I’ve never ballasted model railroad track. It’s a relatively simple process, and there are any number of how-to articles in print and video. Still, it’s one of those things that has to be done to be appreciated, and a primary skill for the model rail.

Research showed that Northern Pacific used a light gray crushed rock for the main in the area I was modeling. Secondary track ballast is all over the map, and most photos show some variation of dirt and grass. Photos from the era I’m modeling are B & W, and so indeterminate as to color. Because the railroad had it’s major western shops in the South Tacoma area, I imagine there was no shortage of cinders. I bought some Light Grey ballast (fine), and some Cinders (fine) as a starting point. The plan was to use the Light Grey on the main, and Cinders on the sidings and secondary trackage.

The first attempt was, well, indifferent.




First ballasting attempt


Okay, I’m not looking to win a contest, but that looks like crap. Back to the Internet. I’d used the ‘wet’ water (water with a few drops of alcohol to break surface tension), and then the diluted white glue. However ‘wet’ the water might be, it still beaded and washed ballast where I didn’t want it to go. Spray bottles were a no-go, as no matter how fine the spray, a few drops would find their way out and act like artillery shells on the dry ballast. The application of wet water did indeed allow the diluted glue to soak right in.

I saw a video of a guy who painted the sides of the roadbed with diluted white acrylic and white glue, and that looked intriguing. On trying that method, I found that it didn’t really work all that well for me.

After some experimentation, I found that spreading ballast along the center of the track, then using an artist paintbrush to spread it out, then shaking ballast along the sides of the track and using my finger to form the profile worked best. I use 35mm film cans to distribute scenery material, as I find that they offer a high degree of control, down to individual grains, in fact.

One thing I hadn’t thought about was ballasting the portions where the feeder wire tubes were under the track. I hit upon the idea of using some square styrene stock cut short to cover the openings, and that seemed to work well. I also found that the time spent replacing ties was for naught, as the ‘below grade’ ties were covered with ballast, leaving ‘tie gaps’. The purists will balk, and I’m not overly happy, but short of expensive renovation, no help for it.

Main ballasted sawmill side


So the main line on the ‘sawmill’ side is ballasted. It looks OK. The profile isn’t too bad, and it does look better than unballasted track. The turnouts stand out for the lack of ballast, but that’s a reality in the model world. The working parts must be kept free of contaminants. I’m looking into methods to weather the ballast. This is supposed to be track that’s seen years of steam locomotives, so I’d expect that there would be a dusting of ashes on the right-of-way.  Methods include dusting with chalks, using an India Ink wash (what I’m leaning toward), or airbrushing. I’ve never used an airbrush, so that will be another learning experience.

On the technical side, I used a pipette to apply the wet water, and a small squeeze bottle (center right in picture) for the diluted glue. I like the control both tools allow. I found that flowing the water along the center line of the track, and then along the outside edge of the rails reduced the amount of ballast wash. What I haven’t been able to figure out is how to get the stray ballast out of the landscape. Even with the EF-5 Hoover, the supposedly unsecured ballast grains will not leave the scenery. I haven’t laid ground cover on the ‘urban’ side, and I think that’s the way to go when ballasting track.

I find that I like ballasting. Once I developed the technique (and am still developing), it goes fairly fast. Now I have to decide on a secondary track ballast mix, scrape ballast off ties, and weather what’s been applied. It’s still fun.

Model Railroading Takes Over House

The layout is in what the schedule calls ‘Basic Scenery’. That’s ground cover, ballasting, primary landforms (in this case cutouts for the harbor and coal trestle), and streets. I’m motivated to wrap this up because the materials have not only taken over the train space, but the eating space as well:

Scenery materials take over


Yikes! I believe the supplies have taken up more room than the layout. You can tell I’m not married.

Extra Credit

I hold that anyone over the age of 35 modeling in N-scale should get extra credit, because N-scale is small. Case in point: my Kato NW2 needed actual couplers rather than the virtual dummies the company inexplicably supplies on a $100+ locomotive, and the pre-fabbed ones I’d bought simply wouldn’t fit, no matter how much sanding I did. So I bought a Micro-Trains coupler kit, and with a ballgame on the radio, proceeded to assemble proper couplers.  The foam block on the left is my el-cheapo rolling stock cradle.

Installing MT couplers

I’d been putting this project off, because the initial read of the instructions showed a complex procedure. Time to bite the bullet. The first coupler took the better part of an hour, and I still don’t know how to insert the trip pin, because the directions (for me) are somewhat ambiguous, and I don’t see how the pin is secured, so I left it off. No big deal, as I use a pick to uncouple, so the trip pins aren’t really necessary.

My biggest concern was the centering spring, which is very small. But I found that following the manufacturers directions, and keeping a finger over one end, I was able to install the spring without trouble, and without the spring flying across the room. Now I have a switch engine with working couplers on both ends. Imagine.

This entry was posted in Rolling Stock, Scenery, Trackwork and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s