Aging Wood with Acrylic Washes

Sourced from MRHMAG.COM – By Galen Gallimore

Create a sun-bleached wood platform like this one using inexpensive materials, basic tools, and simple techniques, without noxious fumes!

I like the look of old wood. Having grown up traveling the southeastern states from Florida to Virginia, the gray weathered look of an old barn or some other potential historic landmark just waiting to be preserved in miniature is easy to picture in my mind. Since I became a model railroader I’ve tried, like many others, to capture that look. I learned quickly that wood is often the best medium for modeling wood. The day I discovered scale lumber was like finding a new continent after living on a styrene island.

So the challenge was on to age the wood to that perfect gray color. I must admit, I’m still searching, still trying new products and old, time-tested methods. However, I have come across a technique for aging wood that’s free of noxious odors, cleans up with water, is relatively easy, and downright enjoyable. In this article, I will share with you how I use acrylic washes to capture the look of aged wood, along with a few other tips and tricks.




Figure 1. Here are the basic ingredients for aging wood with acrylics. Clean water, acrylic black wash (50:50), craft paints, a paint brush, and of course, wood.

List of Materials

1/16” balsa wood sheet
1/8” square basswood strip
Elmer’s Yellow Carpenter’s Glue
Assorted acrylic craft paints
Assorted small paint brushes
Dish for paints
X-acto knife
Dental pick or small awl
Small square
Fine-lead mechanical pencil
Brass-bristled brush
Ceramcoat Paints:

Perhaps the most important element of this technique is the paint. I love working with acrylic craft paints. My personal favorite is the Delta Ceramcoat line, but there are many to choose from. I actually learned this technique using a different brand, but which brand you use is up to you. There may be a subtle difference in how evenly the color is absorbed, based on how finely the pigment is ground, but this won’t affect the general technique.

Select a dark charcoal gray from your extensive palette of acrylic craft paints. What? You don’t have any? Go to your local craft store or megamart and look in the craft section. It comes in small 2 oz. bottles with flip top lids (and larger sizes for basic colors). While you’re there pick up a package of paint brushes. I prefer an assortment of brush sizes including a ½” wide, flat brush for most applications and a small round brush for highlighting smaller areas. I found a starter set of various sizes for a couple dollars. Make sure there’s a round brush with a good sized head. For this article I constructed a small loading dock, or rather, the remnants of a loading dock, now used for maintenance of way storage. My example is in HO, but this technique can be used for any scale. Likewise, this type of structure could be found just about anywhere, but I think this technique favors narrow gauge or short line settings where structures are allowed to slip into this state of decay. I used both strip wood and balsa sheet for this dock. That’s right, balsa sheet. While I believe that anything worth doing well is worth doing slowly, especially when it’s fun, I do like the occasional shortcut. This is one I developed for covering a large area of planking without laying actual planks. As for adhesives, I like to use good ole’ yellow carpenter’s glue with wood. CA (super glue) is okay, but some joints I’ve tacked together with CA have eventually dried up and come apart. Again, use what you prefer.

Before you paint, select the wood for your project. For the deck of the dock, I measured the area I wanted it to cover, then cut the balsa to that size. Knowing that I wanted some of the “boards” to be broken or missing, I cut the sheet into smaller sections. Before you cut, determine which direction the planks will be laid, so that the wood grain is going the right way.

The Pencil Trick

Here’s a cool trick. Find a mechanical pencil. Click out a short length of lead, around a millimeter. This is the depth of the cracks between the planks. Now determine how wide the planks will be and make marks along one edge of the sheet accordingly. Next, take a small square and line it up with a mark. Push the pencil into the wood and mark the line. Continue down the length of the sheet. Be careful. Scribing the wood like this may cause the sheet to bow when it’s wet. However in this case it will be secured on a frame so that shouldn’t matter in the long run.



Figure 2. Thinning the paint on a plate allows you to control the consistency of the wash. For repeatable results, start with a drop of paint and count the number of brush-loads of water you bring to the plate. Then you can scale up the amount using this rough ratio if you need to stain a larger amount of wood.

The pencil will leave a gray mark and scribe the soft balsa wood all at once. If the scribed lines (gaps between the planks) aren’t deep enough, reset the pencil and go at it again. Don’t worry about separating individual planks now; that can happen later once the dock is assembled. The idea is to create the illusion of individual planks with less work. In fact, you don’t want to go all the way through, so that the sheet remains solid.

Painting Technique

Using a wash to stain wood is not a new idea. However, it takes some practice to master. I begin with a small jar of water and a plastic plate or dish. You can mix a wash in a separate jar in order to duplicate your results later, but I prefer a more spontaneous approach. Shake your paint bottle to mix it, flip the top open, and squirt at least a nickel-sized drop of paint up next to the lip of the plate. You want a little depth here to work with. Take a round brush and dip it in the water. Using the brush, bring some water onto the plastic plate and put it next to the paint, allowing the water and paint to mix. What you want is a range of paint from full strength to fully dilute. The strength of paint will determine the shade of gray once it’s absorbed into the wood.

