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Realistic weathering tips for freight car models

Tips for weathering freight car roofs and empty gondola model train cars
Pelle Soeborg freight car weathering tips
This view of the Daneville Yard on Pelle Søeborg’s HO scale Union Pacific layout shows a variety of equipment with weathered roofs. He completed all of the weathering with powdered pastels, hobby paints, and an airbrush
Years ago, when I became interested in weathering model trains, I found it extremely difficult to find roof photos, either among my own pictures or in magazines (this was back when the Internet was only for nerds). Many times I had to guess how roofs looked. This taught me never to waste an opportunity to take pictures of trains from above. So the next time you’re trackside, find an elevated spot from which to photograph trains. You never know when that overhead shot will come in handy.
Pelle Soeborg weathering model train boxcar roofs
This prototype photo shows the various ways boxcar roofs weather. On some cars patches of galvanized metal are visible, while on other cars the roof is completely rusted. The boxcar in the foreground has sealant around the edge of the roof and on the seams to prevent leaks.
Pelle Soeborg weathering model train covered hopper roofs
The paint on covered hopper roofs wears off and the steel underneath begins to rust. As this overhead view shows, the hatch covers are rust-free. That’s because the covers on these cars are made of Fiberglas.

Boxcars and covered hoppers

The corrugated steel roofs on prototype boxcars rust in a variety of patterns. In addition to rusty metal, boxcar roofs may have paint overspray and sealant patches to prevent leaks.

Covered hoppers are also prone to rust. What sets hoppers apart from boxcars are the occasional spilled (and sometimes growing) grain on the roof and the rust-free hatch covers. The covers used on most new hoppers are Fiberglas or aluminum, so at most they have a layer of grain dust and road grime.

Pelle Soeborg weathering model train boxcars
To re-create a rusty roof on this boxcar, Pelle mixed rust brown and black powdered pastels into a clear flat varnish. Then he brushed it on the roof in a random pattern. The paste has a textured surface like real rust.
Pelle Soeborg using a paint wash to weather model train boxcars
Next, Pelle applied rust brown and black pastels over the dry rust paste with a wide, soft brush. He sealed the weathering by applying a coat of clear flat varnish with an airbrush.
weathered covered hopper on Pelle Soeborg's model railroad
Careful attention to prototype photos helped Pelle accurately model the roof on this covered hopper. Though the steel roof and galvanized running boards have rust, the simulated Fiberglas hatch covers are grimy, but not rusty.

Two-step weathering

I used a two-step system to add rust to the roofs of my HO scale freight cars. First, I added rust brown powdered pastels and a little black powdered pastels to a clear flat varnish, mixed everything together, and applied the rust paste on the roof in a random pattern.


Then I applied the same two shades of powdered pastels on top of the painted areas. I used a wide, soft brush to distribute the pastels. I sealed the weathering with a coat of clear flat varnish applied with an airbrush.

I used the same techniques on covered hoppers. The hatch covers have a bit of dust and grime on them, but no rust.
Prototype gondola with debris
Pelle noticed the remnants of previous loads in this prototype photo of an unloaded gondola.
Pelle Soeborg airbrushed rust colored paint on the interior of his gondola model
Pelle sprayed the interior with Model Master Leather.
Pelle Soeborg used powered pastels to finish weathering the gondola model
Pelle used three colors of powdered pastels to break up the uniform look of the Leather paint.
The finished weathered gondola model looks like the real thing on Pelle Soeborg's HO scale model railroad.
Pelle randomly added patches of white glue thinned with water to the gondola’s floor. With the glue still wet, he added stained stripwood and real rust flakes.
Not-so-empty gondolas

On a recent trip to the Midwest, I discovered unloaded gondolas aren’t always completely empty. While photographing trains from a bridge, I noticed several gondolas with debris from previous loads. Wood, dirt, and non-magnetic metals were common sights.

To re-create this look, I masked the sides and ends of the gondola and sprayed the interior with Model Master Leather. After the paint dried, I broke up the interior’s uniform appearance by applying light rust, medium rust, and black powdered pastels with assorted brushes. After sealing the weathering with a clear, flat varnish, I randomly applied blotches of white glue thinned with water to the car’s floor. I placed pieces of stained stripwood into the wet glue, and then sprinkled in real crushed rust flakes. When the glue had dried, I shook out the loose material.

Give it a try
While this article focused on weathering roofs, I of course weathered the rest of each model. You can learn more about my techniques in the January 2009 Model Railroader.

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