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Model Railroad Scenery - Adding Ballast
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Model Railroad Scenery  -  Adding Ballast

One of the better places to begin your model railroad scenery is to add ballast. Railroads use ballast under the track and around the ties to provide track stability and allow drainage. While not all spurs or minor branch lines use much ballast (or if used at all, the lack of maintenance in these lesser used areas typically allows weeds to grow up between the ties) nearly all mainlines use ballast material of some type.

Ballast is simply broken up rock that is applied under the tracks. Different types are used by different railroads based on what is available in the specific area. Due mostly to cost local ballast is used or shipped a very short distance.

If you are creating a prototype railroad it pays to do some research on what your specific railroad used for ballast. If you’re creating your own imaginary railway simply use ballast that matches whatever rocks or color scheme you are using.

Ballast can be applied anytime once the track is laid. Since it helps firm up the track I often apply ballast even before completing all my terrain. It can be applied as your first scenery or your last, the choice is yours.

Ballast can be purchased in an almost infinite variety of colors and sizes to match most all scales of trains. Be sure your ballast matches your scale. Large rock ballast wouldn’t look realistic on, say an N scale layout, nor does it lay properly around the smaller ties.

There are specific applicators for ballast, one being Woodland Scenics Scenic Sifter that are available to make applying ballast simpler. However, it’s not a requirement. Most hobby stores carry small plastic bottles with “funnel type” lids that work just as well. I have tried several and it really doesn’t matter as long as you are able to pour a small straight uniform line of ballast down the middle or your tracks. With a little practice you will find the right amount needed.

Once you have a line of ballast down the middle of your tracks, take a small dry paintbrush and spread the ballast evenly among the ties. Be sure and brush all the ballast off the tracks and the tops of the ties. Once you have a nice looking ballasted track, all that’s left is to glue the ballast down.

Again there are some good commercial glues out there, Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement is a fine example. However if you’re budget conscious like I am you can make your own ballast cement using glue and regular water.

I mix 1 part regular white glue with 2 parts water and add a drop or two of rubbing alcohol if needed for even spraying. Simply place the diluted glue mixture into a cheap spray bottle and lightly douse the ballast being careful not to blast the ballast around too much and let it dry. The glue mixture will dry clear and holds the ballast as well as the commercially available products.

Once the glue is completely dry, be sure and clean off the tracks paying particular attention to the tops of the tracks. If glue remains on top of the tracks power may not get to the engines and they won‘t function. Derailments are also a possibility.

Ballast can also be used around mines, in your rail yards or anywhere crushed rock would normally appear. Let your imagination be your guide here.

The simple and inexpensive addition of ballast to your model railroad scenery will go a long toward adding realism to your layout. It’s not the end of model railroad terrain by any means, but it’s a good start to a great looking model railroad.


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