How to create rust with hairspray

04 August 2020
Phil Parker shares a method for creating realistic rust, often used by military modellers.

The technique I'm using for this project isn't new. It's just that we don't see many people using it in the model railway world. 

Head over to the land of plastic kit modelling and you'll find hairspray weathering and salt chipping employed on nearly every model in any magazine or at most exhibitions. They have been doing it for years and yet cross-fertilisation with our hobby seems very limited. 

This is odd, because we need to model rusty metal as often as anyone else, it's just that we have developed different techniques, some of which are now being copied by other modelling disciplines. 

Hairspray rust effects are pretty simple. Paint the model a nice rusty colour and let it dry. Spray a few thin coats of normal hair lacquer (I had to buy some specially for the job as I don't have enough hair for a style) over everything and once this is dry, paint the top coat. Spraying is preferred for this step, although with care you can apply the paint by hand. 

To expose the rust, simply wet the model. Water will find its way under the paint to dissolve the hair spray and cause the top coat to flake off. The best effects come from scrubbing away or scratching the surface with brushes and soft implements. 

With a little practise, realistic patches can be worn away in a few minutes. Pay attention to those areas where the prototype loses its paint and you'll have a good looking model in minutes. 

My prototype is a steel shipping container. These things can be bought for small amounts of money once they have finished their lives carrying goods around the world and are popular as storage sheds either on their own or in large groups for storage yards. My model is the former, simply because they tend to be a bit more beaten up and rusty. 

Once you've got the hang of the hairspray technique, you'll be looking at all sorts of rusty metal on your layout.

I quite fancy having a go at some mineral wagons for a start...

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Skytrex's resin container needs a little flash trimmed from the bottom and then a good wash in soapy water to remove any mould release. Ordinary washing up liquid is fine, but give it a good rinse afterwards.
How to create rust with hairspray


Although the model doesn't really need priming, I give it a coat of red oxide sprayed from an aerosol as it's a good base colour.
How to create rust with hairspray


The Rust is Humbrol 70 (Brick red) and 62 (Leather) splodged on with a small sponge. We don't want a smooth coat of either colour and it doesn't matter if some of the primer shows through.
How to create rust with hairspray


The model is sprayed with three thin coats of hair lacquer. Try not to flood any of the detail and let it dry between coats.
How to create rust with hairspray


For patches of serious rust, table salt is sprinkled on to more wet hair spray. Once dry, the model is sprayed with the Humbrol acrylic main colour. I'm using 102 – Army Green – but any colour will do.
How to create rust with hairspray


Now for the rusting process. Using an old, stiff brush, run some tap water on to the container. The water will seep into the hair spray, loosening the paint on top and this will gradually wear away in patches.
How to create rust with hairspray


For scratches, use a wet toothpick to remove some paint. This is especially effective around the door closing bars.
How to create rust with hairspray


For the most serious paint removal, an old toothbrush is perfect and works really well on the corners of the container.
How to create rust with hairspray


The container is patted dry with kitchen towel and then it's ready to install on the model. Stepping back and deciding if there is enough rust is a good idea. You can always break out the stiff brush and water for a bit more weathering.
How to create rust with hairspray

Need more advice? Some of the below articles may help. Also, take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.

Weathering a wagon by dry brushing

Using Weathering Powders – Top Tips

Detailing the Dapol Western

How to paint your models

How to make your model trains grubby

Take a read of our step-by-step guide to weathering a locomotive using paint washes and powders here. Or if you’d like more general tips on weathering a locomotive, see our article here. 

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