Bear in mind that different kinds of strip wood will absorb different amounts of stain differently. The balsa will soak it in easily and quickly while basswood or pine stripwood may take
a few more applications or stronger paint to match shades. Or, just let the variation be. It’s all gray, but not all the same shade. Variety is important. Dip the brush in the paint/water and put some on the wood. Too dark? Quick! Dip the brush in the water jar and flow some onto the wood. Try a lighter wash or add more water to the paint. It’s a balancing act between paint and water and how much the wood will take. Start lighter and darken as you go. Stain a few pieces and let them dry. Come back later to see how the color looks. Adjust the paint and water mix and have at it again until all has been stained. The wood may bow and warp when the wash is applied. Don’t freak out! Just apply more wash or clean water to the other side of the wood. When it dries it should be straight and flat since it will dry more uniformly. Allow the wood to thoroughly dry before using it in the finished model in order to avoid any gaps due to shrinkage. Now assemble your structure. If you assemble the structure before staining, be aware of the glue joints. The beauty of carpenter’s glue and CA is that they are waterproof. If glue joints aren’t going to be visible, you could assemble the structure first and stain second. Knowing that much of the wood would be exposed to view, I took particular care to stain every surface.



Figure 3. Don’t want to lay individual planks? Start with balsa wood sheet cut to size, apply the ‘pencil trick’ to create shaded depressions in the wood, and then stain with the basic paint wash. Individual planks could also be carefully stained further with a small brush to create variations in wood tone.



Figure 4. I created a long platform by gluing several balsa sections on top of long basswood strips. At this stage I enhanced the illusion of individual planks by notching the edge of the wood between the lines to vary the length of the ‘planks and removing a plank or two.



Figure 5. Cut away and lift a few planks with an X-acto knife, create knot and nail holes with a dental pick, a pin or a small awl, and stroke a brass bristled brush along the grain to deepen the effect. Be careful not to overdo the brass brushing as balsa wood is very soft.

Finishing Touches

If you’re satisfied with how your structure looks at this point, great, you can stop here. But if you’d like to take it to the next level, read on. For my dock, I wanted a sun-bleached appearance. This dock is on a river landing where fog creeps in all the time, so moisture has worked its magic and moss has been growing. My MOW crews aren’t the most delicate folks so the effects of years of freight moving over this dock are visible. Much of this can be simulated with further washes of color. I used a pin tool to push nail holes in the surface of the planks. Then I cut through the score lines with a hobby knife in several places, creating individual planks. All of the plank sections were scraped severely with a brass wire brush. Some of the planks I removed and others I broke. With the pin and the knife I put a few large knot holes and other variations in the wood surface. Now it’s time for a second wash.

This time I used a black wash. My acrylic black wash is 50/50 paint and water. This may sound pretty dark, and it is. I rarely use it full strength. I generally dip my brush in the black wash, put some on the plastic plate, then dip in the water and dilute the wash from there. This allows you to see what you have before putting it on the model. However, I used it without dilution this time, because I knew the surface was so porous and I was going for a dark gray look. This wash will darken the wood and bring out the details like the nail holes. Work carefully here, for where you hit the same place twice the color will be that much darker in that spot.  Wash until you’re satisfied and set it aside to dry. Once it’s dry, it’s time for dry brushing. I’m still using acrylic paint. Choose a light gray color. I used Quaker Gray from Ceramcoat. Find a dry spot on the plastic plate and put a small drop there. For dry brushing I use a brush I don’t mind losing, hence the cheap starter pack of brushes. However, if you clean the brush shortly after use with warm soapy water, even cheap-o brushes will last a long time.



Figure 6. The final steps to create that aged look are a black wash and a dry brush using light gray to enhance the wood grain, knot and nail holes.



Figure 7. The kind of place your folks warned you not to play. Don’t forget to place those broken planks beneath the platform. Weeds, debris and detail-parts complete the scene, but the aged wood is the foundation.

Dip your brush in the paint and wipe it on the plate. Remember – you control how much paint is on the brush. Painting is no accident. How much ends up on the surface is up to you. The plastic plate gives you a chance to get an idea of how much paint will end up on the surface. Lightly scuff the surface with the brush so that the paint hits the high spots in the wood grain. It’s better to make several applications, checking the color between each, than putting on too much at once. What has just happened is the basic formula for pretty much all painting I do with acrylics. First a base coat, then a black wash and finally a highlight dry brushing. (Giving credit where it’s due, this technique comes from Dave Frary’s scenery book titled, “How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery”, Kalmbach, 1983.) Kalmbach Books

For staining wood, the first washes of color determine the base color. The black wash also serves as a stain and the dry brushing adds highlights. To simulate moss, either mix a wash of
green on the plate, or use a dry brush technique. I find the wash to produce a subtle moss effect while the dry brush is more pronounced.

Color Variations

Not all wood ages to gray. But all wood can be stained with acrylic washes. Don’t let the actual material you’re working with stand in the way of simulating another type of wood. I’ve used other shades of acrylic washes with great success to simulate wood of varying types and ages. Good acrylic colors to use for other shades of wood include Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber. These are commonly named colors and make good base coat washes. Another color I use for a base wash is Delta’s Mudstone. It’s versatile enough to be a highlight color as well. For newer wood such as pine or poplar try Delta’s Flesh Tan straight or mix in a drop of Straw to yellow the wood.

The color I used as a base coat for this article, and perhaps my favorite for washes, is Graphite by Americana (DecoArt). I’m sure that other brands have equivalent colors. Delta has a color chart on its website, but the best way is to look at the actual color in the store or buy a bottle and experiment with it.

Give It a Try

I highly recommend acrylic washes for weathering and aging wood. This medium is versatile and very forgiving. The brushes clean up with soap and water, as do your hands and your clothes. There are no fumes to worry about and the price is right. I have many bottles that I purchased several years ago that show no sign of drying out. (I’m half convinced my bottle of Raw Sienna is a miraculous neverending bottle – I use it all the time and I’ve had it for years!). Plus, I can almost guarantee you’ll never need a pair of pliers to open a flip-top lid. If you’re looking for an alternative to toxic stains for aging wood, I encourage you to give acrylic washes a try.






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