Early in the construction of my layout, I thought of the tracks by name and function. Thinking of the Pole Track, the Mill Track or the Cincinnati Track gave me a sense of their character. I found this more helpful and inspiring than wondering whether I needed a turnout over there or if this track should be code 100 versus code 125.

For example, the Pole Track was a siding where new utility poles were off-loaded and stored by the local electric company. The full-size track was infrequently switched and featured light traffic, suggesting that it wasn’t a maintenance priority. Therefore, older, lighter weight rail and used ties are the order of the day for modeling it. The color of the rails would lean toward various shades of rusty brown, while the ties might be split, checked or moldering away. Any ballast would likely be dirty with encroaching vegetation, depending on whether or not the railroad or customer kept it down.

I look at the world from a close-up point of view, a perspective that P48 satisfies nicely. Coupled with a taller than usual layout height, it was easy to see how individual elements combined to make a scene. When I look at a section of track, I tend to focus more on individual ties, even as I look at the track as a whole. This up close perspective encourages me to consider texture and weathering patterns more carefully.

In spite of my artistic abilities, color matching is not one of my strengths. I can do it but I’m usually not satisfied with the results. A trap I’ve fallen into is relying on what worked before rather than experimentation and observation. It’s become a habit I need to break. In my book Detailing Track, I outlined a coloring process for my ties that was more trial and error than process. At the time I was happy with the results but freely admit there’s plenty of room for improvement. Since I’m back to laying a modest section of track again, I decided to re-examine my methods and look for more consistent results.

The International Harvester Track in this new scene has been in service a long time (photo above). Squeezed between a soon to be added warehouse and North E Street, it’s a prime candidate for encroaching weeds and trash. I-H is still a viable customer for the railroad but traffic-wise the glory days are past, hence the lack of upkeep.

The core of my tie coloring was and still is, a wash of Minwax Golden Oak wood stain. I seldom stirred the contents of the can because the color would be too dark for my taste. Instead I give the can a light shake, then dip a wadded up paper towel into the stain and wipe the ties down with it. I was never too fussy at this stage; I just wanted to get them covered quickly and randomly. I also use a small paintbrush, which makes it easier to get stain on all sides and both ends. Once the solvent based stain is dry, I go back over random ties with additional color coats. At the time of writing the book, I often layered washes of acrylic paints, Floquil model paints and anything else that struck my fancy while the wood stain was still wet. This haphazard approach produced some happy accidents: random effects you can’t predict or reproduce consistently, and while it’s a useful technique, the unpredictable outcomes are just as likely to result in failures that need fixing.

What I want is an overall gray/brown color with subtle variations between individual ties. A few ties will be lighter, some more gray, others with more brown but all within a close tonal range, avoiding any strong contrasts between light and dark.

For the Harvester track, I applied the usual coat of stain, let it dry and then spiked down the rails. After that I ballasted the track using the typical methods we all know. At this point the track still looked too clean so I sprinkled sifted dirt (the real stuff) and rubbed it in with my fingers. The rubbing action pulverized the fine particles, turning them into a powder that coated the ties and ballast. It looks like dirt beginning to overtake the ballast layer as I applied it heavily in some places, less so in others. It also gives everything a dead flat appearance. I removed any loose dust and I don’t bother to fix this layer because it’s essentially permanent and wetting it alters the color. I‘ve discovered the hard way that real dirt doesn’t lighten up again as it dries. I know some may have concerns about particles getting into motors or bearings, so feel free to ignore this step or use commercial weathering powders instead.

The ties looked better but were still too yellowish brown in color. As an experiment I tried coloring one tie with very light wash of gray craft paint. I wet down the tie with a water-filled brush and floated the color on to the wet surface using a light touch with just a bit of paint on the tip of the brush. Done correctly, the paint will diffuse into the wet surface leaving just a tint of color. The key to this technique is the degree of dampness on the tie. More water will cause the paint to thin and spread more readily. On a drier surface, the paint will be more opaque. Experimenting with more washes, I built up a transparent gray color that let the brown undertone show through (photo above). I liked what I saw and did more ties, altering the intensity of the wash coats by adding a bit more pigment to the water while being careful to keep the layers transparent.

I added the car stop at the end of the siding using an extra tie (opening photo). I did the physical distressing for the cracks and rough surface texture first, then glued it to the rails with gel CA. The strapping is brass strip dipped in Blacken-It and dusted with rust colored weathering powder after installation. I glued it to the ties with more CA and drilled holes for the plastic nut and bolt castings, which actually pin everything together because I left the shafts long to slide into the holes. They’re held in place with CA. In my haste I didn’t color the tie, so it’s still raw basswood at this stage. Instead of using the wood stain, I simply started layering washes of the craft paint onto it, gradually building the color until I was satisfied (second photo above). Truth is, I like how this tie turned out more than all the others I’ve done over the years. It’s got that oxidized, sun bleached appearance that’s eluded me until now. Who knew how simple it was to achieve?

There are dozens of ways to achieve this weathered wood coloring and everyone has their pet formulas, materials and techniques. I like using the washes because the materials are readily available and simple to master. With a bit of practice, it’s easy to control how the color builds up. It’s a technique I’ll continue to experiment and play with. I have considerably more work to do with this scene but I like the progress so far.



  1. Chris Mears

    I really appreciate the insight into how you’ve changed your process to treat the ties. It hints of a shift from modeling track to making models of the ties and then using those models as components in a larger piece. It’s a very nice approach.

    I’ve used the craft paints on my N scale ties and have always liked the effect I could achieve. I find they thin nicely and easily and it was always easy to use them either to further build layers of colour through washes or a dry brush approach.

    Moving away from the ties, I like the dirt and ground cover (“ballast?”) at the ties around the end of the siding. It all looks so loose and natural. Not at all like it could be glued down or was in any way static. Very nice effect.


  2. mike

    Hi Chris,

    I wish I could take credit for the texture in that area. It’s just ordinary dirt that I sifted through my fingers and it’s firmly bonded. I guess the secret -if there is one- is not to fuss with it. Put it in place, leave it alone and apply wetting solution and diluted glue. I’ve never used the craft paints as a wash this transparent on bare wood before now. I like the results though and will use this method in the future.