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Ballast track easily

By Cody Grivno | March 9, 2021

Get great results every time using these techniques

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Applying Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement with pipette.]

On Model Railroader’s Beer Line project layout, which was set in 1947 Milwaukee, I ballasted the track on the entire layout using a favorite technique.

I used a 50:50 blend of Highball Products Light Gray and Dark Gray limestone ballast, which looks similar to ballast used by the Milwaukee Road [Highball Products ballast is no longer in production. Similar ballast is available from Arizona Rock & Mineral, Scenic Express, and Woodland Scenics, among other companies. – Ed.] I mixed the ballast in a half-gallon ice cream bucket (after I’d eaten the ice cream), which was more than enough for our 4 x 12-foot layout.

However, I didn’t stop with the gray ballast. I used Highball Products cinders on some sidings and along the edge of the right-of-way.

I ballasted between the rails first. I used a 1⁄2“-wide paintbrush to spread the granules, 1. Then I dragged the brush back and forth until there was no ballast on the tops of the ties.

Spreading ballast with ½”-wide paint brush.
1. Use a paintbrush to spread the ballast between the rails and move any granules off the ties.

I wet the ballast with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol, 2. The alcohol makes it easier for the Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement to wick between the granules by breaking the surface tension of the water-based glue.

Wetting ballast with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle.
2. Wet the ballast with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol and let it soak in for a minute before adding Scenic Cement.

I let the alcohol soak in for a minute and then applied Scenic Cement with a pipette, 3. To prevent the granules from washing out between the ties, I applied gentle pressure to the pipette.

Applying Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement with pipette.]
3. Apply gentle pressure to the pipette, so the granules wouldn’t wash out when adding the Scenic Cement.

I let the ballast dry overnight and began work on the shoulders. I mixed some thinned white glue (80 percent glue, 20 percent water). I used a second 1⁄2“-wide paintbrush to spread the glue along the shoulder of the roadbed, keeping an even edge along the base.

I sprinkled a layer of ballast into the wet glue. Once the glue had dried, I cleaned up the loose granules with a vacuum. Then, I used a spoon to apply a second coat of ballast. I shaped the ballast along the beveled edge of the cork roadbed with a 1″-wide foam brush. I used the same technique to apply the cinders along the edge of the ballast.

With the ballast shaped, I sprayed the granules with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol and let it soak in. Then I applied Scenic Cement in two steps. I first placed a pipette against the outside web of the rail and let the cement trickle down. Next, I dragged the pipette along the bottom edge of the ballast and let the cement wick up, 4. When I could see Scenic Cement between the granules, the ballast was thoroughly saturated.

Cinder granules soaked with Scenic Cement.
4. When the Scenic Cement is visible between the granules, you know the ballast is thoroughly saturated.

3 thoughts on “Ballast track easily

  1. Very nice article, but how about ballasting around switch points?
    I always find that rather difficult.
    Regards, Herbert M. Troelstra, Netherlands

  2. How is the application of ballast different in a yard or where the track appears to be laid flat on the surface?
    There are devices sold to spread ballast. Do these have any applications in your process?

  3. Cody,
    As you are describing working on the shoulders you said, “I used the same technique to apply the cinders along the edge of the ballast.” I can interpret that three ways:
    1. After you spread the ballast you then add a few “cinders” (presumably from steam engine coal clinkers) using the same foam brush technique and THEN glue it all in place.
    2. You simply use cinders instead of ballast sometimes (for steam engine track).
    3. Similar to #1, you spread the ballast, glue it THEN add a few cinders (or a lot) and then glue that down.

    I’d really like to better understand what you meant.

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