How to ballast a model railway, the definitive guide

Mike Buick Track WorkEverything you need to know to safely and easily ballast your model railway with the best results, including top videos. a step by step guide and loads of tips.

Adding ballast to your model railway will make a huge difference to the authenticity of your layout. Unfortunately, it can also take a long time and if done badly play havoc with the smooth running of your trains.

But it needn’t be this way, as this article reveals.

Preparing for ballasting

Before watching, however here’s a quick recap of recommended steps before adding the actual ballast:

1. Paint The Base Board

This helps blend the ballast with that of the underlying material and adjacent scenery. After applying a protective layer of varnish, I mix up paint to the same colour as the scatter gravel, apply this where the ballast will lay and then gradually mix it to the colour of the neighbouring surface material.

2. Secure The Track And Test The Track

Using glue to fix down your track can cause problems and interfere with the running of your trains even before you get to ballasting. Glue might get stuck to the top of the rails or you might dislodge wiring for example. Always make sure your trains run flawlessly before moving on to ballasting, Ballasting can cause enough problems by itself and you don’t want to be troubleshooting both rogue ballast on your points on top of glue and errant wiring. Fix one problem at a time so prove your track work before ballasting.

3. Protect Delicate Areas

This is touched on in the video’s below but it’s important enough to warrant mentioning first. Cover particularly delicate track areas — points, turntables and the like — with masking tape before working with ballast. They may be tiny to look at but ballast granules are just ideal for getting between rails and springs and causing chaos to your points.  

4. Pick the right ballast

There are lots of different ballast modelling materials to match the size of track you model in (medium and fine, N or OO gauge for example) and even different colours to reflect different materials.

For N gauge use small/fine ballast; for OO and above, use medium and large.

For colour,  on modern railways is a grey stone/quartz type material but in the past, other materials have been used, even sand and ash. Use scatter material if you want one of these latter materials for ballast. This is all covered here.

With that out of the way, here are three top videos on how to ballast.

How to ballast track – videos

#1 Jenny Kirk’s How to ballast model railway track

 I really like Jenny’s approach and the results she achieves. Along with good close up video work showing the techniques, she also includes a several really good tips during the video — mixing some black ink with the PVA glue to add a dirt effect really struck a chord with me as this is an effect I’ve been looking to achieve for some time.

#2 Woodland Scenics How To Ballast

Woodland Scenics not only make a great range of scatter and ballast material, they do a great how-to video too 😊

Just as with Jenny’s video, there are some great tips in this video, using the pen to discolour the track beforehand will save a lot of time for example. The end result is wonderfully inspiring and I can’t wait until I next ballast to try adding soil colour after the main ballast application.

#3 DJ Trains How To Ballast A Siding

I’m a big fan of DJTrains on YouTube and this video on ballasting a siding is a good example of why.

DJ really knows his stuff and this video just oozes knowledge and expertise to achieving a realistic track and ballast finish. The peripheral tip about moving sleepers around is worth watching the video for alone if you’re working on your sidings.

How to ballast track – step by step guide

For those who prefer to print something out and refer to it while working on their layout, here’s my step-by-step guide distilled from the above videos and my own experience.

  1. Sprinkle the ballast over the track and sleepers.
    This can be done using a ballast spreader (which are available for N / 009 / HOE gauge and of OO/HO track) or using a small spoon.
  2. Tap the rails with a spoon or other object to shake the rogue ballast off the sleepers and bed it in.
  3. Brush away any final bits still clinging to the sleepers.
  4. Tidy up the edges so the ballast either side of the track ends parallel the track.
  5. Mix up some ballast glue – a mix of PVA glue and water to a ratio of 50/50 with a few drops of IPA or washing up liquid.
  6. With a very fine spray, damp the ballast with a mix of water and washing up liquid. This will help the glue mix settle into the ballast without disturbing the stones.
  7. Use a needle point syringe and dribble the PVA mix you previously made over the ballast. If this disturbs any of the little grey bits remove them with a pair of tweezers before the glue sets.
  8. Wipe the rails over with a damp cloth to remove any glue that has escaped and leaked onto the rails.

