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Japanese Warship Paints of the Meji Era

By: Falk Pletcher

Since Seals Models seemingly started a series of high quality kits of Imperial Japanese warships of the pre-Dreadnought era, there have been demands for proper information on how to paint these models. So I will try to evaluate from a modeler's point of view the scarce information which is available on this subject.

This article is mainly based on the follwing sources

- Linton Wells II: Painting Systems of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1904-1945 (Warship International No. 1, 1982)
- Model Art No.561 Warship Colour (as translated by Ima Reference Services, which unfortunately is a rather poor translation with even wrong dates)
- Wata: Coating of the Japanese Battleships www.coma.ais.ne.jp/

It is not so much an in-depth examination of the subject, but rather meant to provide some guidance on how to paint models of IJN warships correctly to represent their appearance during a specific time period before World War One. As always on such occasions, it will be necessary to look for some contemporary photos, to supplement the information given here.

The Paint Schemes:

The first ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy were bought abroad and usually retained their original paint schemes of a black hull and yellowish masts or funnels. In 1875 a white paint came into use for the hull, but there has long been no standard in terms of regulations for painting warships.

The first regulation was issued on May, 1888, calling for painting the sides of iron ships "nezumi-iro" (= mouse color or rat color which actually means gray in Japanese). There were, however, no instructions how to mix this color and these were not issued before Jan. 1896. The tone of this gray was very light, almost white. Another regulation from Feb. 7, 1889 ordered also the masts, smoke stacks and cutters to be painted gray.

On Mar.16, 1889 coloured lines were introduced to distinguish ships of the same type. They were painted from bow to stern in 5-6 in. width.

The regulations of Jun.24,1891 changed the paint scheme of 1st class vessels and torpedo boats for combat use to white hull sides, while the hulls of other vessels were black. The superstructures, hammock lockers and masts were to be painted mustard yellow. The funnels received a black top. The regulations of Feb.2, 1894 extended the white-and-yellow scheme to 3rd class vessels and ordered the boats of 1st and 3rd class ships to be painted white. The black funnel tops were laid down to about 1/3 of their diameter. The recognition lines were 15cm, resp. 20 cm (for ships of more than 2000 ts) and assigned as follows:

No. 1 ship (of a type) - black
No. 2 ship - red
No. 3 ship - yellow
No. 4 ship - light blue

For further ships of the same type, the naval yard commander was to decide and ask the approval of the navy minister. Torpedo boats, which were rated as 2nd class warships, turned to gray. All other vessels were to be black.

With the regulations from Aug. 30, 1895, 1st class ships turned to gray over all, except for guns and boats, which remained white, and the black funnel tops. The recognition lines for the first three ships were laid down to black, red and blue respectively, while the following ships received double lines in the same order.

The regulations of Jul.2, 1898 led to guns and boats of 1st class ships being painted gray too. All other vessels were black, and topedo boats remained gray. The regulations of Sep.10, 1901 brought another change of the main paint scheme. Battleships and 1st class cruisers received black hull sides (up to main deck level), funnels and masts (above shelter deck level), while the rest of the superstructure was gray. The recognition lines on the hull were replaced with white funnel bands. The width of each band including its distance to the next band was 1 m, and they were assigned as follows:

No. 1 ship (of a type or class) - none
No. 2 ship - 1 band
No. 3 ship - 2 bands
No. 4 ship - 3 bands.

Regulations of Jan.27, 1903 called for destroyers to be painted black over all and introduced funnel bands also for 2nd class cruisers. With the regulations of Jan.9, 1904 a new, darker, gray was introduced for all ships of the Combined Fleet. It was painted over all, and the funnel bands were discontinued.

On Jul.2, 1904 the painting regulations were finally standardized in the Ship's Coloring and Marking section of the Ship Construction and Repair Regulations. But the mixing rate for the new gray was not regularily laid down before Dec. 1907.

This scheme was originally designed only as wartime paint, and in peace time the ships should return to black hull, funnels (without recognition bands) and masts with (light) gray upperworks. But eventually it became the standard warship paint scheme until the end of World War Two.

The regulations of Nov.11,1907 ordered submarines to be painted gray on the hull and white on the upperworks. Also some auxiliaries were to be painted black. With the regulations of Jan.15, 1912 submarines turned to white overall. On Jun.29,1920 finally the same paint scheme of gray over all as with other warships was ordered for submarines too.

The Colours:

The white paint was made from zinc oxide which could not be refined to pure white before 1894. So small amounts of Prussian Blue were added to get a pure white appearance. Due to this, the white paint actually had a hue which varied from yellowish to blueish. Also, because of still crude manufacturing methods, the white paint, when applied to the ship, frequently turned into gray. So even during the 1891-1894 period, the officially painted white ships may actually have been light gray after some time. Since 1894, a special heat treatment of the white zinc powder led to a better refined pure white. Nevertheless, the practice of adding small amounts of Prussian Blue was continued.

There have frequently been reports that blue or brown tones had been added to the standard warship gray (of the Russo-Japanese War period and later), but there is no evidence of this. This gray paint was, however, tending to fade out and become whitish or silver gray within three months. But, oddly enough, it turned to the original tone after being wetted by a rain shower.

The gray paint for submarines between 1907 and 1912 was to be mixed at a ration of 3 parts black to 1 part white, which gave an almost black color. Black was, however, not regarded as warship-looking. So reportedly, this paint was usuually mixed to a lighter tone. With the regulations from Jun. 1920, submarines finally received the standard warship gray.

The Mixing Formulas of Paints:

As mentioned before, the mixing rate for the early (light) gray was finally layed down with the regulation of Jan.22,1896 as follows:

55.75 % zinc oxide
0.25 % Carbon black
34 % boiled bean oil
8 % fresh bean oil
2 % volatile oils.

The same regulation layed down the yellow paint to be mixed from:

20 % yellow soil dust
25 % lime powder
0.1 % carbon black
2 % glue
52.9 % pure water.

The later standard warship gray was fixed to a rate of black 1 : 3 white with the regulations of Dec.26, 1907. The actual mixing formulas, however, differed between the main navy yards, and the final practise was as follows:

Yokosuka Navy Arsenal:

53 % white zinc oxide powder
2 % charcoal or carbon black
40 % boiled linseed oil
3 % turpentine
2 % dryer

Kure Navy Arsenal:

42 % white zinc oxide powder
1.1 % charcoal
21 % gofun (pearwhite)
21 % boiled linseed oil
0.9 % turpentine
4 % dryer
10 % ethylene

Sasebo Navy Arsenal:

46 % white zinc oxide powder
2 % charcoal
48 % boiled linseed oil
2 % turpentine
2 % dryer

Maizuru Navy Arsenal:

66 % white zinc oxide powder
1.1 % charcoal
29 % boiled linseed oil
1.9 % turpentine
1.1 % dryer

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