NYC Colors


Exhibit 1: Vail wet samples and paint test cards used for paint color analysis of 9/28/05. Test cards used by Sherwin Williams technician for color matching. Technician paints a smear of paint on each test card for computer analysis as part of a spectrographic color matching system.

COLOR… A final word?

By Thomas R. Gerbracht

I feel like the guy who just bought a second watch. When I had one watch, I knew what time it was. Now I am not so sure……..


Since the landmark Lans Vail article that appeared first in the February 1977 Central Headlight, and the follow up article that appeared in the 2nd Quarter 1984 Headlight with “Additional Notes” in the 4th Quarter 1984 issue, we have made limited progress in both the understanding and also the documentation of the colors used by New York Central and its affiliates. The old and well documented original paint color formulations that were used for passenger train and Dreyfuss Hudson and E-series passenger diesel locomotive colors were no longer available at the time of the original Vail articles, which had as their subject the painting of the 1938 20th Century Limited. There was additional confusion whether the 1948 paint schemes for the 20th Century Limited and its earlier 1938 counterpart consisted of just a reversal of the dark grey and the light grey. Lans Vail presented a theory that the two grey colors were just reversed in his 4th Quarter 1984 article, but was unable to prove his hypothesis since during that time interval the paint formulations themselves changed. The original 1938 Opex Blue striping presented an additional enigma, as no known samples were known to exist.

The Wet Samples

The first breakthrough in the form of physical evidence presented itself when the Vail NYC collection was removed from his home as a result of its inheritance by the New York Central System Historical Society (NYCSHS). Included in this collection were a number of wet paint samples of various New York Central colors that were removed from a locked cabinet, in an underground fruit cellar, in Lans’ basement. Written on each can was the origin of the sample, a date, and a cryptic note regarding the use for that paint color. Since our Society’s storage site prohibits the storage of any flammables, a cardboard box of these sealed cans was relocated to a storage area in my garage. When I received these samples, I immediately took them to my local Sherwin Williams paint store to have them read by up-to-date spectrographic equipment. These samples were read 9/28/05. Photos of the original cans and the sample cards from Sherwin Williams are shown in Exhibit 1. The results for the wet samples, as obtained from each can by the Sherwin Williams technician, can be downloaded here (PDF file, FREE Adobe Reader software requried).

Preliminary Conclusions


1) I thought that the NYC dark grey was very dark, almost black visually, and this did not match my experience regarding the color of NYC E7 and E8 passenger engines.

2) I thought that the light grey was too dark, almost the color of the dark grey. One technician thought that the light grey Sample #3 was ruined and unusable., and looked brown and not grey. In an effort to have the samples read on metal surfaces, I used a quantity of bare metal venetian blind weights and hand brushed one color on each of three weights. No primer was used. One set of each plate was kept at my home in dark storage, a second set was loaned to a friend at a local company that owns a color analyzer, and the third set was connected with wire and hung outside my garage window to “weather” for an extended time period. My intent was to gather up the new paint chips and the weathered paint chips and have each “read” by a color analyzer. The set provided to a work associate for analysis was lost in a move, and his subsequent retirement. There seemed to be no immediate need or demand for a re investigation of NYC paint colors, so these hand brushed plates languished in my basement in dark storage, unread. A comparison of the “new paint” and “weathered paint” samples confirmed that prior to fading, each paint lost significant gloss (See Exhibit 3 above.)

The Mail Arrives!

An email inquiry from our Treasurer Sheldon Lustig was followed by a mailing of some NYC items from the collection of the late C. M. Smith, our former President. Sheldon’s mailing to me included three paint “standards” and an enclosed envelope and note from a former employee of Du Pont. The paint was applied by DuPont on one side of each of three 4″ x 6″ on metal plates, with each color on one side and the Du Pont paint code on the reverse side (See Exhibits 4, 5, 6 and 7).


Exhibit 4: Image of Du Pont master plates for dark grey (left) and light grey (right). Note due to possible color shift in posting and viewing media, formulas must be used when reproducing these colors.


Exhibit 5: DuPont master plates showing reverse sides of dark grey (left) and light grey (right).


Exhibit 6: Front of DuPont “Century Green” plate and blue plate. Note due to possible color shift in printing, formulas must be used when reproducing these colors.


Exhibit 7: Reverse sides of “Century Green” plate and blue sample.

These plates had evidently not seen the light of day since they were deposited in Charles Smith’s bank box. The date of the Du Pont note is 8/11/1981. The color standards consisted of NYC dark grey and NYC light grey, based on the DuPont paint codes and information from the prior Vail articles, and Century Green. The note that accompanied these DuPont generated standards is as follows:

“Charlie (Smith):
I guess you thought you would never hear from me. These were very old DuPont 254 line numbers, it took some time to track down color std. The colors are now obsolete and the 254 line lacquer is no longer manufactured. Enclosed is to color std, they could most likely be matched at a Du Pont automotive jobber store in the area. The quality would either be an acrylic lacquer or acrylic enamel. Sorry for the delay hope this helps.

