How To Ballast Model Railway Track

How To Ballast Model Railway Track

Railways utilise ballast to support and stabilise the railway track. It plays a crucial role & part in the overall infrastructure of the railway. As modellers, we aim to recreate the real railway on a smaller scale on our model railway layouts. In order to achieve realistically better-looking track work, it is highly recommended to ballast the trackwork on your model railway. Ballasting may be a time-consuming task that some modellers may put off,  but it's worth taking the time & effort to ballast the trackwork correctly.

In a previous guide, we provided an in-depth look at the various types and colours of ballast present on UK railways. Prior to ballasting your model railway track, it's essential to select the appropriate colour and type of ballast to suit your modelling requirements. Contrary to popular belief, ballast is not just grey in colour, as demonstrated in our comprehensive guide to choosing model railway ballast. If you happened to miss this informative guide, you can access it below here

What can I use for model railway ballast?

Model railway ballast is offered in different scales and materials such as stone, stone powder, and scatters. Various model manufacturers including ourselves, provide a diverse selection of ballast scatter in terms of sizes, colours, types, and materials. Browse our range of OO scale model railway ballast.

Do you need to glue model railway ballast down?

Unless you are doing a temporary scene, it is recommended to fix the ballast down and into place with glue or a glue mix.

  • Using Traditional PVA Glue Mix To Secure Ballast.
    The tried and tested method uses a PVA glue and water mix. We will look at that method in more detail further down this guide.
  • Deluxe Materials Ballast Magic
    This is a dry adhesive powder. Mix the Ballast Magic with the ballast material/chippings in a tub, then place the ballast and Ballast Magic mix onto the track. Once the ballast is in position, fill the supplied spray bottle with clean water and spray it over the ballasted track. This will activate the Ballast Magic adhesive, which will then set and hold the ballast material in position. Allow time for the wetted ballast to dry. An advantage of this product is that you can easily remove the ballast by spraying warm water over the glued ballast. This softens the adhesive, allowing the ballast to be removed and reused as needed.
  •  Deluxe Materials Ballast Bond is a pre-mixed ballast glue that eliminates the need for prewetting the ballast material, allowing it to be used directly from the bottle. Certain ballast materials tend to clump together when wet. To address this issue, simply add one part IPA liquid to two parts Ballast Bond and shake thoroughly to ensure proper mixing. This will prevent the ballast from forming clumps when applying Deluxe Materials Ballast Bond.

What tools do I need for ballasting model railway trackwork?

A few simple items will make the job of ballasting easier. These include:

  • Large Spoon & small spoon
  • Brush (an old decorating paintbrush will do)
  • A plastic tub or pot for the glue mixture
  • Syringe
  • Spray bottle
  • Ballast Applicator: These are a great time-saver that speeds up ballast laying. This example below also includes built-in sweeper brushes too. If you have a lot of trackwork to ballast, it's worth purchasing one!

How do I apply the ballast to my trackwork?

The ballast material can be laid in various ways. One method is to pour it carefully from a bag or tub. For more precise placement, use a spoon with a small amount of ballast. Gradually tip the spoon to distribute the ballast exactly where needed on the trackwork. This process may be slow process, so breaking ballasting sessions into shorter sessions is recommended. After laying the ballast, tamp it down using an old paintbrush. Use the brush to sweep away any loose ballast and remove any chippings from the sleeper tops.

Top tip!

To remove any remaining ballast bits on top of the sleepers that may have been missed using a brush, lightly tap a teaspoon on the rail tops for a few seconds, as shown below. This will cause stray ballast chippings to bounce off the sleeper tops, leaving the sleeper tops free of any debris.

A faster method for laying ballast is to use a ballast hopper tool, these are ideal for doing long sections of trackwork on straights & curves. The only exception is the pointwork sections, which we'll cover shortly below. To use, simply fill up the hopper with the required amount of ballast. Then pull the ballast hopper along the track backwards towards you. The hopper will apply the ballast to the right width on either side of the track as shown below. The one we're using below has built-in sweeper brushes which will clear most of the stray ballast chippings from the top of the sleeper. 

