How To Ballast Model Train Track


Special Bonus:  Although not directly related to how to ballast model train track, the creation of track plans for your layout is an important aspect of model railroading.  There is a great free tool which is available today and it is called SCARM.  The abbreviation stands for “Simple 3D Computer Aided Railway Modeller.”  Again, this software is designed to create model train track plans.  To read more about and to download SCARM click here.

Before one can actually describe how to add ballast to your track work, there is a possibility, if you are new to model railroading, that you may not be clear or sure of what ballast is, and that is perfectly normal for the novice, as there is a vast number of terms as well as techniques which must be mastered to create a model train layout.

Definition:  Regardless of the number of times you may have driven past or by train tracks you probably were not completely aware that track ballast forms the track bed upon which the railroad ties rest.  It functions to assist in draining water, and is placed or packed between, around, and below the ties.  It performs other functions as well.  For example, it serves to hold the rails in place as trains roll by, and it also aids in reducing the amount of vegetation that can grow naturally and possibly interfere with the tracks structure.  Ballast is typically made of crushed stone.

Now that we have that information out of the way, let’s get back to how to create and install track ballast on your model railroad.  Model railroaders have a couple of choices when it come to track ballast, and the easiest of which is to simply purchase track that already has the ballast molded in place.  The plus side of purchasing track which has the ballast already installed with their track, is that almost all manufacturers have included the correct color and shape for this element.  The minus is that that it will not have a loose gravel appearance, thus reducing the effect of realism which you may want or are trying to achieve.  You can counter this problem by simply brushing on a wash consisting of about 3 parts black paint to one part thinner.  By doing this the paint will accumulate in the crevices and will make the ballast look much more realistic.

If you opt to model ballast yourself, the way to simulate ballast is to use loose ballast which can be purchased at your local model train hobby shop.  For that matter, most regular hobby shops will also carry this product, and of course, you can find merchants online who sell this product as well.  These stores also carry more than one color choice for HO, N, or O scale.

Before you actually begin the process of applying the loose ballast to your tracks, you should apply a liberal coating of oil to all of the moving and sliding parts of existing switches (turnouts) so the matte medium will not stick to these important components of your layout.  Only use an oil which is compatible with plastic.  Also, keep in mind that it will be necessary to apply a strip of masking tape along the bottom edge of the ballast where you want the ballast to end.

Quick Tip:  To make your rails look more realistic try coloring them with a light spray of gray paint which will reduce that shiny effect which is typical of plastic.  By doing this, your rails should end up looking like weathered wooden ties.  If you discover that you’ve sprayed on a little too much paint this can be corrected by using a paintbrush dipped in a thinner and by lightly brushing away the excess paint.

To begin the process, pour loose ballast over your tracks, and when doing so make sure that you brush it away from the tops of the ties and sides of the rail.  Do this with a soft bristled brush that is approximately one quarter of an inch wide.

When this step is completed, and your happy with how the ballast has been positioned, the next step involves spraying the ballast with water.  Having done this you may discover that some of the ballast has moved away from the rails and some has washed away altogether.  Simply apply a little more ballast to compensate for this problem.  Next, take a 50/50 mixture of artist’s matte medium and water and flood the ballast with it.  

You’ll probably have to add a little more ballast to the areas which have washed away after doing your wash.  All of the area you’ve ballasted will have a milky appearance until the matted medium dries.  When the drying is completed you will then have a clear, flat finish.  At that this point, you’ll probably want to mist the ballast with a very light spray of the color you’ve chosen to match the ties.

Incidentally, when purchasing ballast the amount you buy will depend on the size of your layout, and if you need a little help determining this, most model train hobby shop employees are more than happy to help.

Finally, remove the masking tape you’ve applied and if necessary use an eraser or some type of track cleaner to remove any paint that may have adhered to the tops of the rail as well as the contact areas of the switch points.  

At this point your ballasting project is completed.  However, you can also add additional ballast to track that has ballast pre-molded to it if you so desire.  Just follow the steps which were previously described to accomplish this.