Freight Car Friday – Improving Flatcar Decks

4 10 2013

Throughout October, we’ll be featuring several easy projects you can use to improve your freight car models. Whether you are just getting started with “weathering” and customizing models, looking for ways to make your models unique and more realistic, or just need a relaxing modeling project for the weekend ahead, these posts may provide just the inspiration you need. So you say you’re not fond of “dirty” model trains? Don’t worry, many of the projects ahead can be done without adding a lot of extra grime or even changing the finish of the original model at all.

Improving Flatcar Decks

Even an empty flatcar deck offers an opportunity for the modeler.

Even an empty flatcar deck offers an opportunity for the modeler.

Flatcars and gondolas offer some of the greatest modeling possibilities with a virtually unlimited number of loads that can be added to them. We’ve shown how to model some loads already and we’ll present two more in the coming weeks. But every load will look better if it sits on a realistic platform.

For this project, we’re using one of our traditional plastic flatcar models. If you have a Lionel train set, there is a pretty good chance you have one of these in your collection. These same techniques can be used with just about any plastic or metal model however. We’ll make some notes along the way for how you could modify these techniques for our scale cars with real wood decks.

Our first challenge is to make a plastic car look like it has a wood floor. In most cases, the wood floor of a car is not painted on the prototype. The expense would quickly be worn away by the rough treatment the car will receive in service. This beating also leaves plenty of gouges and even broken boards.

Distressing the Deck

deck texture

A few passes with some 60 grit sandpaper adds a wood grain effect to the deck boards. You can add additional scratches and scrapes to represent abuse from loads.

You can decide how much abuse your car needs for yourself. If you want to add a little wood grain to your car simply rub it with some 60 grit sand paper or scratch away with a hobby knife blade. This process will go much faster with a real wood deck so start with a light pressure and built up to the desired level of punishment. A prototype photo (we’ve got a few of those here!) can be a big help when trying to get the right look.

Masking and Painting


Carefully mask all of the steel areas of the car – anything you don’t want to turn to wood.

Begin by carefully masking off all of the “steel” parts of the car. Regular blue painters tape will work well for this. Make sure to get the tape pressed tightly against the car. You can trim the strips to width with a hobby knife. The grooves in the floor make a good guide for a straight cut. If you are going to spray the car, don’t forget to mask all the sides and ends too. If you are brush painting, you can avoid this masking as long as you don’t get too crazy with that paint brush!


Peel back the mask to reveal a sharp contrast between the wood and steel. If you have any bleed through spots, don’t worry; they’ll be easy to cover with subsequent weathering.

To represent aged wood, use a light gray primer color. For a brand new deck, a light tan works well. Keep in mind that freight car builders did not use “green” lumber. It was carefully stacked and dried for as much as two years prior to being used on a car to prevent it from warping and distressing on its own once in place. So even a new deck would likely show some signs of age.

If you don’t have any experience with an airbrush, don’t worry. This is one of those jobs that will turn out just as well with a rattle can of primer from the hardware store. On the other hand, if you don’t have any experience with an airbrush, a simple project like this would be a great place to get started!

painted deck

The painted deck already looks much more like wood but it is still too uniform.

Paint the entire deck. We can come back and highlight individual boards later if desired by hand painting lighter or darker “wood” shades on individual planks. If you don’t want to paint these with a brush, tape off individual boards or groups of boards and spray with a can or airbrush.

For real would decks, skip the paint and use a stain. You can find aged wood gray stains in small jars at your home or hardware center. Apply the stain with a foam brush. You can apply it to the entire deck or just selective boards to represent recent repairs. Although you can wipe the stain off the “steel” parts of the car quickly if you go outside the wood deck, masking these areas is still not a bad idea.

When you’ve finished painting, peel back the painters tape. You will already notice a dramatic difference. Before we continue however, let the paint dry thoroughly overnight.

Adding Depth


A quick wash with some diluted black paint brings out a lot of detail and adds to the aged look.

Now we want to highlight, or more correctly shadow, the lower parts of the deck. To do this we’ll apply a weathering wash. This process was described in more detail in an earlier blog.

Using a very thin flat black paint, brush paint the entire deck. Allow the paint to soak into all the cracks between boards. After the paint has had a few minutes to set, you can wipe off any excess from the tops of the boards. If you take off too much and you don’t have the desired look in the cracks, you can reapply the wash. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to leave a little black on the tops of the boards either. It will help add to the final affect.

Apply as many washes as necessary until you are comfortable. Remember, no two cars are the same. There is no “right” way to weather yours and the train will look better if you don’t try to make them all “just right.”


Now that we’ve brought out the detail, we can finish our deck treatment by highlighting the boards themselves. Weathering powders or chalks work best for this. These powders can be found in a variety of hues. Again, we’ve covered weathering chalks in an earlier blog if you’d like more information. Pick several of your favorite grays, browns and black and mix them on the car.


After brushing several shades of weathering powders the deck has a well-used yet maintained appearance. Even if the rest of the car is not weathered, improving the deck makes a big difference.

The heaviest weathering should be focused towards the center of the car where most loads would be placed. Use black or dark gray to add a healthy layer of grime to the middle of the car. You can now highlight individual planks with lighter colors to help vary their aging. Add unique stains in random locations with other colors to represent further load damage.

While we’ve focused on the wood parts of the deck, this weathering can go over the steel portions too. It all gets scratched and dirty. If you want to add some heavier “rust” to the steel parts of the deck, consider using oil paints.

Again, how much you apply is up to you. One advantage of the chalks however is that a wet sponge or paper towel will quickly correct any “mistakes” or bring you back to the start if you think you’ve gone too far.

Final Details

The deck itself is now finished. If you are modeling an empty car you can leave it at this. Many flatcars and gondolas aren’t as “empty” however and you can sprinkle a few extra blocks of wood, a piece of chain, bailing straps, etc.  from previous load restraints on the deck for that extra little bit of realism even if you’re not going to add a full load. If you do want to add a load, we’ll start one of those projects next Friday!



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