Modelling what might have been in southeast BC and northwest Wasington

Ballast application technique

The tools

I am finally getting to ballasting the track on the layout. Much of it has been down for a few years now, and has been well tested during various operating sessions, so it is now time to ballast it and make it look complete.

Ballasting track seems to be such a simple process that there should be no need for any great details nor research. But, alas, such is not the case it seems. Everyone has their way of doing it, with better or worse outcomes, so this is just a small treatise on what I have figured out that works for me. If you have a different way and are happy with it, just keep on doing it. There are oodles of “how to” videos online that show all sorts of techniques. This is just what I do. I have no patience for using a small brush to push individual grains into place to make it look “perfect”. I need a technique that is simple, easy, repeatable, quick, and good enough for photography, and this fits that bill.

The basic process is pretty simple, but the details is where it gets interesting. I am using commercial track, so the rails are already in place when the ballast is applied. If you hand lay your track, then it gets easier because the ties can be ballasted before the rails are spiked down, which makes it much easier to do a neat job.

After the track is installed and tested, and has had some time to settle and reveal any issues, ballasting involves simply spreading the grains of material between the ties, and soaking it with some sort of glue.

f only it were that simple.

The first big question is what to use for the ballast. Commercial products range from crushed walnut shells (or something similar), to real crushed rock. Colours are all over the map, and as usual should match what you are modelling.

A long time ago I thought I would use Woodland Scenics ballast, as it seems to be the most popular and readily available. My first attempts with it were less than satisfactory, and cutting a very long research story short, I have changed to using some form of real sand instead. The biggest problem with the WS product is that it is not actual rock, but I’m told is ground walnut shells. While it looks nice, it is very hard to apply it so that it will lay down between the ties as it should. Being something other than rock, it is very light and tends to float once the area is wetted with water and glue mixture. Even misting it with water tends to easily disturb the particles, resulting in a lot of clean up work afterwards. And, the dye used to colour the material seems to soak out a bit and leave light coloured stains on the tops of the ties if the grains are removed.

Based on visits to friend’s layouts where they had used real sand and it looked great, I decided to experiment with that instead. I weighted equal volumes of WS ballast and sand and found that the real sand was 2.5 times as heavy as the WS stuff. It tends to stay put after application even when it is wetted and glued.

Cost is not really a factor, because this is a hobby after all. I did find the sand to be much cheaper, with the best deal being from our local landscaping centre were I got a 5 gallon pail full that I could barely lift for under $2.00. Such a deal! Another source is paver sand from a home improvement centre. It is all quite different in colours so it helps to search a bit and then get enough to last a while.

I also experimented with some other commercial products that are real crushed rock, but I found them to be far too uniform in colour, which may be suitable for some railroads, but certainly is not for where my prototype was. Also, it seemed to have a kind of unnatural sheen, almost translucent, under some lighting, that I didn’t care for.

OK, so how do I install it?

Instead of a spoon, or other open container, I use a small squeeze bottle with the tip cut off to pour it over the ties. After a bit of practice you can estimate how much to pour so that it will fill in between the ties without overtopping them. To spread it, I first use just my dry fingers to run back and forth along the tops of the ties. If there is too much to nestle neatly between the ties, I use a coarse paint brush to move some of it along. With the brush held vertical, the bristles will sweep down just a bit between the ties to remove some material. This will leave some grains on top of the ties, so a finger is again used to push them off into between the ties.

Most prototype track of the transition era had the ballast just a bit lower than the tops of the ties, rather than right up to the top. By working to arrange the ballast this way, a bit of room is left to easily push errant grains off the tops and into the space between the ties.

The one problem with your finger is that is is rounded, and does not completely get into the corner between the rail and the tie. For a final tidy up I use a cosmetic wedge sponge that I trimmed to just fit between the rails. This slides along the tops of the ties and pushes the last few grains into the inter-tie spaces.

Some videos show tapping the rails to settle the ballast off of the ties, but that doesn’t seem to work for me with the sand, I suspect due to its weight. It may work with the lighter materials. Try it and see how it goes.

Once the ballast is all nicely applied where it needs to go the next step is to fix it with a dilute glue mixture of some kind. Again, the issue of what to use comes up, so guess what, more experiments!

But that is the subject for the next post.

Here is the final result.