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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Every kit comes with a drawing that shows how the pieces are supposed to go together. Many kits even come with "prefinished" appearance so you're not supposed to have to paint them. However, I've discovered that a few extra steps before you set a building kit out on your railroad contribute dramatically to the attractiveness and usefulness of that structure for years to come. For example, painting structures with spraypaint that is made for outdoor use:

This article includes many hints for improving the appearance and durability of your finished structure and saving time while you do so. Other additions, such as weathering or adding windows, are also very helpful; those will be covered in other articles.

Note: The focus of this article is on creating "paint jobs" that will hold up for years under adverse weather conditions including blistering suns and hard rains (although they'll hold up even longer if they don't remain outside through the winter). However, the basic techniques described in this article are just as useful for preparing a structure to add realism and interest on an indoor railroad or display village.

What You Need

The Family Garden Trains Article Stuff to Have On Hand describes stuff you should keep on hand so you don't have to make a run to the store every time you want to spend twenty minutes fiddling with a model. A few items from that list that relate specifically to painting are:

Where to Paint

Figure out where and when you're going to work.

What You Do

Buy a Building Kit You Like - First, find a plastic building you'd like to start with. I recommend Piko's "Pleasantown" or "Gingerbread" line as easy beginning projects that won't cost you so much that you freak out if you mess something up. Note: the materials for most of building made for garden railroads say that they are UV-resistant and you don't need to paint them, etc. But before the cute photo on the box convinces you to take the "shortcut" of not painting the structure, please visit a few garden railroads that are more than a couple of years old and decide if that's how you want your structures to look in a few years. Decide what colors you want to paint the thing; don't feel obligated to use the colors on the box, especially if they're not common for this kind of structure in the region you're modeling.

Examine the Model

Open the box and spread the "sprues" out on a clean surface. The parts "sprues" are those little plastic trees that the parts come attached to. Do not break or cut the parts off the sprues. Contrary to what many authors tell you, it's far easier to get an even, attractive paint job on the parts while they're still attached to the sprue. Decide which sprues you want to paint which colors. If some parts on a sprue will wind up another color, you still may want to keep them on the sprue until you've primed them at least.

Look for Opportunites for Special Treatment - How do you want to handle brick, stone, woodgrain, and other textures? If you plan for your structure to have a newly painted look, don't worry too much about this step. (Generally, you're better off going for a newly painted look on your first couple of projects until you get the hang of things.) However, if you'd like more details or a more weathered appearance consider the following alternatives to a simple top-coat-on-a-primer-coat finish. Most of these are best done before the building is assembled.

If you've decided to use any of the above techniques to add special interest to your structure, it's up to you to figure out which layers of paint to add when. If you have several techniques in mind for the same building, you may have to make yourself a list to make certain you get the right colors on in the right sequence. On the other hand, most "wash" techniques can be done after a building is assembled, so if you leave a step out accidentally, don't panic.

Replenish Your Supplies - Take inventory and make a list of products you will probably need. Yes, I know I'm repeating myself, but keeping about $10 worth of supplies on hand will save you some time-wasting trips to the store to get stuff you didn't realize you needed until later.

Clean Each Piece - Parts often arrive dusty; plus any oils you put on them by handling them will keep paint from adhering properly. Clean the pieces off with a cleaning product that doesn't leave a residue (I especially like Glass Plus) and dry them thoroughly with cotton towels that don't leave a lot of fuzz (most dish-towels are fine). Make certain to dry out the little "cracks" and other recesses that have been molded into the pieces. Allow them to dry thoroughly. Note: From this point until you are entirely finished painting the parts, be careful to wash your hands every time you get ready to handle any of the pieces. Otherwise, you risk adding an imperceptible coating of oil, which will affect the way that the next layer of paint adheres (or doesn't adhere) to the part.

Prime Each Piece

Now it's time to get out the spray paint. Because you already have at least two colors of primer on hand (if you've been paying attention), there's no reason not to go ahead and put on a layer of primer so it can be drying while you run to the store for whatever else you need.

These walls from a Piko cabin kit started out pale yellow. They have been primed gray and are starting to get their first finish coat. Click for bigger photo.Add Finish Coat and Special Treatment

Before you handle the sprues and parts again, wash your hands to keep from depositing oil on the newly painted parts. If all of the parts on a sprue are to receive the same topcoat or special treatment, leave them attached. Otherwise, it may be necessary to cut some of the parts off now.

Depending on how each part is to be finished, apply the next coat of paint. Again, use several light coats instead of a few heavy coats, which can cause runs and obscure detail.

Prepare Parts for Assembly

Study the assembly instructions again. Make certain you know which part will eventually go where.

