The best recipe for ballast glue

What is the best glue for model railway ballast? Find the answer here.

Gluing the ballast down on your model railway, be it N, OO or HO gauge, is incredibly frustrating. Admittedly, some people find it relaxing but for me, it’s definitely not one of the highlights of layout construction.

This may be because in the early years of my layout building, and before I had this ballast spreader, I wasted a lot of time and spoilt my track work by using the wrong glue mix.

Since then I’ve learned that the best glue is PVA adhesive, aka white wood glue, but it can’t be used neat. Instead, it needs mixing with some other elements in the right proportions.

The mixture I’ve found to work best, my recipe if you like, is:

  • White glue (Polyvinyl acetate, known as PVA) mixed with water to a 50/50 mix.
    PVA is used for all manner of jobs around a layout and you’ll want a lot for ballasting, it also lasts for years, so buying in volume works out cheaper in the long run.
  • A few drops of Isopropyl Alcohol, available here.

The water reduces the viscosity and allows the fluid to flow over and around the ballast particles more easily, as opposed to just lying where it’s placed.

Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) helps break the surface tension and enables the glue to sink into the ballast rather than just forming globules and resting on the surface. I previously used washing up liquid and this can work but I’ve found some brands don’t work as well and can also result in bubbles in the mix.

Mix these together, leave for a while so any bubbles float to the surface and disappear, and then apply with a syringe as per my guide on how to ballast.

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Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of 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.

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  1. Thanks Andy the varnish acts as a fast drying glue and hardens offto stop bits falling of as I move them around often its easier to reapply and it not softens the PVA glue

  2. My method is to mix the gravel you require with a mix of PVA 60/40 with water then spread on the places it needed let it dry
    Then spray with a semi Matt varnish
    Add all the grass and weeds as well as the autumn leaves ( which I use dried tobacco)
    And spray again that deals with all the loose bits
    As I only make Dioramas so they are moved often for display

  3. i have been away for quite q while,but i seem to rember using powdered wood glue mixed with kitty litter. spread balist where you wanted it, gently spray with water. looked good to/me.

  4. Thanks for this, Andy. This is basically the same I currently use, having adopted the method from articles in the Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine. Your comments confirms I am on the “right track”. I model in N scale and use the Woodland Scenics brand of ballast (essential crushed walnut shellss, dyed gray) which matches much of the southwest U.S. roads. The IPA does help with the wetting, even though I need to coax some stragglers.

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