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OD Paint for Military Vehicles
U.S. Army military vehicles were painted olive drab from prior to World War II until the introduction of camouflage patterns in 1975. The history and evolution of the olive drab color, its gloss, and the authorized markings are fascinating, but the main motivation is usually an unpainted jeep in the garage. What color the jeep (or truck, tank, DUKW etc.) should be depends on a) the time of manufacture, and b) the unit and time to be represented by your restoration. You have to decide exactly what time and place your vehicle represents, then you can choose the paint appropriate to that choice.
Evolution of the Olive Drab Paint Specification
The olive drab paint used on military vehicles at the factory, on replacement parts, and in the field depended on a number of factors. Experts on the history of military vehicle paint procurement and practices (Jim Gilmore, Fred Coldwell, Steve Zaloga, David Doyle and others) have spent countless hours in the National Archives and with the production records of government contractors such as Ford and Willys trying to ascertain the exact technical specs on olive drab paint used at various times and places. They have compiled a mass of information and have shared it in books and articles as well as personal communications or open forums.
Despite this awe inspiring research, there are still many questions that are hard or impossible to answer. After the original 1940 contract with Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG), Lustreless Olive Drab Enamel was procured from multiple vendors. Despite rigid standards, variations crept in. As replacement parts were painted at times and places distant from the original vehicle production, variations increased. As units in the field painted and repainted vehicles for maintenance, to comply with orders as they moved from place to place, and to keep up with changing regulations, variations increased. With all the variation, it would be hard to say exactly what paint would match a given vehicle without opening a can of paint and seeing how it matched or didn't.
This table is an outline of the basics of olive drab paint standards and specifications used by the U.S. Army starting with 1940. Prior to 1940, vehicles were painted with a glossy olive drab enamel ("long oil"). Vehicles such as staff cars, metropolitan ambulances, or other non-tactical vehicles outside combat areas continued to use gloss paint after Lustreless Olive Drab became the standard. The Army Air Corps and other services had their own, different, paint standards.
Information in this table compiled from multiple sources, but controversy continues. If you have further information to clarify or correct this table, please contact Olive-Drab.com. Note the spelling of "lustreless" -- this is the original spelling on the PPG paint chart from 1940, not "lusterless."
Color Photos of Olive Drab Military Vehicle Paint
Color photos of military vehicles in service during World War II or later periods help a little, but variation in exposure and the light when the photo was taken, plus fade due to chemicals in film, the photographic process and the passage of time make color photos very unreliable as a guide to what a color looked like to the naked eye back then. In the full size version of the halftrack photo at the top of this page, the halftrack's olive drab paint shows a number of different shades depending on whether it is in direct sunlight, full or partial shadow. If you are trying to match paint, even assuming the photo color is accurate, which color in the photo do you use?
Another problem with vintage photos is dust. The vehicle may be fully or partially obscured by a layer of dust so the reflected light has more to do with the local earth tone than with the vehicle paint. For example, the photo on the left shows an M-3 Lee Medium Tank during maneuvers at Ft. Knox, KY in June 1942. From that photo you might think the tank color is tan. But a close up (right) shows quite clearly its a very dusty Lustreless Olive Drab tank.
Reality of Olive Drab Military Vehicle Paint
If your objective is to reproduce the olive drab paint for a WW II vehicle, then the above information leads you to paint identified as Lustreless Olive Drab Enamel, aka OD#22 or OD#9. Virtually all WW II vehicles were painted with Lustreless Olive Drab Enamel. You can also use paint identified as A/N 319 which is quite similar in appearance. After WW II, the standard for most vehicles moved to semi-gloss and OD 2430 was used until 1956 after which the very similar OD 24087 remained in use until camo was adopted in 1975.
The problem is that the modern paint can may have these numbers on it, but how do you know the paint is the right color, shade and gloss like your vehicle had in the 1940s or 1950s? In fact, you don't know.
Even during WW II, paint from different manufacturers or different batches from the same manufacturer did not always match. Despite the best efforts of inspectors at the paint manufacturer and at the vehicle factories, there are eyewitness accounts and photos that document multiple color shades on identical vehicles from the same factory. They are similar, but when seen side by side they are not the same. Therefore, it should not be surprising that sixty years later there is less than complete agreement on what these colors should be.
Some of the modern paint manufacturers have made sincere efforts to research and experiment with the paints to get as close as possible to "WW II olive drab." Untouched panels from original vehicles are available and occasionally an unopened can of paint from WW II will show up for comparison. Of course, the passage of time changes chemicals like paint and any paint exposed to light will fade. Different paints, even if originally the same color, will fade to different colors. So any of these matching techniques are ultimately subjective.
So what to do? The best advice for a restoration is to go to military vehicle events sponsored by MVPA chapters or other organizations. While there, carefully review the vehicles to find one that looks like the result you would like to achieve. Talk to the owner to find out the vehicle's history, how it was prepped, what paint was used for the top coat and how it was applied. That is, find a successful recipe and copy it.
Olive Drab Military Vehicle Paint Information Resources
Appendix 2 of David Doyle's Standard Catalog of U.S. Military Vehicles has extensive information on the history and evolution of olive drab paint as well as the later camouflage patterns. This referece also includes details of the markings (stars, registration numbers, unit designation) used during World War II and later.
Technical Bulletin TB 746-93-1, Color and Marking of Military Vehicles, is reproduced in part on the M38A1.com web site. This US manual is dated 26 October 1964 and gives the correct lettering, star positions and so forth for the markings used at that time, post-WW II and pre-camo patterns. Military Modelling Magazine has an excellent article by Steve Zaloga on getting the 'right' color of Olive Drab, originally published in 2002, available at the linked page.
The November/December 1998 issue of Military Vehicles Magazine carries in-depth information on painting in general and camo pattern painting in particular along with tips on canvas care and maintenance.