Painting the Great Ocean Liners

Bruce Beveridge


  Many times on the message boards, there have been questions about the paint used on the Titanic as well as other Ocean Liners of the 1912 era in general.  Some of the information that was given out, and is true, is that the paint of the period was made of lead powder mixed with linseed oil.  In fact, paint is naturally glossy. Paint requires an additive to make it flat.  At the time the Titanic was built, one did not go down to the local marina and buy a five gallon drum of paint, they mixed it by hand.  In the Titanic's case, Harland andWolff had their own paint mixing shed.
  The colors used on the ships of the day were common colors as the pigments re simple.  When reading the text below, which was transcribed from a copy of the "Merchant Marine Officer's Handbook", take notice of the common earth toned pigments.  Notice that they are blacks, yellows, blues, greens and reds.  This article may be overkill to get the point across, but I feel it is interesting to see how paint was made in the period.  Remember that the terms of red lead and white lead do not necessarily mean the color of the paint.
Rather, it is they are merely pigments for mixing colors.  However, the anti fowling paint of the hull is a red oxide.  Red oxide is real close to red Rustoleum primer.  It has been said that the red Rustoleum metal primer is actually a hold over from these days of shipping, and anti fowling paint.

Manhelpers are used to paint inaccessible places, usually a ship's side, when stagings are not practical.  When vessels are berthed along side a dock, much of the works done from the dock or from work boats.  Manhelpers are rarely used on deck as no part of deck structures should be considered inaccessible to a seaman.  Manhelpers are usually 10' or over in length, the brush being fastened by yarns to a notch cut about 3" from the end, the brush secured at an angle of about 45 degrees to the shank.

Paint is made up of two principle parts, the pigment and the vehicle. Pigment of paint may be defined as the minute particles of insoluble solids that form the body of the paint and remain as the hard opaque surface after the liquid or vehicle had evaporated or deteriorated. Vehicle of paint is the liquid content which acts as a binding agent between the minute particles of pigment, holding them together as well as to the surface of an object.  The Vehicle also contains the drying agent.  Vehicles are as definitely liquids as pigments are solids.


Red Leads come in two basic forms, reddish powder and heavy paste.  As red lead and white lead and zinc form the base of most paint it may be well to discuss briefly just what they are an how they are made.

Red Lead (Oxide of Lead) is made made from metallic lead, by a burning process.  Lead melts easily at 620 degrees F, but in this burning process the temperature is boosted to 900 degrees to 1200 degrees F at which oxygen is included into the lead producing an oxidizing effect and the resultant compound is the bright reddish powder that we know of as red lead.

White Leads (Basic Carbonite) White Lead is made made by separate processes; in the first, metallic lead is corroded by acetic acid forming whitish flakes, which are later ground to a fine powder. This is sold either in this form or as paste, the latter being more favored.  The second process (Basic Sulfate) of making white leads is from lead sulfide ore by the sublimation process.  The process which resembles that of making red lead, in the the ore is roasted, the fumes mixing with oxygen forming the white powder we know as white lead.

Zinc Oxide is a compound of zinc and oxygen, and is the finest of all white pigments.  Due to its extreme hardness zinc oxide is unaffected by either change of temperature or the gasses present in the atmosphere.  Zinc oxide is used in making white enamels and may be combined with white lead or other pigments.


  Color pigments are added to the base pigment to give color to paint.  They are made principally from mineral or natural earth colors and from chemical colors.  The most common natural earth pigments are siennas, umbers, yellow ochre, and various mineral blacks.  The most common chemical colors are chrome yellow, Prussian blue, chrome green, cobalt blue and vermillion.

  Carbon Blacks, Lampblack, gas black and graphite are the most common carbon blacks in use aboard ships today.  They are pigments of pure ingredients and in themselves will make a very durable paint but their best use is to tint white, red or zinc lead to get a desired shade and because of their extreme opaque quality only a small amount is required with leads to make an excellent black paint. Drip black, bone black, ivory black and other blacks of this type are also carbon products but as they are made from animal and vegetable matter they are naturally of an inferior quality and strength therefore about five times greater amount than carbon black should be used.  For tinting purposes these blacks should not be added while in their dry state but mixed with a small amount of linseed oil.  All blacks have a non-drying tendency and when used as pure pigment more dryers must be added.


  Linseed Oil.  The most common vehicle used today in mixing paint is linseed oil.  It is obtained from crushed flaxseed and is a natural product.  For mixing of paint it is prepared in two forms, the first, raw oil which is is the product in its natural state.  The second boiled oil, is produced from the raw oil by dissolving certain drying compounds into it.  These compounds may be maganese and lead oxide or cobalt and as they are dissolved by a heat process the term boiled oil has become widely used.  Boiled oil is somewhat thicker than raw oil and a shade darker, and since it has been more or less oxidized in its manufacture, has a quicker drying action.  Therefore when using boiled oil the amount of dryers can be reduced considerably or may be omitted entirely.

It would be useless to rewrite all of the paint formulas in this book, as they are in pounds of powder mixed to numerous gallons of oil.  I will reprint the pertinent information that would help one understand the colors used aboard an Ocean Liner of the 1912 era.

"Outside White"   The following formula for finishing coats of white has found much                                    favor aboard ships.

White Lead  5 lbs.           Turpentine     3 gills
White Zinc   9 lbs.           Dryers            7 ounces
Raw oil        3 pints

"Hull Black" can be made with a red lead base by using the
following formula, which will make approximately one gallon of

Redlead paste        4.25 lbs.          Raw linseed oil     .375 gal.
Carbon black in oil  .327 gal.          Turpentine      .058 gal.
Prussian blue in oil   .085 gal.        Dryers                  .058 gal.

"Light Gray" is a neutral color and is heavily used in maritime painting, many ships using it to paint their hull, house, sun decks, lifeboat interiors, etc.

  Though the original paints of the great Ocean Liners was glossy, this does not mean that you would paint your models in glossy paint.  In order to paint your ship to look in scale, it musty be flat.  This is usually achieved with a final application of Dull Coat, or some other product.



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