relaxing creative process. Take the plunge. Try it for yourself. 

Learn about other weathering techniques

Learn about building terrain

Adding model railroad scenery to a semi-finished layout

Need to make some trees?

An experiment in painting a mountain backdrop.

Making pine trees with air fern branches.

Woodland Scenics metal trunk pine trees with stretchable foliage.

Methods for modeling roads and streets.

Catch attention with mini-scenes.

How to disguise a top-mounted switch machine.

A chainlink fence acts as a scenic divider.

Go to Painting model trains overview.

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