Cut Parts from Sprue as Needed - Wash your hands, get out a sharp knife and trim the first batch of parts you will be gluing together away from the sprue.

Touch Up Sprue Cuts - Hold the parts temporarily in place to see if the place where the part was attached to the sprue will show on the finished model. Collect any parts on which the sprue cut would show, and take them (in a clean, dust-free container) back to some place with very good ventilation, along with the cheap craft paint brushes and the appropriate spray paints. Get the spray cans ready, take the lids off, then wash your hands again. Collect all the parts that need the same color touch-up. Spray a bit of the paint into the into the lid you took off the can, until you have a few liquid drops of the color inside the lid. You'll be working closer to the paint than you have in the past, so you will need to take special care to avoid breathing the fumes. Using one of the cheap paint brushes, touch up all the parts that need that color. These will take a few minutes to dry, during which you can be shaking up the can for the next color you need. Note: many modeling magazines stress cutting the pieces off the sprue before you start painting, so you wouldn't need this step. On the other hand, you would be handling many individual parts many more times. Leaving parts on the sprue as long as possible costs you maybe 20 minutes at this stage, but saves you much more time (perhaps several hours, for a complicated model) while you're doing the basic painting.

When you're done touching up the sprue cuts, throw the dimestore brushe(s) that you used into the trash, put up your paint cans, and get ready to glue.

Glue The Building Together

Now you can get out of the basement or garage and backyard and work safely inside the house, as long as you cover the kitchen table or whatever work surface you plan to use with plenty of newspaper.

Note: If your structure came with little plastic "glazing" pieces to glue into the frames, you may go ahead and glue them in according to the kit instructions. However, I've noticed that much of the "glazing" that is injection-molded (it comes on a sprue) crystalizes and yellows after a few seasons of direct sunlight. So if I'm not in a hurry, I cut up Lucite scraps and glue them to the walls before the final assembly of the building. For buildings without glazing, the Lucite still applies. (Lucite is a kind of thin Plexiglass people use for storm windows - you can usually get bits you can use for your buildings from any hardware store.)

If you've never used Superglue (cyanoacrylate) before, you should know that all those urban legends about people glueing their fingers together or whatever are true. That said, cyanoacrylate will only set up that quickly when it's sandwiched under pressure between two relatively non-porous surfaces. Otherwise it behaves more like any other glue. Still, take reasonable precautions not to drip glue on your finger, then scratch your eyelid or something.

This building was tricky to glue because it didn't have little The other thing to remember is that, at this point, every bit of every surface you are going to be gluing is covered with at least two layers of spray paint. My friend Nick Ariemma uses an X-acto knife to scrape the paint off the areas where the pieces come together. This helps glue set up more quickly and makes a more solid joint. Once you are glueing plastic to plastic, cyanoacrylate sticks pretty good.

Following the instructions in the kit, assemble any substructures (such as windows, etc.). If you are adding Lucite windows, the time to add them is usually right before you glue the walls together.

Take time after every few pieces, to rotate the structure and make certain it looks "right" from every angle. If the cyanoacrylate has run out onto a surface, wipe it away with something disposable. If it leaves a shiny streak after it dries, you can usually touch that up easily with a dimestore paint brush the same way you touched up the sprue cuts earlier.

When the whole structure is assembled, and the windows are in place, let it dry overnight, to make certain all the cyanoacrylate is set up completely. Then using waterproof Liquid Nails or some such, go back over the inside of the main joints of the building to reinforce them. (I used to use silicone caulk for this, but it gives out after a couple of summers in this application, something author Kevin Strong has also noted.) When that has dried overnight, add any washes, sponging, or other special treatments that you've reserved for this time. Then, if you've used lots of acrylic, wait overnight again, hit the thing with clear, UV-resistant, flat finish, and let it dry overnight again.

At this point, painting your structure properly has probably cost you about $6-10 and added about three actual hours' time to what it would have taken you to assemble the thing right out of the box. At first, this may seem like a lot of handwashing, and letting things dry overnight, and so on, but you should know that you now have a structure that is attractive and unique and, in all likelihood, more weather-resistant than your house.

Now it's time to find a space for it. I like using 2x8x16" or similar concrete blocks to set my buildings on - it reduces the number of creepy crawlers that set up house. Other people just set out a layer of gravel or some other surface. Be certain to level things as well as you can, set some appropriate details around the thing, transplant some creeping thyme, acre sedum or whatever nearby, and watch your new structure settle into its community, where it will add interest for many years to come.

Tell me about your projects

If you have a particularly interesting structure painting project you'd like to tell other garden railroaders about, please contact me with the details.

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