Modelling creosoted timber

Experiments in wood colouring to simulate creosoted timber. Is there a one-shot process? Here I’ve tried using several different art inks and wood stains on three different types of wood. Softwood from Mt Albert Scale Lumber, hardwood dowel, and bamboo skewers.

I’ve had the good fortune to study the prototype railway for decades. I don’t model what others model, starting with the rail line of my choice, and have developed modelling techniques over the years on my own. I try to model what I see, not what others do.

True replication of tie and treated timber colour is an issue which has bedevilled me for decades. I sought out various ways to replicate this since the 1970’s. My very first layout had a little bit of handlaid track, using balsa ties, coloured with redwood stain. I had little money for the hobby, and Dad had this can of stain hanging around for some reason. I knew that this did not replicate creosoted ties, but hey, it looked better than the black ties of the Tri-Ang track elsewhere on the layout! (And I cut an open Dutch door in a Tri-Ang OO/HO CP Rail “Park” dome car that I had–even in 1973, I wanted to model the prototype.)

A few years later, instructions in a Juneco wood bridge kit cited the “Jack Work” method of staining wood for modellers. Simply put, one part black leather dye, and thirty parts rubbing alcohol. This gives a nice greyed wood finish, and I was quite pleased with the effect. I still use this for wood model structure and rolling stock parts before assembly, and keep some “weathered” stripwood of various sizes on hand, which already are treated using this technique.

Note the colour of these ties in track on the CN Hagersville Subdivision near Onondaga, Ontario. Grey, yes, but there’s a lot of brown in these ties, too. When I look at bridge timber, it has similar colouration. Just staining ties grey is not good enough for me.

I tried different methods to impart some brown AND grey colour into “creosoted” timber for my modelling.

Using coloured inks and stains to replicated creosoted timber. Three types of wood are used–hardwood dowel, Mt Albert Scale Lumber stripwood, and bamboo skewers.

A few trips to hardware and woodworking stores supplied me with various Minwax stains. A trip to Curry’s Artist Materials got me some dyes to try out. Above are the results of my applying these various stains and dyes to samples of different types of wood.

The dyes have issues of their own; some are water-soluble. This can cause issues with dye running later on when using water-based glues, etc for scenery use. Alcohol-based dyes and oil-based stains win the day for potential stability. And the colours, while some are quite good, appear still monochromatic to me.

Then it occurred to me that creosoted timber has at least two colours in it; the base wood colour AND the black coal tar creosote almost overlaid over the wood colour.

But how to replicate this?

Some authors have opined that one can stain wood with the Jack Work method leather dye and alcohol, using black and brown dyes. I tried it. It doesn’t work very well, in my opinion. Why? The alcohol in the black or red “stain” washes out some of the previous colour, resulting in a wishy-washy “sort of” brown with grey tones. It’s also flat, while much creosoted timber that I’ve seen has often shiny spots to it.

I first stain the wood using a mix of these two Hunterline wood dyes. I currently prefer about 2/3 Dark Brown and 1/3 Burnt Umber; the Burnt Umber tends to be a bit reddish.

What works for me is to stain the wood a brownish colour first. I let it dry well, and then dip or brush onto the wood thinned Minwax wood stain. This is a solvent-based product, so does not affect the wood colour previously imparted by the alcohol-based Hunterline dye.

Sample wood piling using my two-part method. From the left is softwood stripwood, then hardwood dowel, softwood, and hardwood again. It appears that further Minwax stain thinning will be needed for the softwood strips; as they take especially the stain quite well.

A quick result of some experimentation. I thinned Minwax “Jacobean” wood stain about 50/50 with turpentine. You can use Varsol if you like. Turpentine is not the cheapest solvent on the market, but when my wife doesn’t mind the scent of stripwood drying after staining, that’s worth something. Using Minwax stain straight out of the can will result in both wood that is too dark, and glossy–certainly not what real creosoted timber looks like.

The hardwood dowel looks good, with some more dilution required for the softwood strips as the colour is a bit on the dark side. But the hardwood has that nice mix of black and brown that I’ve seen on real bridge timbers. You’d be correct in inferring that I am going to build a wood trestle or two in future.

Earlier experiments in wood staining using Minwax stain; the ties at the bottom of the photo were laid in Santiago Yard.

But the primary driver of coming up with this technique is a desire to build the next part of the layout, connecting Lindsay’s Durham Street yard with Santiago Yard. It involves the “Black Iron Bridge” over the Scugog River, Trent Canal and the CPR line to Lindsay and Bobcaygeon. So far, I’ve cut and stained 162 scale 10″ x 12″ 13′ long bridge ties to get ready for the part of this project.

Looking north along the CPR and the Scugog River to Lindsay’s “Black Iron Bridge” on the CN Campbellford Subdivision, 1930’s. Durham St yard and Lindsay station are to the left, Santiago Yard is to the right. Library and Archives Canada, Mattingly Collection.

Those ties? Well, I DO like how they turned out!! The random length is correct; these were often of varying lengths, the only prototype requirement being that they be at least 13′ long and 10″ x 12″ in cross-section.

Bridge ties waiting for a bridge to put them on. I’m still thinking of adding some more brown colour to them.

Derail diversion

It’s been a year since I’ve written anything about my layout, so it’s more than time to continue.

Santiago Yard had a downgrade from the west end of the yard to the Scugog River “Black iron” bridge. I was told by a local in Lindsay of it being protected by derails in the yard tracks so that cars would be derailed away from the main track–he’d seen these derails do their job in the late 1950’s.

So I needed a set of derails at the west end of Santiago Yard for my 1956 layout.

CN 1938 Standard Instructions for Applying Derails

GLX Scale Models ( makes a working derail in HO scale; his part 3D-DUR-10 consists of 3D printed ties incorporating a derail base, a length of brass wire for a hinge, and two derail blocks, one for each direction. The modeller uses the block appropriate to the direction that the car is to be derailed to.

The GLX model is similar to the commercial Hayes derail used by railroads all across North America. The 3D prints are an unpainted white plastic; I used a weathered black for the ties, a rust colour for the derail base, and yellow paint for the tops of the derail blocks.

GLX Scale Models’ 3D printed derails assembled and placed in track. These were carefully fitted to the site so that the block moves freely.

It was necessary to sand down the 3D printed ties a little to place the tie tops at the same height as the adjoining ties. I found that standard NMRA RP-25 wheel flanges hit the inside of the derail base, as well as pilots on locomotives hitting the derail block when in the non-derailing position. Some trimming was needed to correct these issues, especially since these are used with Code 70 and Code 60 rail rather than more commonly-used Code 83 and 100 rail. When the derail blocks moved without binding, I epoxied the ties of these devices in place. This was followed by ballasting.

Derail in place on lead track to No 2 and 3 Sidings. The derail on the top of this photo is on No 1 Siding.
The derail has been tested, and works well!

More to come!