The opposite of extreme

These days, there’s a lot of discussion in the hobby devoted to extreme weathering of locomotives and rolling stock. We’ve all seen examples, I’m sure – but if not, Google is your friend.

Some of the models I’ve seen are stunning. But I’ve never been tempted to put any such models on a layout. Weathering styles are a personal preference, and what looks great to one person looks awful to another. Regardless, if you’re building a realistic layout I feel it’s important to develop a uniform weathering approach – a palette of colours and media – and stick to it, so that individual pieces of rolling stock blend into the scene you’re creating.

I achieve this blend by employing a limited selection of acrylic paints – a grey-black, an earth colour, and a light grey – and applying them with an airbrush. My goal is to create cars that are sporting a bit of road grime and smoke – I model the steam era, after all – without looking like they’re ready for the scrap yard. Here are some examples:

CNR 462085

BAOX 378

CNR 209503

Note that the palette can be adjusted to suit specific models. In the following two examples, I’ve added additional colours to my weathering set – white for cement dust, and rust for the interior of the gondola:

BO 530382

NYC 399574

In this example, I’ve modelled a snow plow that has recently been repainted. (That’s often done in the summer, when they aren’t needed.) The plow has very little weathering on it, because it’s fresh out of the shop. In fact, the paint is even still a bit shiny: that’s the story I want to tell. But the plow has already acquired some weathering on the blade – including some green tones where it has been pushed through the weeds and grasses that grow on the shop tracks:

CNR 55303

Even so, the basic palette is prominent, and is applied using my standard technique and pattern: Smoky grey-black near the top of the car, light grey and/or earth colours along the bottom to represent dust and dirt kicked up from the right of way, and so on.

This uniform appearance is so important to me, that even though I have my friend Pierre Oliver build and paint many of my resin freight cars for me (so that I can focus on building my layout), I always tell him I will do the weathering myself. He does a fine job of weathering – but his style is different than mine, and that would be immediately apparent if his weathering jobs were placed on my layout.

I thought that my aversion to extreme weathering was primarily because in order to maintain my desired uniform palette, I would have to weather everything to the same extreme degree. But recently, my friend Bob Fallowfield wrote a superb piece about why he too avoids the extreme look – raising an issue to which I hadn’t really given any consideration. Here’s his story, reposted here with permission…

Bob Fallowfield's CP Rail boxcars

One trend I’m seeing in the hobby is that of extreme weathering. This is where the model is completely “ratbagged” with heavy oils and often covered in various tags with sometimes only the reporting marks being the only legible lettering. While this treatment may truly represent the specific prototype of the subject car, it ruins another illusion.

Consider this: I don’t have to tell any of you about the frustration of compression. We compress track miles, structure size, train length and even time. The other thing we compress is the North American freight car fleet. Our railways are presumabley linked via interchange to the continental rail network and thus have potential access to a myriad of cars from all over. Even the size of our home road fleet is shrunken down to often a few of each AAR type. I submit that we often ruin this illusion by applying extreme weathering to our fleet of cars. That is, we make it obvious that we are limited to certain cars and not a vast fleet.

Take the once ubiquitous CP 40’ boxcar. I have approximately three dozen of them in varying schemes. Let’s say I have ten in action red. If I weather those ten in a garish, extreme, outlandish way, they will quickly become highly visible and instantly recognizable. As a modeller already fighting the constraints of compression, this is exactly the effect I don’t want. I want those ten boxcars to represent a fleet of hundreds.

Thanks for letting me share this, Bob!

(If you don’t know his work, Bob has a wonderful HO scale layout on which he is faithfully re-creating the activities of the CP Rail Galt Subdivision in and around Woodstock, Ontario in 1980. He doesn’t have a traditional blog, but is a prolific author on the Facebook page he created for his layout. This piece came from that page – Bob Fallowfield’s Galt Sub. You can also see Bob’s layout, in action, in a two-part feature on TrainMasters TV. The tour is definitely worth the modest cost of a subscription.)

Now, this doesn’t mean that extreme weathering has no place. Locomotives – especially smaller ones used on branches like mine – tend to draw the same assignment day after day, so a distinct weathering characteristic isn’t an issue. If you really must have an extreme weathering example on your layout, a branchline locomotive is a good choice – just make sure the foundation is built up using the same palette you apply to all of your equipment. The same rationale applies to vans (cabooses) and branchline passenger equipment.

