You may have heard that the most commonly recommended method of producing realistic ballasted track is to spread loose ballast around the sleepers and then, when you’re happy with it, glue it down with a 50/50 mix of PVA glue and water, with a few drops of washing-up liquid added. (The detergent lowers the surface tension and so helps the glue to spread in and around the ballast particles.)

This is the ‘tried and tested’ method recommended by most builders of ‘exhibition‘ layouts, and numerous books on rail modelling.

This does give a very good effect but it is time-consuming and there are some disadvantages:

  • You have to be very careful not to get glue in and around the moving parts of points (turnouts), otherwise they can get gummed up and won’t work
  • Sometimes, as it dries, the glue causes the ballast to ‘heave’ and you get a ‘lumpy’ finish
  • Although the glue should be colourless when it dries, you can get a slightly shiny or ‘plasticky’ look – especially if you’ve been a bit too liberal with the application of the glue!

And perhaps the biggest drawback of all: if you decide to change your track layout and you want to re-use the track and points, it’s a real pain to lift and clean them – it is possible to carefully lift and re-use glue-ballasted track – but chipping off glued-on bits of ballast is not the most fun-packed way to spend a evening!

SO, here’s a radical suggestion: How about NOT gluing it down?

After all, the full size real thing isn’t glued down, the ballast is loose. Now unfortunately we don’t (yet!) have working scale model DCC-controlled ballast-tamping trains; but on the other hand we don’t have rain, snow, floods, gales, or passing trains weighing hundreds of tons, to disturb the ballast either; so once laid the ballast should stay where’s it’s been put.

Bear in mind that, as I said above, the ‘glued down’ method is used for exhibition layouts, which have to stand up to being frequently dismantled, manhandled and transported, often upside down, so all the scenery has to be firmly fixed down; but if yours is a ‘layout that never leaves home’, on a fixed level surface, then you don’t need to worry about that.

Then if you do decide to change the track layout it’s a simple matter of removing the loose ballast (a small battery-operated vacuum cleaner – the kind used for cleaning computer keyboards – can be useful for this) and if you’re careful you should be able to re-use the ballast.

Alternatively, if having completely loose ballast is a step too far:
Lay the track on top of double-sided adhesive tape, and sprinkle the ballast over it. The ballast will stick to the exposed tape in between and around the sleepers. You could then top it up with a loose layer on top. Then, if at a later date you want to change the track layout, it’s fairly easy to remove the loose ballast and then carefully peel the track away from the tape.

I fully realise that this might be a controversial suggestion! As always, any comments are welcome!

All the best,


2 thoughts on “Ballasting

  1. Shane Collens

    Just came across this page. Love it. Totally agree with your suggestions for ballast. I look for non-permanent solutions for the ease of future development – my reason for collectable/modelling enjoyment.

    As to the actual ballast I am seriously thinking of real course grade sharp sand, available from the local builder’s yard at a fraction of the cost of marketed “modeller’s” stuff, and/or, fine grade miniature bed pebbles from the garden shop. I am planning a big lay-out 🙂

    Do you know of any examples of this already?

    1. admin

      Hi Shane,
      No, I don’t know of any – but then, like I said in the article, most layouts we hear or read about are exhibition layouts where, because they have to be portable, the scenery and ballast has to be stuck down.

      What scale will your layout be? I would guess coarse grade sharp sand might work well: you don’t want it too fine, or it might get into the mechanisms of motors, couplings, etc.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *