Whether Weathering!

A personal view on finishing scale models by GLYNN GUEST

A fast racing model based on a full-size craft that would always be presented with a pristine finish.

Having completed the construction of a new scale model, there comes a big choice. Some modellers always endeavour to finish their models in an ‘as new’ condition, because they are comfortable with that type of finish. Many of us though, agonize over the final visual effect that our creations ought to make. Should it look immaculate or weatherworn?

Colour matching

Before going any further, it is worth stating something that ought to be blindingly obvious. What is it that combines common sense with controversy? It is the fact that no single colour can ever possibly be a perfect match between a model and the full-sized version under all conditions. This statement of course means that some modellers will now vigorously argue over this point for a long time.
However, take the effect of the distance over which we view the model and the equivalent distance to view the full-size vessel. With a 1/100 scale model viewed at a distance of say five metres, this is the same as having the full-sized vessel 500 metres away from you. 'So what?’ might be the response, and since air is transparent, it will look just the same. Alas, air that might seem to be transparent over five metres will absorb a noticeable amount of light over 500 metres. Artists and scientists have known of this effect for a long time. Once you start to view items over any significant distance, their colours become less sharp. Even under bright and clear conditions, increasing distance will turn all colours into shades of grey. Throw in any extra absorption with mist and rain, plus low light levels etc. and this effect is hard to miss. What this means for us modellers is the perpetual agony of knowing that we can never get the colour of our creations to look perfect all the time - or is there a more philosophic approach to take?

Well, I doubt that my answer to this problem qualifies me as a philosopher, but more likely as a pragmatic modeller. Every time a model is sailed, it runs the risk of receiving some damage, a truism that we must all accept. This is bad enough when you are the cause, but somewhat testing when others are responsible, still no one said this hobby was going to be easy! Even with care and luck, models will accumulate the odd scratch and mark, which require at least a touch up with fresh paint. For this reason I try to pick the nearest matching paint colour from a reliable manufacturer such as Humbrol. By taking the elementary precaution of thoroughly mixing the paint before use, you ought to be confident that a tin bought today will match a model painted ten years ago. If a commercial range of paints offers two or more suitable colours, then I would probably go for the lighter shades, especially if it was for large areas such as the hull, superstructures or decks. Another ‘colour crime’ I am guilty of, is to use gloss paints. They are far more durable than matt paints, although you can argue with some justification, that a shiny finish is rarely realistic. But time comes to our aid, as gloss paints will become dull after a while. My garage doors are a perfect example of this. Last year they were bright glossy blue, but this year at least they are still a blue colour, but faded! Distance also tends to dull gloss paints, such that over all but the shortest operating distances it is hard to tell what paints have been used on a model, unless it is a very sunny day and the model is just at the right orientation, when gloss paints will always glint a little. Matt paints also have a nasty habit of showing grease marks. On any working model, it is hard not to get oily fingerprints all over it. If you want a dull finish, then my advice is to use the best commercial paint match you can get, gloss or matt, then spray a very light coat of clear satin varnish over it. Allow it to fully dry then repeat until the desired final effect is achieved. The reason for the light coats is to avoid softening the paint and possibly causing it to bubble up. This as you have probably guessed, is based on a personal experience and I do not want to encounter it ever again.

Degree of weathering

Having settled on the colours to use, now comes the problem on how to apply the paint. There would seem to me to be three ways of presenting a model:

1) Pristine

The vessel is shown in the just built or refitted state. The colours are strong, there are bright insignia and markings, and sharp boundaries exist between the colours. There is also little (if any) wear, stains or damage evident.

2) In service

The vessel is in full-time use but receiving maintenance as required. The colours are slightly faded, but are still clearly recognisable. Insignia and markings are still clearly visible , but there are regular wear patterns on the decks and equipment. Water and rust staining is visible from freeing ports and outlets.

3) Neglected

A heavily worked vessel with little, if any, attempt(s) at external maintenance. The colours are heavily faded and stained. Insignia and markings can be hard to make out clearly, there is obvious wear and damage to hull and fittings, together with very heavy staining and corrosion.


I'm sure that it would be possible to expand these classes of weathering, but they ought to give us the general idea of the final effect that the model is trying to achieve. It is fair to say that you could match any state of weathering to any type of vessel, if you searched hard and long enough. Experience however suggests, that some types of vessel are more likely to be found in one or other of these weathered states. Privately owned pleasure craft are almost inevitably kept as smart and tidy as their owners can afford. You would expect to find them in a pristine if not a highly polished state. Anything but the mildest weathering, except perhaps staining around water and exhaust outlets, would be out of character.

