Ballast For The HO Model Train

In order to create a more realistic looking model train layout, Rob wanted to copy what is found on a real train roadbed.  The ties of real train tracks are surrounded by small stones or cinders called ballast.  In addition to a raised roadbed, ballast allows for drainage and holds the underlying roadbed from washing away.

Ballast added to the HO tracks

Ballast added to the HO tracks

In a scale model, the ballast is not loose as it is with real train tracks, but glued down.  Considering that the real ballast is only an inch or two in size, model train ballast has to be pretty small to look right.  Ballast may be purchased from train and hobby stores.  In order to keep costs down, some model railroaders use masonry sand.

Ballast is added only after the track is fixed to a base, generally of cork or styrofoam.  This base is to simulate the raised bed of real trains.  A useful feature of ballast is that it covers screws, joints, and wire holes resulting from laying the track.

Ballast added at a turnout.

Ballast added at a turnout.

There are several suggested methods of adding ballast.  Rob, however, failed to remember what he had read and made some errors.

He first spread regular gravel left over from an old dump truck load.  He then saturated it with a 50%-50% white glue-water mix and it looked okay.

Then he added a layer of cheap, fine sand from home depot which had been bought for an outside project.  Unfortunately, the sand contained some magnetite particles which caused problems and led to a major clean up job.  The sand also didn’t work very well with the process previously used on the gravel.

More ballast added going into a tunnel.

More ballast added going into a tunnel.

In order to finish the ballasting on Barbara’s HO layout, Rob’s plan is to get some non-magnetic, non-conductive sand and proceed as follows…

1, Carefully spread it where it is wanted with a soft brush, keeping it below the ties and out of the moving parts of the turnouts.

2. Soak it drop by drop with alcohol from an eyedropper (note: the paint used on the track should be tested to make sure it doesn’t run when in contact with the alcohol).

3. Soak it with the 50%-50% white glue-water mixture, starting down the center between the rails and then along the edge of the side, letting it wick into the ballast thoroughly.  Note – a few drops of India ink added to the water-glue mixture will “age” the ties and the ballast.

4. Clear the tops and insides of the rails to prevent derailment of the trains and let dry.

One last photo of tracks with ballast.

One more photo of tracks with ballast.