The above note is from T. M. Quinn, Account Manager, Transportation Finishes, E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Company, 308 East Lancaster Ave. Wynnewood, PA 19096.

The Opex Blue

In addition to the three Du Pont metal plate standards, a blue sample was included in the mailing, spray painted on a piece of white plastic. On the back of this 1″ x 6-3/4″ sample, there is the following information: “NYC BLUE STRIPING PAINT, DUPONT DULUX #3430DH, 820505158F, (Provider name), (Provider city and state).” If this is the #3430DH, it is “Opex Blue”, based on the prior Vail article. This sample is a “deep blue” as called for on the number plate drawings, and does not appear to be the “bright, electric blue color” commonly used to describe the 1938 20TH Century striping. I have had these three standards and one sample read by both the Sherwin Williams and the Lowes color match systems, and can be downloaded here (PDF file, FREE Adobe Reader software requried).


Exhibit 9: Image of Sherwin Williams color analysis cards for the three DuPont master plates and the blue sample.

Concerning Gloss

I was struck by the gloss that each of the DuPont standard plates exhibited, so much so that I conducted a web search for paint gloss and how it is measured. A gloss meter is used to determine gloss, using a unit of measurement known as a gloss unit. Basically, gloss is established by shining a light source at a predetermined angle to the surface to be measured, and measuring the strength and quality of the reflected light. The angle is established by the material to which the paint is applied. A high gloss surface is one that has a gloss unit measurement of 70 gloss units or greater, and can provide a clear reflected image with little or no diffusion caused by the paint. For the samples measured by both Sherwin Williams and Lowes, each technician judged the painted plates as “high gloss,” although they were not at the level of a modern automobile finish.

Conclusions and Disclaimer!

1) The official DuPont light grey and dark grey paint masters are those used on NYC passenger diesels and Pullman built passenger equipment. This conclusion is based on the inclusion of these exact paint codes on a number of “Paint and Lettering” drawings for NYC diesels. It is also a reasonable conclusion that Pullman passenger rolling stock would be painted to match the locomotives.

2) The “Century Green” paint master appears to closely resemble color photos of the test painting of New York Central E8’s 4053, 4083, and E7B 4107. Since the master exists and was measured, I have no reason to believe otherwise.

3) The dark grey is significantly lighter than the dark grey Vail wet sample. I have no explanation for this. I suppose it is possible that NYC made another change in the dark grey as used by Beech Grove shops in March of 1968, the date on the can of the Vail wet sample. There is no drawing record that this hypothesis may be correct. It is more likely that the wet sample deteriorated since the date it was pulled.

4) I believe it is significant in the DuPont note that a source of updated colors would be automotive grade finishes.

5) I was struck by the sheen/reflectivity/gloss of the DuPont color plates. These paints evidently provided a finish that was “glossy,” but not at the gloss level of the latest automobile “wet paint” (clear coat) finishes. In this respect, the newly available plates differ markedly in that respect from what we have been receiving on our models.

6) The paint samples and their color analyses listed above, do not and cannot make the adjustment that the human eye makes when evaluating color, tint, or hue, especially on a model vs. its full size counterpart. In this regard we have been exposed to those making claims to “having a fine eye” regarding exact colors and tints. There is no way that any individual can discern the exact color of any painted object in a manner that a computer driven color spectrometer can. It is relatively easy for a color checker to easily discern over 16-bit color, which in digital terms is 65,536 differences in color. The only way that a color can be described to a universal standard and most accurately is the use of a computerized color reading device. That is the main reason for this documentation.

7) If you are viewing these color samples on your home computer, some or all of the color images may convey an incorrect impression as to the veracity of these results. This is due to the different specifications of each computer monitor manufacturer, amibent light conditions, and many other factors. You will have to use the formulas to exactly match the colors described and photographed for this article.

8) The purpose of the charts and the contents of this article is to identify exactly and objectively the colors and shades/tint used on full sized equipment. The final color is partially determined by the type of paint, the surface to which it is applied, and the thickness of the paint when sprayed or brushed. Pennsylvania state law severely restricts the sale of oil based paint, and the Lowes analysis is for a water based formula. Testing and possible adjustments for all of these factors is beyond the scope of this article. We therefore caution you to test each color, the method of application, the type of paint you intend to use (water or oil based), and recommend that you modify it slightly, as appropriate for your particular needs!

This information is being posted so that modelers and model builders have access to the actual colors used on NYC equipment. This information does not contradict, to the best of my knowledge, information published earlier by Lans Vail in his three prior Headlight articles, and should be viewed as a supplement to those articles. The good news is that we now have official information in the form of actual color standards from a NYC paint supplier for the two major colors used by the railroad for many years. My goal is that the publication of the results from color spectrography will permit all modelers to exactly reproduce the colors of our favorite railroad by visiting their local paint supplier.

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