Ballasting in reverse

With a bundle of code 40 flex track on the way and the two turnouts built anticipation for getting track stuck down and a layout underway is certainly building. Of course, with track laying comes ballasting and that’s one area that I’ll admit makes me nervous.

Like any seasoned model railway guy I’ve glued a fair number of turnouts shut and sworn I’m not going to do that again.

Also like many of my fellow modellers, I’ve always done it the Model Railroader way, repeating each step like I’ve read in so many articles over the years:

  1. Spread ballast along track
  2. Mix glue and water and that magical drop of soap
  3. Spray track with light mist of water “to break surface tension”
  4. Dribble thinned glue and water mix along the line

Four simple steps right? For me, right around step number four I begin to excitedly look forward to freeing up turnouts I’ve just finished glueing shut and picking little N scale rocks away from places they had no business being. Every time I’ve wondered if there was a different way. Maybe even a “better” way.

Sometimes it works...

Sometimes it works…

I feel like I’ve read a number of articles in the British model railway press in which the author advocates for a slight reversal in the process. With roadbed in place and track at the ready, spread glue out along the roadbed and press the track into it. While the glue is still wet simply spread a layer of dry ballast. The glue dries as glue does and the track sticks down and ballast joins in on the party. A day or so later you come along and sweep or vacuum up the ballast and find that most of it has nicely stuck down in the now dried glue. It sure sounds like a way that makes one heck of a lot more sense than my current approach. I had some scraps of old Atlas flex track, some Woodland Scenics ballast, and a piece of foam. I figured I’d give it a try. Here’s how it turned out.


I used a thinned PVA glue. I thought thinning the glue would encourage more of it to wick up deeper into the ballast. I was concerned that as it dried the ballast might shrink and in a few places it did. On version two of my test, I’ll try the glue full strength.

So far, I do think this is something I am going to continue to pursue.

I think I may patiently attempt a variation though where I stick the track in place first. Sticking down the track first will allow me to wire everything properly and also get the track detailed, painted, and weathered before ballasting. Instead of attempting to ballast all at once I’ll just try for a few inches at a time painting thinned glue in between the ties and then spread the ballast over top. Obviously this is a little more labour intensive but I’m not working with a huge amount of track.

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9 comments

  1. Good stuff Chris. Ballasting is my least favourite job and and as there is so many ways to do it with everyone have an opinion of how to do it. Things are coming along nicely. Whats the local and where is it from I mean which road?

    1. The layout in the first picture (with the diesel) is HO scale. It’s actually the micro layout I gave away last fall and sent to Tom at Model Rail Radio.

      The engine was decorated for the Boston and Maine Railroad. It was a Bachmann Spectrum GE 44 tonner.

      A friend of mine and blogger at Trackside Treasure, Eric Gagnon, built a super little switching layout that he could take outside and operate. It was based on Vancouver’s industrial trackage and I thought it would be a terrific home for a little engine like the 44 tonner I had so I sent mine to him. Eric later posted some photos of the layout and the engine in it’s new home on his blog. Take a look:
      http://tracksidetreasure.blogspot.ca/2013/09/outdoor-layout-mmpp.html

      The ballasting experiment I tried today appears in the bottom two photos. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

  2. Hi Chris:
    I’ve done something similar for my Port Rowan layout. As the link below shows, I ballasted between the ties around the switch points before installing the turnouts. I then ballasted in the four-step way you describe as “the Model Railroader way”. In this way, I could keep the ballast (and the glue!) away from the points while still getting the track work laid nicely before adding ballast. I have some friends who ballast everything before laying any rail, but I find the ballast gluing helps lock the spikes into the ties to keep things from shifting.
    Here’s the link – enjoy if you visit!
    http://themodelrailwayshow.com/cn1950s/?p=1028
    – Trevor @ The Model Railway Show

    1. Good afternoon, Trevor.

      I had read the blog post you suggested before and have several times since. It was the grassy track aspect that really caught my attention as that is an effect I want to have on my own layout too. I really like how well your track turned out.

      On past layouts, when I have spiked track to wooden ties I too enjoyed locking everything into place with the thinned ballast glue. I couldn’t agree with your thoughts more.

      The biggest driving force behind my latest layout attempt is minimalism. I really want to keep the thing at under three turnouts and well within a 1×5′ footprint. One immediate spin-off of this approach is that it really opens a door to ways of doing things that on a larger or more complex layout I might not try. Front and centre for this realisation is this potentially and otherwise tedious approach to ballasting. Since I’m only ballasting maybe twelve feet of track in total I can easily see aiming to only complete a few inches at a time. I think it might be remarkably relaxing to switch on some nice music, pour a decent glass of stout beer and paint some glue.

      Keying this rambling reply to your note I’m starting to really recognise just how wise I feel in realising the joy that really can be realised in these simpler, smaller layouts.

      Have a great afternoon. Thanks for the note.

      1. Hi Chris:
        My pleasure.
        I guess I should’ve followed my thought through to completion. Where I was going with my comment is that one does not have to use the same method of ballasting for the entire layout. Different approaches can work for different situations. I found it easiest to ballast after laying rail in most places – but like you I’ve found that gluing the points to the ties/stock rails isn’t a great idea. Even once they’re broken free, they never seem to move as smoothly as they did before ballasting – so this time I tried ballasting before laying the turnouts in place and it was a huge improvement.
        Keep up the good work – and thanks for sharing it here!

      2. Good morning, Trevor. Sorry I took so long to reply. I agree that there really isn’t one right way for the whole layout for ballast or really any aspect of layout design, construction, or operation. It’s funny how some areas, ballasting in particular, seem to suffer from the “there’s only one way” thought.

        A lot of my excitement about this approach is how well it will work for the turnouts. The N scale ties I’m using for handlaid track are about 1mm thick. Brushing ballast around is difficult since whatever I use tends to actually flush most of the ballast out. Coupled with the challenges I was facing glueing things in place, well, I think this alternative really fixes a set of issues all at once. I’m just glad I tried something I’d been curious about for a while and learned something new. That feels terrific.

        Great thread. Thanks for feeding it.

      3. Good morning, Chris:
        No worries about the delayed response.
        Here’s a tip:
        I had problems with wetting ballast prior to applying glue. The sprayers I used (plant misters, squirt bottles, etc) would dislodge the ballast I’d carefully brushed into position.
        Then, on a whim, I bought a pump bottle used to spray olive oil. I filled it with water and ta-da! It delivers a very fine mist that won’t kick bits of ballast out of place, yet thoroughly soaks the ballast for glue. I don’t even need to use the drop of dish soap in the water to break surface tension.
        Hmm – I should write about this on my own blog too I suppose…
        Cheers!

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