The techniques used to weather these tank cars were so basic they could be administered by somebody just joining the hobby. Simple and effective are not mutually exclusive.


Newcomers to the hobby, whether they be teens or the age 50 plus crowd, tend to underestimate the quality of modeling they are capable of. Like anything else, it doesn’t take much poking around to see photographic examples of rather ragged looking modeling, often from more experienced folks. The newcomer looks at that, compares their time in the hobby to what they see, and subconsciously slot themselves at a skill level below the ragged results they see. Just as common, they’ll see a very nice model and assume they are decades away from being able to achieve the same results.

It’s a faulty thought process though and here’s why. Model railroading is different than other skills we might think of. Results are much more dependent upon selecting the proper technique and material than practice (not to say practice isn’t a factor). If you want to be an even average piano player you have only one path and that is lots of hard work (i.e. practice) over many years. With model railroading, however, it’s different.

Newcomers are capable of producing very high quality results within weeks of joining the hobby. Seventy percent of producing an excellent model is selecting the correct technique and applying it. Or, in a similar vein, selecting the correct material. Often the most effective techniques are extremely simple. I’ll go so far to say that effective techniques are sometimes simpler to apply than less effective ones.

If that’s the case, why doesn’t the newcomer go the simpler more effective route? The reason is that they don’t know which techniques to select from the volumes of information they are bombarded with, much of which is of dubious value.

I have so much respect for magazine editors in the hobby press. It’s an exercise in feeding the beast. Month after month pages need to be filled in a never ending cycle. Add in information available online and from other sources and we have such a mountain of information it’s impossible for the newcomer to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which techniques make a difference and which don’t? Chat forums and the net compound the problem simply because they contain so much information, all of which is unfiltered and un-edited, and again often of highly questionable quality.

A friend of mine actually works as an editorial assistant for a modeling magazine in New York. So much goes into putting together a monthly magazine that people just do not think about. That being said, it must be so cool to be able to write about something that you are passionate about for a living. Plus, it is also no secret that writers can work from home. It must be amazing to have the flexibility to set your own working hours.

Anyway, enough about magazines, the reality is that just a handful of simple techniques are all that are required to produce excellent modeling. Even a newcomer can pick these up quickly and get to, say 80% , of what would be considered world class modeling. In my book, How To Build A Switching Layout I identify them. I call them “Difference Makers”.


Here’s the list:

Understand Color: Make understanding color your top priority. Train yourself to identify what color you are looking at. For example is that signal head black? No it’s gray and probably a lighter gray than you might first think. Use dark colors to downplay deficiencies, and to a lesser extent, use lighter colors to highlight. Topload your color pallet with dark browns, burnt umber, black, gray off white, and light grays. Use orange, yellow, and pure whites sparingly.

Weathering Washes: Washes are simple to apply and make a dramatic difference by virtue of the contrasts they create. Apply a dilute India ink wash to all structures to bring out contrast, knock down any shine, and add a subtle layer of grime. An effective wash to apply to freight cars is an ultra dilute mix of thinner, rail brown, and grimy black applied with an airbrush. Dilute oil washes (black or burnt umber) are very effective as is brushing on a dry wash of dark brown chalk. In all cases the operative phrase is to use a ‘light touch’.

Sheen: All structures and rolling stock should have the shine knocked off with Dullcote or other dulling agent.

Saturation: When you have a choice, go with a less saturated version of the color in question. For example gray instead of black, light tan instead of brilliant tan, etc.

Rail Color: When it comes to rail color, make a distinction between what you see in the field and what works for a model railroad. Generic track products should be painted a dark brownish gray to downplay the oversize spikes and oversized rail profile. Avoid rust orange or tan for rail color unless your track is close to scale.

Ballast: Use ballast products made from natural crushed stone as opposed to the more readily available products made from synthetic materials. Make sure you don’t have errant grains of ballast sticking to sides of your rail.

The Backdrop: A distinction must be made between effective and artistic. Generally a featureless, cloudless, powder blue sky with a low horizon is the most effective. Avoid ‘museum’ artwork with dramatic puffy clouds.

Grass and Weeds: Use fiber based products to represent grass as opposed to ground foam. Strive for non-uniform color and texture in your grass. Take the time to add small brush and weeds.

Tree Shapes: Choose armatures that have a natural shape and do not have sharp angular branch structures or large branch ends. Make sure the armature realistically matches tree profiles found in nature and paint the armature a darker color. A good starting point would be a SuperTrees armature painted with Rustoleum dark gray primer. For leaves, use a green blend as opposed to a solid green.

Structure Selection: Select structures based on what is usual as opposed to selecting them based on individual uniqueness and interest. Focus on realistic groupings of structures and include non-rail served industries. If you use commercial kits, try to modify the structure shape and/or profile so as not to be immediately recognizable as a standard kit.

Structure Color: Paint all of your structures with flat finish paint. Paint oversize details a darker color. Select colors that are suitable for your location and era. This means lots of off white houses, beige warehouses, and not much chartreuse!

Rust: Use dark brown and/or black to represent rust as opposed to orange.

Cross Sections: Be constantly aware of parts that have overly thick cross sections and avoid them wherever possible. Examples include fence posts, window mullions, railings, etc. Be constantly aware of the number “.011″, that’s a scale inch in HO scale. In other words a 4×4 post should be .044” in HO.

Basic Neatness and Alignment: This can not be overstated. Make sure all items that should be vertical are indeed vertical. Make sure no ballast is stuck to the rails. Structures should be neatly seated with no gaps visible at the foundation. Trees and vegetation should not have errant strands of poly fiber sticking out.