dirt ballast (deliberate practice)

“N scale, will you always be my siren?” I asked the other day. It takes practically no effort to remind me of this connection. So sensitive is that trigger it’s not even worth linking back from here to what probably set me off this time.

N scale

I’ve definitely posted the photos in the wrong order. The above photo is from last year. I was curious about applying the process I was using on the HO scale Coy layout in N scale. I applied the same materials and processed it as if what I do would magically scale. I didn’t even have to wait for the glue to dry to become painfully aware of the lingering bad taste assumption always delivers. To be honest I still don’t know why I dislike this test as much as I do. “At least this wasn’t on a layout” I tell myself. Part of what I think I did wrong was assume that my reaction to colour and texture were formulaic and not functional or derivative of the scale of the model they were being applied to. I was wrong. This will sound crazy but I think another part of the problem is the way glue dries on ballast. I guess, before, I assumed that the glue soaked deep into each grain of ballast and this changed the ballast and they now bonded on a newly-discovered atomic level. Studying photos I took of this section of track left me feeling like I could see the glue as if what was happening was not so much this atomic bond but more that each grain was entombed in glue and they were now connected like some giant honeycomb. Regardless, I kept pouring on ideas thinking I could fix the core by decorating the surface.

N scale

The success I feel like I’m enjoying with the Victoria layout has provided opportunities for me to invest in practising how I build up my own style of track and I’m very pleased with the work I’m doing. Key in the process is my love of working with non-sanded grout. I wondered if I could create a blend of Woodland Scenics ballast and Polyblend non-sanded grout and then rely on the grout alone as the bonding agent for the ballast. Several days of tinkering later and the follow-up photos above show what I think is progress. (The mix is about 60% grout (two shades) to ballast; No additional adhesives were mixed in. As a final step I have washed some paint onto the rails but otherwise everything in the scene is the material in its raw state (factory colour))

I only mixed a very small amount of grout and ballast. While tidying the workbench I looked into this small sample of the remainder and was inspired, thinking about how much it reminding me of the look urban railroad track develops over time as passing trains and life itself blankets the best intentions of crushed rock with layers of grime bonded into place with rain water and oil. Where in N scale I wanted the grout to soften the appearance of the ballast I wanted to try this same mixture on some HO scale track–would it look like dirt ballasted track.Quickly I carved off another small rectangle of foam and stuck down some track. Just as in the N scale sample the only bonding agent holding down this “ballast” is the grout itself. Unlike the N scale sample, I have added some thinned washes of colour and glued down some scrap paper.

The N scale piece uses a scrap of Atlas N scale code 55 track and the HO scale piece uses some scrap Micro Engineering plastic ties under Atlas code 83 rail. The cheap craft paint I like to use does not stick well to the slippery plastic and metal surfaces of this track. Further, even if it did, the grout is basically dust that accumulates and obscures detailed track painting completed prior to ballasting anyway. Waiting to apply those same basic colour washes until after the ballast was stuck down meant that same film from the grout is now acting like a primer that is way more receptive to water-based washes. Finally leaving these painting steps until after invites them to act like a medium introducing and networking one texture to another by the universal language of paint.

Model railroading offers tremendous creative opportunity but too often we deny it this fundamental value by insisting work is completed by defined and very linear production steps proven by others and engineered for our predictable success. My relationship with this hobby is lifelong and something I wear as part of my identity and when I could no longer hear the music it upset me. I thought the cure was the one popularized in our media so since buying model trains is also great fun I did that but eventually that high wears off. In clay, bread, or Lego I know the joy I feel is not from the made thing but the raw exploratory activity of touching and manipulating the raw materials. I already knew I wanted my models to look like the other art forms I like looking at but I had to learn that the way I was practising it also needed to change. Test pieces like these in HO and N offer me a release from production to instead focus on learning how the materials and processes truly work (“How does glue interact with this material?” or “How does it want to work?”). I feel like the quality of what I’m producing on the layout is changing because I’m spending time studying the materials and the methods. While I’m anxious about wasting materials these studies are a way to feel productive when I’m unclear what needs to happen on layout next.

I have some sections on the actual layout where I’ve ballasted the track in cinders and others in stone and now I wish I had a place where the track is being lost into the dirt. It would be nice if Future Chris designed this into the next layout. Current Victoria is not going anywhere–this is just a reminder.

Categories: How I think, modelmaking, Trackwork and Handlaid Track, Victoria On30

Tags: , ,

1 reply


  1. Model Railroader Dude Explains: Not All Techniques Work In Smaller Scales – Sprue Pie With Frets

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