Preparing for Paint

I’ve been painting train models for decades. I painted the Suydam-manufactured  Pacific Electric PCC car (above) probably around 1974.  It was my first “serious” attempt at painting a model.  Based on over 50 years of painting train models, I would describe myself as being a “talented amateur” at best, or “average” at worst. I say so for two reasons:

  • Whenever you create something, you are fully aware of the problems that you had when you were working on the model. Because you had a direct hand in creating an object, you are intimately familiar with the issues of its creation.  So, as a result, you see every flaw, missed brush stroke and decal bubble. If you don’t, you’re not working hard enough.
  • The other reason that I’m slipping down to “average” is that I don’t work as hard at painting models as I once did.  It’s a combination of aging (the hands & eyes are not as good as they once were) and the fact that I’m not as compulsive as I once was. It’s not that I don’t care as much as I care more about other aspects of the model.

This doesn’t mean that my work has turned to trash.  Actually, far from it, my work is still very good in my humble estimation.  I just don’t pursue the very difficult paint jobs any more. I let the little girls from China do it for me.  Consider the Seaboard “citrus” paint scheme:

I did a pair of 0-Scale brass E-units in this Seaboard livery in the 1970’s, no mean feat. Since that time, Microscale has come out with a set of decals which would have made this project much easier, but no...... In any case, this was a four-color paint job, probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted.  Fortunately, a lot of things have become easier, and you can buy, right off the hobby shop shelf, very nice versions of these locomotives in N-Scale, H0-Scale, 0-Scale, perhaps more. I am secretly relieved.  That said, I still paint and you should be doing so, too. It’s rewarding. 

This page is not going to be a how-to; there are plenty of books out there to help you along.  There are plenty of others who are willing to help you, too.  Rather, this is just a short discussion about a few issues that have come out of my head that might help you along the way.

You Can’t Hide Problems With Paint

You’d be surprised how many people still try.  If anything, paint has a way of drawing the viewer’s eyes toward a problem.  The whole idea of paint is to create a thin surface which completely covers the model with the desired color or colors. If you’re not sure how something’s going to look, you can always put a coat of primer on first. Most primers are light gray in color, making it easy to spot flaws and correct them before the final pigment goes on.  Which brings us to......

The Surfaces to be Painted Must be Clean

Prior to applying any paint or primer, it is important that the model be clean.  That means removing any oil from fingerprints, dust from sanding, soldering flux, anything which will interfere with the paint’s ability to adhere to the model. How you clean a model prior to painting depends upon the materials used in that model.  So, you can use lacquer thinner to clean a brass model, but if that model has any plastic parts, the lacquer thinner will attack those parts, which means melts them.

In other cases, cleaning a model requires special fluids.  If you build resin models, you will need to clean with something that removes the residual casting release materials. When a resin mold is cast, it is common to line the mold with a “parting agent” to help remove the finished casting once it has cured. The characteristic which lets the manufacturer remove the casting from the mold also prevents the paint from adhering to the finished resin model. Here, an example:

Note the two irregular patches on the front of this resin-cast N-Scale freight motor. The model was “cleaned” and then painted red for Pacific Electric. The red areas were then masked and the roof brown color was applied. As the masking tape was removed, the glue of the tape pulled up segments of paint that had not adhered to the body casting.

In this case, it would be possible to touch up the irregular areas, but such a touchup would be noticeable on a larger scale model. Likewise.....

Gently Remove Masking Materials

Everybody has their favorite masking materials.  Tape is the most common, but there are others such as frisket, liquid frisket and such. I’m partial to liquid frisket for certain applications; it’s a rubbery material that you apply with a toothpick to areas you want to mask off from subsequent colors.

Masking tape is easiest to find, but be gentle when removing it. Note here that the tape is being pulled back upon itself.

If the tape you are using is particularly sticky, you can apply the tape first to a piece of glass, then pull it up and then apply it to the model. Doing so removes a bit of the adhesive prior to applying it to the model, but it is better to use a better quality tape in the first place.

This brings back a not-so-fond memory from years ago, the 1970’s, when I first started getting serious about the model railroad hobby.  In those days, I didn’t have a lot of money, and to make matters worse, I was active in a local 0-Scale club. 0-Scale has always tended to be one of the expensive sectors of the hobby.

In any case, what I could afford were craftsman type kits such as Quality Craft, Ambroid and Lykens Valley.  These cars were built out of basswood, with metal castings added for details.  The idea was to make the wood look like metal by applying sanding sealer to the wood, letting it dry and then sanding the wood pieces smooth.  The sealer would penetrate the wood, raising the grain and fixing it is place as it dried.  You would then come back with sand paper or steel wool and smooth the wood pieces.  A second coat could be applied to the wood, and the process repeated, but at some point, additional coats did not materially improve things.

So, there I was, rolling along with a modern era Quality Craft “Hello Dolly” box car kit. The kit was coming together well, and I was beginning to feel confident about the outcomes.  When it came time for paint, I sprayed on the black color for the roof, ends and bottom of the car.  After things had dried thoroughly, I masked off the areas that were to remain black and sprayed the yellow side color.

In a moment of excessive confidence, I pulled the masking tape off like I was a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  The result was that the force of removing the tape pulled up the coats of sanding sealer that I had laboriously applied earlier, leaving not black pigment but vast expanses of raw wood.  I was beside myself. After a significant cooling off period, I went back and was able to repair the problem, but it never looked right. Others might not have noticed those bad patches, but I always did.

Now, of course, the builder has a wide array of styrene sheet and shapes at their disposal, and the way to build such a kit these days is to use the plans and the detail castings with styrene to make a much more credible model. In those ancient days, the older 0-Scalers would turn their noses up at plastic, but I got over that.

Sealing the Tape Edges

A common problem with masking tape is that you can never really get the edges of the tape sealed properly. Once the masking tape is in place and you are applying the subsequent coats of paint, capillary action wants to draw that paint under the tape edge. When you remove the tape, you have to come back with a small brush and lightly touch up those areas where paint has bled under the tape.  There’s an easier way.  Here, another Pacific Electric car:

The trick is to make sure that the tape lies flat on the surfaces that you want to remain in the first color.  Note the little corners where the doors meet the sides, for example.  Once the tape is completely located, you come back and seal the edges of the masking tape with another application of the first color; in this case, red:

By doing so, any paint that is drawn under the masking tape by capillary action will be the same color as the first application, sealing the tape edges. Once the paint has dried sufficiently, you can then apply the second color with impunity.  Once things have dried a bit, you can remove the tape: