Choosing Model Railway Ballast | The Ultimate Guide

Choosing Model Railway Ballast | The Ultimate Guide


Choosing the right ballast for your OO gauge model railway layout can be a pretty tricky thing. What colour ballast should you choose? What size ballast should you use on a OO gauge layout? Can I really use N gauge ballast for OO scale? In our ultimate guide to choosing model railway ballast, we aim to answer all of those questions and more.

Table of Contents

  • Can I not just use any ballast?
  • What is ballast & what is it used for?
  • What material is used for real track ballast?
  • What colour is ballast?
  • Real-life ballast examples
  • Ballast colour recommendations for your layout

Let's get stuck in then…

Can I not just use any ballast on my OO gauge model railway?

The short answer is… No. You can't! Why? Well this is where it gets tricky. Ballast colour in real life varies on region and also the kind of use the railway has had. Newly laid tracks will have lighter ballast because it'll be cleaner. Older tracks will have darker ballast. The actual colour of the stone used will also vary due to the location.  We'll have more on that in a bit.

Then you have the size of the ballast. In real life, most ballast tends to be the same size, but in the model world, that's where things get tricky. The size of the grains of ballast will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer… some being spot on for OO scale or N scale. Some being far to big or far too small. So you need to shop around and do a bit of due diligence. This is precisely the reason why some modellers will only use N gauge ballast on a OO gauge layout because they belief the OO gauge ballast to be too big or overscale.

Hopefully, the information contained in the rest of this article will help you make a more informed decision and get the right ballast for your model railway first time.

What is Ballast & what is it used for?

Ballast is an essential part of the railway. It is the material that forms the trackbed on which the track is laid upon. Ballast is packed around, above, and below the railway sleepers. It helps with drainage as well as holding back or keeping down weeds and vegetation. It also takes the compression load of the track, locomotives, and rolling stock. The ballast physically holds the track in place & prevents its movement.

What material is used for real track ballast?

Various materials have been & are used as track ballast. These range from crushed stone and various types of gravel to other materials such as coal cinders, slag, sand, and burnt clay.

What colour is ballast

Many modellers use grey-coloured ballast on their model railways by default. And it mostly looks ok. However, it's important to consider using various colours of ballast, just like the real railways do. In the early days, railway companies used suitable materials such as hard stone, which was usually sourced near the construction site to provide ballast. This made it cheaper and quicker for the railway builders to supply ballast as needed and gave railways a more regional identity due to the colour of the ballast used.

One example of this is the now-closed Whitby to Scarborough line. It ran along the stunning North Yorkshire coast. Some stretches of the track bed used black cinder ballast, which gave the line a distinct look. This route can be walked along today and many traces of the black cinder bed ballast remain to this day. Locally it's now known as “The Cinder Track” and is well worth visiting and exploring the route which can be cycled or walked along.

These days, ballast used on today's railways is supplied from larger quarries. Ballast trains are operated by Network Rail from the quarries to work sites around the country. Ballast is also held at strategic storage locations known as virtual quarries around the country. This allows the ballast to be delivered to work sites much quicker & faster, this gives Network Rail a shorter distance to haul new ballast to where it's needed. Again, depending on which quarry the ballast has come from, it'll have a bearing on what colour the ballast stone is.

Real-Life Ballast Examples

In this next section, we will examine some locations from around the UK railway network to explore the variations in ballast colours, we'll also observe well as how the track ballast has weathered.

Some parts of the Scottish network, along with other parts of the UK network, have a distinct red ballast. The photo below, taken on a very wet day on the approach to Oban station in Scotland, shows an example of the red granite ballast. Notice the variations in the colour of the ballast on the left-hand side of the track compared to the mainline on the right. The lefthand side tracks are siding roads. It is also worth noting in this photo how the track has weathered along with some of the lineside track infrastructure details, such as the walkway, catch pits, signage, etc.

Our suggestion to replicate this would be to use our BL005-OO Staffordshire Peach Blend Ballast for the right-hand area of the two tracks. For the left-hand track use the likes of BL001-OO Dark Grey Ballast or BL012-OO Urban Ballast.

Staying in Scotland, this view of the Highland Mainline track bed was taken at Slochd Mhor Lodge, Slochd. Once again, the ballast consists of pink/red granite-type ballast. For this scene, we recommend using the BL005-OO Staffordshire Peach Blend Ballast along with some additional track weathering such as the Lifecolour Rail/Track Weathering Pigments Set. It is worth noting that three different types of sleepers are used in this short section: concrete, wood, and steel sleepers, which if modelled would give extra scenic interest.

This scene, taken in Kent, features HS1 the high-speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel. A southbound Eurostar captured passing at speed. The ballast here has a light peach colour, and it's also of note that the ballast has a pronounced shoulder. Compared to the scene at Oban above, the ballast here is lighter in colour. The right-hand northbound track has darker weathering between the rails and also just beyond its sleepers as well. The left-hand track looks cleaner, suggesting that it is newer or newly laid ballast. For this scene, we recommend using a light grey ballast mixed with some mid-grey ballast to replicate the look of the ballast in the photo. For the right-hand track, which has a more weathered appearance, use the BL013-OO brown blend ballast with some weathering applied to enhance the weathered appearance. Use an earth powder such as the SP006-OO arid earth topsoil/stone powder for the area between the edge of the ballast and concrete trunking to complete the overall weathered appearance.

