Getting crafty with track: Ballast Collection with Polymer Clay

Using polymer clay to clean up model railway track ballastAn unconventional but cheap and effective technique for removing rogue ballast from your track.

I’m always on the lookout for faster, quicker or cheaper ways to build my layouts. Recently, I came up with a way to clear off rogue ballast, the bits that somehow escape the glue when being put onto the track.
It’s using polymer clay, yes the jewellery crafters’ favourite,
If you haven’t used Polymer clay before, it’s is a soft pliable plastic that can be shaped, sculpted and molded and shaped into any form before heating in an oven to harden. It’s used a lot by crafters for making arts, homeware, craft items and jewellery.
A few modellers also use it on their model railways and dioramas for scenery.
Personally, I never liked using it for scenery. Making a river bank or similar with polymer clay involves too much faffing around. Shaping it, fitting it in place to check it fits, then removing, baking and then putting it back. If I need to sculpt an intricate scenic piece, I’ll slap on some PVA, push some air-drying clay into place, shape that in situ and leave it to dry. Much easier.
But where I have had a lot of success is with making buildings, walls and larger-scale figures. And it was while working on a scale building that I heard about a tip that has turned out to real benefit elsewhere on the layout.
The tip was essentially, to use scraps of it to clean work surfaces.
Polymer clay is easily the worst material I’ve used for attracting dust, dirt and discolouring when other colours of clay mix with the bit being worked on so worktops need to be VERY clean before and during any clay work.
The remedy suggested was to take a spare blob of the stuff and dab the work surface. Once softened, polymer clay is sticky and will grab any small dirt it touches.
I was doing this during a clay session and it dawned on me that along with cleaning worktops, polymer clay could be useful for cleaning up errant ballast on my layout tracks.

The problem with ballasting

The problem with applying ballast to track is that when laying it and fixing it in place with glue, some bits don’t get stick. They lay around between or on the sleepers, waiting to fly up into passing locomotives damaging the delicate internals or resting on track ready to cause derailments.
The usual treatment is to hoover the track area after ballasting and this works well but if you have delicate trackside scenery (trees, bushes etc) the suction power of even a small hoover may damage them.
An idea formed I’m my head.
As it happened, my 009 layout was on the other side of my shed/studio and I’d recently re-ballasted a section of the track that I wasn’t happy with. The perfect opportunity to test my new idea.

Using polymer clay to remove ballast

I grabbed a spare cut off of some Fimo clay from my worktop, squashed it around a bit to make it pliable (polymer clay is hard when first used) and rolled it into a small ball.
I then rolled the ball along the track, applying light pressure as it went.
Sure enough, it worked as I’d hoped, acting like a ballast magnet, pulling the rogue ballast into itself without causing any damage to the glued ballast, rails, sleepers or nearby scenery.
pushing polymer clay ball around a model railway track

Don’t do this at home… Pushing the polymer clay ball around the track – risking the rolling stock in the process.

 

I’ve also, and this took some bravery, put the polymer clay ball at the front of a train and run it around the layout. This worked well for a few hard-to-reach spots and where cuttings and tunnel mouths prevented the Hoover nozzle from reaching. There’s obviously the possibility of the clay getting stuck under the rolling stock which would be difficult to clean off. As a precaution, I put a wagon between the loco and the clay ball so they would take the damage if this happened. Keeping the speed low, it worked a treat although I probably wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t prepared to deal with ruined rolling stock.
The only part of the track I wouldn’t use it on is points. It would be only too easy for bits of clay to get between the point blades or spring mechanism and really screw them up.
Aside from points, using polymer clay to pick up loose ballast on a model railway track has many benefits.
It’s a quick and easy solution that doesn’t require any special tools or equipment. It’s also safe to use, non-abrasive, and won’t scratch or damage the rails or sleepers. Any bits left on the rails can be wiped off with IPA, which I already use, to clean the rails normally. In addition, being pliable, the clay can be moulded and shaped to fit any track gauge or geometry.
How do you keep your track clean? Share your tips with others in a comment below.
 
Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

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.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.

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