Weathering Ties with Acrylics

I stopped using enamel paints on my models when I came back into the hobby.  I was introduced to acrylic model paints and I’ve never gone back.  In my hobby of landscape painting, I use acrylics exclusively as well.  I prefer their fast drying time and easy cleanup.  Most important to me, though, is the fact that acrylics are far less harmful to me, the other people, and pets in my home.

When it comes to creating rust and streak effects when weathering models, I haven’t tried to get acrylics to behave the same way as oils.  Similarly, I don’t imagine acrylics as a wood staining pigment.  When it came time to stain the ties on my layout, I instinctively reached for my oil paints.  The second-greatest deficiency of oils (toxicity being their greatest) is the length of time it takes for them to dry.  I have sections of ties that were done with oils which are now on their third day of drying, and I’ve become impatient.

I wasn’t sure if acrylics could yield the kind of effects that I see in photos of railway ties, but I figured the only way to find out is to try it. In one evening I finished a sizable length of ties.  Here’s a sample:

IMG_0230I’m happy with the results.

Trevor Marshall asked me to outline my process for weathering ties in my previous post, so here’s what I did with the acrylics.

First, when I glued down the ties, I made sure that the layer of glue was as thin as possible.  I ran a bead along the roadbed and then flattened the bead to the width of the ties using a scrap of cardboard as a trowel.  This is important because if if the glue gets onto the sides of the ties, they won’t take the paint properly.

To start the actual weathering process, I scrape and gouge the tops of the ties with a chisel-shaped X-acto blade, a #1 blade (#7 would be better but I don’t have one right now) and a dental pick instrument that my dentist gave me.   For the track in the photo above, I didn’t hack as many of the ties as in my previous post because this particular track represents one that would have had at least a modicum of maintenance within the past decade.

Once I’m finished destroying a few ties, I go over all of them with raw umber acrylic (the thick kind you buy at an art supply store for painting landscapes) straight from the tube.  I apply a partial coat, so that the ties are only partly covered in paint, and then use a water-soaked brush to spread it around sides and ends.  After this, I do a with a thin wash of black while the raw umber is just barely dry.  This generally darkens the umber colour.  While I’m doing this part, I pay attention to adding some variety.  Basically, this step creates a range of dark brown and black that should look slightly different from one tie to the next. This step also darkens the sides and ends.

Each layer dries quickly, so once the ties are dry again, I put a dollop of mixing white on my palate and a tiny spot of burnt umber somewhere else on the palate.  I mix a light beige colour by dragging some of the white and a tiny spot of umber together.  This colour is used to add highlights to the tops of the ties.  After I’ve done a short section of track and I’ve used up the beige that I mixed, I go back over the same section with a lighter beige, mixed by eye again.  This time I use less paint than the first time and highlight the parts of each tie I already in beige.  I apply slightly less paint this time around.

I typically go back a third time with a beige that’s almost white. This is just used as a very delicate frosting over the ties.  This colour can really lighten up the ties, so I don’t apply to each one, and I apply it in varying amounts in order to create some variation.  That’s the whole story.

In summary, I use…

  1. thin application of raw umber full strength from the tube
  2. brush on some water to spread the raw umber around
  3. add a thin wash of black, to achieve some random darkening; let everything dry
  4. light beige mixed by eye, applied very sparingly to the tops, making sure not to fill any gouges in the ties
  5. lighter beige, applied more sparingly than the previous beige
  6. a beige that’s almost white as a dry-brushed frosting of the highlights

I don’t know if the steps make any sense.  I improvise and adjust things if the colours aren’t doing what I want.

4 thoughts on “Weathering Ties with Acrylics

  1. Hunter,
    Those ties look great! Nice job on the weathering- the time and effort really paid off. And the steps make perfect sense.

    Tom Patterson

  2. That’s a great description and a great technique. Thanks for taking the time to write it out, Hunter. The dental pick is a good tool – one that hadn’t occurred to me – so I learned something too.

  3. Thanks Tom and Trevor. I’m not completely comfortable with my description because the six steps make it sound like there’s some precision to all of this. The mixing of colours is a subjective process, and one that’s nearly impossible to describe. The whole process happens pretty quickly and with a healthy dose of reckless abandon, so I wouldn’t want anyone to think these are six foolproof steps.

    Also, I forgot to mention that I printed a photo of some rotten and sun-bleached ties onto full sheet of photo paper and I keep that handy so that I can check my perception while I’m mixing colours on the palate. I don’t get too worked up about getting a real accurate match. Rather, I try to capture the relationship between the colours showing up on my ties under the lighting I have in the room.

  4. Pingback: The ties that bind… | VERNON RIVER in 1:87

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