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

Note from Editor: - Since I wrote this article, Colorado Model Structures has shut down, apparently for good. Though the particular product we selected for this article has been discontinued, the principles we describe apply to any plastic structure that comes in pieces. - Ed.

Prepping a Plastic House for Year-Round Service

Painting the Colorado Models Tower

This article is a supplement to the Family Garden Trains(tm) Painting Plastic Structures article. It explains one way to paint a building kit from Colorado Model Structures. I've presented this project in some detail because it illustrates a few points that the big article didn't have room to present properly.

Colorado Model Structures is owned by a garden railroader who has a real job making "machine tools." So, as a "labor of love," he designs and builds buildings that other hobbyists can easily afford. And to help build the hobby, he passes the "savings" on to you, in many cases charging a third of what you would pay for similar models from other companies (and a quarter to a fifth of what you would pay for "premium kits" of similar buildings).

You don't get a fancy box, stickers, or a store-bought paint job that will fade in a few seasons But you can get free business and station signs from us, and this article will show you how to paint the building in a way that will hold its color for years.

That said, these models do not "snap together." You may need to file, trim, or sand an edge slightly to get the best fit. As an example, there is some flash (places where excess material got in between the "plates" of the mold and formed a sort of plastic halo around the main part). Still, most models have "flash lines" of some sort that you have to trim off, so I don't consider the trimming a problem.

Note About the Level of Detail - Please don't be put off by all the little steps in our kit-painting/assembling articles. Most kit instructions assume an experienced user, so they leave out minor, but important steps that experienced kit-builders do without even thinking about them. We just want to make sure you have a painless experience, especially if this is the first building kit you've ever painted and assembled. We also want you to be very satisfied with the finished result. If if we left out a bunch of steps to make you think that kitbuilding is a breeze, you will not be as satisfied as you could be - if nothing else, your finished kit would look exactly like everyone else's. Once you've done a couple kits according to our instructions and seen the results, you'll be doing all of those minor, but important steps automatically, too, whether we have specific instructions or not.

Like all garden railroad structures, this building needs to be primed, painted, and glazed before you set it out.* But if you're careful, you'll have a result you can be proud of for years to come.

Deciding on a Paint Scheme

This model represents a building with reverse board-and-batten walls bordered by separate trim boards. The trim boards don't stand all that far out from the clapboard, so if you want them to be apparent, you'll need to paint them a contrasting color. Whatever you do you will want to prime first, so that's something you can do even if you haven't decided on a paint scheme.

In my case, I wanted my building to match the station I had painted years ago with a rust-red base coat and white trim. So I chose to use rust primer, and the second coat of primer would become the "base color" for the board and batten walls. That meant that I would paint the trim last. In most other examples I've seen of folks painting this model, they painted the trim color first, then the base colort, so it's really up to you how you want to do things.

You'll also need to decide on the color for the windowframes, roof, and door. I stayed with white for the windowframes, but I went with rust-red for the doors, because I wanted them to stand out. The roof was going to be gray primer, with a little extra black underspray added later to make the shingles stand out.

The following illustrations show how the tower might be painted in several color combinations that were popular in different parts of the United States a century ago. Ordinarily, most or all of the railroad structures around a station will have the same colors, even if there isn't a standard for the whole railroad. The illustrations below are just to get you thinking about colors you might use.

Click for bigger drawing.Click for bigger drawing.
Click for bigger drawing.Click for bigger drawing.

Trimming the Flash and Sprue Remnants

The roof has more flash than most models, but it's easily trimmed. Click for bigger photos.This next step is the main difference between painting and assembling this model and the equivalent "premium" model. You need to trim:
  • Flash - those places where plastic got out into the mold and formed a little "halo" around the piece. On this model, the flash is especially bad on the roof pieces, a result of a money-saving process used by the manufacturer. Since they pass the savings on to the consumer, and it's easily trimmed away, I don't mind in the least.
  • The weird thing sticking out of the side of the wall is a leftover from the molding process. It needs to be trimmed away (and maybe filed) before the walls will fit together properly. Again, you usually have to trim some sprue material away from your models, so this is not a critical problem - though it does keep it from being a children's project. Click for bigger photo.Sprue Remants - These are the result of the injection molding process - each mold has little channels that convey the melted plastic throughout the mold. When the mold is opened, the parts seem to be attached to a sort of tree called the sprue. On small models, parts may remain attached to the sprue for ease of handling. On this model, the large parts are cut away from the sprue for ease of packing. But the stubs remain. On the sidewalls of this building, they are prominent, and they will keep the mitered corners from matching up right.

Resist the temptation to break off the extra shingles. The manufacturer's instructions say to leave the shingles sticking out until the roof is glued together, but I think they're talking about the "lower" edge, not the corners where the roof pieces need to join. Cut the shingles off carefully with a very sharp knife. The sprue remnants on the sidewalls will need, not only to be cut, but also to be filed smooth.

