CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Choosing the right ballast

D&H mainline in north Albany prior to the
CP Executive train's visit in 2018. 
Most people hate ballasting. I get it. It is boring. It takes a lot of work to do, without much to show after. Your fingers get sticky from the glue, if you sneeze the dry stuff goes everywhere, and it moves all over the place when wet. It sticks to the sides of the rails, it floats to the tops of the ties, and suddenly craters appear all along the right of way where water drops from the spray bottle or glue applicator bottle dribbled too much. Ugh. Most people I talk to, and certainly the majority of articles I read in the modeling press, treat ballasting as a difficult process that is messy and boring. I find it simple and relaxing (and, I agree, perhaps boring after a while).

There is another big consideration with ballasting. It generally is permanent. Once the ballast is down and glued in you can't easily change it without some major track replacement project. This is even more of an issue when you use something besides white glue to secure it that isn't water soluble later on. What this means is that if you aren't sure what color, size, and shape of ballast you are going to use then you must think it through carefully first.

A couple of years ago I was sitting at my work bench one day and realized I had over a dozen types of ballast in my scenery supply bin. And I find ballasting so much fun that I wanted to do some just to enjoy it even before my layout had track installed. So, I decided to create a ballast sample board. It lets me easily compare ballast size and colors. It would have been much wiser to paint the board the same shade of brown as my layout and to perhaps include a little grass, but I was in a rush. I had stuff from Woodland Scenics, and had ordered samples from Arizona Rock and Mineral and Scenic Express. I have been looking for a substitute for Highball Ballast which I loved working with but sadly has been out of business for awhile now.

The Valley Local blog by Chris Adams had a pretty good post on this issue. Chris wasn't sure what he should use and tried several types by loosely applying them to some track and comparing the results to pictures of the prototype. That was pretty smart. I suggested to him that the adhesive used to glue it down will change the color of the ballast (white glue dries differently than Scenic Cement or matte medium) and recommended he make a couple of samples of track with the ballast firmly affixed how he would regularly do it. If I was speaking from personal experience as to how the color might change, I was.

North Albany mainline in front, with sidings
to Surpass in the rear.
The first major decision is what color the ballast should be. The D&H's ballast in this area is currently mostly a mixed gray but there are brown stones in it too. Interestingly enough, the recent (September 2019) issue of the Bridge Line Historical Society's newsletter has a comment on page 23 where the author also noticed that the ballast had a bit of brown stone in it. Is this a development of Canadian Pacific taking over the line and using their own quarries which have brown rock in them? I don't know. However, for the look I want I am using a gray blend without brown. And, as I reviewed all six samples from Arizona Rock and Mineral I saw that all contained brown rocks in them. Their gray blends had enough brown to catch my eye and that would always bug me.

The same area as above, though in 1984. I guess the
ballast is a bit brown here too.
I then looked at the Scenic Express ballast, which is also real rock. Their color choices, or at least the ones I ordered, were perfect for what I was doing. But, I ran into a different issue. All the stones were shiny. In fact, perhaps "translucent" or "frosted" would be better words. Even with the matte glue covering the stones and securing them to the board, the ballast still looked fake to me. When you study it up close, it looked like shiny gemstones or pieces of plastic. Had I been trying to capture a scene with a winter layer of frost or a post-rainstorm wet look this would have worked perfectly. But as is, I can't live with it. Others love it and swear by it, so either they got a different batch or have a method of making it look truly flat and dull.

So that left me with Woodland Scenics' ballast, which I planned to avoid. Why? Because I have always heard "real modelers use real crushed rock for ballast, not walnut shells." And I turned into a snob and believed it. I admit if you use wet water to saturate the ballast instead of rubbing alcohol, you need a lot more water and that extra spraying could cause the loose ballast to go flying. But, I use straight up rubbing alcohol and the WS ballast stays put. My sample board showed that I could secure it without any trouble. So that was that, Woodland Scenics ballast for me. In the picture at the right, the section of track ballasted on the left has been secured with glue, while the portion on the right has not. The difference in color is important to note.

The D&H in Menands in 1984. Note the ballast
mainline is much more gray.
The next choice was what size ballast you should use. WS makes a "medium" which they recommend for HO and a "fine" which they recommend for N. And, as it turns out, there are a lot of discussions online (such as herehere and here) where people advocate using the fine stuff for HO. The medium ballast is too large and the fine stuff is too small. From a distance, the medium looks really good but up close its overscale appearance is noticeable. I read an issue of a British model railroading magazine and saw a layout done with a blend of WS medium and fine mixed together and it looked just like what I wanted. So, I tried it myself on the sample board but the results looked just like regular "medium" ballast to my eyes (perhaps all the "fine" ballast fell to the bottom?) So, for now I am going to just try fine on my mainline corner section as a test and see if it is what I am looking for.

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