Monday, March 04, 2013

Getting Stoned: Ballasting 101

DB returns briefly:

Apologies for my absence, I've been away playing in American N. But after sending an Aussie some NZ120 pics yesterday, this particular dimension of my modeling mind - which seems inhabited by more and more personas these days - was awakened.

So why not get around to ballasting that nasty Broken River section of track and take a few pictures while I'm at it. We used to do these 'how to's quite a bit on the blog, not only for those starting out, but also as a way of sharing tips and tricks via comments left by far better modelers..

A lot of people hate the job of ballasting, but not I. It's one of those things that once done, suddenly makes your layout seem more real, so it's worth doing; but it's also one of those things the can really bugger up smooth running track and expensive points so it's worth doing well.

I like to ballast late in the cycle. If you ballast before doing a lot of your other scenery, no matter how well you protect the tracks, you usually end up with plaster, paint and bits of greenery on your ballast which is almost impossible to get out. The only thing you have to worry about if ballasting last, is that you have to be careful not to flick ballast all over your scenery into to places it shouldn't be.

So for the ingredients:

  • Ballast - as fine a grade as you can get. I prefer grey to this brown for mainlines, but I seem to be out of it and I never really expected anyone to see this abomination anyway.
  • Glue - dilute some PVA with water and a few drops of liquid soap/dishwashing liquid to break the water's surface tension. Woodland Scenics also make this nice pre-diluted scenic cement, but it's not cheap. I went through a stage of using latex carpet glue rather than PVAmany years ago, as it leads to quieter running, but it can remain sticky enough to attract dust over time. Be interested to hear what others use...
  • Wet Water - (as opposed to Ice or Steam I guess) - water with some of that soapy stuff in it as above. You can also use isopropyl alcohol which sneaks into ballast really well.
  • Tools - a brush to corral your ballast and something to apply liquids with. 

OK, on with the show...

1. The first step is to prepare your track. Finish your soldering, paint the rails, replace any sleepers that are missing where you joined sections of track together. I've done a sloppy job here on this recycled flextrack on all of the above because I hoped nobody would ever see it. Damn and blast this blog.

2. Dump some ballast on your track with a spoon or a small section of card with a V folded in it, or however you prefer. I suppose the 9-mill guys actually dispense ballast from scale YC wagons. Use a brush to tame the wild ballast. I like to apply ballast between the rails and use a brush to move it along the track - some will spill out to cover the sides. I like to go back and forth with the brush to get the ballast level below the tops of the sleepers as I find this to be prototypical on all but the dingiest of old sidings. This also ensures your flangeways are clear. Running a small screwdriver or pointy item fairly quickly along the 'spikes' of the inside of the rails tends to vibrate the ballast away from the flangeways too. You are now left with:

3. 'Wet' everything. If you put glue onto dry ballast, it will often blob up and do all sorts of unfortunate things to the stones you have neatly arranged. Dampening the ballast first lets the glue to meld and flow into this wetness without upsetting your fine work. I use a sprayer for big swathes of scenery, but for ballasting, I've become fond of these little pipettes as a sprayer can blast your nice tidy ballast all over the place. It might seem slow and painful but it isn't, even if you have some ground to cover. I applied ballast, wetness and glue to this 8 foot section in about 10 minutes.

4.  Apply glue. Either by dribbling it from your diluted PVA bottle or with your pipette - which I find easier to be more precise with. If you squirt the glue too hard or apply it from a high altitude, you'll create troughs and craters in your nice ballast. If you apply too much glue at once, you can end up with glue lakes and rivers which will relocate your ballast all over the tops of the sleepers, into flangeways, and down any slopes. Better to apply liquids moderately and come back to apply more rather than dumping a glue monsoon all at once. At this stage you might apply additional ballast if required to touch up tiny areas - sometimes if you have a sloped ballast shoulder, ridges of scenery might show through. Hmmm... I could have done this pic in Photoshop by making the above pipette white now couldn't I:

5. A final task is to clear flangeways of any errant ballast - much easier to do it now than after it sets. I like to use a fingernail run along the inside edges of the rails for this so you can 'feel' if there is ballast in the wrong places (clean your fingers when you've picked up some mini stones). Some people use an old wagon for this (don't: you'll end up with ballast and glue all over the wheels and they will just traipse this all over your rails) or a screwdriver.

A note on points - I tend to not ballast underneath moving point rails and keep some distance from moving tiebars. I'd rather paint the baseboards underneath these black before laying track. I do ballast up to the frogs at the other ends though and along the sides. Be extra careful of flangeways and to keep water and glue away from seeping into anywhere that moves or conducts electricity (point rail joints and where they touch the outside rails. I'm sure Pointmaster Druff has the correct technical terms for these - I slept through all those Hutt Valley Club pointwork discussions)

6. A final-final thing I like to do for aesthetics is to remove any ballast that has relocated itself onto the top of sleepers during the gluing process. If you find a misplaced rock, dab it with a finger and you'll lift it right up. You can then wipe your fingers on your best jeans to ruin them, or use some other place for your ballast deposits. This pic also looks suspiciously like the one above, although an expert examination should note me probing between the rails rather than clearing flangeways:

7. And there you have it. Once things have set you can:

  • Pull out any track staples (I often use a staple gun rather than gluing or spiking track down. 
  • Weather the ballast with some thinned acrylics if you desire  - either using an airbrush or a soft paintbrush. Sometimes this can be quite effective - you can run oily dribbles down the middle of the track (DJs) or the outside of the track (DEs) or all over the place (DGs, loco depots). You could use a grey colour to represent areas of heavy sanding (the lift out of Otira) or brown for brake dust or black beside curve greasers.
  • Do a final flangeway check with fingernail and/or something metal like a small screwdriver, a dental pick or the pointy bit of a screw works well too.
  • Gently vacuum up any errant stones that flicked onto scenery.
  • Clean the tops of the rails and play trains. 
Anyone else got any tips to share?


beaka said...

excellent tutorial DB. I would add not spraying the diluted glue on to track and ballast. I did this for part of the track on our clubs N scale Raurimu layout. Never wiped track while wet and the resulting residue required severe rubbing with a track eraser to the stage that there are always issues with getting and keeping the track clean.Points are also unreliable and always require tinkering.I use a pipette as well now or an old syringe.Having a friend who is a vet is extremely useful.also great for quality scalpels and blades at cost prices.Russell from Trackgang has a useful technique of applying with a brush some concentrated PVA on either side of rails where the ballast shoulder flows(not on the ties , but alongside).sprinkle some ballast on top and leave to dry.Then when you do the main ballasting to the centre of rails and ties,etc, you add ballast over the top of the dry ballast to build up shoulders,etc and then apply wet water and diluted glue. The initial concentrated glue and ballast application is useful for holding ballast where you have sloping areas,etc

Kiwibonds said...

good thoughts that man. or those men.