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.

4 thoughts on “Modelling creosoted timber

  1. I love these deep dives you take into technique and that you take the time to share them here as record. Your passion for the subject is so accessible.

    So, I wonder about tie colour too. In my current layout tangent my ties should not be preserved. It’s been tricky to find a colour balance that’s representative of the wood as it ages in wet ground and is also baked by the sun. In terms of thinking what stimuli trigger change those feel like external forces acting on the tie to change its colour—where colour is a symptom. In ties like yours where there’s a preservative and the process to preserve wood like this is based on saturation this colour is evolving like it’s washing out of the tie. Compared to my bleached ones colour is moving outward not inward.

    I’m going to enjoy thinking about this today.



    • Chris–
      Thank you. An article in the 1937 Canadian Pacific Foundation Library book “Factors in Railway and Steamship Operation” states that CP first started using creosoted ties experimentally in 1906, with 1911 seeing increased use– author JH Reeder wrote in the article; “Approximately 40 per cent. of the ties used on the Dominion Atlantic Railway are treated. No treated ties are used on the Quebec Central Railway, as this road is still able to obtain its requirements in cedar. Practically all the ties used on the Eastern lines are treated…”

      I am willing to guess that these practices applied to CN as well at the time; the creosoting plants at Truro NS, Delson QC, and Trenton ON supplied both railways with treated ties, piling, and poles. Maybe your PEI operation was able to obtain it’s requirements in cedar–which would result in different tie colouration than we see with treated ties? But even creosoted ties left in track over time will see the creosote disappear. From the article again–

      “Decay results from the action of certain low forms of plant life called fungi which depend for their sustenance on various substances in the wood itself, and as those substances are dissolved the structure of the wood is broken down until the stage of rot is reached. If therefore, the wood itself, the food of the decay producing fungi, is poisoned by treating it with a toxic preservative, it will be impossible for decay to develop as long as the preservative remains.”

      So there was even in 1937, a certain service life given creosoted ties. The article gives an expected average service life of 31 years of ties installed 1909 in a sample of track at Rugby Jct near Winnipeg. This was a great improvement in the cited ten-year service life of untreated wood ties.

      For now, I’m satisfied with my efforts to replicate treated timber, but reserve the right to re-visit this at a later date.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really enjoy the depth of thought you’re investing into this subject–you’re miles beyond “I just spray the track with Krylon Camo Brown” and that kind of investigation only expands the landscape of our work.

        I have visited the Truro plant several times over the years–it’s a fascinating operation and still busy. The draw there being the narrow gauge tram tracks. I’d sure like to go back sometime and visit.

        Reading your comments about wood and its decomposition that’s another story and design-related conversation isn’t it? I am thinking about how we develop a scene. At least in my work I’d develop the texture and colour of ties sort of independent of the “scenery” but, come to think of it, they should be cultivated at the same time: if I had a plan for the scene I could trace water and like influences to where their path would intersect with the track and where it’s more likely ties will rot faster than their adjacent ones. In the finished scene, it might be more harmonic.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris–I’m having a bit of fun working this out. I just hope to remember how I achieved the look that I want–part of the reason for journalling my method here. There are a few methods in the model rail hobby that strike me as being enhanced by improvement. You gave me a little chuckle with the “I just spray the track with Krylon Camo Brown” quote. I don’t want to be someone who criticises the accepted norm in the hobby without having a method that works better–in my humble (or is that arrogant?) opinion. This is more a personal endeavour. And I’ll share my experiences, hoping that I’m not keeping useless secrets–

    “Useless secrets, beat your wings
    There’s a little good in everything
    You are a conductor…”
    –The Constantines, “You Are A Conductor”

    More fun to have, and methods to discover; I spent an hour or so laying out a parabolic curve for the next section of layout to incorporate Lindsay’s Black Iron Bridge, mentioned last blog post.



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