Weathering Words

At work, everyone wants to own their little slice of “strategy”, to the point where the term itself has become – I won’t say meaningless – but certainly confused.

Over the past week, I’ve been on vacation. Away from the bench and largely away from the computer. I’ve done more following and reading than I have ranting…and I’ve had some time to think, if that’s what you call the random firing of synapses after long days of taking three kids around Disney World.

And it seems to me that a lot of the butthurt and fur-raising associated with weathering is similar – the term is too broad, too catch-all.

It confuses evidence and reference with technique. It conflates different types of weathering. And it sets up this weird and annoying “nobody is wrong” dynamic that, ultimately, does nothing for anybody.

If that’s the case, why bother talking and debating and digging up reference photos and seeking greater understanding at all?

So I thought it might be helpful to propose some new terminology to specify what we’re talking about. Which will no doubt raise the typical claims that I’m telling others how and what to model. A common, specific terminology – so evil, right?

Occurrence vs. Application

The first one is simple.

WEATHERING OCCURRENCE is something that happens to actual aircraft, vehicles and ships. The real-life stains, fading and so on that occur on real-life subjects.

WEATHERING APPLICATION is what we do to our models in an attempt to recreate weathering occurrence.

The Many, Many Types of Weathering Occurrence

There are many different types of weathering. Too many, probably, to systematically break down. So I’m going to go for more of a categorical approach.

Paint Degradation – Anything that degrades the painted surface of a subject. This could be harsh UV or salt-induced paint fading. It could be scuffs from crew movement. It could be chipped paint.

Material Degradation – Anything resulting from the degradation of the actual structure of the subject. Mostly, this is rust or other forms of corrosion.

Leaks and Spills – Exactly what they sound like. Some fluid or another that has gotten loose on the surface of the subject. On aircraft this is principally hydraulic fluid, but on many older aircraft it can also be various oil products.

Stains – Leaks and spills can certainly stain over time, but these can come from other sources as well. One corollary of this is heat staining, often seen around exhaust areas.

Corrosion Control – More or less anti-weathering, this includes paint touch-ups and repairs to keep corrosion at bay. This is often mistaken for extreme weathering when it’s actually something intentional and applied.

Particulate Accumulation – Principally seen in the form of exhaust streaks on piston-engined aircraft, but also in the form of “gun stains”. The latter is often lazily overdone on models – but references are your friend.

Environmental Effects – Rain, dust, mud, road grit, the “stuff” from the environment that accumulates on vehicles. This is more common on ground vehicles, but certainly an aspect for aircraft as well, largely depending on era, type and operating conditions.


By Degree vs. By Kind

This is where we get to the fun stuff. When we talk about the realism or unrealism of “weathering”, we oftentimes fall into the trap of arguing in terms of degree vs. kind. For example, Ninetalis’ recent post on weathering – passive-aggressiveness aside – basically shows a filthy, hard-used aircraft, then shows a rather clean example of the same type of aircraft.

Aircraft – even of the same type – weather to different degrees. You don’t say!

BY DEGREE is pretty simple – it’s like an intensity slider. There are a ton of variables in play…operating conditions, the specific variant of a subject, the type of paint it’s wearing, the nation operating it, the squadron operating it, and so on.

Basically, talking about weathering by degree is like talking about toast. You can have toast that’s so lightly toasted that it’s basically just bread, or so burned that it’s all charred and black.


For every aircraft, tank, etc, there’s a spectrum. For some – Greek F-16s or Italian Tornados or any Corsair ever – it’s a very large spectrum.

Italian Tornados range from clean - like these ECRs...
Italian Tornados range from clean – like these ECRs…
…to considerably more worn, in the case of this IDS

For others – like say T-38 Talons or F-106s, it’s a much narrower spectrum. You can have a chipped, stained, faded all-to-hell Corsair and be completely accurate. Not so with an F-106 – even the drone-converted QF-106s were clean.

Clean even in the Boneyard...
Clean even in the Boneyard…

BY KIND is different. It’s binary. There are certain kinds of weathering that just do not happen to certain subjects. Canvas-covered control surfaces don’t chip and show metal beneath. Neither do rubber propeller cuffs. Aluminum doesn’t rust. Aircraft do not develop uniformly-shaded panel lines – particularly not with otherwise clean surfaces. F-15s don’t get caked in mud. I could go on.

To continue the toast analogy – it’s like saying toast doesn’t bleed or melt. It’s not a matter of degree. It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s not a matter of artistic interpretation. It just is.

Conversely, saying something asinine like “panel lines don’t exist in nature” is more or less the same as saying that toast doesn’t burn. It doesn’t burn every time, no, but it’s certainly a thing that can and does happen to toast.

When I point to something like this Beaufighter and say the panel line shading is unrealistic, I mean it’s unrealistic by kind, not by degree. The uniformity, the level of contrast…it’s just not representative of the way aircraft actually weather.


