I See a Railroad and I Want to Paint It Black

The first scenery step for the Northern Pacific was painting the track. There are any number of articles in the hobby press and videos demonstrating how to do this, but they all come down to one basic thing: making everything except the tops of the rails not-shiny. There are almost as many techniques as there are materials for accomplishing this goal, and it’s possible to get very realistic results. Modelers of the modern era, and those modeling when color photos were standard have an advantage in seeing exactly how track looks or looked.

The rails on the local railroad are a sort of dusty black color, and the ties range from near black (new) to faded brown to concrete where concrete ties are used. Because my railroad is set in the late steam era, it’s hard to tell from photos exactly how the track looked. And even though my layout is small, I wasn’t inclined to spend hours painting track. The point of the exercise is to have an operating and reasonably scenicked layout in a reasonable amount of time. Good enough is good enough.

After reviewing the available literature, and thinking about the time and place of the layout, I bought a furniture paint pen (Dark Maple), and grabbed a spray can of flat black primer out of the garage. My thinking was that the dark brown would suggest some combination of dirt and rust, and the flat black would suggest soot from steam locomotives and particulates from the dirtier air people enjoyed then.

During track laying, I’d saved all the discarded ties knowing I’d have to replace them. So the first step was to fill the gaps where ties had been trimmed to accommodate joiners and feeders. I cut the extrusions off the ties and then slipped them under the track. This is tedious, and in N-scale, exacting work. I can see the attraction this hobby has for physicians, because some work in the smaller scales is akin to microsurgery, and uses some of the same tools. Nest time I’ll buy N-scale wooden ties and stain them. Placing them won’t be easier, but I’ll save having to trim plastic ties.

Because of the way some feeders were laid, not all of the gaps could be filled with full-length ties, and in a few cases not at all. Presumably paint and ballast will cover a multitude of sins. After placing the ties I secured them with a drop of CA. The next step was to mask the switch points with painter’s tape. Now the fun part, and the first scenery on the railroad.

Working in sections a couple feet long, I ran the paint pen along the outside and inside of the rails. The pen hit the tieplate/spike moldings, but I figured that would be OK. After wiping the railhead, I sprayed the track with the flat black. Rather than one continuous application, I sprayed the track in bursts. I wasn’t looking to actually paint the track so much as suggest weathering. Wiped the top of the rail again, then cleaned the track with an abrasive block. Here’s photo halfway through the process:

Painted and unpainted track


Painted track on the left, unpainted on the right. In the given lighting it’s hard to tell, but the painted track definitely looks more ‘railroady’, and the flat black paint visually reduces the rail size. Most of the feeders have ‘disappeared’. In any case, its a marked improvement over unpainted track.  After I removed the point masks, I ran the paint pen along the outside of the rail. On the two sidings on the left, I tried running the paint pen down the center of the track prior to overspraying, but the result looks a bit too red for my taste.

I developed a better feel for the spray can on the right side of the layout, so the ties aren’t quite as black as my initial effort on the left. This may work out, as the left side is an urban environment, and the right side is more rural.

A look at how things are after painting all the track:

Painted track


That’s the test rain running around looking for trouble, and it found some. There were a few spots that required additional cleaning, and one turnout where paint had found its way between the stock rail and points.  I ran the train until all problems were solved, and it ran without issue. The toggle on the fascia is the diamond polarity switch.

Other than replacing ties, I enjoyed this project. The trackwork looks much better, and the layout is on its way to becoming a railroad. I’m looking forward to seeing how the track looks with ballast.


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