Four Easy Track Projects

After the bench work construction is completed, one of the more enjoyable and rewarding projects which is related to building a model railroad is laying the tracks for the trains which will bring your railroad to life.

Initially, it’s a good idea to only lay a few feet of track.  Then add some temporary feeder to wires to test the track that has just been laid by running a rail car on it.  Once this test is done, it will serve you quite well as the motivation to continue to lay additional track, and expand your model railroad.  Much more quickly than you might realize, you’ll have a great deal of track laid, and more than one train up and running.

With that said, it is important to recognize that the track which has been so carefully laid is just as much a model as everything else that has been included on the layout to bring it to life.  Often, model railroaders overlook this key fact and fail to add touches of realism to their track work such as ballasting, weathering, and painting.

Having said this, there are far to many hobbyist who are content to lay their track work, and then leave it as such.  The business of railroading is at the very least one that is very dirty.  The track are most often layered with grime, oil, and in some cases even rust.  If you don’t attend to the appearance of your tracks you’ll be overlooking one of the more important steps in making your layout look realistic.

Track Work

The following are four easy projects which will help you accomplish this goal:

Project One:  It is not uncommon for railroaders to spend a great deal of time working on their locomotives and railcars without giving much thought to the tracks they run on.  Only the tops of rails retain a shiny appearance because of the constant traffic that runs over them. 

Everything else about the track that trains run on has a used and dirty appearance.  With that said, painting your tracks will be a step in the right direction for making them look more realistic. 

The best guide, however, to follow for painting is to first look at pictures of the prototype.  You’ll discover that tracks can offer more than one type of appearance depending on how much they have been used,  their age, how often they are maintained, and also the region of the country in which they are located. 

Often railroad tracks are one of three different colors or a combination of all three:  brown, black, and gray.  Even the financial condition of a railroad can come in to play and affect the appearance of  the track if the railroad cannot afford routine maintenance.

Steps For Painting:

1.  Painting can be done with an airbrush or a paint brush.  Clearly using a paint brush will be more time consuming but this is always a matter of preference which is made by the hobbyist.

Regardless of the way you choose to paint your tracks, make sure you take the time to mask off the switch points, hinges, and any important landscape features that are near or next to your tracks.  Again, the colors of choice include black, brown, and gray.

You may also want to apply a coat of gray (example paint:  Poly Scale L&N Gray), which should be thinned by at least fifty percent, and then spread over ties which you have randomly selected to give the appearance that some are older than others.

2.  Most model railroaders will, at this point, add ballasting and that would be a mistake, because there is one important task which should be performed first.  To make things look realistic you should take the time at this juncture to paint the scenery surrounding the track.  On prototype railroads workers place cinders and gravel around the track to stop the growth of vegetation, and to assist in drainage. 

This is something you may want to do as well on your layout.  Try using a dark color paint to do this.  After you complete your painting you’re ready to start ballasting.

3.  As mentioned in the previous paragraph, crushed rock is adding around the tracks.  This is known as ballast.  Most model train and regular hobby shops sell this product for model railroading and it comes available in more than one color.

Project Two – How To Add Ballast

The process of adding ballast will  be made much easier if you break it into three different steps:

Step One - Begin by applying white glue which has been diluted with water by 10 percent along the sloped sides of the roadbed.  Next, using a small spoon sift or sprinkle ballast onto the glued areas.  By making the glue thicker there should be no problems with the ballast shifting or staying in place.

Continue by sifting ballast with a spoon between the rails.  Try not to use too much ballast as a small amount will go a long way.  Using a small sized paintbrush, carefully brush away any ballast which has accumulated on the tops of the ties and off the rail’s web.

Step Two - The next step in this process is to add cinders along the outer edge of the dressed ballast.  Follow this by brushing a new path of diluted glue along the outer edges of the roadbed slope and sift the cinder material into the glue.

Step Three – The final step involves soaking the ballast with good old rubbing alcohol applied with a pipette.  Also dribble on a little Woodland Scenic Scenery cement.  The benefit in using rubbing alcohol is that it will easily work its way among or between the ballast stone without moving them around.  Also, it evaporates which allows the cement to hold everything together.

Project Three

You should allow the ballast to dry sufficiently (usually a complete day), and after doing so, it’s time to clean the track.  No matter how you may have tried, it is really difficult to prevent ballast from going into unwanted places.  Because of this, you’re probably going to have to remove the ballast that has found its way into switch points and flangeways.

The tools you’ll want to use for this cleaning project include a track cleaning block, a hobby knife, toothbrush, and also a test car.

You see, the easiest way to identify sections of track that need to have excess ballast removed is by rolling a car along the track using your fingers to push it along.  When you find a spot where the car bumps along, you most likely have ballast which needs to be removed.  Make sure that after you have cleaned a section of track that you vacuum that area so that no other loose ballast works its way into another area.

Project Four – Weathering The Track 

Want to give your tracks a realistic weathered look?  Try doing this:  Using an airbrush spray the center line of the tracks with a weathering streak.  This will give the appearance of oil and grime which was left by passing trains.  Try using a thin mixture of Poly Scale Grimy Black diluted with rubbing alcohol to do this.

Finally, make sure that you clean the rail tops one last time, and follow this by running a rail car over the tracks just to make sure everything is okay.