Ballasting Track

Ballasting is a topic which often arises when modelling railways.

This article covers the method we used on the 'Ashprington Road' layout.


The track bed on the main line of 'Ashprington Road' is canted using a 4mm ply formation lifted on the outside of curves by 2mm. Cork floor tiles have then been cut to the shape of the track bed and glued down using wood glue. The 'shoulder' can be clearly seen to the left of the tracks. This is simply stiff paper. The whole was then sealed using an emulsion paint.
The track was then glued to the cork and the rail sides were painted with a track colour, in this case a mixture of Humbrol 113 and Humbrol 33.

The Tools of the Trade

The picture to the left shows the tools used for ballasting:

  • A supply of ballast
  • A mixing pallette in which to mix different grades and shades of ballast together
  • A container of watered down PVA, in this case 1 part PVA to 3 parts water with about 1 teaspoon full of washing up liquid mixed in
  • A small spade for shovelling ballast
  • A large brush for moving large amount of ballast around
  • A small hard brush for moving and detailing small amounts of ballast
  • A teat pipette for applying watered PVA glue
  • A pair of tweazers for removing any stray stones from sleeper tops and rail webs after gluing
  • A collection of markers so that we can indicate where we have got to with our gluing

Applying Ballast

Here we have tipped some ballast on the track and are moving it around using the small hard brush.

Having spread the ballast around, we use the hard brush to 'detail' it - the objective here is to ensure the ballast is level with the tops of the sleepers, does not flow onto the sleepers and does not accumulate in the web of the rails.
Due to the nature of the construction of the Peco code 75 track used here, we also want to ensure that sufficient ballast is pushed under the rails to hide the plastic webbing.

Remember: In the days prior to mechanisation (pre 1970's), 'length gangs' were responsible for the maintenence of their own lengths of track. Consequently, ballast fettling was maintained to a high and very tidy standard. In the UK, track was not buried in ballast because wooden sleepers rot in such conditions. With modern concrete sleepering, this is of course, no longer an issue.

Applying Glue

We use a teat pipette to administer the watered down PVA. We hold it no more than a few mm above the ballast and we point it at an angle at the ballast so that a drop of glue does not cause a 'crater'.
We apply single drops at a time.

Note that because the watered PVA has washing up liquid mixed in, we do not find it necessary to pre-wet the ballast prior to applying the glue. The washing up liquid breaks surface tension and allows the glue to propogate through the ballast - if it does not, add more washing up liquid to the watered PVA and mix well.

The Finished Product

We find that the glue generally dries overnight such that it is not susceptible to disturbance, but it usually takes a couple of days for the 'wet' appearance to disappear. At this time, we take a pair of tweezers and chip of any stones which have become attached to sleepers of rail webs. There is a risk of chipping paint, although we find that with care, damage is minimised and can always be touched up anyway. Care in the 'detailing' will ensure minimal stones become attached to the rail web.

The finished product can be seen in the picture on the left. Note that there is no evidence of any glue.

This section of track is now ready for weathering.

Graham Plowman

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