At first glance, working vessels might not seem to be suitable candidates for the pristine classification. In fact quite a few could be realistically portrayed as such in model form. Lifeboats and other rescue craft are usually maintained in an immaculate fashion. Models based on vessels kept in a boathouse could be finished to the highest standards, even those boats that are permanently afloat will still be very smart and clean. During idle moments, crew members of warships are often occupied in maintaining the appearance of their ships. So, if you plan to build such a model then a good finish is indeed realistic.

You could justifiably add small touches of weathering such as water stains on the hull sides and deck, but not much more, unless the model is depicted in a wartime role. Even then, you need to aim for a ‘hard worked’ appearance, rather than one that suggests the scrapyard is the next port of call.
Passenger vessels usually have a smart appearance and I would be reluctant to let any such model fall too far below the pristine level. The smaller ones, such as harbour or river ferries will probably show wear and damage, but I doubt if you could justify such a model with a totally neglected finish. After all, they depend on attracting paying passengers and would you want to travel on something that looks like it is due to fall apart?
Small workboats that are owned by their crew, possibly from the same family, are often lovingly maintained. They may show signs of a hard working life, but not allowed to fall into a neglected appearance. I have seen many fishing boats, which whilst perhaps not as well finished as a typical warship or cruise liner, were very smart and tidy.

If you want to go for a neglected appearance on your models then the choice of prototype needs some care. A warship during hostilities, perhaps also showing some battle damage, is one option. Likewise, a merchant ship in wartime would have little time for maintaining its external appearance. A vessel that is just eking out a living in its twilight years is another thought. It might be a good idea to visit a port and look at real vessels to get some suggestions as to how far you can realistically go down the weathering route.

Weathering techniques

Ask half a dozen modellers how to go about weathering a model and you will probably get a dozen different answers. In fact, it is probably like learning how to ride a bicycle; you just keep on practising until you get it right, but no one really understands just how it works. At least with our models there is less chance of injury in the learning process!

The weathering effects must be added to a model that has its basic colour scheme already painted on it. An obvious statement, but it does tell us that you have to paint the model to an acceptable standard first of all. Thus, if going for a lightly weathered in service appearance then you have to start with a pristine finish. That is good solid colours, markings and insignia just as if the vessel was freshly painted. Weathering might well be limited to light rust streaks and staining on the hull sides from the edges of the deck, freeing ports and water outlets.

Some modellers advocate making their own rust coloured paints, but I use commercial model paints. Any good model shop that supports the plastic kit, military and railway modelling community ought to stock some suitable paint and Humbrol include a rust colour in their range. How best to apply the rust paint depends upon the final effect desired. Rarely can you get away with just painting it on or worse, just putting blobs of paint on to the model. Real rust has a staining effect; it may start at a specific point but then tends to spread outwards as a stain. The origin may be clear, but the edge of the stain isn't. One method is to paint a small line of rust at the origin, then before the paint dries, lightly go over it in the direction you expect water to flow with a brush dampened with paint thinners. Practising on scrap material (perhaps an old model) is a good idea, as too much application of the thinners can remove most of the rust paint and spoil the effect.

Another technique to consider is the dry-brushing method. A paintbrush is loaded with rust paint then most of the paint is removed. I usually sandwich the brush between some kitchen paper, gently squeeze the paper with my fingers and withdraw the brush. If the brush is lightly stroked across the surface of the model, it will leave a very small amount of paint. A brush with stiff bristles might be better for this technique. I often use old brushes that are well past their prime. Initially this effect is hard to see, but repeated strokes will allow you to build up rust stains. More paint tends to be deposited on corners and edges, which is usually just where rusting starts. It is probably harder to describe how to dry brush than it is to do it, a little practice is all most people need. A heavily worked vessel might show larger areas of corrosion and staining. The previous methods could be used, but you might try using a ball of absorbent cloth or paper to apply the paint. The trick is to put the minimum paint possible on the cloth then lightly press it on to the surface of the model. This ought to result in a mottled patch that can be enlarged with more dabs of the cloth/paper ball. If it results in a solid blob of colour then you have too much paint on the ball or might be pressing too hard. This may give you the effect you want, but it is often enhanced by wiping over with a brush or piece of cloth/paper dampened with thinners. If you want to suggest that the vessel has had some locally applied paint, rather than a complete repaint, then here's a tip, Even if the full-size vessels used the same paint as was originally applied, there is almost certainly going to be a noticeable difference in colour between the new and old paint. To duplicate this on your model all you need to do is add a little black or white (depending upon how you want the contrast to be) to the paint first used. Very little black or white is needed before the change in colour is noticeable, but not to obvious. Again, experimentation is a sensible precaution.