Go ahead and trim any flash on the windowframes and doors while you're at it. I left the windowframes on the sprue until after painting, though. I did cut the doors away from the sprue, since I was going to paint them a different color than the windowframes.

Once you've trimmed the flash, hold the wall pieces together and make certain they will fit when the time comes - it's a lot easier to check and fix that now than after you've painted the things. Do any more filing that seems necessary.

Cleaning the Parts

When all of the parts are trimmed and ready to go, lay out a clean dry dishtowel and place the parts next to it, along with another towel. Then wash your hands with dish soap and warm water to remove any excess oils from getting back to the parts. Locate some Glass Plus or Fantastic or a similar cleaning agent that doesn't require rinsing and leaves no residue.

Clean each piece carefully, handling it by the edges or by the sprue so you don't leave "fingerprints" on it. Then dry it as well as you can and leave it on the clean dishtowel to dry out completely. By the way, this step is necessary on any model - even a clean-looking part from an expensive kit may have invisible fingermarks or oils left over from the manufacturing process.

Priming the Parts

The walls, trimmed and clean and ready to spray with the first coat of primer.Take the parts in a shallow box or something (so you don't have to handle them except by the edge) to wherever you're going to paint. As the Painting Plastic Structures article points out, I like to paint outside on warm calm days, using a wire framerwork that allows the air to circulate around the parts. I have also been known to convert an oversize box into a "paint booth" to cut down on breeze if I'm outside, or to cut down on overspray if I'm inside.

In this case, I chose a gray primer for the roof and windowframe parts, and a red primer for the building walls. (I might have used white primer for the windowframes, but I had just used it up on another project and didn't want to make another run to the store.)

Shake the first paint can you plan to use thoroughly, until the little ball inside has been rolling freely for a few minutes. You might want to test the paint on a piece of scrap plastic. Sometimes when it is very humid or the can of paint is too cool, the paint comes out in tiny chunks, making your building look a little fuzzy, so you want to know if it's going to do this before the paint goes onto your structure parts.

When you are ready to spray the parts, bring the paint can so that it fires down at an angle (paint won't spray properly going straight down). With the can aimed to one side of the parts, press the button until you get an even flow (usually a second), then bring The walls, windowframes, and roof after the primer coat.  Click for a bigger photo.the can past the parts in an even motion and release the button when the spray has gone over the other side. If you've done it right, the parts should be 50% or more covered and the paint should be almost dry by the time you bend over to look at the results. Rotate the parts and repeat this process, always giving the paint time to dry a little between sprays. You don't want two or three heavy layers, which may obscure the detail, develop runs, and, ironically, miss places, but several very light coats from every reasonable angle. If the parts need to be sprayed on the other side, let them dry thoroughly before turning them over and painting the other side.

When all the parts are painted, move them to a safe place with decent ventilation and allow them to dry overnight.

Simple Finish Coat

The window trim, which I had primed with gray, now gets a coat of flat white.   Click for bigger picture.Now if you have parts that just need one finish coat, get the finish coat you plan to use, and repeat the process you used to prime it. For the window frames, I painted a "flat white" finish coat over the "white primer."

I also gave the roof parts another coat of primer gray (yes, you can use primer for a finish coat, but I still like to have two separate coats, applied at least a day apart). I had another process to perform on the roof later, but at this time, gray was all I needed.

Complex Finish Coat

The walls of this model required a little bit more work than some models, since the trim is molded in and I wanted it to be white.

This photo shows a wall piece with one corner 'started,' and several corners finished by overlapping bits of tape with obtuse angles. Click for bigger photo. I did add a "finish coat" of rust primer, since that was the color I wanted the board and batten to take on. After that had dried a couple of days, for safety, I began applying masking tape over the part that was to remain rust-red.

As you can see, there would be many "inside corners" to mask. If you've ever tried masking inside corners, you know that it is virtually impossible to get a true 90degree cut on the masking tape. But it's actually pretty easy to cut the tape at an obtuse angle and to get the point into the corner. Then you put another piece of tape, also cut at an obtuse angle over the top of the first one and perpendicular to it. By building up several small pieces like this (at least eight per "square" you need to cover), you can get 100% perfect corners. Try not to build up so many layers of tape that it keeps the paint spray from getting to the part you want to paint, though.

Several light coats of flat white covered the trim without getting so thick it was noticeable.  Click for bigger photo.Note: Most people would rather start out by painting the whole wall the "trim" color. Then you can easily mask off the trim with strips of masking tape. The Colorado Models site has a PDF file that shows how they used this method to paint some of their structures. In my case, though, I elected to do it the other way around because the "base color" was the same as my priming coat.

Once the base coat was masked, it was time to spray my trim. In the photo you'll note that I took the opportunity to add one more light finish coat to the windowframes at the same time I was painting the trim, since it was all flat white.

Peel the masking tape carefully from the walls. Click for bigger picture.Once you begin removing the masking tape and revealing the final color combination, you won't believe how nice your building is turning out. Colorado Models says to do this before the paint dries completely. I've had good luck both ways, as long as my taping job was clean to begin with.

