Ballasting is one of those tasks you either love or hate on a model railway. It transforms your track work but is a slow laborious messy process that’s hard to get right. Ballast spreaders change this and this is my pick of the best model.
With the aid of these small containers, ballasting becomes little more than dragging the plastic box along your track. No more pushing or brushing excess ballast away from the sides to get straight lines and just the right amount of ballast deposited down the middle so you don’t end up with odd piles of the grey stuff half way down the track.
Before you get near applying the ballast to your track, spend some time picking the right material.
The ballast used varied according the region and time period. Very early railways even used ash. It’s also worth checking the size you intend to use. There’s quite a variety of sizes available, from large to fine, and although labelled as being for N gauge some brands can be too large.
Personally, I use Woodland Scenics Fine grade which, to my eyes, has the right size granules for N and 009/HOe gauge track.
When using ballast spreaders the trick is to do long runs of track in one go so you run out of track before you run out of ballast — otherwise you’ll have to lift the unit off the track with the scatter material still in the hopper where it falls out and goes everywhere. Of course, how much you load up depends on the speed at which you move along the track and I’d recommend having a trial go on a bit of spare track before using it in anger to determine what speed works for you and how much ballast to pour in.
When finished ballasting, gently tap the rails around the layout with a small spoon to get the ballast to settle between the sleepers (a light brush along the top might also be needed) and then it’s just a matter of lightly spraying with a water/soap mix and applying the glue as described in this ballasting tutorial. I have seen other ballast spreaders that have brushes underneath to do this for you but on the ones I’ve tried they don’t stay attached 🙁
My pick for the best N gauge ballast spreader
The Proses N gauge BS-N-01 is the best all round tool for quickly and evenly distributing ballast on N gauge track.
Place the spreader on the track, fill the hopper with your chosen ballast and pull it along the rails. The ballast falls out at the bottom onto the track and either side in a tidy, uniform, manner.
Using it allows long stretches of track to be covered quickly and easy.
The model is made of plastic and comes ready assembled, unlike some others, so can be used straight away. It’s also proven robust, having survived moderate usage for 8 months when another model that at first looked seemed better fell apart.
The only negative I have in using this is the already mentioned issue of remaining ballast falling out when lifted off the track. The answer to this is to judge how much ballast is needed for the run of track and time it so the hopper is empty before you reach the end of the track but it would be so much better if a slider was built-in to seal the unit instead.
This niggle aside, the Proses model is simple, effective, accessory that produces clean even results much faster than laying ballast than any other technique I’ve found.
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Woodland Scenics Ballast
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Full disclosure: I spend days, weeks perhaps months testing modelling and model train products for the reviews on Model Railway Engineer and have used hundreds of tools, accessories and materials over many, many, years. No money or gifts were exchanged for this review. I bought the product at the normal advertised price and without the supplier knowing it would be reviewed here. The links on this page may take you to carefully selected business, such as B&Q, Amazon or eBay allowing you to purchase the product under affiliate programmes by which I get a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change.