Weathering Model Trains. Top Tips and Techniques
Weathering is a term used to describe the technique of replicating the visible results of wear and tear. When we think about our model railways we spend a great deal of time replicating the real world for the layout to look as realistic as possible. Therefore, weathering model trains is a very important part of the modelling process. It’s something that modellers of all abilities can do themselves and once you have completed a few projects you will have the confidence to tackle anything. You’ll soon be able to master a number of model railway weathering techniques.
Practice on old or unwanted items that aren’t of any value: old locomotives, wagons, carriages or buildings. Your first attempts should be on light coloured models as it is far easier to see what you are doing.
Remember that once you start weathering, it is important that you apply it consistently across your layout. True, you may have a few items that exhibit little weathering such as a model locomotive that depicts one that has just entered service or that is kept in pristine condition. However, doing things the other way round, and having one or two weathered model trains and the majority un-weathered, won’t look right. Weathering is a matter of taste and you may prefer light effects or heavy effects, however, it is fair to say that model railway weathering can easily be overdone.
An example of a perfectly weathered OO gauge locomotive that helps make it look just like the real thing!
The good news is that there are many different model railway weathering techniques for you to utilise. All are capable of producing great results with a little practice. Whilst it is true that buying an airbrush can be a sizable investment to start with, it doesn’t cost too much to run and other weathering techniques need very little in the way of expenditure. The investment is more in time than in consumables.
The Need for Observation
Since you are emulating the effects of the real world, it is essential to know how the effects build-up in the first place. Observation is your biggest asset and then you just need the skills to replicate what you have seen. For example, rain will wash deposits from outdoor items and this will lead to streaks and accumulations in other areas. Similarly, items stood on the ground are weathered by the rain hitting the ground and splashing the lower regions with dirt. Look at the pots on a patio to see this.
When you are out and about, look for weathering effects and what has caused them. Then think about how you could go about weathering your model trains to replicate the effect.
This wagon has been weathered to include rust and dirt, just like many real wagons found on the nation's railways.
There are many techniques for weathering model trains. Experiment and the select the best method for your desired result. For example, you could first spray the model with a faded colour to tone down the whole finish. You could then add a wash to replicate dirt trapped in corners. To finish off you could drybrush colours to simulate missing paint on raised areas.
Most paint manufacturers make a range of weathering powders or pigments. One bottle goes a long way and only a few basic colours are required.
The rust effects on this wagon floor were achieved by rubbing smoke, rust, sand and iron oxide weathering powders onto a matt black paint finish.
What you need:
Weathering powders/pigments, application tool (sponge tipped blunt tool)
Pros and cons:
+ Very little equipment needed
+ Can be removed easily if you make a mistake. A great technique for beginners
- Needs sealing afterwards with a varnish
- Only suitable for matt surfaces, so may need a preparatory coat of matt varnish
Your model will need to be clean for the weathering powders to adhere properly. This is likely if the model has had any use and has been handled. Washing with a mild detergent is a good idea first. If the item being weathered is a locomotive then separate the chassis to avoid getting the mechanism wet.
You need to consider the finish of the model. You will get the best adherence if the finish is matt. Gloss probably won’t work at all as none of the weathering powder will adhere. If in doubt, spray the model with a matt varnish such as Humbrol Matt Cote. Don’t spray moving parts – separate the body from the chassis beforehand or use a mask.
To apply the weathering powder, use a blunt tool such as a cotton bud. Even better, use a sponged tip tool – many weathering powder sets come with these as an accessory.
Give the paintwork an overall coat with a light colour to fade it and replicate the bleaching effect of the sun. Apply the powder to the application tool and rub it in lightly on the model using a gentle circular motion. Apply other effects locally. For example, if moss has been growing on a damp wall below a damaged water pipe, then rub the powder gently in at that point.
Top Tip. If you don’t like the affects you have achieved then wash the model in mild detergent, dry and start again.
When you are happy with the finish, you need to decide if a sealing coat is needed. If the model won’t be handled then you can leave the finish as it is; just place the model in situ. If the model will be handled then you should seal it using a varnish to match your preferred finish. If you have problems with the varnish disturbing the finish, then try spraying from further away. The varnish will likely tone down your pigments so don’t worry if it looks overdone beforehand, however, you can repeat the technique a few times to gradually build up the weathering in layers if you wish.