Final Cleanup and Touchup Before Assembly

Now it's time to cut the windowframes off of the sprues. On this building, most of the places that the windowframes separate from the sprues will be hidden in the final assembly. Still, if you have any parts that need to be touched up, get out some very cheap craft brushes (the kind you get 10/$1 at five and ten-cent stores). Then take the paint can you need and the parts you need to touch up someplace with very good ventilation and no open flames. Spray some of the paint into the cap for the paint can. It will stay liquid long enough for you to dip the brush in and do any touchup you need.

When everything is completely dry, make certain the parts fit up against each other the way they should. Do any more filing that is necessary. In addition, make certain that the "mitered" corners of the roof and wall pieces are free of paint - you need every square millimeter of those edges ready to take glue.

Assembling the Tower

Don't start randomly gluing stuff together without reading the instructions carefully. For one thing if you glue the wrong windowframes into the windows next to the corners, your building won't go together. If you don't have a kit yet, and you wonder what I mean, take a look at one of the Colorado Models instruction sheets. You'll see that the window parts labeled W1 and W3 are "missing" a flange on one edge. The windows install through the "back," and the flange doesn't show, but it does have lots of area for glue so it can stick to the wall piece. Still, you can see that the edge without the flange must go in the corners - otherwise the flanges would bump into each other and the walls wouldn't fit together.

I glued the windowframes and doors carefully in place and allowed the glue to set - not a hard job, since they "lay" in place. The manufacturer includes a bit of clear plastic you could glue in place for the windows. Since I plan to incorporate Lucite windows in the future, I left that step out (knowing that I'm encouraging wasp nests in the structure until I get around to putting in the windows).

Click for bigger picture.While the windows and doorways were "setting," I started on the roof. Now, within Garden Railroading circles, there are any number of "best ways" to do this. Many involve gluing blocks or sprue bits into the peak of the roof to give the glue something to hang onto. Those ideas are probably all very useful. I found that I did need to get my knife out and do a tiny bit more triming when I started trying to make the painted roof pieces fit together.

Then, I got out my trusty masking tape and kept taping the pieces together until I seemed to have the right angles and placement for every piece. I sqoze (is that a word?) some "Superglue" (cyanoacrylate) into the cracks and let that set up.

When it was completely dry, I futzed with it a little to make certain it had A: set up and B: retained the correct shape.

Click for bigger photo.Then I want back over the joints with a waterproof carpenter's glue that I've found useful for reinforcing this sort of joint. Yes, it would be sturdier if I glued something into the peak of the roof, but so far the thing has traveled about a thousand miles in the car and been set up any number of times with no sign of failure. If you look closely at the second photo of the roof, you'll notice that the seams are not "seamless," but that is something I should be able to fix in the future when I get around to it, perhaps by using a little bit more waterproof glue as a "filler."

Back to the walls: as I mentioned earlier, there aren't any handy little "snap-fit" features to hold things in place like there are on the structures costing five times as much. Here, the ability of "superglue" to set up in a few seconds was very helpful. I set two of the adjacent walls together, holding them vertically and pressing them into a carpenter's square to get a good 90degree angle. When they had somewhat set, I tried to get the next two aligned the same way. Finally I glued the two subassemblies together. I won't pretend that one wall didn't release from its neighbors and fall out of place the first time I tried this, making the whole thing smash in on itself like a card house. But eventually I got the things lined up and more-or-less glued together with the superglue. When the superglue had set, I rubberbanded them together as the photo to the right shows, and went over the seams again with the waterproof carpenter's glue.


The Colorado Models tower on a temporary 'Thomas the Tank' railroad in Holden Arboretum, July, 2007. Click for bigger photoAt this moment, I have yet to glue the roof on or put the Lucite windows in place. Originally I kept the roof loose on purpose, as I was using it for several demonstrations this summer. On the same trips, the building also delighted many youngsters as an accessory to the "Thomas the Tank" railroads we set up.

Nowadays the tower has a temporary home near my pond (and the only cluster of turnouts on my railroad). It does add a nice vertical component in a very small "footprint." The Colorado Models tower in a temporary spot on my garden railroad.  Click for bigger photo. I don't know for certain where it will wind up - some of my buildings need replaced, and there's going to have to be some "swapping around." But it is a nice addition, and it was a very inexpensive and fun project. When was the last time you added a nice building to your garden railroad for about the cost of an extra-large pizza?

Other Articles on Structures and Painting

  • Stuff to Have on Hand - Supplies to keep around so you don't have to run to the store every time you want to work on a model. Feb., 2005
  • Painting Plastic Structures - Updated, October, 2007
  • Trashbashing 101 - Save money and add variety to your railroad by creative use of things that didn't start out as models.
  • Mullions - Start collecting vegetable trays now so you have windowframes for your buildings later. April, 2003

In addition, hints for painting and examples of customer painting and kitbashing projects are provided on the Colorado Model Structures web site.

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