Painting Model Trains

Our railroad bone yard wouldn’t be complete without some in-service cars to carry out the scrap. Lionel makes many great gondolas which can be used with a scene like this. For a little added character, we’ll create one for the company itself. This starting point for this car is an inexpensive model from one of our “Scout” sets. If you’re just getting started, practice cars like this can be found cheaply at shows if you don’t already have a few in your own collection.


This Norfolk Southern gon, hauling traction motors across the Rockville Bridge, is a good example of a typical “patch out” paint scheme. You can also clearly see the bulged side sheets we modeled last week.

Like the adaptive reuse of other equipment around the yard, the company’s railcar wasn’t purchased new. This practice of purchasing used railcars is hardly limited to the salvage industry however. Cars “patched” with new reporting marks and numbers are a common sight on today’s railroads. Sometimes cars are completely repainted. Often the previous ownership is still very obvious with only the most important tracking information changed.

Recreating this look on a model is an easy process. The techniques shown here can be used on any car. As this particular model is meant to represent a rather old and beaten gondola, it was painted with cans of spray paint available at any hardware store. For a smoother finish an airbrush should be used. The techniques are all the same however.


masking trucks

Prior to any painting, the trucks and couplers were completely masked. They will be hand painted later.

To create the patch, first the area must be masked. There are two ways to do this. If you are going to be repainting the entire car as seen here, the easiest method is to paint the patch color first. Then simply apply masking tape (blue painters tape works very well) to the “patch” and then paint the base color of the car.

If you’re painting just a patch over the existing paint, then you’ll have a little more masking to do. As you study the prototype, you’ll find plenty of examples of fast and sloppy work. On a much smaller model however, this haste often doesn’t scale down well. For the benefit of those of you who may be starting with a painted model, we’ll show this masking technique here.

patch mask

Mask everything on the car that will not be “patched” before spraying.

Tape around the area to be patched. Typically this is over the existing reporting marks and road number. The patch may be as small as the lettering itself, or it may cover half the car – no two ever seem to be exactly the same. Make sure the tape is tight all around the mask to prevent creeping.

To protect the rest of the car, wrap a paper towel or craft paper around the body. Avoid printed materials that can leave marks on the car.


As with any painting job, there are a few basic techniques that always yield better results:

  • Clean the model prior to painting, including dusting and wiping with a damp cloth to remove finger prints and other oils.


    Apply paint evenly and in successive light coats to prevent runs. Spray from different angles to avoid “shadows.”

  • Use smooth, even strokes, extending the spray of paint just beyond the masked edge.
  • Hold the airbrush or can about six to twelve inches away from the model and paint at an angle, not perpendicular to the model.
  • Build the paint in smaller layers, not one.
  • Keep a “wet edge” as you work to prevent lines.
  • Allow one coat to dry before applying the next. (As the paint should be nearly dry when it reaches the model, this should not take long.)
  • Turn the model between coats to reach all sides of rivets and other details on the body.
  • Paint in a well-lit area.
  • Paint in a well ventilated area and wear proper protection.

Once the paint has completely dried, you can remove the mask.



The completed patch, with lettering, suggests this car has history.

If you’ve used a flat color for the patch, you’ll want to take one additional step before applying your new lettering. Apply a clear gloss finish to the patch. This will provide a better surface for the decals. We’ll present decal tips in next Wednesday’s blog.

With decals in place, you can seal with another coat of gloss finish and then apply a flat clear coat to the entire car. This will lock the decals between the gloss clear coats and hide the edges.


The trucks are one of the dirtier areas of the car. Grimy black works well as a base coat. It is just as easy to paint these by hand with a small brush as to mask the entire car again and paint with an airbrush or can. If you are doing an entire fleet of cars, masking may be the more efficient alternative however.


Painting the trucks and wheels a grimy black will remove the shiny metal look and provide a better surface for further weathering.

On the prototype, wheels are never painted (neither are couplers) so that defects in the metal can be detected. Newly replaced wheels will have a rusty brown color. After a few months in service however, the wheels will take on the same dirty black look as the rest of the truck. You can hand paint the wheels to whichever color you prefer as a base coat. Be careful to keep paint out of the journals (where the axles meet the truck sideframes) as this will create added friction and drag.

You can finish the trucks by using some of the weathering methods we’ve described previously, like using chalks, to highlight the details and add some more variations in color.

Your car is now ready for weathering and service! Over the coming pages we’ll cover more tips including decals, weathering and creating a proper load for the car.

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