Improving The Appearance Of Your Model Train Trackwork



It is fair to say that most model railroaders devote a great deal of time to making sure that their track works efficiently. Unfortunately, an equal number of hobbyist often neglect the important issue of making their tracks look realistic.

More often than not you see track which looks just as it did when it was removed from the box it came in. Your track is an important part of your model railroad, and time should be invested in painting, ballasting, and weathering your trackwork.

With that said, there are a variety of ways that you can improve the appearance of your track, and at the same time take a positive step towards adding one more touch of realism to your model railroad. The following information should prove to be useful in accomplishing this goal:

When you take a close look at prototype railroads, you come away with the knowledge that railroads are big, dirty industries. Your observation will show rusty rails, grimy ties, and oily deposits along the ballast as well. These are details which can easily be added through the use of acrylic modeling paints, and an airbrush.

Let’s take a look at painting ties and rails:

When you’re trying to achieve a realistic look for your model railroad nothing detracts more than the metallic and plastic shine of your rails and ties. The solution to this problem is to paint them. However, before you begin your painting project I would recommend that you spend a little time looking at the prototype. In so doing, you’ll have a better sense of what and the look you are trying to achieve.

What you typically see is that railroad tracks are a combination of various shades of brown, black, and gray. If you’ve been looking at the tracks of an older railroad which is in need of maintenance, the tracks will appear to have rusty rails, (an orange colored type of appearance) and faded gray ties. These are therefore the colors which you will want to work with.

For the best and easiest way to paint your rails and ties (after you’ve made your color choices) is to use an airbrush. Before you begin spraying, it would be a good idea to take the time to mask off your switch points and hinges, and any important terrain features such as roads, etc..

It is wise to work on one section of track at a time. When you complete painting each of these sections remove the masking tape from the switch points and hinges. After you’ve removed the tape, paint and with great care the rails and ties. Make every effort to avoid getting paint on the stock rails or into the hinges.

If this happens make sure that you clean the paint off immediately. If you allow the paint to dry in any of these areas it will not only be difficult to clean off at a later time, the paint which has dried in these areas will cause electrical problems as well.

The next step in making your track look more realistic is ballasting. However, before you can begin the ballasting process you should take a step back, and take the time to paint the scenery surrounding the track with a base coat of paint.

Having completed this painting, you can now begin to add ballast. Before we take a look at how to ballast your track work, a description or explanation of what ballast is may be in order for those hobbyist who are new to model railroading.

Improving train trcakThere are a multitude of problems which naturally exist with placing mile after mile of track on top of the ground, and this is in reference to our prototype railroads. For example, the rails expand and contract, the results of various weather conditions occur, natural plant and weed growth that can occur around and in the tracks themselves, and there is a necessity to guarantee drainage that will prevent damage to the tracks themselves.

A solution to this problem, amazingly enough, was developed almost two hundred years ago, and hasn’t been changed or altered since then, and it is something called ballast. The railroad companies first concluded that they should raise the tracks high enough in an effort to prevent flooding of the tracks, and then surround the tracks, and the inside areas of the tracks with crushed rock which is what we refer to as ballast.

As model railroaders we make every effort to mirror the prototype railroads, and when we lay our trackwork on our layouts we therefore add ballast ande cinders as well to replicate the prototype.

You can purchase ballast materials and cinders either online, or you can make a trip to your local model train hobby store to do your shopping. Woodland Scenics and Highland Products offer an excellent selection for these materials.

Where you may think that ballasting should be an easy project….that isn’t quite true. The problem is that the small ballasting stones tend to want to go everywhere. However there is a solution to this issue and it involves breaking the project down into separate steps.

Start by mixing a small amount of white glue that is diluted by approximately ten percent with water. Apply this glue solution with a brush along the sloped sides of the roadbed.

Next, carefully sift ballast into the wet glue using a teaspoon. The glue helps the ballast stay in place on the slope when it is soaked with scenery cement which is the final or third step.

While making a concerted effort to limit how much you apply, sift ballast using a teaspoon between the rails. When you’re satisfied with the result you’ve achieved take a paintbrush, and gently clean the excess ballast off the tops of the ties and out of the rails web.

Your next step is to add cinders along the outer edge of the dressed ballast. Now, using a small paint brush add a new path of diluted glue using your brush to the outer edges of the roadbed slope and sift the cinder material into the glue.

Finally, using a pipette, soak the ballast with rubbing alcohol. While the ballast is still wet, dribble on scenery cement (try using Woodland Scenics scenery cement…it seems to work best). Incidentally, the alcohol tends to work its way between the ballast stones without moving them around, and it evaporates quickly, which allows the cement to hold everything together.

You should let the ballast to dry for at least twenty four hours and when it has completely dried, you can then clean the track. No matter how hard you try, the ballast tends to get in the very places you don’t want it to be. You’ll probably have to use a variety of different tools to do this cleaning project. For example, try using the following: a track-cleaning block, a hobby knife, an old toothbrush, and a test car.

I mention the latter because an easy way to determine if there are sections of track which need to be cleared is to run a test car (freight car) along the track with your fingers.

In so doing, each place where the car bumps, you need to clear away the excess ballast. Make sure that you vacuum up any loose material after you clean each section of track.

The last thing you’ll want to give your attention to in making your track look as realistic as possible is weathering. The paint color I use to weather is Polly Scale Grimy Black, and the effect I want to create is that of oil and grime which collects on the track and ballast which is caused by passing trains.

I use an airbrush and spray the centerline of the track. The last thing I do is clean the rail tops and then I run my test car over the track to make sure everything is working as it should be. Well, there you have it! You should now have very realistic looking trackwork.