This image taken at Leyburn station on the Wensleydale Railway, features a different type of ballast. This time it's a gravel-type ballast; notice it's much smaller than the other types of ballast shown so far. Another change in colour is observed here which is whiteish grey. Some suitable suggestions to replicate this type of ballast are BL008-OO white limestone ballast or BL017-OO coastal blend ballast.   Also of note is the weathering of the ballast along the inside & outside areas of the rails. This can be replicated using weathering powders or paints which can be found here.

Staying with gravel ballast, this time in Devon on the Dartmouth railway. In this image, the gravel ballast has weathered to a dark grey/black colour due to the oil, grease, soot, and clinker from the locomotives. You can use products like BL017-OO coastal blend ballast or BR003-OO Coastal Path mixed with some SP005-OO slate stone powder to replicate this look. Adding some dark weathering powders or track weathering pigments/paints such as the Lifecolor Rail Weathering Acrylic Paint Set 22ml would further enhance the appearance of the ballast in the image below.

Doncaster station, located on the East Coast Main Line, is seen in the image below & features a Transpennine DMU. It's interesting to note that at least five colours of ballast are present in different weathered states here. The platform roads between the rails have undergone heavier weathering due to oil and grease from the numerous trains that stop & wait at the platforms.

Also observe that the track closest to the camera, towards the bottom left, also employs gravel ballast in the four-foot section between the rails. Additionally, the gravel ballast rests on top of some of the sleepers as well, which is something not many of us modellers miss out on replicating on our layouts.

Between the two tracks nearest to the camera lies a strip of darker, older ballast with weeds beginning to sprout through it. The two central tracks are not as heavily weathered as the platform tracks, but lighter weathered due to the trains passing through at speed on these two tracks.

The track on which the DMU is waiting has recently been re-ballasted, hence appearing cleaner on either side of that track. However, between its rails, it has also undergone heavier weathering due to oil and grease from the trains, which shows how busy and active the station is. Doncaster station is a very popular location for train enthusiasts with the wide range of rail traffic that passes through.

Recommended suitable ballast to replicate the ballast in this image is as follows:

For weathering the track & ballast use weathering powders and paints such as the Lifecolor Rail Weathering Acrylic Paint Set 22ml x 6 

The following image below showcases the depot yard at Great Central Railway, Loughborough in 2009. The ballast present here is of black cinder type, which has heavily weathered due to oil, dust, and grease from the stationary locomotives. This is a typical scenario for Steam & Transition era loco depot yards as well as preserved railway loco depots. To recreate this effect, we suggest looking at using SP005-OO Slate stone powder & BL012-OO Urban ballast, along with some additional weathering using weathering powders or paint weathering such as the Lifecolor Rail weathering acrylic paint set.

In this next image taken at Swinton Station in South Yorkshire, note the ballast used here is a rich brown colour with darker weathering in the four-foot section between the rails. To recreate this effect, we recommend using either the BL003-OO Brown blend ballast or the BL005-OO Staffordshire peach blend ballast. For an even more realistic look, add some weathering using weathering powders & weathering paint sets.

Our final image was captured in Newton Dale, located in the beautiful North Yorkshire Moors National Park. This location was used in the Harry Potter films. The railway of course is the N.Y.M.R. At the time this photo was taken it had recently been re-ballasted. This section of the track in the image boasts a pristine appearance with minimal weathering. The colour is light to mid-grey. To achieve a similar effect, we recommend using either BL004-OO Mid grey ballast or BL006-OO Light grey ballast. For an added touch of realism, consider applying a light dust effect using weathering powders.

Ballast colour recommendations for your layout

Taking all that into account, which colours are right for your layout is worth at least just a little thought. Even if you're modelling a fictitious location, think about how the track would have been installed. Would it have all been laid at the same time, or has one of the lines been installed at a later date? In which case, consider using multiple shades of ballast. Mid-Grey is a good default starting point… But it might not be the right choice for you. Consider buying a small tub of several different colours and trying them on short sections of track to see which you prefer.

When planning your layout, depending the location, era, and time period being modelled it's worth doing plenty of research before buying your ballast.  To get the colours & weathering correct look at colour photos of the real. Search the internet or look at railway books and magazines. If you're modelling the present day, make a research trip to the real railways. Take photographs, and note down the types and colours of ballast used (from a safe distance of course).

Take the information and use it to make judgements when purchasing your ballast to ensure you have the correct coloured ballast for your layout. Don't forget the weathering materials too! Time spent at this stage of the layout build is time well spent for more realistic-looking ballast. 

Further reading and information:


Happy modelling

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