Sunday, September 30, 2007

Weathering Black: Ideas for Weathering the Hardest Color to Weather.

When my friends and I get together to discuss modeling, we almost always discuss weathering. And in our conversations, we always talk about how difficult it is to weather black locomotives and freight cars. How come it's so difficult? For starters, it's almost impossible to get rust colors to "show up" on a black surface. Simply painting surface rust and rust streaks over black is futile - the paint disappears unlike it does on lighter colors like yellow or even boxcar red. So before you weather black, you have to take extra steps to fade the black before you do any weathering work. Ok, follow along.

Getting Started

I wanted to paint Kato's new NW2 into Indiana Harbor Belt's early scheme. This scheme lasted at least until the late 70's, and a look through all the photos on show some pretty well-worn IHB prototypes. So in this example, we have the flexibility of mixing colors that custom painting affords. If your model is already painted and just needs weathering, the ideas in this article can also be used.

I start by stripping the Kato paint with 91% alcohol. It takes a few hours for the alcohol to break down the paint so that it can be brushed away with a toothbrush.

Layers of Grime

Typically, a black engine or freight car's will fade to a variety of gray/dirt/grime colors. It really depends on the prototype. It's possible to have a layer of green grime, tan dust, gray or brown dirt over top of a base coat of black or a faded black (maybe this is dark gray-again, it depends!). In the prototype photo that I chose to model, there was a fairly black base coat still showing through patches of gray, green, and tan.

Painting the Base Coat

I chose a slightly lighter color than black for a base coat - Polyscale Tarnished Black. If you have an already decorated model, you probably want to skip this step, since it'll cover up any heralds and road numbers. In this case, apply a fade coat to your model by painting with a thinned light tan or gray color. Note that in this photo, the shift away from true black is drastic. Subsequent additions of color will darken the model.

Adding "Dirty Blends"

The idea here is to apply overlapping colors with the airbrush, or if you choose, paint brush. Try a combination of dry brushing and washes. Remove some colors with 70% alcohol. Apply some surface rust.

Black washes allow you to tone down and blend colors that appear too bright. Since correction is so easy, it's better to go too light than too dark in the base coat.


By starting with a color lighter than black, any weathering you apply will "pop". Try these ideas out on hoppers and tank cars!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Model Railroading Scope (Or I'm ok, you're ok)

In the professional services business in which I work, we have a term called "scope". It basically is used to refer to what work falls under a contract, and what doesn't, or what we're doing on a project, and what we're NOT doing on a project.

A recent thread on TheRailwire got me thinking about how different many modelers are. The old notion of "we each enjoy our trains differently, and that's ok" is often brought out whenever there's an ideological disagreement on various forums to extinguish flame wars.

This notion is an important one in the hobby, allowing "daisy pickers" to coexist along side "rivet counters" without igniting feuds. However, I've realized that there's something else at work here. Aside from how seriously modelers take all this stuff, there is also a spectrum of what type of "serious" modeler people are.

(Photo changed, Sorry Jerry!)

It's very possible to be serious about building a model of "a railroad". For years, Tony Koester championed this from the pages of RMC and Model Railroader. His Allegheny Midland was a wonderful model of a railroad (even though it was freelanced). He modeled the way a railroad works, but the rolling stock and structures were important in as much as they supported the model of the railroad itself. Structures should all be roughly uniform, as that's how a real railroad does things. Locomotives and rolling stock should all be accurate in as much as they represent an accurate "fleet". While Tony had many outstanding individual models, I believe that they still existed mostly to support "the railroad". In this mindset, the individual "work" is the layout itself and the railroad system that it represents.

On the other hand, it's very possible for a modeler to be very serious about building individual models. NMRA contest rooms are full of these models, and while some may exist in the context of a larger modeling endeavor, many were built to stand on their own as outstanding individual works. They may end up being part of a layout, but in this case, the layout serves as a place for these individual models. Howard Zane's outstanding layout, I believe, falls into this category. Howard has a basement (plus) of very well done models, of both rolling stock and structures, however, Howard's layout "functions" to serve as a display place for these models. In this view, the "work" is the individual models, and the supporting items (like track, for example) are not the focus of the modeling.

These schools of thought are not always conscious decisions, but often seem to stem from the smaller micro-decisions of what's "good enough" that take place in all model railroaders minds. For some "good enough" means that the mix of cars in a train are correct, even if they're riding on Kato's JDM spec Unitrack, while others won't care if the cars are of mixed eras, as long as they all have full brake rigging, while even others only care if they're all weathered, but look "wrong" unless they're all rolling along on hand laid code 25 rail with tie plates and joint bars.