A faster method for laying ballast is to use a ballast hopper tool. These tools are perfect for long sections of trackwork, including both straight sections and curves. The only exception is the pointwork sections of the trackwork, which we will discuss shortly in this guide. To use the tool, simply fill the hopper with the required amount of ballast. Then, pull the ballast hopper along the track towards you. The hopper will evenly distribute the ballast on both sides of the track & in between the sleepers, as shown below. The tool we using below also has built-in sweeper brushes. These aid in removing loose ballast chippings from the top of the sleeper.

Depending on the ballast hopper tool, you may need to brush the ballast edges and clear loose ballast chippings from the top of the sleepers.

How do You ballast around points?

When ballasting pointwork, care is needed when ballasting them. Apply the ballast carefully using a teaspoon to decant onto the pointwork. Ensuring the ballast covers and surrounds the pointwork. Pay special attention to the moving components of the pointwork, such as the switch rails and tie bar. To fill in the gaps between the sleepers, use a small modelling paintbrush to position the ballast chippings. Again once the ballast is in place, use the teaspoon tapping method on the rail head to firmly pack down the ballast. For any fine adjustments, employ a paintbrush, as depicted in the photo below. Take care to keep the area around the moving tie bar and switch rails clear of ballast chippings. In the photo below, observe the small section without ballast at the end of the moving tie bar. 

Next, manually operate the points by hand, and check for any resistance or jamming caused by ballast chippings. If you find any ballast chippings that are causing jamming or resistance, remove them using a small brush or small flat-blade screwdriver or tweezers. Once you are satisfied all is okay, it's then time to glue the ballast.

How do I glue down the ballast?

To glue the ballast, you will need the following tools and items:

  • PVA glue
  • Washing up liquid
  • Water
  • Handheld trigger spray bottle
  • Tub for mixing and holding the PVA/water mixture
  • Syringe

Before starting, ensure that the power to the track is disabled & turned off! Work on small sections of track at a time. Using a plastic container or tub, combine equal parts of PVA glue and water (50/50 mix). Mix thoroughly until there are no clumps of glue remaining. Then, add a few drops of washing-up liquid to the glue-water mixture. Stir well for a few minutes once more. The washing-up liquid will reduce surface tension in the glue-water mixture when applied to the ballast.

Fill a hand-trigger spray bottle with clean water. Set the nozzle to a fine, wide spray. Pull the trigger & wet a section of the ballast as shown below. Be careful not to dislodge the ballast while spraying the water onto it.

Now it's time to apply the glue mixture. Take the syringe and dip the end into the glue mixture. Pull the handle on the syringe to draw a quantity of glue mixture into the syringe, as shown below.

On the wetted ballast section, position the syringe near the wetted ballast without touching the ballast. Gently depress the syringe handle to dispense the glue mixture onto the ballast. The glue will then disperse throughout the wetted ballast, as depicted in the image below. A couple of drops of washing-up liquid in the glue mix as mentioned earlier, helps the glue mix to flow through the ballast. Continue working along the wetted section of ballast, applying the glue mixture as you go.

When working on each section of ballast, remember to pre-wet it first. This will make it easier for the glue mix to spread through the ballast material. Take extra care around the moving parts of the points. Use a cloth or kitchen paper towel to wipe away any glue mixture from these parts. Also, be careful not to catch the glued ballast while removing any water or glue mix from the rail heads. As the glue mix starts to set, periodically manually move the points to prevent any stray glue mix from fixing the moving parts in place.

After glueing, allow 24 to 48 hours for the adhesive to dry and set. Refrain from touching the ballast during this time. Once completely dry, use a track rubber or track cleaning fluid such as Track Magic or a similar product, to clean the rail heads on the track. To remove any loose ballast, run a vacuum over the area.

Tip: To catch any ballast chippings, cover the end of the vacuum nozzle with an old pair of tights. This traps & collects the loose chippings which can then be reused in other areas of the layout. If any patches of ballast are accidentally removed, simply apply a small amount of neat PVA glue and sprinkle the ballast chippings onto the glue.

Newly glued ballast is seen here drying & setting.

With the track now ballasted and cleaned, conduct a test running session with your trains. Check for any stray ballast chippings that may have been missed during the final clean up which could cause any issues or disruptions to the running of the trains. The next step in the process is to enhance the realism of the track and ballast by applying weathering. We will cover this topic in a future guide.

Keep on Shuntin'

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Clear and instructive site. Am planning an n gauge model railway. Balast! What grade do you recommend? Layout size 3'x 6'? Any suggestions would be welcome.