Ballast

I’ve been reading model railway magazines for over 40 years. I’ve learnt a huge amount from these magazines and I’m extremely grateful to the many authors from all over the world who have contributed to my growing skill levels, however there are things I find tend to increasingly grate on my nerves about the content of some magazines. As a sign of advancing years and increasing crotchetiness, and possibly the sheer number of articles I’ve read over those years, am I the only modeller who is over the endless rehash of what can be done with an 8’x4′ piece of plywood? If you read US magazines you’ll know which one is guilty of this. Another personal irritant of mine is the way many writers love to reveal their formula for ballast cement: a 30/70 mix (choose your own proportions) of white glue and water with the secret ingredient, wait for it, a drop of dish washing detergent to break the surface tension of the water and allow it to seep more readily into the ballast. Is there a single modeller in the known universe who doesn’t know you need to put in a drop of dishwashing liquid into this mixture?

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been laying ballast on the centre section of my layout Morpeth. Laying ballast is not what I would describe as the most photogenic or exciting of hobby activities, but I think there is a truism about layout building and this is that a scene is never really complete until the ballast is laid. So it goes without saying that as laying ballast is such an integral part of the railway landscape we must all take it extremely seriously and put a great deal of time and effort into getting its application right. Right? In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. For me, laying ballast, no matter how you mix your ballast cement, is just one step up the enjoyment ladder from hitting myself in the head with a hammer. I would hazard a guess that this is true for many of my fellow modellers. If we took the subject at all seriously we’d probably have come up with a new formula for ballast cement some time in the last 50 years wouldn’t we? 🙂

So having said all that, how do I apply my ballast and glue it down? Let me start by saying that I do in fact glue my ballast in place with a mix of white glue, water and a drop dish washing liquid. This formula works for me, as it does for many modellers: the ingredients are cheap, readily available and I like the fact that it glues the ballast in place nice and solidly, no small matter on a portable layout that will be bumped along highways in a box trailer. I’ve read of modellers who have used different ballast cements over the years, often arguing for their use on the basis that liquids like matt medium don’t cause the ballast to harden into such a solid, sound amplifying mass as is the case with white glue. This has never really been a problem for me as my trains rarely get up to speeds likely to cause vibration and sound problems.

I have no specific evidence concerning exactly what type of ballast was used on the Morpeth line beyond references to ash ballast being used in the line’s history. I’ve never really found what I would describe as a satisfactory way to represent ash ballast and for this reason I choose to use O-scale Martin’s Creek ballast from Chuck’s Ballast. I have a bias toward grey ballast due the fact that I grew up in a part of Sydney where almost all ballast was grey, and Martin’s Creek ballast is the perfect grey hue to my eye. Another factor in my choice of ballast is that Martin’s Creek is not too far up the Hunter Valley from Morpeth and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it was ballast from this quarry which was used on the lines in the Maitland/Morpeth area.

The Morpeth branch was a short, run-down line well past its peak in the 1950’s, the era my layout represents. The photos I have of the Morpeth line show a track profile that is quite flat, with minimum ballast showing and plenty of weeds in evidence. I apply my ballast with a set of “high-tech” tools; a tea-spoon, a soft bristle square end paint brush, a glass eye dropper and a $2 plastic pump bottle from the local reject shop. My ballast cement is stored and mixed in an old marmalade jar, the lid of which always stubbornly refuses to move between sessions of ballast laying. I normally manage to get the lid to shift by soaking the jar upside down in boiling water for a few minutes. I might add here that I don’t boil the water over a heat source with the jar in the water. Rather I place the jar in a soup bowl and then pour the water in around the lid of the upturned jar. As always, safety first. I use boiling water for this operation as I find the water from my hot tap is simply not hot enough.

There’s nothing revolutionary in the way I apply my ballast: I spread it out and push it into position with the spoon and paint brush, give it a spritz with some water from the pump bottle (this water also has a little dish washing liquid in it) and then I flood the ballast with the water/white glue mix. While the ballast is still wet I sprinkle on a very small quantity of Woodland Scenics earth blend ground foam to tone down the newness. In general I like to give the ballast about 48 hours to dry before I do anything else to the layout which might bump the ballast out of position. The one and only iron clad rule in this process is to make a special effort to try to avoid glue getting anywhere near the working parts of the points. This is a rule that is more often than not broken so I tend to spend a good deal of time tweaking the point blades and mechanics to get them to operate reliably.

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2 thoughts on “Ballast

  1. In my earlier days I worked in train stores and taught model RRing classes, building 4 x 8 HO demo layouts. Always provided the attendees with handouts with the dish detergent or Photoflow instructions. 99% of the people have no idea what surface tension is and cannot understand why is an issue. They also can’t understand why Woodland Scenic ballast made from ground up nut shells floats even with wet water. Seems to me I first learned about surface tension as a magic trick in Cub Scouts — float a needle in a dish of water. There are multitudes of the unwashed out there who don’t read magazines or pay attention to the internet articles and want you to tell them everything you have learned in 60 years of model RRing is about three paragraphs because buying books is expensive and researching/experimenting takes too long.

  2. As a mechanical engineer experienced in designing steel ships – where noise and vibration are major factors in crew and passenger comfort – I fully support your inference that gluing ballast down solid shouldn’t cause problems. The root cause is flexible benchwork; noise is simply undesirable vibration, and gluing ballast should actually reduce noise, not cause it, because it is adding mass which will tend to damp vibration. In ships, the weapon of last resort for fixing a noise problem is ‘acoustic blanket’ which is finely ground lead particles mixed with rubber and formed into a sheet – we don’t like using it because it adds a lot of weight and it is always a battle keeping ships down to their design weight anyway, but at least it always works, so long as it is properly glued to whatever is vibrating! Where we might get the idea that ballast causes noise is from the fact that adding mass will also alter the frequency of vibration, possibly making it more noticeable. Regards, Paul.

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