Either of the mindsets can be representative of people who take their modeling seriously (like I do), and I believe there is a mutual respect between people in both camps, but I believe that the more people acknowledge the existence of these camps, and the many modelers who try and straddle them both, the better and happier we will all be (mostly because it will spell the end of the "you're not a real modeler if you don't..." threads on forums).

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Better Models for the Masses?

It cannot be overstated that the quality of scale models (in this case, N, but generally any scale) is currently at an all-time high and still climbing. The steady advancement of technology has provided us with manufacturing capabilities unheard of just a couple of decades ago.

That said, what good is quality, one may rightfully argue, if accuracy is not keeping pace? This thorny, argument-inducing issue is loaded with valid points to make on behalf of folks on both sides of the fence.

In defense of the manufacturers, as in any business venture there's a point of diminishing returns. Even the largest model makers have finite budgets and resources. There is always a clear line in the sand beyond which the company begins to lose profitability on any given mass-produced product; the lower the development investment, the greater potential profit—and profit equals more goodies for us. It is therefore necessary for us to accept that there will be a "good enough" rule applied across the board. We must also expect to see at least some "fantasy schemes" so that products find the broadest possible market and generate the greatest ROI.

The "good enough" rule involves two aspects of production: research and tooling. There are just so many human-hours that can be invested in researching a model before the budget is blown. And as for tooling, there may be a point at which a scale-width hood becomes prohibitively costly to tool owing to hard stops such as motor size. Yes, it may be feasible to make the hood the right width, but that last six scale inches may come at the expense of a different, more costly motor or all-new tooling for a chassis that could have been recycled from another loco.

In defense of the modelers, many errors would cost nothing to correct: the right paint color or road number costs the same as paint of the wrong. As Mike Skibbe summed it up in a previous post, getting it right expands the potential market: it will then appeal to the prototype modelers as well as the casual consumers (which includes collectors) who enjoy the model just the way it is, warts and all.

Let's take a specific example: for September 2007, Micro-Trains released a CP Rail 89-foot trailer flat loaded with intermodal containers, number 521135. However, this number is part of a series used for AAR type P782 81-foot flats (center photo, CP 521133). If they'd wanted to get closer to reality, they should have used a number between 5217XX and 5223XX, which appear on CP Rail AAR type P880 89-foot flats (bottom photo, CP 521719). Although the CP Rail cars have open decks, unlike the models, Micro-Trains could have improved matters a bit by positioning the containers at the extreme ends of the car. (Top photo, Micro-Trains; center and bottom photos, Joe Rogers, Railroad Pictures Archive.)

This information was obtained after just a few minutes of online searching. Which raises a curious issue: the Internet has become an incredibly potent research tool. It certainly cannot be a huge strain on a manufacturer to spend some quality time with Google, yet obvious and presumably avoidable discrepancies continue to appear time and again. As another example, the number boards on a soon-to-be-released diesel are off the mark, as several photographs of the real deal clearly illustrate. What is the reason for this oversight?

Once again, the manufacturer may have had any number of limitations imposed on the model's production; much goes on behind the scenes, out of our view. With respect to the number board problem, older tooling is being recycled. In other situations, getting absolutely every aspect of the model accurate may not be feasible given time and budget constraints. And, since most tooling is done overseas, there may be communications problems or quality control issues on the contractor's end. We could not hope to know all of the details.

Let us not overlook, too, the fact that tooling is an art form, despite being the domain of computers these days. Blueprints and photographs must be interpreted by humans before tooling can commence, and the results reflect the skill of those individuals responsible for the interpretation. Layer on the complicating factors of fitting everything over a mechanism designed by other engineers, and you have ample opportunities for the model to drift astray from reality. To see all of this in practical form, take three models of the same locomotive from three different manufacturers: they should all be identical, or nearly so, yet each is different—sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. Why? It's the quality of interpretation.

But take heart, as we may be witnessing an opportunity to make everyone happy, or perhaps at least happier. Online forums are being frequented by both manufacturers and their customers. This free exchange of information and perspective may provide the means for even better, more accurate models. But this assumes one thing: everyone remains civil. It seems inevitable that some hot-headed rivet-counter starts spouting off about how incredibly stupid everyone is at XYZ Company for having gotten the stenciling on a gondola wrong. If I were a manufacturer, I would not be inclined to go the extra mile to satisfy people like this. Would you?

All of this has given rise to one overarching question in the back of my mind: Why are some modelers getting so fussy? Our models are better-looking and more accurate than ever before. Are we becoming jaded? With a cornucopia of steadily-improving products, are we now beginning to expect too much? It used to be that prototype modelers were generally content to modify their models as needed to achieve accuracy. Now it seems some won't even buy a product unless it is perfect right out of the mold. What they don't seem to realize is that they're shooting themselves in the foot; not supporting a model maker reduces the chances of seeing more products, let alone better ones.