Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Weathering flat car decks

In discussing my car fleet plans for flat cars, in an earlier post (available at: I alluded to the need to weather flat car decks in a realistic way. Now I want to illustrate a couple of examples. They are all taken from the same starting point, the fine Red Caboose model of SP’s Class F-70-7 cars in HO.
     These cars have been available with either plastic decks or real wood decks. Some modelers feel that real wood is the best medium to reproduce wood parts in HO scale. However, I don’t agree. If wood grain patterning is visible in your wood, it is way out of scale, and if you distress the deck, the splinters and gouges are likewise way out of scale to what would happen in the prototype. Lastly, a freshly decked flat car might look like raw wood (many railroads, including SP, did not use creosoted decking), but after a few years of hard use, along with sun, rain, and dirt, a car deck does not look remotely like new wood.
     This sounds like a strong preference for plastic decks, and indeed, that’s my position, but it’s worth looking at how to weather both types. I’ve had to do so because I’ve been helping with the weathering needs of Otis McGee’s freight car fleet, and it is a large fleet. His layout models the SP’s Shasta Division in 1952, and he correctly has a mammoth number of SP flat cars to carry lumber, a very large traffic segment on that line at the time. (The layout was featured in this year’s issue of Great Model Railroads from Kalmbach.) Why am I mentioning that? because quite a few of Otis’s flat cars have wood decks.
     The starting point for Red Caboose decks is either styrene, which is delivered painted boxcar red (and SP did not in general paint its flat car decks), or natural wood. Either way, I like to distress them before weathering. A trip to your nearest yard or siding to view a prototype flat car will typically show considerable damage to the decking, more than is easy to represent on a model (and this isn’t a modern problem; the same is true for period photos of steam-era flat cars). But I do gouge and scrape different areas, and also roughen with coarse sandpaper. If it’s a wood deck, I would then go over it with fine sandpaper to remove fuzz and out-of-scale splinters. On a plastic deck, styrene debris should also be smoothed and cleaned up.
     Here is a wood deck, sanded, scraped, scratched and gouged (in moderation), and with all fuzz and splinters carefully removed. You may wish to click on the image to see it larger and examine any details of interest. I have done decks more heavily distressed than this, and some with less or minimal distressing.

Once decks, whether wood or styrene, have been appropriately distressed, I paint them with acrylics. I like to use a mixture of Ivory Black, Neutral Gray, and Burnt Umber. I partly blend these on a convenient piece of scrap cardboard, and as I paint the deck (all strokes crosswise to the car), I remix and re-blend to get color variation from place to place. I may add a little “wet water” (water with a single drop of liquid detergent) to dilute and mix the colors. At the end of the process, I often go back and add additional color to some areas.
     I should mention that this isn’t a very “wet” process, which would potentially be bad on a wood deck, and could result in warping. The amount of water I use is small, and the painting is primarily a straight pigment mix.
     The intent is that no two flat cars are the same, and I think I achieve that, both because of the variation in color mix during painting, and because I rarely do more than one car in a particular session. Here are three completed car decks.

The top car in this photo has a plastic deck. The car in the middle has a wood deck and is the one seen above in unpainted condition, and the bottom one is another wood deck done earlier. The upper deck happens to be more of a gray tone, as one sees on older wood decks, while the lower two have a darkened look, like a more recently renewed but weathered car deck.
     Once you have modeled a few flat cars this way (or if you have looked carefully at prototype flat car decks), an unweathered or “body color” deck will look really wrong. Luckily this is an easy and quick technique. And it has the advantage that if you don’t like it while it’s going onto the car, it rinses off with water; and if you don’t like it later, just repaint over it. Try it, and I think you’ll like the results.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony,

    Good article with helpful information. Do you use acrylic paint in the bottles or tube acrylics? I want to try this technique on a Red Caboose bulkhead flat car.

    Larry Olsen

  2. Thank you, Larry. I have always used tube acrylics. By wetting surfaces to be weathered with "wet water" you can then apply the amount of pigment ;you want. You have to experiment to find out what that amount is, for you.
    Tony Thompson