Ballast is the small rocks that are laid in and around the railway line and is a common feature on pretty much any “real” railway you care to look at. “Real” ballast is there to stop the track from moving but on a model railway it is one of the most basic things needed to create realism. There are a lot of different methods to ballast a layout and I’m about to go through one of the less technical ones. For this example I’ll be ballasting my new N gauge layout but I have successfully used this method on 00 gauge lines before.
Firstly, layout your track as you want the final layout to appear but don’t fix it down. This is a good chance to get the look and operation of the track sorted so take advantage of it before moving on. When you are happy with the layout, draw an outline slightly wider than the track on the baseboard in pencil and then take the track up. It’s a good idea to take a picture or draw a diagram of the layout before you remove the track so you know where everything goes when it comes time to put the track back down.
Next, get some paint that is a slightly darker shade than the ballast you will be using and paint everywhere inside the pencil outline you have drawn. You the amount of paint you need will vary depending on the size of your layout but I get by with decorating tester pots from my local DIY store. They are only about £1 each and one pot was enough to cover the whole layout.
Once the paint is dry, get some PVA glue and cover the painted area in a layer of glue. You may want to avoid doing this in hot weather or in strong sunlight as the glue will dry to quickly to apply any ballast. Also, for larger layouts its best to apply the glue in sections so it doesn’t dry before you can get ballast on it.
Now that the glue has been applied, immediately apply the ballast. Ballast can be sprinkled out of the bag it came in or you can use a spoon or similar to sprinkle it over the glued area. Ballast comes in all shapes and sizes an its up to you what you use. For this layout I have used a fine grade of ballast specifically for N gauge layouts. Once the glued area has been completely covered in ballast leave it for a good 24 hours for the glue to dry completely.
When the 24 hours are up come back to the layout, the glue will be completely dry now but there will be excess ballast on the top of the layout. If the layout is small enough you can simply tip it over and the ballast will fall of with a few gentle taps. If the layout is too large or fixed down you can brush the ballast off using a stiff paintbrush or similar. This will make a mess so do it outside if you can or if not use a vacuum cleaner or cover your working area with newspaper. What you do with this spare ballast is up to you but if you want to reuse it be aware it may have been contaminated with things like pet hair or dirt and won’t be of the best quality anymore.
When you are happy with the ballast, put your track back on top of it and fix it down. That’s all there is to it, look out for future posts where I’ll be covering another method that is a little more involved but gives a more realistic looking result.