Subchaser Paint Colors Issue

This month is a special issue on WWI U.S. Navy vessel paint colors, a topic that might be of interest to Navy vessel model makers. Over the years I have heard a lot of comments and questions about color schemes, and particularly about the shade of gray used as the standard USN gray paint in WWI. A recent acquisition, a 1918 publication on painting and cementing of USN vessels, provides some interesting detail on how USN vessels - including 110' submarine chasers - were to be painted. The booklet, reproduced in its entirety in the "Document Archives" section, includes painting specifications and the official formulas for the paint colors. My sense of the submarine chasers, particularly those that served overseas, is that the actual choice of paints used probably had more to do with what was available at the time and place where the work was done, but we can safely assume that they wouldn't stray too far from the norm. After all, a chaser painted in some off-color would stand out among the dozens stationed at the typical overseas base at any given time. Even setting aside the color specifications, the description of the official scheme is useful. And what makes this copy of the booklet more interesting is the remnants of paint smeared on the cover and on inside pages. Artifacts of the Great War? I'll leave that to your imagination.

Todd Woofenden, Editor

[Click the images to jump to the page.]


General Instructions for Painting and Cementing Vessels of the United States Navy, Edition of 1918. Government Printing Office, 1918. This half-page sized booklet is a segment of the larger work of USN specifications. It covers all types of USN vessels. The cover of the booklet has artifacts of green and gray paint, possibly from a period vessel.

Boot Topping

Many USN vessels were painted with "boot topping," a band of a second shade of protective gray paint in the area of the waterline. The light gray boot topping paint is a similar formula, but lacks the barium sulfate of the standard gray, and includes mixing varnish. Note on page 8, subchasers are specifically excluded from the vessel types to be painted with boot topping. There are, however, many photos that show different treatments of the waterline area, including special cases such as metal sheathing for use in areas where an ice hazard existed. The typical arrangement for submarine chasers is for the waterline area to be painted dark gray or black. See these photos, for instance:

SC 45 on the ways SC 93 on the ways, showing the propellers Another photo of SC 93 on the ways

Paint Colors for USN Vessel Hulls

The standard color for commissioned war vessels was light gray, of course, including for submarine chasers. This page lists all the vessel types. In a few special cases, vessels were painted white (such as hospital ships). Chasers were never painted any color other than gray (except for a couple of rare cases of "dazzle" paint schemes, which appear to have been experimental). In following pages, the standard gray paint for exterior hull painting is identified as No. 5 gray paint. (See the list of paints starting on page 39.)

Details of Exterior Hull Painting

While the exterior was painted light gray, interior spaces would normally be white. However, any interior door or hatch surface that might be exposed to view when open was also painted gray. On a chaser, this would apply to the interior surface of the pilot house door and the underside of hatches. During times of hostilities, the life raft would also be painted gray, as would all canvas covers, flag bags, etc. On chasers this would include covers for the deck gun and machine guns, and the wherry cover. Note that the interior spaces of the cowl ventilators, which are partly exposed to view, were sometimes painted white, and sometimes gray. See the page on cowl ventilators for an example of the white paint scheme - probably not a paint job that would withstand scrutiny by naval authorities.

Running Light Boxes

On the top of the pilot house are starboard and port running lights. The light boxes were to be painted gray (not red and green). The same No. 5 formula was to be used. An example photograph of a chaser showing the gray port-side running light box is an image of subchaser SC 26 on this page.

Interior Spaces

For optimal lighting, interior walls and ceilings (other than as indicated above for doors and hatches that are exposed to view when open) were normally painted white. Three paints were used: A priming coat, a flat base coat, and a gloss finish coat. For chasers, this would apply to the interior sides of the pilot house, and other interior spaces below decks.

Green Anti-Glare Paint

The specification calls for green anti-glare paint (possibly the color shown on the book cover)to be used on the underside of the roof of chart houses used as steering stations -- which would apply to the pilot house of a submarine chaser. In many cases, chasers were fitted with window awnings above the pilot house windows. See, for instance, this image of a chaser pilot house. The specification calls for anti-glare paint to be used on the "underside of screen over windows," which would most likely have applied to the underside of the pilot house window awnings. The tops of these awnings would have been painted gray to match the rest of the visible part of the boat.

Wood Decks

Among the more discussed paint questions, with respect to chasers, is the deck: Was it painted, or left natural? The specification clearly calls for it to be left natural. The under-sides of deck planking in cases where planks are laid over a steel sub-structure are painted in red-lead primer, but the top sides in any case are oiled but not painted. However the photographs of chaser decks provide strong evidence that in most cases (if not all) the chaser decks during war time were in fact painted gray. As a naval historian pointed out to me, an unpainted deck in an area of active hostilities at sea indicates "drop bomb here."

Paint Formulas

Chemical specifications are provided for all the paint colors. The standard gray hull paint is Formula No. 5, comprised of barium sulfate and zinc oxide (typical white paint components), lamp black (a typical black), and linseed oil, mineral spirits, and a drier. On the chasers, the standard cleaning chemical for brushes and clothing was gasoline - perhaps not a good choice by modern standards, but the chasers had plenty of it on hand. Note that the booklet contains a great deal of additional information, for other types of vessels, some small aircraft, etc. For some additional notes on painting chasers, see the Paint Scheme page.