Getting the decks right

I love flatcars.  However, getting the deck right is critical to having a realistic looking model.



GN flat on the Rails West layout (Tangent Scale Models car, see this post for more on this car.)


Flatcars are great because you can show that your railroad really hauls things, it really creates revenue.  However, when they are empty, a poorly weathered deck rings hollow.


Unlike the ICG flat pictured above which was fairly new in 1981, this GN flat needed to show some age since it was about 12 years old in 1981, the era of the Rails West layout.

B. Smith recently weathered one of the new Wheels of Time flat cars.  I was impressed so I asked him to write a piece on his technique–


I’ve been weathering some flat cars recently.  The decks of most model railroad flat cars are plastic and much too uniform and unblemished in my mind.  Many real world flat car decks are wood boards that crack, warp, shrink, get broken, nailed into and just all around take a beating.  So I attempt to roughen up my model plastic decks.  I begin with a razor saw and cut along each joint in the deck, attempting to make one big piece of plastic look like individual boards.  If the saw occasionally strays from the groove all the better to simulate split and cracked boards.


flat car beds

Wheels of Time flat car being weathered by B. Smith for his LCn RR set in 1990.


I try to cut down at the ends to make it appear the boards are separate, but without cutting too deep as to get into the “steel sides” of the deck.

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I then scrape the saw teeth across the deck to try and give the plastic boards some grain.  I’ve also use coarse sandpaper, files, and knives to batter up the plastic.  It takes some time, but the end result is a much more realistic “wood” deck.


The color of wood decks varies from dull black to grey to natural wood.  Some railroads even painted the wood decks of their flat cars the same color as the car, in the case of UP, bright yellow!
On box car red cars I find a wash of flat black paint thinned with alcohol works.  On the BN car below a mixture of dull black and roof brown was used.
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The GN car below received a wash of just dull black.  I work between a jar of wash and a bottle of paint.  When I need more weathering I dip my brush into the paint bottle, then the wash jar.  If it looks too dark I immediately come back with more wash.  I wick up too much wash with a dry brush.  I start with the bottom of the car to see how the color of that particular car weathers.  When the bottom of the car is dry I set the car on its wheels and do the ends, then the sides, last the roof or deck.  When doing the car sides I leave the car on its side until the wash pretty much dries.  If the car is set upright while the wash is still wet, gravity will pull the wash to the car bottom sill.  So leave the side horizontal unless you want the bottom portion of the car to be really weathered.  
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Weathering is an art.  The more you do, the better you get at it.  Years ago, weathering a car caused me great concern that I might ruin the car.  I’ve had to go back and re-weather a car a few times, but I have yet to ruin a car by weathering it.  My model railroad is set in 1990 so I consider how many years since the car has been built or repainted.  A car built or repainted in 1988 will get only light weathering while a car built in the 1970’s will get heavier weathering.  I also try to find photos of the car taken around 1990, not always possible, to see how the car weathered in real life.  I then try to approximate the weathering on my model.
Looking at prototype photos is the best guide.
Here are a few examples.

Old KCS flat car converted to a ramp in Shreveport, LA, February 1980.  I’ve seen many flat cars in revenue service with decks just like this.–©photo by C. E. Hunt


MP freight leaving Mykawa Yard Nov 1978

TTX flat car deck in Houston, TX, November 1978–©photo by C. E. Hunt


MP freight leaving Mykawa Yard Nov 1978 III

Another image of same flat car deck, November 1978–©photo by C. E. Hunt



Here are a couple of recent pictures by a friend of mine who is a prolific modern railroad photographer.




Nebraska, 2016-–©photo by R. Houtwed



Nebraska, 2016-–©photo by R. Houtwed





Weathering the decks of flat cars is so worth it and has the potential to almost become an eye-catching item on your layout.

One thought on “Getting the decks right

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