In Closing

This post has focused heavily on weathering occurrence versus weathering application – that’s a whole other unicorn of anal anguish that will have to wait for another day.

But hopefully this provides some kind of common language around which to discuss weathering without resorting to defensive butthurt or – more tiring still – to “it’s my model!” false equivalence.

Yeah, who am I kidding…


14 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael JN says:

    On the button as usual. I believe weathering is part of the palette which results in accurate replica. We build scale models ie. the full size subject displayed as an accurate replica. The objective is to achieve a finished result as close as possible to the real thing. This entails extensive study, photographic reference and research into the the subject – which is an enjoyable, important and interesting factor in our hobby. Reasearch could take 50% of the total time devoted to a scale model from go to whoa. If all this counts as nought, then maybe you’re merely assembling a plastic toy.

  2. Alex Hadwen says:

    Totally agree. For me the point of this hobby is to better know the subject aircraft , the area of operation it flew, the pilot, the squadron and so on. In essence the whole thing becomes a mini history project which adds substance and something I thoroughly enjoy. When I weather an aircraft it is based on real photographic eveidence of the subject with the intention of re-creating a moment in time but in miniature. Consequently nothing happens quickly! I do have views on the recent fads in shading technique, many of which I have great difficulty getting my head around as for me the final outcome is a sort of CGI type of representation. They are frankly unrealistic , toy like in appearance and do not represent the real thing. I have been fortunate in that I have spent my entire working career around military aircraft in a variety of environments and therefore have a pretty good idea of how aircraft weather in a given location be it Northern Norway, Alaska, Southern Europe, the desert and so on. I remember my art teacher from grammar school who taught that you must study the subject and see, see what you actually see and not what you want to see. It’s a bit like looking at one of those images to test stereo vision, you stare and see nothing but as your eyes relax the image forms and comes to life in front of you. The next bit is how to re create what you see in miniature. That’s the fun but. Keep it up Doug, I like your style and what you have to say.

  3. Chip Paint says:

    Every vehicle has weathering. That must be accentuated, by our artistic interpretation. It is imperative that we express the models fit, form and condition. So that any other viewer (without question) can know this is a real representative expression of the builder’s art. After all, we require that, we all agree… “It is my model and my vision”. As such the model is to be admired, unreservedly, for all its glory.
    At the close of the day we will gather at the mandatory meeting site, sit in a circle and sing Kum ba ya until true understanding and love of others models is reached.

  4. Doug says:

    You’re absolutely right with this post and the other ones recently about weathering to create a realistic appearance. There is a lot of effort and research that goes into replicating realistic levels and type of weathering on vehicles. When it comes to the “degree” aspect you talk about in your post I personally don’t like clean-looking models. It’s very hard to make a clean model look realistic and a lot of people don’t get it right and it ends up looking like a toy. Paul Budzik, an excellent modeler with great technique videos on Youtube, has a M48 Patton on his website made to look factory new that he obviously put a ton of work into with his work in progress images. However, in the end in my opinion it just looks like bare plastic, almost as if the parts were just all glued together right off the sprue with no paint. Now, I may be biased though, because I love the look of “unrealistic” weathering. I don’t know why but realistic weathering looks pretty bland to me unless it’s very well done. I actually really like the look of that Beaufighter in your post. Sure, it’s not realistic, not by a long shot, but to me it is aesthetically pleasing. Then again I have pretty bad artistic taste, for example I love the look of saturated photography.

  5. Bill W says:

    [To me] weathering boils down to “using your head”,,,,,, given the scene or placement situation, the weathering should reflect as such.

  6. BorgR3mc0 says:

    Good article Doog. I like the “catalog” of different kinds of weathering.

    However, I do not see the need to juxtapose this article against that of Ninetalis. I think you guys are saying the same thing. Namely: look at the subject you are modelling. And weathering should preferably be based on references of real aircraft and can vary immensely between aircraft and during a lifetime of an aircraft. There is no cookie cutter solution to weathering.

  7. Scott Atchison says:

    I would add another category, particularly to do with panel lines. Structural. There are panel lines and there are panel lines. The joints between sheets of aluminum skin do show but to various degrees based on the aircraft and the age and type of paint used. My old 141 had streaks of gunk coming from almost every sheet joint. My B717 not so much.

    Then there are joints between panels that move and are routinely opened like cowl panels and weapons bays and thrust reverses in my 717. Those joints are rather large and show very prominently even from “scale distance”.

  8. atcDave says:

    Although I agree with most of the specific issues you bring up, I think your “conclusion” is far too absolute.
    The weathering, wear and flaws on the original are reality. No doubt about that. If stains or wear exist, its real and its there, end of story.
    But how the modeler chooses to recreate it is far more subjective. Most of us are trying to recreate reality, but there is still a big perception issue for the builder. One individual mat want to recreate a subject neat and perfect, another may want to over emphasize fatigue and wear.
    In art this may be the whole point of impressionism. Its an exaggeration, or even a simplification that hones in on one aspect or perception. Maybe an artist wants to exaggerate the blueness of a flower or the motion of a bird.
    For us, it may mean one builder wants to show the effects of wear and tear, another may focus on camouflage and marking schemes, while another may want to build a 3-D engineering diagram.