My personal preference is to use the same palette throughout – as seen on this combine that’s used on the mixed train to Port Rowan:

CNR 7184

I will even apply my consistent weathering palette to unusual cars, such as this flatcar of tractors headed to Potter Motors in Port Rowan:

WAB 181

My rationale here is that even though this is a distinctive car, Potter Motors may receive several loads of tractors over the course of a year, and I don’t want to suggest that they’re all arriving on the same flat car. They are, but the car is weathered without any distinguishing marks that would draw attention to that.

Extreme weathering tends to be applied to more modern equipment – diesels, modern boxcars, and so on. This is in part because the paints used on the rolling stock from my era were a lot tougher, and withstood the elements better, so they didn’t chip and rust like modern cars. But Bob’s thoughts on the value of creating “forgettable” cars applies equally to things found on my steam-era models, such as chalk marks for classifying cars: Make them non-descript.

This also applies to the consistency of a weathering job – if, for some reason, it turns out with memorable patterns, perhaps it’s time to repaint. I have a couple of boxcars that developed odd weathering patterns on the running boards, so I repainted the running boards and took a second run at weathering them. I’m happier that I did.

15 thoughts on “The opposite of extreme

  1. Interesting thoughts, and something I need to give a lot of thought to as I start building my layout this year, and the fleet of freight cars to be operated on it. None of my models that will be layout cars are weathered yet, and I have a growing supply of kits to build for the layout. Being set in the 1950’s as you are at least means i don’t have the crazy graffiti you see today in so much extreme weathering, it will be environmental weathering as you are doing to reflect the cars travels through the bigger world behind steam locomotives and in all weather conditions.

    Learning weathering techniques and developing my own level/look is something I’m looking forward to doing in the near future, as at best I’ve only dabbled in weathering.


  2. Many modelers in the 50s to 2000 used the locomotives of the Espee in California as their examples for weathering. The Espee was using their steam loks to the last mile without much maintenance and no cleaning except where necessary, so they could economically replace steam with diesel. Really a bad example. But they did have character. This was not how steam engines were run in the past where they were well mainatined and clean.

    • Very true! I actually have some O scale SP locomotives that I’ve weathered in typical SP fashion – and they’re very different than my CNR equipment. I also have a large number of PFE refrigerator cars to go with them – again, heavily weathered. But I made sure they are all consistently weathered, so no one model stands out in a train. For example, I did enough of the reefers painted out and reapplied reporting marks that this becomes a norm for PFE equipment. Here are a couple of examples…

      SP 1767
      (My standard weathering pattern for SP steam)

      PFE 42259
      (I have a dozen of these steel refrigerator cars, and about half of them have patched and repainted reporting marks, similar to this one)

      PFE 42400
      (The balance are heavily weathered but with minimal patching. On this one, only the reweigh date has been patched and applied)

  3. Weathering railroad models is a diverse topic for sure. There are many techniques and mediums that modelers use. You will find a couple Spanish companies that make it their primary focus. Facebook is full of extreme weathering by auto and armor modelers.
    The late steam and early diesel era modelers should consider that most railroads took better care of their equipment than what we have seen in the last 40 years. Weathering needs to be subtle in my opinion. A few extreme cars would be ok but most of what you see in pictures is road grime, soot and soiling from loads.


  4. I live in a town where the UP mainline passes through and I see a LOT of modern manifest trains (average of 60 trains a day). Since I model the modern era it’s always a good show and an educational time when a train passes in front of me.

    I can say with confidence that virtually every manifest will have at least 1-3 cars that would qualify as extremely weathered. Especially the cars that are used for rough industries such as scrap or steel.

    And without doubt, the most graffitied cars are the refrigerator cars. Those artists cannot resist that huge white canvas!

    • Agreed. But of course, every car you’re seeing is unique, probably – you’re not seeing the same 10 cars, day after day, train after train.

      That’s the challenge.

      As I mentioned in my original post, weathering is very subjective. Everybody has a different approach. And of course that’s fine! Rule 1 (“It’s my railway”) applies in force.

      For me, I think there’s a line between extreme weathering and weathering that includes distinguishing features. For instance, a grey covered hopper with lots of rust is fine – if a number of other grey covered hoppers are similarly rusty. But one that’s plastered with a giant spray-painted Smurf is going to stick out, every time it rolls past in a train. If you see it every session, it becomes a specific car instead of a car type – which is the point Bob is making.

      Frankly, I’m not sure what the answer is. I suppose one approach is to have more cars than you need, so you can cycle the unique cars through the layout only infrequently. I have some pieces of rolling stock that only appear on the layout once or twice a year, because they’re too distinct.

