How to Ballast Model Railway Track

The following steps are designed to accompany the short video and it is helpful to watch the video with reference to the information below. This article is intended to give you a simple overview to the basics of laying ballast chippings on a model railway to simulate the real ballast on the full size railway and enhance the scenic results of the model.

You will need:

  • Fine ballast chippings – pick a grade suitable for the scale of your model.
  • A large soft-bristled paintbrush that is dry and clean – around a ¼” or ½” brush will do.
  • A clean jar with a sealable lid for mixing the glue solution
  • A plastic syringe of the type either used in medical applications or that come with printer ink refill kits.
  • Washing up liquid
  • White PVA glue
  • Clean water – tap water is fine

Optional (depending upon whether grass/grime effects are required on the model):

  • A smaller paintbrush for any fine adjustment of the ballast in difficult to access locations
  • Black ink for dying the ballast
  • Grass scatter
  • Cheap strong hold un-perfumed hairspray

In addition, the baseboard surface should be clean and ready to accept ballast chippings. If the surface is smooth and gloss it may be necessary to abrade it slightly with some sandpaper to ensure that the glue will adhere. In addition it is important that the track is firmly fixed in place by your chosen method so that it cannot move or be displaced after the ballast is laid.

STEP ONE

Mix up a 50:50 mixture of PVA glue to water in the jar. Make sure that the glue and water are completely mixed and to an even consistency. Add a couple of drops of washing up liquid. Do not add too much or it will foam. This is to ensure that the glue mix flows better without globbing. If you want to colour the ballast with grime, add in the ink at this point. Add a little at a time to colour and mix in well.

Set the jar to one side.

STEP TWO

Sprinkle ballast over track area. Work out flat with the brush, trying to make as thin and even a layer as possible without letting the baseboard show through. Make sure the ballast is around the track sleepers/ties but don’t cover the tops. Ensure that any point/turnout mechanisms are free of any loose chips that could otherwise jam them.

STEP THREE

Using the syringe, draw up some glue mix from the jar, and then gently bead it out along the edges of the track and sleepers. Do not add too much at a time or too quickly or the flow may disturb the ballast and leave holes. Allow to soak in. Capillary action will draw the glue through the ballast so be patient and give it time to work its way in. Add more glue if necessary.

STEP FOUR

This step is only necessary if adding grass and scatter.

Sprinkle grass scatter along any edges that you wish to blend into surrounding model terrain. Add carefully and brush gently with the small brush to distribute where required taking care not to disturb the wet ballast underneath. The wet glue will aid the scatter to stick. However to ensure it all stays put, overspray carefully with hairspray. Add from around a 6” distance and spray lightly at first to avoid blowing loose scatter out of position.

STEP FIVE

Leave to dry. This can take anywhere up to several days depending on humidity and temperature of the room. Carefully clean the track rails of any glue and ensure that point mechanisms change smoothly; ballast chips can be carefully removed with fine tweezers or a very small screwdriver blade tip.

The track is now finished and trains are ready to roll! It is possible to clean the rails and run trains before the glue/ballast is fully dry, but care should be taken not to disturb the ballast until fully dry. Be aware that if a large enough area has been treated all at once then current leakage between the rails aided by the water in the glue could cause mystery short circuits. These will, however, disappear on their own once the glue is dry.

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  1. How 'N About » Blog Archive » How to Lay Model Railway Track - 26 January 2012

    […] this stage your track is now ready for scenic treatment if required. See my article on ballasting for more guidance on […]

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