Afraid To Ballast
Your Model Railroad Track?
Here's How.

Many modellers are afraid to ballast their track because they don't want to gum up the works. Here's how to go about it.

The first thing to do is to walk alongside some real track and study the color of the rails, ballast, and surrounding scenery.

branchline track

If the region you want to model is not nearby, try to find some magazines, train or otherwise, that show the scenery and some train tracks.

Here's a picture of some branchline track a few kilometers from my house in Stayner, Ontario. It was photographed in the autumn so I could capture the color and look of the weeds and foliage.

The rail has a smaller cross section than mainline track. This can be represented by using smaller rail than your mainline, for example, code 70 instead of code 83.

Here are a few tips for applying ballast that have helped me:

  • If you use cork, sand the edges of the slope so the small stones will adhere better.
  • Use a spray of 70% isopropyl alcohol as a wetting agent instead of water. You can also use an eyedropper to apply it. That's even better around switches or to control overspray on buildings and scenery. <
  • Use a soft brush to shape ballast and wipe away excess material before applying the wetting agent and glue. Try to keep the ballast slightly below the top of the ties, especially on the mainline. You can bury the ties in some spots on a siding or lesser used track as in the photo above.
  • Soak the ballast grains with a mixture of 50/50 white glue or matte medium and alcohol. Use water if you're comfortable doing so. If you use water, add a couple of drops of liquid dishwashing detergent. This helps to break the water's surface tension to make the mixture flow. You could also use a product like Kodak Photoflow but dishwashing soap is a lot cheaper. Adjust the mixture so it flows and doesn't pile up or cake. Experiment on a siding or a piece of spare track.
  • Use full-strength white glue or yellow carpenter's glue on the sloped sides of the cork roadbed or use matte medium. Glue sets up hard. Matte medium retains a rubbery consistency that can help absorb sound.
  • Apply ballast with a soft brush. A small plastic drinking cup, the triangular kind, is a good way of controlling the spread of the ballast when pouring it onto the glue.

When everything is dry, use the back edge of an X-Acto blade or a small screwdriver to remove any grains that have adhered to the inside of the rails otherwise you could have derailment problems. 

  • Be sure to clear out any grains in the frogs and beside the guardrails on turnouts.

You can always use the back edge of an X-Acto knife to scrape grains off the ties when the glue is dry but it is time-consuming to do so. This is one of those jobs you want to do slowly. Don't rush to do the whole railroad at one time. When finished, vacuum the area to remove loose grains of ballast.

Tip:  Put a few drops of lubricating oil around moving parts of turnouts (switches). This will help keep the glue from adhering to the moving parts. Go easy on the amount of stones around the switch points. Even prototype railroads use less in these spots.

ballasting model train trackBallasted crossovers at Utopia

 Here you see how I spread ballast around an Atlas crossover on the mainline in Utopia. The sidings use a darker color. I also change grain sizes using HO ballast on the mainline and N scale ballast on the sidings.

The N scale ballast looks better with the code 70 and code 55 rail on the sidings. The mainline here is code 100. I mix HO and N scale size grains. Choose a primary color you like for the mainline. Often when steam was king, cinders were common on sidings and in engine terminals.

red ballast on model trackIron-coloured ballast at Youngstown mines

The ballasting grains at the iron ore mine in Youngstown are a reddish colour to reflect the iron ore in the soil and what's spilled from the ore cars. Changing ballast color adds visual interest.

If you have an interchange or place where two railways cross, consider using a different color ballast for each railroad to differentiate them.

washer fluid to remove trackWasher fluid to reposition track

Tip: Need to move some track? If the track was glued down with white or yellow glue, soak the piece of track with windshield washer fluid.

Leave it for half an hour then use a scraper or plastering trowel to work it up from the roadbed base.  

One of our Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club members picked up this tip in an Internet chat group. It works!

Avoid wallboard adhesive. I've made that mistake. It's practically impossible to move the track after the adhesive has set. I used it under some commercial turnouts that id's paid a lot of money for and they were ruined forever.

wheel stopsWheel stops on siding at Finger Lakes, NY.

Finally, don't forget the end of the sidings. Not only will you keep your freight and passenger cars from rolling off, it is a perfect place to try out some scenery techniques. 

I took this picture at Fingers lake near Geneva, New York in November. Note the wheel stops. Juneco made Canadian National ones like this. You could use some old ties. Spread around some gravel ballast, add a footpath and some weeds. 

Maybe park some maintenance equipment nearby as seen here. Use your creativity or study what others have done. 

A simple scene like this can have a lot of character.


tacks for wheel stopsTemporary wheels stops

Don't neglect to put nails,  tacks or poster board tacks at the end of sidings until you get around to scenicking the area. It keeps cars from hitting the floor.

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