Top Tip: If conditions are hot, then wearing white cotton gloves will prevent perspiration from damaging the finish.
The vertical black streaks on this industrial locomotive were made using the dry brush technique.
The brown rust streaks on this corrugated iron roof were made using the dry brush technique.
What you need:
A paintbrush, a rag to wipe excess paint off and some paint
Pros and cons:
+ Only a brush and paint are required.
- Limited affects possible. Best combined with other methods, particularly washes
Take a brush and dip it in your model railway weathering paint of choice. Now wipe most of the paint off onto a rag and drag the brush lightly across the surface to deposit small amounts. It does take practice to get the right balance between the amount of paint on the brush and the pressure to use when applying it.
You will find this technique particularly effective for highlighting raised surfaces. The technique isn’t so good for producing fading effects on a large area as it is difficult to get an even finish. It’s the ‘hit and miss’ action of this technique that is its strength.
Top Tip: Try brushes with different hairs. A hog’s hair brush can produce some interesting effects.
The soot marks around the exhaust ports on this diesel roof were made by spraying with an airbrush loaded with matt black paint.
The oil streaks from the engine bay of this diesel locomotive were made by spraying a light coat of matt black paint and then dragging a slightly damp brush wetted with thinners over it in a vertical direction.
What you need:
An airbrush, a facemask that will work with small particle sizes, compressor and a spray booth with access to the outside of the premises.
Pros and cons:
+ Wide range of effects possible
+ Airbrush can be used for respraying models too with much better results than with a brush
- You need a quality airbrush, compressor and somewhere to spray
- Can be expensive initial outlay for the best equipment
- Takes longer to learn than other methods
- Harder to reverse mistakes
- Airbrushes need regular maintenance and proper care
Dust the model first with a clean brush to remove deposits. If the model has been handled a lot, or has high level of dust accumulation, wash with water and a mild detergent may be necessary. If the item being weathered is a locomotive then separate the chassis to avoid getting the mechanism wet.
You can use any model railway weathering paint and thin to the normal consistency that you use for general airbrushing. You may have to spray from a close distance to get some effects.
Hold a piece of card in front of the model and spray onto this until you are happy with the amount of paint being deposited. Then, keeping the airbrush control in the same position, move the card out of the way so that the flow is directed onto the model.
Any airbrush will allow you to add a general overall coat for fading effects, but for more controlled weathering you will need a dual action model with a narrow nozzle that is capable of producing fine lines.
Top Tip: To get the best light, work near a window or even outside.
The walls on this sand house were weathered using layers of washes.
The fading on this Shark was achieved using washes of paint.
What you need:
Brushes, paint and some thinners to match the paint used
Pros and cons:
+ Little equipment needed
- Limited affects possible. Best combined with other methods
- Good ventilation needed
- Can affect existing paintwork so care is needed
Washes are diluted layers of paint used to produce translucent affects and deposit paint into recesses. It is a good technique to combine with dry brushing.
Ensure the model is clean. Small accumulations of dust can be removed with a brush, but for finger marks and heavy accumulations of dust you will need to wash the model with a mild detergent. If the item being weathered is a locomotive then separate the chassis.
Deposit some of your model railway weathering colour into a small container. Now add an appropriate thinner. The amount to add will need some experimentation, but the greater the opacity the stronger the effect. I would use at least 50% thinners to paint, but might go as high at 90% if necessary. Remember that you can always wait for the affect to dry and then add a further layer.
Brush the wash over the model in a thin layer. You will find that the pigments in the paint tend to accumulate in the corners of detail. If there is too much of the underlying paint being covered then wipe off the excess with a cloth or cotton bud just leaving it in the recesses.
The one drawback to this method is that the thinner could disturb any paint or decals already on the model, therefore, you might like to test it first on an unobtrusive area. Don’t overwork the thinner by brushing it more than necessary. If you know what paint was used in the existing layer then use another for the weathering layer.
Top Tip: This technique is great for adding rust around rivet heads.
Weathering model trains is a really effective way to add realism to your layout and it’s achievable by modellers of all abilities. It’s a real trial and error technique but you’ll soon be producing impressive results on your model railway trains and buildings.
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.
Read our step-by-step guide to weathering a locomotive using paint washes and powders. Click here.