make a road crossing

My model railway designs often feature some sort of interaction with a roadway. On Coy, the model was positioned to begin where the roadway ended. The current layout is bisected by a roadway that is not just a decorative scenic element but something around which the static and operational design had been keyed. Which is funny because I’m terrible at making model roads. It’s too easy to remember the last scene I completely and totally ruined by trying to make a road crossing or pave a road. I’ve learned to fear this. Paraphrasing a favourite and classic Heritage Minute: maybe it’s that plaster that is the problem?

The roadway in question? Easy enough to repeat the simple plan of the current project. Yeah, there it is.

  • Plaster starts to set the moment it’s mixed and I want more working time
  • Even if I stretch out the working time with an admixture the rate plaster cures at is always somewhere along a straight line from pancake batter to malleable iron
  • I can’t make decent formwork any more than I can flap my wings and fly

I could go on but dwelling on these points isn’t helping my self esteem and it just isn’t productive.

  • I want something that I can manipulate like plasticine
  • Instead of pouring a soupy mix of plaster I want something I can build up and place one tiny O scale shovel at a time

When I started building Coy’s track I would stick down some ties, fiddle with some paint and weathering on them, and start ballasting. I worked part by mood but also part as an acknowledgment of wanting to interact with the work on an almost elemental level where I’m teasing out the form interactively while the thing is being made. I loved how that felt. Where before it felt like layout construction was a series of boldly defined phases with fiercely defended start and end points this had a jazz feel where the paint played off a groovy line the ballast was laying down.

I have a lot of Woodland Scenics medium grade “buff” ballast. Goodbye plaster and hello building up the basic form in ballast. I carefully built up the profile and the ballast is continued across the tracks. The crossing boards are Northeastern stripwood and as soon as this first layer of ballast was glued I added these boards into place.

When I first started this work I had in mind boards forming the flangeways and infilled between with dirt and clay. I think I thought that would work because I was thinking of rails further apart. Turning to Robert Jones’ Two Feet to series of books showed how Monson and Kennebec Central crossings were just planked straight across.

My intention throughout was to use the ballast to incrementally build up the profile. In this way it didn’t matter what the colour of the ballast was and it didn’t even matter what grade the ballast was. What did matter was how precisely I could place it and how much I could control how much I added. Unlike plaster, if I added too much I just picked it up and moved on with my life.

I’ve already confessed my relationship with non-sanded tile grout and this was my secret weapon here. With the crossing boards in place, distressed, and stained; and the “ballast” built up to create the main profile of the road, I shifted to layers of non-sanded grout. Non-sanded grout likes thin layers so this took several applications of grout. On my regular track I’m careful to control where the grout lands but here I wanted it to fill in and around the crossing boards. Some of those boards are damaged and clay is accumulating and I love how the flangeways are starting to fill in.

Initially it didn’t bother me the colour or grade of the ballast but by this stage I find I’m grateful for both. Most of this tile grout but I can see rocks (ballast) breaching that surface and those contribute texture to the road. This is how the road looks today. I don’t have any O scale vehicles so have paused this here. As soon as I do have some I’ll use them to help me define the center of each lane and in those areas I want to add some grass and weeds. This road is used but not so much that nature isn’t winning its argument.

I’m so glad I faced this fear. Plaster was absolutely my problem. A little more mature I appreciate taking the time to interrogate my issue and I’m grateful I had the resolve to try something new. I like to believe that’s why it worked out better. Projects like this and the flat car really validate this project and also my focus on On30 models. I’m not just enjoying what I’m doing but I look forward to doing it and that feels so good.

Categories: Victoria On30

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7 replies

  1. Bravo, Chris! Nice way to outflank the plaster with grout. I think you’re on to something here. From time to time I find myself stymied by what won’t work at the expense of the mental bandwidth needed to identify alternatives – a rather unproductive spiral. Well done “breaking out.” To further affirm your specific findings; I’m not sure the plaster would have had such a satisfying texture as this. I’ve played with joint compound, but like plaster, not my idea of a go-to material to represent a *dirt* road. Another bonus is the minimum package quantity of grout is a lifetime supply. I have visions of putting it in something akin to a baker’s piping bag (frosting) for an unusual application. Do you think the viscosity of the grout would cooperate?

    • Good morning! Wonderful to see you here. I’ve used drywall mud previously and often a byproduct of having had it around leftover from home renovation projects. Another advantage of the mud is how it can be wetted and formed even when dry. Like with plaster what I find is a failure in my own hands and how my clumsy application methods let me down.

      When I use grout here or along the ballast or anywhere on the layout I apply it dry and brush it into place then set it with a mist if water. In real life I’ve used it as intended but never applied it as a wet mix to the layout and I’m fascinated with your idea of trying it this way. Building on your idea I was wondering if I could apply it like built up mud on some models? I used to represent this with a mix of baking soda and Testors paint but a simpler mix of just grout might work really well and since it’s a constant colour the mud on the train would look like the mud on the ground. I’m excited to try this!


  2. This is really nice. It actually looks real.

    Chris Nevard’s web pages have a sequence on ballasting a track and yard using air dry modeling clay with minuscule amounts of ballast and vegetation. His point is that texture on most layouts is grossly exaggerated. Looking at photos of prototype yards before, say, 1960, one sees well-tamped cinder ballast, often indistinguishable from asphalt.

    I repeat, this is really nice! I will emulate [steal from] it!

    • Good morning. Thank you for the kind words. I’ve seen Chris Nevard’s process and wondered if we could use DAS instead? For the sake of experiment I’d like to try modelling a stretch of track like we used to see where the surface looks almost paved from layers of dust, dirt, and oil. In so many urban areas this feels like such a classic finish but also one we don’t often model this way. I hope you have a chance to try this too knowing you’ll build on my progress and take this in an even more interesting direction.


      • I think he did use DAS, I was commenting after only one cup of coffee.

        I am in the process of rebuilding and revising (after rethinking) much of my layout after a basement oil tank move required me to make a 48” corridor so they could get the tank to the cellar door.

        What could have been a horror story is turning out to be good fun. I am relaying a curve and a section of track at the moment and will reballast the area with grout and redo the road crossing in DAS. I will let you know how it goes.

        That is a lot of re- prefaces in a single post, but you are stuck with them!

  3. I’ve tried DAS – I think Chris’s new idea is better, I could never get the DAS smooth – something to note is Chris uses SMP bullhead track that has very shallow sleepers…

    I love what you’ve achieved here Chris – bravo!

  4. Taking notes – I have a bunch of crossings to do!

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