How to rust your wagons for your model railway

25 September 2019
Lead-pic-web-47222.jpg How to rust your wagons
For some, painting older items of rolling stock to look more authentic is more important than their level of detail, here we put our skills to the test to improve a vintage mineral wagon.

For some modellers, the most important thing in achieving a realistic model railway isn’t the accuracy of the models or the level of detail, but the weathering. Even a model railway built from cheap, off-the-shelf items can be made to look impressive if it’s well weathered.

Weathering is perceived as being difficult because mistakes can be embarrassing or hard to rectify, not to say costly. The easiest way to start is on a cheap goods wagon such as a mineral wagon. These were always dirty in service and it’s difficult to overdo the weathering effects on an item of rolling stock that was never cleaned in reality. Once you’ve mastered this technique, you’ll have the confidence to try something more challenging, taking a factory item and turning it into a unique piece of rolling stock that you’ll be proud to display at the front of your layout.

Shopping List

Cheap paint brushes

Cake trays

A file


Sketching/charcoal sticks

Humbrol 67 & 98 enamel paint

Indian Ink

Content continues after advertisements


Diluted car screen wash

Cotton buds

Burnt Umber Gouache

PVA glue



Start with a mineral wagon kit or RTR item. The ones we’re working with, as pictured, are 1980s Jouef or Playcraft items that we’ve upgraded.
How to rust your wagons


Spray the inside of the wagon with Humbrol 67 and below the solebars with Humbrol 98. Use a piece of cardboard as a mask for the body. If you don’t have an airbrush then hand paint, but thin the paint from the tin.
How to rust your wagons


Make up a mix of Indian ink and car screen wash in a ratio of 1:5 – don’t make the mix stronger as the former is quite potent. I bought 2.5 litres of readily-diluted screen wash in a pound shop.
How to rust your wagons


Paint the mix onto the wagon, aiming for even coverage.
How to rust your wagons


Wipe off excess with cotton buds using vertical strokes. Leave more residue in the corners and edges, then leave to dry.
How to rust your wagons


If you want a wagon that's just entered traffic and hardly used, you can stop here. Even weathering to this limited degree makes your model look more realistic.
How to rust your wagons


Apply neat Burnt Umber Gouache from the tube onto a cheap hog’s hair brush. The bristles are stiff and must be spread out for a random distribution of paint. Manipulate the bristles with your fingers to achieve this.
How to rust your wagons


Now stipple the brush onto the wagon sides aiming for an even random coverage. You’ll find the mixture dries quickly so you’ll need to keep applying more paint to the bristles. The model won’t take long to dry.
How to rust your wagons


Take a flat brush and dip into car screen wash. Brush this lightly down the body and immediately go over the same area with a second stroke. Keep doing this, working around the model until you have covered the entire body.
How to rust your wagons


Using a fresh cotton bud dipped in water, remove excess rust colour from the wagon numbering. Leave the model to dry.
How to rust your wagons


Take a black pastel and grate it onto a file to get fine powder. Brush this on using a cheap, dry hog’s hair brush. Apply to the model around the side and end doors. Brush light browns and greys onto the running gear to get contrast.
How to rust your wagons


Make a 1:1 mixture of PVA and screen wash with a drop of Indian Ink. Evenly coat the inside of the wagon until the surface is damp. If you add too much mixture, use a dry brush to soak up excess. Leave the corners damper so they hold a higher accumulation of material.
How to rust your wagons


Using a file, grate together a mix of black and dark grey pastel and using a loaded large soft brush, dust the powder inside the model. Work over newspaper because this is messy. Tap the model upside-down on the bench to shake-off loose material.
How to rust your wagons


If the accumulation of coal is too heavy for your taste, use a stiff hog’s hair brush to remove some of it. Again work over newspaper to catch loose material and re-use it.
How to rust your wagons

The techniques demonstrated here are within everyone’s reach. They’re quick, which is important if you have a rake of perhaps a dozen wagons to weather. You too can produce great results if you follow these instructions to the letter. The most important thing to remember is not to fiddle with the affects you achieve. Give the model a chance to dry and see what it looks like before passing judgement. If you don’t like the results you can always wash them off and start again.

Top tips on how to add rust to your model wagons 

  • Use old/cheap brushes for a project like this.
  • If a brush sheds bristles in use, remove them from the model once it’s dry. Avoid the temptation to remove hairs when the model is still wet.
  • Rust patches look better when they're random, or they’ll looked contrived. Avoid large solid patches that give a ‘Holstein Friesian cow’ effect.

If you’d like more advice on weathering a wagon, Phil Parker gives you a full demonstration in our latest video.

Now you’ve weathered a wagon, 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. 

Over the coming months, we’ll be adding more step-by-step weathering articles to our ‘Techniques’ area of this website. Keep an eye out for these and follow the guides to further improve your model railway weathering.