How to ballast points – step by step

Points have moving parts, springs and point blades, all of which are hugely appealing to the tiny ballast stones. They love to get stuck in amongst them, especially the blades, and ruin your points.

As such, a slightly different technique is recommended for applying and fixing ballast on these vulnerable track sections.

The approach here is:

  1. Use a small brush and “paint” PVA between the sleepers on the points,
  2. Carefully sprinkle ballast – avoiding sensitive areas,
  3. Test frequently,
  4. Use a soft brush to remove ballast that lies outside the sleepers.

This works with all the main model railway ballasts, including that from Woodland Scenics, Busch, Javis and even homemade variants, and Peco and Hornby points. Perhaps the key step, is to number 3; test frequently.

Switch the points regularly throughout the process and check the blades move. I also find it helpful to take a set of wheels from a wagon and run them over the points to watch and feel for any hick-ups as it passes through them. This can alert you to any unnoticed ballast that’s secured itself to the rail sides.

Bonus — Ballast and Track Weathering

Just to inspire you, watch this short from Everard Junction on track and ballast weathering.

Recommended tools & accessories to aid ballasting

When ballasting, there are a few tools make the process much easier.

Best N Gauge Ballast SpreaderThe primary aid and one I use and recommend for both N / 009 / HOe gauge and OO/HO track is the Proses ballast applicator. Get the HO/OO version here, and the N gauge (and 009/HOe) model here.

Along with this, Isopropyl Alcohol – IPA, is highly recommended for mixing with the glue to help it work its way into the ballast. It’s available here in 1Lt bottles. (It also makes great track cleaner so 1lt won’t be wasted).

A soft metal headed hammer. Not absolutely necessary but I use this for tapping the track rather than a spoon – it’s also useful for track pinning. The advantage being that with a soft head, it won’t damage the rail heads.

PVA aka white glue. Mixed with water in 50/50 mix and used with a needle point syringe (below) to hold the ballast in place.

Needle point syringe. Ideal for precision placement of the glue between sleepers and most importantly not on the rail heads.

How to ballast N or OO gauge model railway track, Summary

  • Ballasting isn’t difficult but can be time-consuming.
  • Get the ballasting tools mentioned above to make it easier and save time.
  • There are many grades (size) of ballast available fit your track gauge. Get small/fine ballast for N gauge; medium/large for OO/HO (Hornby) railways.
  • Tap the rails and brush off any spare ballast before depositing the glue.
  • Damp the ballast down with water before applying the glue — a fine mist spray works best. The leave for a few minutes to allow the water to seep into the ballast before gluing.
  • Mix white glue with water, a 50/50 mix, and then add a dash of washing up liquid or IPA and apply with a syringe.

Lastly, if you want to see some of the best ballasting on an award-winning layout, take a look at Mike Buick’s work above (top picture). I interviewed Mike a while back and am looking forward to trying his technique out on my next layout.

Go and try these techniques out now. It would be great to hear how you got on and any further tips you have via the comments below.


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4 comments
  1. Hi Andy
    I’m currently ballasting my re-developed goods yard (changed my mind about the look of it numerous times), whilst painstakingly making sure the ballast goes in the right place etc I often wondered why the ballast isn’t just put down first & track layed on top of it?

    • Hi! I don’t think I’ve encountered a modeller yet who hasn’t/doesn’t redo their ballast several times, practice makes perfect? 🙂 To answer your question, the sleepers should lie in the ballast – with the ballast “lapping” the tops of the sleepers so mirroring real railways to hold the sleepers in place. If you put the ballast down and then put the track on top it wouldn’t have this effect. And, and having tried this, there’s also the problem that as you push the track down onto the ballast it tends to spread and move around. Also, the thought of putting track down and trying to join it together and get the wiring in place with the ballast in place makes me shudder. Much easier to work on a solid flat base. Andy

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