The ballast update

Thank you for the comments on my previous post on the road grit ballast. My need to create with this remains great and I find it a perplexing material to work it. Sometimes model railroading is a puzzle to solve and, when it is, I don’t need a project just the challenge for my curious mind.

I’ll open with an apology. Calvin suggested I try a coloured wash or maybe dry brushing. His idea was terrific but I was resistant because, in the past, my efforts to paint were on ballast where its original colour was of lesser importance. I should have just tried. Then I did. The above is a length of the previously shown ballast, still dry but wet looking, with some very thin washes of cream and white. I’m quite impressed and, these days, embarrassed by my stubbornness.

Then Mike and I started talking. He reminded me, kindly, of the importance of thinking. Really thinking about what I was doing. Which leads to: if wet is the problem try something not as wet. In the above photo I painted on a coat of full strength (undiluted; no extra water and no ritualistic “drop or two of dish soap“). Over this I sprinkled mostly ballast with some of the finer dirt grade material. It’s dried perfectly.

I used N scale cork roadbed under the ties. On purpose, so in places the ties could appear to float. I didn’t smooth the harsh angle on the edge of the roadbed so that first layer of ballast needed more added to build up a profile. The beauty of Mike Cougill’s approach is building layers of texture. A desire to explore his method left such an incredible mark on my imagination – wanting to experiment with it is such a powerful reason to get back to the workbench. It might seem detailed and painful to ballast one tie at a time, as I have above, but it isn’t. Where previously I’d dump a cup over the track then sweep it into place and hope it all looked right I’m taking the time to build up that profile at each tie and considering each component part each were a series of individual compositions i- this is how I want to feel when I’m making models.

“I love how this is coming along”

I can’t suppress this attraction to the hobby but want to change how I approach it. I can’t blame an external source for affecting my experience. Engaging here becomes a function of finding a workflow and materials that have purpose or reason. Looking at that last photo, I feel that connection. I’m far from finished with this but I can see real progress and I can feel change.


Mike Cougill’s exploration of ballast technique is superlative. Certainly unmatched. These blog posts present the work and the reasoning:

https://www.ostpubs.com/modeling-oil-soaked-track/

https://www.ostpubs.com/mud-covered-track/

https://www.ostpubs.com/detailing-track-part-2-modeling-ballast/

https://www.ostpubs.com/oil-soaked-dirt/

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