No. 39: Ballasting Sidings at Ackley

I began applying ballast on half the layout last month.

Before adding ballast I added detail parts to the track, such as joint bars and turnout details. I like to detail turnouts but not to the point where the details will get wiped out by the first pass of a Bright Boy.

Below is a view of the a part of the layout before I started laying down ballast.  I painted the sides of the sub roadbed black to keep any other colors from showing through the ballast just in case.  The dirt road at left has been installed and painted.


The next step was painting the track which I covered in an earlier post. I used various shades of light gray and tan, and various shades of brown (without any red it in) for painting individual ties.  They key in painting ties is a little subtle contrast.  A view of the painted ties is below.


The photo below shows old rail and ties.  The colors on the tie appear to be gray, tan, a little bit of red, and brown.  The rail is a very rich light brown.  Anyway this is some of what I am trying to achieve.  I think I nailed it on a few of the ties pictures above.


I used two kinds of ballast on the layout. For the main track, I used Arizona Rock and Mineral Northern Pacific ballast, N scale, mixed with about 30-35% dirt. I use dirt ballast on all the sidings. The dirt I use is stuff I dug up at the site of the Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse in Richmond, Indiana. I dug up a few buckets of this stuff a couple of years ago and sifted it using normal kitchen sifters and also cheesecloth sifters. The result was a nice, cinder-colored, almost black stuff that is just imperfect enough to be perfect. I was able to bring two buckets of it with me and so far I’ve only used about a quart.


I apply ballast slowly using a very small cup. I shape it with a small flat brush. If the ballast gets on the sides of the rail or anywhere I don’t want it to go, I use a regular small paint brush to move it away. I do not want ballast on top of the ties or on the rail.

In the era I’m modeling–1950–ballast on top of main line tracks or sidings wasn’t seen often.  So I carefully brush the ballast between the ties. I apply the ballast in such a way that the tie-ends are exposed. Vintage photos show that ballast profiles were different during the mid-1900s. Today, ballast is applied to the top of each tie, evenly from end to end. In the late 1940s ballast was normally applied “crowned”; in other words ballast was even with the top of the tie in the middle of the ties, and sloped downward toward the tie ends. Often, it left most of the tie ends exposed. I thought that was important to model so I took care to apply ballast per the prototype era.




Once I had the ballast where I wanted it, I sprayed it with 100% rubbing alcohol. I use a fine-spray mister I got at Ikea for a buck and get it nicely wet. This breaks the surface tension and usually the ballast won’t move.  I wait about 10-15 minutes before applying any glue.  Below is a photo after spraying.  The liquid seems to drain away a lot of the dust–I’d prefer to keep a more duty look it if I could.


Below.  The alcohol has been applied and everything is where it should be.  Time for glue.


The glue I use is a mix of classic Elmer’s Glue, rubbing alcohol, dish soap, and water. Just guessing I think the mix is about 35% glue, 50% water, some rubbing alcohol (again to break up the surface tension) and a small squirt of dish soap. Supposedly the dish soap is good for breaking up the surface tension but I think alcohol works much better. The soap, however, helps everything mix up into a nice solution. I shake it up good and then apply it to the ballast using a small eye dropper. Yes, an eye-dropper. Not a sprayer and no I don’t dump glue all over the ties and track and everything else.  It pays to be patient.  I noticed on a previous layout that when I just dumped glue all over everything that it dried on top of the ties, and/or on the sides of the rail, and discolored everything. So I just take the extra couple of minutes and apply the glue with a dropper between the ties and on the ends of the track structure. It really doesn’t take that much longer to do.




After the glue was dry I went back and did a little weathering. I used AIM Weathering Powerd Soot Black powder for occasional oil stains, or to discolor a few ties, or to add a little more black to the cinder ballast. Maybe also to indicate coal or oil spillage. I used AIM Dark Brown to do the same thing–discolor a few ties here and there. I went back and repainted a few ties with the light gray paint mixture. Again, what I’m trying to do is build some very subtle color contrast.


I also added some grass between and around the track. I used a combination of Woodland Scenics green blend #T49 fine turf, and Silflor 2mm late summer grass, applied with the Grassmaster II. I tried not to put grass on top of the ties. I put glue between the ties with the eye dropper and then laid down a little Woodland Scenics turf, and then laid done some static grass. I think the results are okay. Then I went back again with the colors to try and blend everything in together. I think the contrast of the brown/gray ties, black cinder ballast, and green grass looks great, and very realistic.




The photos below were taken around 2008 on the former SAL line from Savannah, Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama–the SAM Line.  These photos are a good study in overgrowth.





On one of my tracks, in front of City Oil, I tried to duplicate the scenes above.  I don’t really care for the results.  I had to clear out the flange ways which wiped out some of the look I was after.  I think I can save this scene with a little more blending with the Woodland Scenics turf and some more ballast, and some more AIM powder.


Below is one of my favorite scenes from my SAM line tours.  Can you imagine a huge Seaboard Centipede coming around that corner?!?

IN looking at this scene I think I may need to add a little more yellow to my grass between the rails.  This photo was taken in April, and my layout is set in September, but maybe a little more yellow and brown is in order.


Talk to y’all soon.  – John G






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