What is box car red?

Six cars with new decals are ready for the next step.

Freight car colors are a constant topic with many modelers. We aim to paint our models reflecting the prototypes as closely as possible. The lead photo here represents my efforts on six Accurail USRA double-sheathed box car kits. The photo captures them after the gloss coat dried to seal the Westerfield Models decals.

I was very excited to achieve the variations of red oxide tones on four of the six models. Here’s the July 2015 blog post summarizing the project. These were some of the first models I had painted after purchasing a spray booth and airbrush.

I used Vallejo paint for all the models. I think the Wabash car was painted with a maroon color. The Pere Marquette and Frisco cars were sprayed with the same red. I may have used that color for the Rock Island car but added a few drops of black to darken the shade. Burnt umber with a few drops of aged white created a mineral brown color for the NYC and Santa Fe cars. I was so excited with how these models turned out, especially with the varying tones of red.

A couple months later, I weathered these cars and everything changed.

I recently set up these cars and snapped a new photo to use as a comparison. I used the same lighting but a different camera for this photo. As you can see, weathering models gives them a new appearance. Slight color differences between models are not nearly as noticeable.

After this experience with weathering, I no longer spend as much time focusing on car color. I don’t even try to get the exact same color tone on two freight car models for the same railroad. Weathering will alter the painted appearance and define the end results.

Of course, your mileage may vary. I model late 1926 in an urban area where coal is used for home heating, industrial uses, and in steam locomotives. Soot, cinders, and dirt are key weathering elements compared to later years when different locomotives came into use and many cities enacted pollution control measures. Paint formulations also improved over time. Many readers model a couple decades beyond my moment, so these are things to consider. But in general, weathering your models will alter the final appearance.

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10 thoughts on “What is box car red?”

  1. A long time ago, I attended a lecture at the California Railroad museum about paint on 19th century locomotives and cars. Specifically the Virginia & Truckee. They had painstakeningly scraped paint layer after paint layer so that you could easily see the variations in paint on a tender for example. It is apparent that it is very difficult if not impossible to get a specific match at a certain period of time without this information. When black and white photos are all you’ve got to go by all you can do is estimate. In addition, the cars in these photos are also weathered to various degrees. What you hae done is about the best that can be done.

  2. Eric, I may be more sensitive to paint color variations (fair warning to those reading this, I am the chair of the PRRT&HS Paint Committee) but I can clearly see and appreciate the variation in the base color on the weathered cars. I think that is very much the look to strive for. Modeling 1924, as you do, can be both liberating and crippling. I mean, who is going to come along and tell you it is wrong? On the other hand, resources to duplicate colors are rare and typically hard to convert to modern paint descriptors and thus it is almost impossible to know that you got it “right”. Modeling a slightly more modern era, I have the issue of folks remembering, which is often not helpful, as “eyewitness” testimony about what happened 60 minutes ago is completely unreliable, so what someone “saw” 80 years ago, is usually completely irrelevant (except in their minds!)

    1. Bruce, you have brought up very good points. There are many aspects of pre-color photography era modeling that can be a conundrum. Some modelers of that era have been able to find color references buried in company records. In some cases the reference is for a commercial paint manufacturer and vintage color swatches have been found in scanned sales material. But in many cases, I am making a proverbial Leap of Faith in color choices.

      The other point of this post is how weathering affects the final appearance. Nailing a specific paint color or shade shouldn’t paralyze the process. The final appearance will be affected by layers of weathering. – Eric H.

    1. Thank you for the suggestion and link, Alan. I’ve standardized on Vallejo and water-based paints. – Eric H.

  3. Your comments on how weathering changes colors can be seen in the WW II era color photos from Chicago you’ve shared as references. You can see variations, but under all the dirt and grime of a rail industry that was still largely steam powered, the variations are muted. You’ll see more variations based on the weathering and dirt than the original paint, especially on darker cars like most box cars.

    Oh well, let’s not forget to say “Merry Christmas,” too!!

    1. Merry Christmas, to you, David! Thanks for your comment. You have pointed out the evidence and resource we can lean upon to make our freight car fleets reflect the prototypes. Those color photos are pure gold for modeling inspiration. I think too many modelers have Weathering Anxiety, so they don’t take the extra steps to apply weathering, or they do one-coat of light dust and call it done. I push modelers to weather a few at a time as it builds skills confidence and knowledge of how the materials work. Dirt, grime, and soot are key elements of true steam-era scenery. – Eric H.

  4. Hi Eric,

    Great work as always. I am still hot sure what shade boxcar red is but I do know it is Christmas Eve Eve and write to wish you and your family a happy holiday season. Have a great New Year.


    1. Thank you, Gerry! I hope you and your family are enjoying a wonderful holiday season. Go forth and paint those box cars a shade or red that is in the ballpark. Then apply several layers of weathering to the color variations are muted, just like on the prototype. – Eric H.

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