Through my wife's evening art classes, I learnt about the watercolour technique of ‘washes’. That is when a brush just loaded with clean water is used to drag colour across the picture to create a graduated shading effect. This method has already been suggested when describing the used of a brush dampened with thinners. But another idea came about whilst cleaning my paintbrushes. I usually have two jars for cleaning my brushes, a ‘dirty’ one for removing the bulk of the paint and a ‘clean’ one for final cleaning. While wiping the excess dirty thinners off on some waste paper, I noticed that it left a dull stain. This led me to try brushing these dirty thinners on to the sides of an old model. By using light coats and allowing the thinners to dry fully before recoating, it was possible to create a subtle but realistically grubby effect seen on hard working vessels. Another effect discovered was that of the blotchy stain patches that often appear on the decks. Holding a paint brush lightly loaded with dirty thinners above the model and gently tapping it with a finger achieved this. This needs some experimentation with the amount of thinners on the brush, distance between model and the brush and the vigour of the tapping action, so be careful!

Spraying weathering

Paint spraying might be associated with obtaining an excellent mirror like finish, but can also help us to weather our models. By using fine and light spraying, it is possible to create the discreet effects of weathering and wear. The use of simple card masks can also suggest the demarcation lines between old and freshly painted areas. I can recall one modeller who used this idea to create the visual effect of plate dimpling as seen on most welded hulls. The GRP hull was perfectly smooth, but until you looked very closely or ran your fingers along it, you would swear that these dimples really existed.

What is normally considered to be a very poor spraying technique can be used creatively. A greater distance than normal between the spray can/gun and model allows the paint to land as fine drops rather than forming a continuous thin coat of paint. If white or light grey paint is very lightly applied in this fashion then it will act to fade the colours on the model and suggest a salt stained vessel. I've even found a use for almost empty spray cans of clear satin varnish. They tend to 'splutter’ the paint into random sized droplets, rather than create an even mist of varnish. One spray can did this whilst finishing off a model and I thought the finish was ruined. Only when the varnish had dried did it become obvious that the droplets had produced a dirty and grubby weathered effect, that matched the sub-tropical conditions that these vessels operated in. No doubt, a spray gun could be adjusted to give this effect on demand, rather than waiting until a spray can is almost empty.

Chalk it up

Weathering effects are widely created in military and aircraft modelling by the use of artist's pastels. They can be brushed on to build up the effects of weathering, wear and staining. Panel lines and fastenings, which can disappear from view after painting, can be highlighted. I will confess to only ever having used this method once, many years ago and then my daughter's chalks were used. This was on a model of a fishing boat that looked a shade too clean in its freshly painted state. Dust, obtained by scraping along the sticks of chalk, was applied to the model around freeing ports then blended in with a piece of soft tissue or a finger tip. Small patches of dust were added to deck equipment with paintbrushes or cotton buds. By using yellows, browns and reds, it was possible to create the air of a working vessel.

This experiment with chalk was carried out over a matt paint finish and I never felt the need to seal it with clear varnish. If you try this then check out the effect of varnish on the chalk colour first. It is possible that a subtle chalk finish might disappear, or even worse, stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. A final thought is that chalk may well fail to adhere to a gloss painted surface.

A dull subject after all?

Hopefully I have shown that the topic of finishing our models is not a precise analytical science. No amount of effort to match the colours used on them will ever produce perfect results under all conditions. Likewise, using real rust to simulate wear and damage on a model will fail if it is not applied in a fashion that the eye can accept as realistic.

The best results seem to be a restrained and subtle effort that may well be impossible to see until the model is very close. Perhaps the best idea is to experiment on an old model rather than trying it out on your latest pride and joy. Add the weathering in small stages, taking care to observe the effect before more is applied - an example of where ‘less is more’.