    Now obviously some of us have better or weaker skills, and some of us care more or less about it. But ultimately, I think the modeler who is most pleased with their own work is the most successful; no matter what the photographic proof may show.

    1. Doogs says:

      But…everything you’re talking about is related to weathering application, not weathering occurrence as being discussed above.

      While I’m very loathe to compare what we do to impressionist painters, there is certainly room for I guess what you could call “artistic variance” in how weathering is interpreted and applied. Just don’t go around calling it realistic! I’m sure Monet, Degas, et al wouldn’t…

      Also as a point of context, this topic came to mind in large part because a lot of modelers seem to confuse occurrence with application. To my mind, the fact that we’re using one word to talk about what’s really many different things may be part of the problem and why people get so defensive.

      1. atcDave says:

        Yes I actually really like your distinction between occurrence and application. I think that’s a useful terminology.
        I guess I’m reacting mainly to your assessment of the Beaufighter at the end of the post. I would agree completely with saying some of the effects are over done, and most of us would see it as unrealistic (I made some comments a few months back comparing a Zero I had built to pictures I had taken at the US Air Force Museum).
        But I also see a lot of evidence of skill and patience in that application.
        Now to be fair I have absolutely zero interest in contests or what greater trends may be. I build for myself. I’m thrilled if someone likes my work, but that’s not really the motivation behind my building.
        So I look at something like that Beaufighter and think “he has more patience than I do, and I don’t know exactly how he created that effect. He has more patience than I do and a few skills I lack”. It doesn’t look quite like I would WANT one of my builds to look, so I guess its no great surprise that I don’t have that skill set.
        But I’m perfectly willing to say it looks awesome, and if its the look the builder wanted then it is very well done.

        I think modelers will get very defensive when you label a project they are well pleased with as defective or inferior in some way. So yeah, I guess I’m not big on contests. I build to have fun and relax. If I can learn new techniques and get better, great! But I’m not looking to get anyone’s approval.

        I guess the bottom line to me is; I look forward to your observations and commentary, and cringe at some of your judgments!

  9. Cassandra Branch says:

    As I’ve pondered this train of thought (weathering, panel lines, etc), I’ve realized there’s another factor involved: Let’s call it “artistic weathering”.

    Little objects respond to light differently compared to big objects, even though the two objects are technically identical in color & surface features. For example, an indentation (“panel line”) will cast a narrow dark shadow on a large object — easily seen because of the contrast. But the same indentation (in scale) won’t produce any shadow on a small object — therefore invisible. (Partly a result of light reflection from the bottom of a small crevice, but not from a larger crevice.)

    A model that is a meticulous reproduction (per blueprints & paint chips) will always look like a boring homogeneous blob of plastic. Much of the task of “weathering” is to exaggerate the way light hits the surface to create shadows that aren’t physically present. …That is, won’t appear in close-up photos.

    In the same vein, any object appears different according to lighting conditions — bright direct light results in high contrast, faded hues (distinct panel lines). Low diffuse light produces little contrast & more saturated hues (minimal panel lines).

    Modeling is very much an art. I’d think the universal goal is to make the object sitting on the desk look like that big thing on the runway (or road, harbor, etc). Models can be judged on technical skills (filled cracks, no glue on the windshield). But the ultimate question is whether the model looks like a toy or a 10 ton merchant of death.

  10. greg says:

    When I played hockey n lacrosse in college I took multiple steroids. I had a tryout with an ahl team and blew my acl out. My team sport career over, I still loved the gym and lifting/competing. I took copius amounts of juice (unfortunately growth hormone hadn’t hit the streets yet). Me and all the other juice pics knew each other. In the gym, at the bars…it was a lifestyle. But no one would admit what they took…I would. Like now, I have no problem saying what I did. But amongst the juice pigs squatting 700 was all hush hush. And then we would critique…his calves are small, his chest isn’t developed, he’s bloated..So people wouldn’t talk about what worked and criticized others methods. Sounds familiar. I guess that’s why MIG can charge 70 bones for a fucking book with pics of painting airplane wheels.

  11. Sachmo says:

    I come from a more traditionalist art background and firmly believe that creative works primarily intend to express narratives, as such every creative decision should have firm, explicit reasoning that ultimately supports the intended narrative (‘looks cool’ doesn’t count).

    Naturally our hobby leans heavily on a narrative of ‘true’ reality, hence all the color matching and reference photos, but I’ve found the most captivating models (and most popular) aim to tell something more than “this existed.”

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