Friday, May 21, 2021

Flat Car Decks

Although none of the flat cars are quite ready for this, a recent post/video by Jason Hill on his blog about how he distresses, paints and weathers flat car decks inspired some practice. Jason's techniques with the razor saw were faster than my more methodical approach, and while most of the specifics are similar to what I do it's always nice to get a refresher in some of the techniques.

Harold Minkwitz's Pacific Coast Airline Railway site also has some great info and examples. Unfortunately it appears Harold passed last year, and the site may be going away. He had an article in the July 2006 RMC. I would post a link to the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, but it appears he blocked access for his site, which is too bad.

It's been a long time since I've really painted anything like this. I did a quick coat on the crossing shanties, and did paint and weather the engine servicing pits. But painting is something I've been looking forward to getting back to for some time. I've painted thousands of fantasy miniatures along with some scenery back in the day. So I'm quite comfortable with brush painting with acrylics, but haven't done any in a long, long time. What I'll need to learn is how to use the airbrush, but that's for another day. This process is all about brush-painting with acrylics.

Here's a "before and after" look next to an unfinished Tichy model. I'm quite happy with how it turned out, here's an outline of the process I used.

Distressing the Deck

I'd already severely distressed the NH flat car deck, since it's representing a car near the end of its life. When I did the New Haven deck I used a razor saw, scalpel, and scriber to dig it up. The majority was with the scalpel. This is a shot in progress:

However, most of the photos I've seen from my era indicates that the decks didn't typically get that bad. Since I have extra Tichy decks, I used one to make what I would consider a "well-worn" deck that is still in regular service. So most of the work here was done with the razor saw. 

Painting and Weathering

My process is to work in thin layers to build the effect I'm looking for. This is an approach I'm very comfortable with from painting thousands of fantasy minis. When painting fantasy miniatures the basic approach is to paint from the inside out. That is, you start with any flesh and then "dress" them with paints. Other folks may have a better idea of how to get a similar finish by just painting it, but I work best in thin layers

The process at its most basic is a base coat, shadows and highlights. Reaper Miniatures has a line of paint that comes in groups of three colors: a base, a shadow, and a highlight. The classic method is to apply the base color first, then a wash of the shade to darken the areas that would be in shadow or collect dirt, etc., and then dry brushing the tint to add highlights. But for a more natural look, you'll probably have more than just these three layers and techniques.

For weathered wood, a white, grey, or light beige are all reasonable colors to start with. The deck itself is gray and could be used as the base color, but I wanted something a little lighter and less consistent.

I started with several thin coats of Vallejo Grey Primer. It doesn't need to be a primer, it just happened to be the light neutral grey that I had in reach. Applied much like painting with watercolors, I wet the model first, then applied a layer of thinned primer and let it dry. I did several layers until I had the coverage and color I was happy with.

I wasn't trying to get even coverage here, or I wouldn't have thinned it (or might have just airbrushed it). Instead, I'm trying to add variations in color and coverage over the plastic to provide the base.

I applied two different colors of a dark wash. This is to fill the spaces between the boards, along with the damage carved into them. In this case I used two because I felt the German Camoflauge Black Brown was too brown. Although this product was sold as a wash, it was very thick in this bottle, and I'm not sure the black mixed in sufficiently. No worries, though as a second wash with the Light Grey toned down the brown.

A wash, particularly with a light base and dark wash, immediately makes it "pop" and you can already see the texture much better. A very light gray or white base with a black wash is a common approach to simulate weathered wood and many modelers would stop at this point.

As that dried, you can see how some of the pigment settled out in a more mottled look, which I really like. This was a relatively heavy application, and there was enough liquid on the surface of the boards that I could tilt it different angles and let it flow and color some of the surface of the boards, and not just in the cracks.

I used straight tap water for this, which reacts differently than an actual thinner. I think the surface tension of the water tends to suck some of the pigment out of the cracks depending on how it dries. In addition, the pigment seems to separate sometimes into the mottles appearance. If you aren't careful, especially on smooth surfaces, you'll get an "edge" where the pigment collects as it dries.

Now for the highlight step. This is commonly done by dry brushing a lighter tint of the base color, along with other desired colors. Dry brushing is a great technique, but does have a specific look that isn't always the best approach, and is often quite noticeable in photos.

Another option would be blending. This is done using wetter and thinner (more transparent) layers of paint. each layer covering less area out of the shadows, and towards the highlights. You can use as many layers as you'd to get an even gradation that smoothly makes the transition from the darker areas to the highlights.

