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 and even spoil the look of the layout.
But it needn’t be this way, with a bit of model railway engineering and following these simple steps it’s not difficult to get right.
Preparing for ballasting
Before getting to the actual ballasting, there are a few simple preparations that will make all the difference to the ease and eventual look and running of your layout.
1. Secure 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 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.
2. Paint the baseboard
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 scattered gravel, apply this where the ballast will lay and then gradually mix it to the colour of the neighbouring surface material.
3. Protect delicate areas
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
Ballast comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colours, depending on the track you’re modelling and the materials used by real railways throughout history. In the distant past, some railways even used ash as ballast.
From my experience and chatting with fellow model railway engineers, it’s best to use small or fine/medium size ballast for N gauge layouts, while medium and large ballast work well for OO and HO gauges. Using large ballast on N gauge tracks will look out of place, so make sure you choose the right size for your scale. Also, it’s worth noting that ballast nowadays comes in a standardized size, so it’s important not to mix different sizes together.
For a modern railway look, go for the popular grey stone or quartz type of material. However, if you’re aiming to recreate the distant past, different materials like sand and ash have been used as ballast. In that case, you can use scatter material specifically designed to mimic those older materials.
How to ballast track
With the baseboard and track prepared, you can get to the fun part.
- Sprinkle the ballast over the track and sleepers.
This can be done using a ballast spreader or using a small spoon.
- Tap the rails with a spoon or other object to shake the rogue ballast-free from the sleepers and bed it in.
- Brush away any final bits still clinging to the rails and sleepers.
- Tidy up the edges so the ballast on either side of the track ends parallel to the track.
- 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.
- With a very fine spray, damp the ballast with a mix of water and a few drops of washing-up liquid. This will help the glue mix settle into the ballast without disturbing the stones.
- 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.
- Wipe the rails over with a damp cloth to remove any glue that has escaped and leaked onto the rails.
How to ballast points
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 when applying and fixing ballast on these vulnerable track sections.
The approach here is:
- Use a small brush and “paint” PVA between the sleepers on the points,
- Carefully sprinkle ballast – avoiding sensitive areas,
- Test frequently,
- Use a soft brush to remove ballast that lies outside the sleepers. Pay close attention to the ballast getting stuck between the point blades and near the spring / tie-bar area.
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.
Perhaps the key step here; test frequently.
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.
How to ballast track — the best videos
If you prefer videos to step-by-step guides, I’ve collated the best ballasting videos below.
#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 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, but they also 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 achieve 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.
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 that make the process much easier.
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-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 is that with a soft head, it won’t cause any damage to the rail heads when you tap them.
PVA aka white glue. Mixed with water in a 50/50 mix and used with a needlepoint syringe 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, HO gauge model train 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 (sizes) of ballast available to 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. 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.
Subscribe to my free email newsletter for more articles like this, plus the latest model train news, regular and exclusive tips, tutorials and guides. It's free, you can unsubscribe at any point and i promise never to sell your information. Click here to subscribe now.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.