Mixing your own paint?

DKRickman's picture

I remember reading an article in a very old (probably '50s) model railroad magazine, in which the author (Mel Thornburg?) advocated making your own paint.  If I remember correctly, he was using artist's oil pigments in Japan, boiled linseed oil, and lacquer thinner.  He also said that he did all his painting with a brush (part of the reason I think it was Thornburg, since I know he did that), and the results were excellent.

Given the plethora of model paints on the market today, but also the recent changes in product lines, I'm just wondering if that skill has any utility today.  So, is there anybody out there who still makes his own paint?  How does it compare with what you can buy off the shelf, in terms of price, finish, coverage, etc.?  I am assuming that today you'd use artist's oil paint in tubes, and custom mix the desired color before adding linseed oil and thinner for the right consistency.  Or, is there a better way?

Bernd's picture



Timely question. I was just going through the 1951 Model Railroader magazine's and re-reading Mel's article on scratch building an O gauge 0-4-0 switcher. And I think I have come across talk of Mel mixing his own. Unfortunately I don't have the last issue of this series which might have given a clue as to painting. I'll have to check some of the other articles by Mel and see if I can find something on paint preparations.

Ok, now to your question. I think it would be "very" rare to find a model railroad hobbyist that goes to that point to mix their own paint. The linseed oil I think gave a smooth consistency to the pigment and lacquer thinner is the medium. An oil based paint would take to long to dry.


The New York, Vermont & Northern Railway   --  Route of the Black Diamonds

Bernd, here's the paint scheme from Mel's Article

from Sept 1951 MR. Last paragraph in article talks about paint. Quote

"Paint the loco and tender black; the smoke box a medium slate grey to copy the graphite coating; the cab roof,
back of tender coal board  and manhole, indian red; and the cab interior, medium chrome green.
Letter with medium chrome yellow.
To be fancy, dress the tire rims, footboard and running board edges with white."

He doesn't mention paint preparation at all.

Hope this helps


Bernd's picture

Mels article

Thanks Randy. I do remember something mentioned somewhere that he did mix his own paint.

I have a request. If that's the last article in the series, could you scan that and e-mail it to me? I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.


The New York, Vermont & Northern Railway   --  Route of the Black Diamonds

DKRickman's picture

I could just tryi it, I guess

If I remember correctly, the article was specifically about paint, and not about any particular locomotive.  I think the locomotive used for illustration was his B&O 4-6-0, but I could be wrong there.  I recall the article also discussing hand lettering, and he clamed that the home-made paint covered extremely well and flowed beautifully so that the lettering came out crisp and smooth.

Mel's work was always impressive!

What I'm wondering is whether it might be worth the hassle.

  • Would a paint made using oil paint that I can get anywhere (I have some for weathering that I bought at Wal-Mart), linseed oil, and lacquer thinner even work, or are the oil paints incompatible with the other two ingredients?
  • What properties would such a paint have?  Would it cover well?  Would it go through an airbrush well?  How thin and even a coat could you lay down?
  • What effect would varying the proportions have on the paint?  Specifically, (since I assume that the thinner just makes it, well, thinner) how critical is the ratio of pigment (or artist's oil paint, in this case) to binder (linseed oil).
  • Would a more modern product, such as polyurethane varnish, work in place of the linseed oil?  I suppose I could just try it, since I have plenty of varnish, paint thinner, and oil paint on hand, but I'd be curious to hear form someone who might actually know what they're talking about.
  • What about a water-based variation, using acrylic paint and water based polyurethane?

The idea of being able to mix up any color I need without having to stock a blue million bottles of paint, and without having to pay for all that paint, is definitely appealing to me.  It seems like a fairly limited stock of paint tubes and an inexpensive can of linseed oil and thinner could replace an entire hobby shop shelf, if it's practical.  So I guess that's the ultimate question.  Is this a useful skill which has been forgotten due to convenience and laziness, or is it really not practical to replace a commercial product with a homemade one?

Ken Rickman

Danville & Western HO modeler and web historian


Greyhart's picture

Useful Skill

What it sounds like you are talking about, is a skill every artist knows and does on a regular basis. The entire point of using an Artists Pallet is to be able to mix that perfect shade of green (or whatever color).
Will it work? I don't see why not. How much of each (pigment, binder & thinner) to use will probably be by trial and error, as will how much and which colors to use for the mixing. If you're really good, you can keep notes on each experiment, so that good results can be duplicated. You might do some research online. I'll bet there are some artist resources that will have recipes for color mixes.
This is going to take a lot of time and experimentation. I suspect this is why no one mixes their own paint, it's much easier, and faster to just go buy a bottle of the color you want.
The beauty of mixing your own paint, is that you can get that perfect shade of green, or a true Aspen Gold.

 Ken Biles

My First Model Railroad





Pelsea's picture

One of the tells

That a photo is a model is the "paint by numbers" effect that results when only a couple of colors are used. In real life, colors fade, blend and change with illumination. Most of the weathering posts here are about various ways to get intermediate colors- mixing on the palette is one of the best and easiest methods. Adding dry pigments gives variation and texture.
However, making paint from scratch will probably only be reliable in large batches. (Although it may be fun to try. It will certainly be educational.)

Ken the article in MR july

Ken the article in MR july ,aug, sept 1951 is about construction of the loco and tender. There must be another one that deals with the paint process.

If you have the MR disks, you can try to find it. The search on the disk set is the worst I've seen. It's terrible. Wa to go MR!!




DKRickman's picture

It's not just the color

What it sounds like you are talking about, is a skill every artist knows and does on a regular basis.

While being able to make custom colors would certainly be useful, I'm wondering more about the mechanical side of the problem at the moment.  How would the resulting paint compare to something like Floquil?  I think that's where artists and modelers differ.  An artist is (I assume) more worried about the color than about the physical properties of the paint, especially in how think it can go on and still give an even color capable of covering others beneath it. 

Adding dry pigments gives variation and texture.

Are dry pigments readily available for a reasonable price?  Are they ground as fine as we need for our models?

making paint from scratch will probably only be reliable in large batches.

I have a feeling that it's a skill which would have to be developed.  I bake bread, and I've been doing it long enough that I rarely measure any of the ingredients.  I just know when it's right because it looks and feels right.  I suspect that making paint would be somewhat similar.  Start with the pigment, then add the binder until it's right, and then add thinner until it's the right consistency.  In large batches, you could measure the weight or volume, but for a small batch (like a single airbrush load) I think you'd just have to eyeball the ratios and adjust until it works.

Ken Rickman

Danville & Western HO modeler and web historian


Bernd, I sent off a pm to

Bernd, I sent off a pm to you.

There's six pages I scanned into  ms word.

Let me know where to send em.


" a useful skill which has been forgotten due to convenience "

   The paint choices in the old days was very poor compared to what we have now so a lot of the techniques you read about were from necessity and not because they were better or more fun. It's like maintaining an old car, the only ones who think it would be fun are those who never had to continuously do it. Mixing paint shades from a few basic colors is way easier than making paint from scratch. If Thornburg was alive and modeling today he's be using Star paint or Tamiya and not even be thinking about manufacturing his own.He was progressive not regressive....DaveBranum

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