MODELING: Fifty Shades of Red (Boxcar)

You have likely observed emails and articles on getting the right shade of paint for certain railroads.  Often times, the discussion centers around boxcars and what shade of red/brown is appropriate for their road.   Tru-Color, Star and others produce specific colors matched to actual samples and/or drift panels.   It has been a major help for modelers who are concerned about the proper look.  It goes along with getting the correct lettering or freight car model to fit the prototype.  I myself have fallen victim to this quest for accuracy.

SP LA yard 1953

I submit the above photo as evidence that picking the right shade of freight car color is not so critical as one would suggest.   I found the picture on a blog and was struck by the variations of the basic oxide finish the Southern Pacific specified for the freight cars from before WWII to the early 1950s when a new version appeared that was more red and less brown than the past.  Look at the colors of each car in the long line of boxcars.  Some of the lettering styles indicate that the cars were likely in their “as delivered” color.

As we all know, viewing a picture or slide taken 60 years ago is not always representative of what you would have seen if you were in the above yard in Los Angeles in 1953.  Lighting, film and camera setting are all artifacts that affect what the eye sees. Each person’s perception of color is different.   Viewing your model gives you different color effects than seeing the actual prototype.  Seeing your model under layout lights will further shift the perception of color.   So you end up with a bit of mess when trying to do it right.

So how do we get it right?  Start with a color that is in the general range of the prototype.  Some freight cars tend to show as a red or brown tone.   Tru-Color has their paints matched to drift panels in the collection of Ed Hawkins.  The panels came from AC&F and Pullman or some cases from the railroad.   Star Brand uses actual drift panels to match to.   These are good starting points but not the only route.   Lee Turner uses water-based acrylics produced by Model Masters, Tamiya or Vallejo.  These are very fine paint and can be adjust easily with a little tinting.   If you use the commercial acrylic lacquers, you will need to make an adjustment or two.   Tru-Color is way too dark for most of the freight car shades and need to be lightened.  Remember they were matched to actual paints intended to cover a full-size car.  You can soften the color by a simple process of adding clear gloss to the color to thin the pigment.   You can further soften the color with mixing a light gray or a pale yellow to the basic color.  You will only need about 5-10% added.  This produces a “scale effect” of adjusting the intensity to the modeling scale.  It is not precise but does lighten the paint without a major shift in color.  White isn’t the best color to mix in since it can quickly render a pink shade that might be a bit shocking.

initial color

Lee Turner’s work illustrates the art of color as applied to a model.   It started with a base color that was mixed to be a softer shade of the prototype C&O freight car color.  To that he added washes and airbrushed acrylic layers to accent and mute the basic color.


Wet the model with distilled water and a wetting agent such as Dawn dish soap or Kodak Photo Flo.   An initial wash of earth tones can be applied to a gloss finish.   This will give a more uniform effect.  You can flatten the finish and then start to add accents like black shadowing on details to get them to “pop”.

acrylic weathering1

Following Lee Turner’s suggestions, I used the a rust and black to “spot” color on my boxcar.   This was my first attempt at this and really like the effect.

zman sands springs

Freight car master, Jim Zwernemann, has been painting and weathering using materials and techniques like Lee Turner.   His use of color and weathering creates a very realistic effect with looking overdone.   Like Lee, Jim is an example to emulate in one’s own modeling.

Hopefully you have weathered my posting well.

Happy Trails,




4 thoughts on “MODELING: Fifty Shades of Red (Boxcar)

  1. Very nice models, much better than mine for sure.

    Ray & Renee Grosser

    1145 Linn Road

    Eubank KY 42567-9579

    (606) 379-6590

    “I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.” General William Booth

    I hope you never have to work as hard as we play!

    • The work is indeed very fine but I guess you don’t like us Unitarian Universalists very well then
      That kind of commentary not needed here

  2. I met Lee this spring at the Chicago meet. Does he have a business email? I had a couple questions on tube paint and the 3 colors he recommends.

    Dick Donaway

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