The ballast you see on railways today will almost certainly be of a consistent size and colour and made from crushed Granite but it hasn’t always been this way. The choice of material has evolved over time.
In the 18th and 19th century, when railways started, ballast was often sand, broken bricks, clay or, frequently, Ash. In America, they even tried oyster shells.
But these materials were found wanting. Sand washed away, not good, while Ash went out of fashion and supplies ran short with the passing of steam engines.
If you want your model railway to look credible you’ll need to honour the type – and hence colour – of ballast used in the era your trains are set in. (If you’re interested in why ballast is called ballast, see The Origins Of Ballast).
Compare the pictures here for example.
The impressive QuarryLane XL (left) is set in the modern era with the classic grey ballast while the beautiful Priorsfield, Severn-Wash Line layout (above) is set in previous times and has a slightly different texture and colour ballast.
The difference in ballast used adds considerably to the realism of each layout.
Thankfully, the model railway suppliers are fully up to speed and while grey ballast is the most commonly available, the main scatter manufacturers – Woodland Scenics and Bosch offer good ranges of different colours and sizes of ballast material.
And, of course, there are DIY options for making your own ballast materials – plaster, coffee granules and aquarium gravel are amongst the options.
The bigger problem is finding out what material would have been used in the region and time when your trains rain.
How To Find Out What Ballast Would Have Been Used
Search Google Images for pictures of your railway location from the time. Obviously, the further back in time you go the fewer pictures will have been taken and are available but if you’ve chosen a main town or City you’ll have a lot more chance.
Another technique a few modellers use is to visit the location and seek out abandoned sidings nearby.
These can often have the older materials still present – as the tracks will be disused and won’t have been maintained. This is particularly effective if your layout is based on branch lines shutdown post Beaching. Alternatively, check for rural stations near your prototype; sometimes these have pictures decorating their entrance halls and these can be a goldmine of information.
Finally, talk to other modellers. Look up the model railway club or society of the town or region you’re basing your layout on and reach out to them. They’re often a wealth of knowledge on local railways and may well know or know someone who will.
Of course, you may still come up blank.
For example, my N Gauge layout is based on 19th Century Cornwall and despite my best efforts I’ve yet to find a definitive answer to what substances would have been used for ballast in the area at this time.
But all is still not lost. With a bit of research you can make some assumptions and base your layout on this.
So for my Landreath layout, I’ve identified that other parts of the country (England) were heavy users of Ash* at the time (late 19th Century) so it’s hard to believe ash wouldn’t have been to some degree. Equally, the geography of the area that my layout is based on is rich in Granite so it’s likely this may have also have been used.
Given it’s a big mining region, there would also have been a lot of rocks and rubble extracted from the mines available so I’ve gone for a mix of Ash, Granite and rocks.
Around the sidings and industrial areas, where the burnt offerings from the locos would have been in plentiful supply, Ash is the predominant material and I’m using plaster and ground pastels to simulate this. The main loop however (near the Tin mines on my layout) has Woodland Scenics fine grey ballast of different colours to create a Granite/rock mixture for a realistic look.
I’d be interested to know what sources for information you used for your railway and what ballast materials you used. Also, if you’re planning on ballasting track see my model railway ballasting how to guide and my review of the Proses ballast spreader.
>A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
* Up to 90% of ballast in North Eastern Railway was Ash even as late as 1922 – https://curve.coventry.ac.uk/open/file/1a7c8938-5b8d-24fa-52d5-f71a0d166760/1/Rail%20ballast.pdf