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/

Not done yet

After staring at it all summer, I snuck over to Canal Street and swept up an ice cream tub of road grit, thinking it’d be nice ballast. I love the colour of it “in the raw”. I walk by this every day and for at least a year now have been pining after gathering some to experiment with. This stuff is gorgeous. The subtle colour variation is beautiful. This is not about wanting “free” or “cheap” ballast as seeing media and “needing” to create with it. For the record I’m still a fan of the Woodland Scenics ballast.

These photos show it in three grades after I glued it down on a short length of test ties. It’s much darker than I hoped for. I glued it a week ago, on Wednesday night, and this is how it looks now. The ballast feels dry but still looks wet in terms of colour. I’m almost wondering if the stone absorbed water then the glue mix seals that into the stone?

My process here is the typical one. The last thing the internet needs is one more expert describing the process:

  • Spread ballast
  • Wet with spray bottle
  • Dribble glue over the ballast

For reference the work here is in 1:48 scale. Those ties are for On30 track.

Dirt. There’s still dust in this. I’m going to look for a really fine screen to try and take some of that dust out to make it easier to wet this.

In the above photos, the other day, I laid down a bed of glue then dropped ballast onto it. This was mostly to compare the traditional method of glue soaking in from the top to the ballast resting only in a bed of glue. The colour distortion is still there, not as bad, but clearly evidence of absorption. For reference, in the third photo, I piled loose dry ballast to compare the colour of dry to glued if for no other reason than to accommodate for the lighting at my workbench.

I could paint or even apply a coloured wash over this. I’d like to avoid that if I can. The attraction to this, in the first place, was its natural colour so painting it sort of erases its natural beauty.

My “need” to figure out how to glue this down is strong and I’ve got material to work with so I’ll keep experimenting. There must be a way to glue this down without discolouring the stone. I believe it can be done. If this was on a layout I’d be in a pretty sour mood thinking I’d ruined the model but instead this is just a test section to experiment in while I learn how to use this material.


The ballast worked out. Now what?

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For the most part the ballast work is now done. I had a lot of self-doubt when I started ballasting and I’m ever so pleased that things are working out, even more that everything is still nicely stuck in place. In fact, thanks to a lot of patience and care I think this might be some of the nicest ballast work I’ve ever completed. Before I started ballasting, I painted and weathered the track with some coloured washes and with the ballast now stuck in place, I figured I’d have a go at weathering the trackwork. I was also hoping to arrive a colour range that looked a little bit rusty but not too redish. I like the effect so far. Just as I was wrapping up I figured I’d try picking out some of the ties with some greyish tones. Unfortunately this colour wound up on a few tieplates and rail and I’ll need to correct that.
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As pleased as I am with the ballast on the main module, I wish I had noticed that I hadn’t done any weathering of the ties and rails before ballasting the second module. I had sprayed some colour onto the ties and rails so at least I’d made a start. Unfortunately there is a stronger contrast between the dark brown and monochromatic ties and rails compared to the lighter grey ballast. I’ve started experimenting with some subtle washes and dry brush work to try and soften the look. The above photo shows things as they are now.

Throughout this project I’ve remarked on how pleased I am with how things are progressing. It’s been a really long time since I’ve done any of this kind of work and it’s fun to re-introduce myself to things I remember doing before. It’s terrific to have a generic layout underway to act as a place to play around with everything. More than anything I would or wouldn’t do again in the future, having a space like the one this layout provides is something I hope I’ll always have access to.

Always wetter before it dries out

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It’s raining here in Charlottetown and everyone seems to have found a book to read, a craft project to work on, or some other pursuit to indulge in. My effort has been to get the rest of the track ballasted on my layout.

I spent a lot of time tamping and dressing all this fresh ballast around so none was on top of the ties and absoloutely none was going to wind up glued to the sides of the rails. I always think it funny to have so diligently invested patience into getting it all ready and then I start fogging it with water and glue. The photo above was taken only a few minutes ago and it shows things as they are right now. I like to keep the area I’m working on quite wet so everything is saturated and eventually the glue soaks in nicely. However, there is always a time like the one right now where I’m raising my mug of tea and saying a quiet prayer that once again I get away with this approach.

Ballasting and it was good


After a lot, even for me, of fretting I’ve started ballasting the track on my layout. I wasn’t getting anything done while I worried about a couple of simple things:

I still haven’t settled on a prototype of time period

Throughout this build I’ve nurtured a few themes and have kept them in mind while working. Given the shape of the benchwork and choice of scale and gauge, many of the decisions regarding track locations and the style of operations I want to feature were almost pre-determined. However as I move toward scenics it’s a little more important to know where on Earth this thing is supposed to be set and during which time period so I can decide if that ballast is dirt and cinders or fresh crushed rock.

I’ve been wanting to use something finer than Woodland Scenics and real rock

I’ve always used Woodland Scenics “fine” grade ballast. It’s readily available and familiar. During my no-layout-at-home hiatus I’d read a lot about ballast based on actual crushed rock such as that from Arizona Rock and Mineral or Highball. Unfortunately, I can’t find a supply of either close to the Island and, as expected, sending a couple of bags through the mail is just going to cost more in postage than I feel like I want to spend right now.

Wait a minute…

I’m doing a lot of surfing the web and fretting instead of working on the layout and getting something done. So, last weekend I picked up a jar of Woodland Scenics fine ballast, their generic grey blend, and set to work. After a few evenings, I’ve got ballast glued in along about half of the line and I think it looks pretty alright. I’m getting something done and that feels terrific. Since this layout was supposed to be all about having something to occupy myself with while I settle on what I’d ultimately like to work on, I think this is a great step in the right direction.