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Staining Wood with Modelers DP Airbrush Paint

To all model railroaders that have delayed construction of wood buildings!!!

Have you ever wanted to get started on a wood building kit, looked in the box, realized you were going to have to first stain all the wood, and closed the box because staining the wood is so messy and too time consuming?

Recently, I needed some small wood apple boxes for an apple processing industry.  I had prepared and was contemplating the best way to stain the basswood.  My prior technique had been a use of oil based stains mixed with flat paint (usually black and dark brown).  The combination of colors and oil based coloring was rinsed in paint thinner for variations in color.  The process yielded good results but was time consuming, created a nasty odor, and meant having to deal with flammables and harmful chemicals.  Furthermore, I found water based glues (carpenter’s glue) didn’t like the oily surface often left behind on the wood.  To solve this problem, I would bake the wood.  Again nice results, but the process was very time consuming.

We have all heard about staining wood using India ink combined with alcohol, and I have tried the process.  On the positive side, after coloring, the drying time was minimal and the water based glues adhered very well to the wood.  The downside was that the color options were quite limited. 

Having switched to acrylic water based paint for all my painting, I wondered how Modelers DP airbrush paint would work for staining wood. Modelers DP paint is thinned with alcohol, cleans up easily, and contains no nasty chemicals.  This meant I wouldn’t need to bake the wood, dry time would be minimal (alcohol flashes off quickly), and the carpenter’s glue would easily bond to the wood surface. I decided to give it a try.

The Process

I started with two piles of wood pieces.  On one pile, I distributed a few drops of Box Car Red airbrush paint right from the bottle. With a plastic glove covering my hand, I used my fingers to gently rub and slide the wood pieces around in a metal pie pan. 

Below are the wood pieces ready to be stained with Box Car Red.

In another pan, you see Grimy Black poured over the wood pieces.  Just a little paint goes a long way in staining the wood. The pieces were jumbled around by picking them up and rubbing them between by fingers.

Some of the Box Car Red pieces I covered with Grimy Black before going to the final coat of Dirt (below).

My goal was to use a couple of different base colors.  By using multiple colors in the base coat, the final appearance of the stained wood will have more variation.  You will also notice in the pictures, when applying my base coat colors, I didn’t completely cover the surface of the wood.  By leaving some of the wood bare, the final coat of color will result in an additional color. 

For the final coat, I chose a light brown color, Dirt.  The idea was to represent the colors of the environment to which apple boxes would be exposed as they are moved about the orchard during fall harvest. 

The pan on the right (above photo) had Box Car Red and the pan on the left was a combination of all three colors Grimy Black, Box Car Red, and covered with Dirt.  I was deciding whether to add more Box Car Red.  I elected not to add more.

For the final coat of color, I combined all of the pieces into one pan and dropped enough paint so that the paint would just reach the pan. This way, as I was rubbing the wood pieces together, the pieces of wood remaining in the pan were picking up a little paint.  The goal was to have some coverage of the Dirt color on both sides of each of the wood pieces.


Above you see all wood pieces with final paint coat of Dirt.  This was the time to decide if I wanted the wood darker, lighter, or add some other color.  I called it good.

Close up of wood pieces, with all three paint stain colors, spread on a paper towel to dry(above photo).

It was now time to assemble.  I made a placement jig for gluing the side panels of the wood apple boxes. 

  • Red 15/0 seed beads will be used as apples. The apples will be spray painted for a more realistic appearance.
  • The small bent wire will be used to load and unload the apple boxes from flat cars.
  • The light colored boxes in the background were made of paper. These were my original templates made to test the size and perfect the logos before making them into decals.


Below are some of the assembled boxes ready for decal logos to be applied.


Lessons Learned:

  1. The staining process is quite fast.  All total, it was about 20 minutes to mix the paint, pour it over the wood, and mix the wood between my fingers.
  2. For the base coats, minimal paint was used. Most of the paint never made it to the bottom of the pan.  To distribute the color, you can gently rub the pieces of wood together and let them drop back into the pan. 
  3. If you think things might be getting a little darker than you like, you can always add a little alcohol into the pan. The alcohol will lightly rinse some of the color off the wood.  Just remember that the color is still in the pan.  Remove the pieces of wood and allow them to dry a little on a paper towel. 
  4. For the stained, weathered, well-used look, go for inconsistency. This is the best part, you can mess it up.  A lack of uniformity in the application of the color is advantageous to the end result. 
  5. The end color will be lighter and more faded in comparison to the color you see when applying the wet paint. Keep in mind, if you want the wood darker, you can always add more paint. 
  6. If you got the wood darker than you hoped, you can give the wood pieces an alcohol bath.
  7. It is best to keep rubbing the wood pieces between your fingers as they dry until they don’t want to stick to one another.  If the pieces of wood are allowed to dry stuck to one another, once you separate them, the coloring will look more like peeled paint than a stain. 

Typically, only one side of the wood will be visible in the final model.  Therefore, you don’t have to get each piece of wood perfect.  Again diversity and inconsistency in the coverage and color result in a better final appearance.