For this I did a bit of both. I felt that straight dry brushing would be too stark, so I started with that, and then went back with some isolated blending.

Another wash of a neutral color, helps blend everything together even more.

Some people would call this a filter or blending coat. What's the difference?

Where a wash is intended to flow primarily into the crevices and low spots to simulate collecting dirt and shadows, and emphasize the texture, a filter is to blend everything together to make it look more natural. The filter can be used to alter the color as well, but in this case I used a neutral gray because I wanted to smooth out the overall look, rather than adjust the color.

Having said that, best I can tell there isn't a lot of agreement exactly what a filter or wash is. I've always understood a filter to have a similar effect as a camera filter would, altering the entire photo or, in the case of painting, area that it's applied.

For many a filter is an oil or enamel based wash. AK Interactive's filters are enamel based, intended to be used over their acrylics. Citadel Colours (Games Workshop) used to have a line of inks. I still have some. They were similar to a wash, but the color was more intense. I haven't used AK Interactive's filters, but they may be like that.

I'll stick to the term wash for a thin coat intended to flow into the crevices, primarily to make them more evident, and a filter as a (usually) thin semi-transparent coat to alter/blend the colors underneath them. They may be a very similar consistency, it's really the intent or application that differs for me, so it lets you know what I'm trying to accomplish in that step. Anyway, moving on...

A few more shots of what it looks like at this stage. I like the way it came out better in photos than in person, but I'm quite happy in both cases.

My goal is for individual boards to look different, rather than a smear of color across several boards, yet for them to look appropriately similar, since they weather at a similar rate. I chose not to do any single or multiple replacement boards that are significantly newer than the rest of the deck.

You can continue this process of layering as much as you'd like. One thing to be careful of is to not make things too dark. Paint buildup isn't an issue since they are very thin layers. For this deck, I decided to stick with one layer of each technique, just to see where the fasted approach would land. In addition, it lets me see whether there are areas or effects that I feel are lacking. It can be difficult to tell if the initial layers are providing the desired effects until you get to a blending wash like this.

Sitting on the layout under the (current) layout lighting:

I've wanted to try this Tamiya weathering product that I've had for a while and the colors seemed perfect for this. In person the deck had a little bit of a gloss and I thought a light coat of "dust" would help. Although you could compare these to Pan Pastels, they really seem more like a make-up product, and come with a make-up applicator. A paint brush was insufficient to transfer the weathering medium, which means it was also tough to get a very light application. I treated it like dry brushing, but it still applied heavier (or not at all) than I intended.

I also did a final weathering with a light coat of Vallejo pigments. These will probably wear off over time, since I didn't seal it.

Overall I think Tamiya weathering blended things together perhaps more than I would have liked, but that is probably due to the nature of the medium. The Vallejo pigment would probably have been sufficient on its own. But overall I'm very happy with the results. It does simulate the effect of a coat of dust/dirt quite well, perhaps a little bit at the expense of the individual character of the individual boards.


As you can see in the pictures, I primarily used Vallejo paints here. I used Vallejo, Citadel (Games Workshop), and Reaper paints among others for painting minis, and am very comfortable with how they handle. Vallejo was my go-to until I purchased an entire set of Reaper paints. Once I switched back to building the railroad and needed to free up the space, I sold the Reaper paints. It's not that they won't work for this purpose, but they are produced in colors more appropriate for fantasy minis. 

I preferred the Reaper and Vallejo paints in part because of the quality, but also because of the dropper bottles. I'm usually working with very small amounts of paint, and it also allows easy measurement for mixing up other colors. A lot of people (like in Jason's video) use inexpensive craft paints for this sort of application, and those work just fine. While Vallejo is quite a bit more expensive, in the small quantities I use they last a long time, so they work for me.

Since I was never a Floquil/Polly Scale user, and had quickly switched from enamels to acrylics in junior high when painting minis, it was an easy decision to switch back to Vallejo for modeling. While they don't have pre-mixed railroad colors, because of their long-time support of military modeling they have great options for everything else. Joe Fugate's Guide to Acrylics has formulas to match Vallejo paints to many of the old Floquil colors. Micro-Marks' MicroLux brand of paints is also produced by Vallejo.

One thing I did like better about Reaper paints is that they had agitators (severed heads of minis) in the bottle. In Joe's guide to acrylics, he decants everything to dropper bottles and adds a couple of nuts, which actually work better than the severed heads since they don't fall into the throat of the bottle. I haven't added the nuts to my paints yet, but I did add them to the dropper bottles I used for brands that don't come packed in them. I do have lots of other brands, which will likely pop up in time.

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