Painting Your Trucks

Written by Shawn Branstetter, photos by the author.

In the past, when I completed a new model freight car or locomotive, I would paint the trucks black, add some weathering powers and call it good. I wouldn't spend a whole lot of time on them for the most part. In recent years, for me, that mentality has changed. I began to look at trucks as models themselves. And, with all of the highly detailed truck kits on the market in HO through Gauge 1 and above, this allows the model builder to further add realism to their models.

I know a lot of us are not "rivet-counters", however I would say most of us are, at the very least, trying to capture the feel of the real thing.

A Closer Look at Trucks

So what exactly do we see when we are looking at our trucks? Well, on most logging and narrow gauge railroads, they left the trucks and wheels the natural iron color which was lighter black, similar to the image above. These lines would cut costs in any area they could and if there is no need to paint it, they wouldn't. Even with railroads that did paint their trucks, unless they are just rolling out of the paint shop we wouldn't see solid black.

As we look closer, we begin to see some rust, a lot of dirt and mud. Color is usually faded from the sun or completely covered by the environmental elements.

So Let's Add Color

When I think of painting my models, I like to add layers as the prototype would:

  1. Undercoat or primer
  2. The top coat
  3. Rust (this is also done in layers from darkest to lightest)
  4. Dirt and grime

With these steps in mind, let's look at adding color to our trucks.

First, the undercoat. I paint my entire truck a flat acrylic black from AK Interactive. Make sure you cover the entire truck as this will show through the weathering and add shadows to our details. Similar to illustrating, we use our darker colors first to make our details jump out and add depth to our drawings or, in this case, our models.

Now we can begin to add rust to our model. Start with dark color first. In this case I am using AK Interactive dark rust. Build up your color in areas that would naturally see rust, such as the moving parts of the brake details, wheels springs, and sideframe where rocks and elements would come in contact with the moving train.

Now I add my highlights. I use medium rust in my airbrush to further highlight areas of newer rust. You can also use a brush to dry-brush color onto some of the details if needed.

Seal your model with a flat overcoat and allow that to dry. This is important as the rest of our weathering will be done with enamel paints and we want to protect our undercoats.

I've been spending a lot of time on military modeler forums and they use washes of very thin enamel or oil paints a lot. I have been practicing with them and these techniques are perfect for us model railroaders as well!

Once our sealer is dry, I will coat the entire truck with a light coat of Track Wash. This is very thin out of the bottle, suitable for an airbrush however, I use mineral spirits to further thin to a really light wash. This is done with a brush and dabbed onto the model letting the thinner carry the wash into all the cracks and crevices. Additionally, I will add color full strength in spots and dab thinner mineral spirits onto the spot. This wash will tone down your rust and blend it into the undercoat.

To finish up my model, I will use real dirt, Earth and Engine Grime washes.

I will add earth color and dirt on my pallet thinned with mineral spirits. Blend them together and brush this onto the wheels, springs, journals and sideframes. When using the washes, think of how rain will flow over your model as well as the wind. This will effect when the dirt and grime will collect.

Finish by spraying everything with a flat sealer and polish your wheels (if the truck is in service).

About the Author

Shawn Branstetter's picture

Shawn Branstetter

I am a graphic designer and front-end developer, creator of Shortline Modelers. I have been a life-long model railroader with a focus on California shortline and logging railroads.


eTraxx's picture

I am .. Gobsmacked ...

"I drank .. WHAT?"
--- Socrates

Shawn Branstetter's picture

Really appreciate it Ed! Thank you very much.

Shawn Branstetter

iandrewmartin's picture

Thanks for the tutorial. I must add one comment though for the "NON" roller bearing or plain journal trucks that differs from the information you have posted.

Plain journals bled oil all over the face of the wheel and just about anything else they could lay their droplets on. When modelling older cars using museum examples often the museum has cleaned the cars to presentation standards.

One image (courtesy of Lionel LLC) that highlights this is here:

Note the amount of crud on the wheel face. And that is plain journals all over. Something so often missed but so important to model.

Thanks for the great site. Always enjoy coming here.

Yours sincerely
Andrew Martin
Owner of Andrew's Trains and the Hunter Valley Lines
Modelling and Operations blog, layout designs and photos:

Shawn Branstetter's picture

I absolutely agree with you Andrew. The best rule of thumb for trucks with enclosed bearings is; the more use, the more grime. The climate and road conditions have a lot to do with the over all condition of equipment. Especially if they are not well maintained.

Shawn Branstetter