Quick & Easy Ways to Ballast Track

Over the years I have tried all sorts of methods to ballast track.  Some have been very time-consuming and some have just looked rubbish.  In this post I will share with you a method I have found to be fairly quick and easy and also gives good results.

Ballasting track is a key part of building a model railroad or railway.  Not only is it necessary for making the track-work look right but, just like the real thing, the ballast holds the track permanently in place.

The current layout which I’m working on is an N Scale modular layout and forms part of the Gosport American Model Railroad Groups ever-growing layout.  This particular module, New Mills,  is a small country halt next to a group set of factories.  The halt is used mostly by the factory workers and small town nearby.  Most of the trains pass without stopping so rather than platforms the tracks outside the halt have been boarded over so passengers can access to the local passenger cars via their steps.  Below is a photo of the left hand end of the module  The main line enters on the left nearest to the front.  It splits into two tracks that pass the station depot and then rejoin each other before leaving from the right hand end.  The third line with the end of a GP38 sat on it is the entrance to the factory sidings.

Balisting Track 1Before I even think about ballasting track I always do lots of running on the layout to make sure everything works okay.  The track is glued down onto a cork road bed which in turn is glued to the module top.  The cork is important for a few reasons which I will cover in a bit.  In the picture above you may have noticed that the track has been weathered.  This is not a necessity but it adds the realism I like to see; railroads are not a clean place.

I have several methods of weathering track.  First there is the spray paint method.  This can be done with an airbrush or aerosol can.  For the bulk of this module I used a grimy brown color aerosol.  Before spraying I removed everything from the module and simply sprayed along the tracks.  Then I quickly wiped the rail heads with a cloth to remove the paint.  Once the paint had dried I also ran over the rail heads with a track rubber to totally remove any paint residue.  Since doing that I have also added a few more bits of track but as I don’t want to risk spraying other stuff now fixed to the module I used a brown wash to weather the rails.

Balisting Track 2

Making a wash from paints is fairly easy but I find this the quickest.  Once the pot is shaken up the wash inside simply paints on.  I tend to roughly brush over the ties and rails then brush again with no wash on the brush.  This removes any excess wash and gives a mixed finish.  As before I wipe the rail heads over with a cloth.  Once you start to weather your track any new sections stand out as you can see in the photo below.

Balisting Track 3

Once all the track is weathered and had a chance to dry I tested it by running a few trains. Then it’s time to add some ballast.  Ballast comes in all sizes and colors.  For our group modules we stick to the same make and colour for continuity which is Woodland Scenic Fine Gray ballast.

On the real railroad the track is laid on top of a deep bed of ballast, then more is poured on top and packed or tamped down tightly around the ties.  Because the track is on a bed of ballast it is easy for the track gang to raise or lower the track to ensure smoothness as well as adding any special enhancements such as super elevations on corners.  Also this means the track is raised off the floor and the ballast acts as a natural soak away to stop water from flooding the tracks. Given most track ties were timber this was a good thing.

On the model railroad adding a bed of ballast is not very practical so we use a layer of cork.  Then when the ballast is poured on and covers the cork it will look like a nice deep bed and form the correct shoulder or slope on either side.

To start with I simply pour the ballast on in the right area trying to gauge the right amount.  Then using my finger I run it along the center of the tracks spreading the ballast evenly around.

Balisting Track 4

Then to get the right finish I use a small paint brush to carefully move the blast around.  This works for most of it but there will always be the odd bit that gets in the wrong place.

Balisting Track 5

The main area to worry about is the inside of the rail as this needs to be kept clear for the wheel flanges to run in.  I find the best tool for cleaning this is a small watchmakers screwdriver which can be run along the inside of the rails and knocks off any stray ballast.

Balisting Track 6

The area in the photo above is a little thick with ballast by intention.  Normally ballast is leveled off just below the tops of the ties and the excess is moved down the line.  However at that particular section the track is flanked at both ends by a boarded walkway and roadway so the excess ballast tends to get left there and forms a ridge down the center of the track.  On the other side of the roadway the ballast starts to get a bit thinner as the track crew have more room to spread out the ballast.

Balisting Track 7

When it comes to turnouts it’s okay to add ballasts around the rails but the gaps between the check rails and inside the frog (the V shape in the middle) must be kept clear.  Again the small screwdriver is ideal for this.  It is also important to keep the moving areas free so keep moving the turnout blades thoughout the process.

Balisting Track 8

Once the ballast is in the right place I use an old freight car with big flanges as a tester.  I run it up and down to make sure there is no ballasts where it should not be.  I also change the turnouts.  Note: if you have solenoid operated turnouts the sudden bang will dislodge the ballasts and can also bounce it into areas you don’t want it.  Although this can be useful for removing it if you have got some in the turnout blades.

Once all the turnouts can be thrown, manually, and the test car runs up and down, it’s time to stick the ballast down.  For this I’m using a product from Noch that was recommended to me.

Balisting Track 9

I have used other ballast glues and made my own in the past but this product works better than any of them.  The dispensing nozzle allows you to carefully and accurately drip or drizzle the glue where you need it and it doesn’t cause any lift in the ballast.  By ‘lift’ mean the ballast raising up onto liquid glue that has not soaked into the ballast.  It does not bubble or flow along the ballast causing washouts; it simply runs in.  In the picture below I started in the center of the track from the left, and although I was a little heavy-handed the ballast glue still soaked in anway.

Balisting Track 10

I then worked around the tracks covering all the ballast.

Balisting Track 11

Before the glue has a chance to dry I did one more test with an old freight car. This is why I use an old freight car as you get glue on the wheels. Then I left it overnight to set fully.  The next day all the ballast was dry and any surplus could be picked up with a vacuum cleaner.  Because the rail heads might have been covered in the glue I used the track rubber again to brighten them all up so I could do a proper test with a loco.

Balisting Track 12

The next step, which I still have to do, is to weather the ballast.  Out on the main line the ballast would be fairly clean but at the ends of a station area like this there would be coal, oil, grease and diesel spills where locomotives would have been stood.

BalistingTrack 13

You may also be wondering why I haven’t ballasted the track in the industrial area?  Well, this track work is under the obligation of the factory owner to maintain, not the railroad, and the ballast will be lower and dirtier, not to mention full of weeds at the ends of the tracks. To do this I need to mix up some ballast with other products and I will share that with you in a later post.