      This is an advantage of building a smaller layout. Since my layout really only needs 10-12 freight cars to operate even a busy day, everything above that dozen helps me add that variety. This is one reason I typically build several examples of even ubiquitous cars, like 40-foot CNR boxcars. I have several classes of these, with up to five of each class. My goal is to prevent operators from looking at a CNR boxcar with the green maple leaf herald and thinking, “Ah yes – that one is being shipped, yet again, to the Port Rowan feed mill”…


  5. Yes, I agree.

    My point, which wasn’t very clear, was that those types of cars are typical and seen often in modern freights, albeit a very low percentage.

    I find it interesting that our perceptions can vary between simply viewing a layout versus operating one. When I’m viewing a layout and the builder’s approach, I usually notice details such as weathering, etc. When operating I almost never notice details because it’s all about the operational experience at that point. Once the operation starts, the heavily weathered car just becomes a chess piece even if it passes by me a few times.

    I have a small layout as well. One advantage of a small layout is I’ll typically buy two of the same numbered car if the car shows an exterior load. This way I can detail one car as loaded and the other as empty to swap them during operating sessions. This isn’t practical for a larger layout, but we can get away with it. 🙂

  6. “Forgettable” freight cars make sense, as does working within a framework of colors and techniques for weathering (and scenery methods).

  7. Nuance……..oh.. and less is indeed more. The older I get the more that is my mantra, and the it especially applies to modeling too. Stunning models Mr. Marshall, you have an amazing eye.

  8. Extreme weathering works for me when treated as a standalone project. Many heavy “weatherers” out there are in fact car builders and this is fully appropriate since they often try to match an exact prototype. As Bob and you said, the logic is somewhat different when thinking about building a layout fleet. However, in the case of reefers, they were extremely dirty in the 40s and 50s, with some freshly cleaned or brand new cars and others almost black. I’ve seen recently statistics about PFE car maintenance and a decent fleet should have about 50% car covered in sooth, maybe 25% moderately weathered and another 25% with minimal weathering. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a drop in the ocean. I also agree the weathering must be harmonized between cars to make them visually coherent. I certainly regret my earlier weathering attempts made of heavy rust streaks. The more I weather, the more I understand it is more important to create subtle variation in colors (fading, sooth, dirt, light effects) than creating special effects. In that regard, Tom Johnson (INRAIL) did a great job by recreating the subtle steel panel buckling seen on ribbed covered hopper. Far more convincing that rusting the thing all the way because it creates what our model lacks: looking like real steel.

  9. While I do LIKE unique cars, I dislike having them on a MRR. One local MRR has a beautifully done flat car with a very nicely modeled pipe load . . . but it’s the ONLY one (or at least it was, I haven’t been there in years)! I’d see it go by and think “Oh, there goes THE pipe gon again.”. On another layout, I’ve op’ed there enough that when I see that B&O TimeSaver box, I KNOW that it’s for the Calder Patrol and will be set out at St. Joe. A plain brown box car, even B&O, I feel, would be a better choice for such a regular assignment. And yes, I do know that similar or even the same car can show up repeatedly, but probably NOT such a car.

    But that’s me, perhaps those layout owners feel differently, and while I personally disagree with their choice(s), I’ve not said anything (until now) as I don’t feel it is my place to do so. I just appreciate that I get to op on the one MRR!

  10. If your objective is to have the cars steal the scene, by all means extreme weather them. I agree with Bob Fallowfield’s astute perspective but I also believe it critical to consider the visual impact of extreme weathered objects in a scene.

    As modelers, we tell a story through our efforts. Everyone is free to do as they wish in this. To my eye the most moving, realistic models/layouts I have seen are full of subtlety with the best elements tying together and slowly making themselves apparent. A beautiful current example is Gordon Gravett’s Arun Quay. He doesn’t overlook the weathering, he just doesn’t overplay it. It is unified, drab, dreary and full of reality–and interest–as each carefully chosen item for the scene. And that in only 7′ of length in 1:43.5 (British O Scale).

    Yes, in real life there are standout cars, but do we really note them in the overall initial scan of an area? Rarely on first glance. Reality is a big space and even the peacocks are lost in the visual noise. Our layouts are much smaller and often over-lit compared to any prototypical scene. Just as we paint cars under lights replicating those found on our layout, why would we put a car on the layout that isn’t consistent with the rest of the effect created for the rest of the layout? If you have to explain it then you’ve broken the leap of faith we take in calling a layout realistic.

    Technically there is no right in this hobby so we can all do what we want. But when attempting to control a viewer’s interaction and interpretation of the 1:1 reality we’ve modeled then I know we need to be true to that 1:1 reality. Hide from that reality and break the rules and the effect is lost.

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