Thursday, August 27, 2015

Scenery Test Module, Part 3

Anytime I look at a completed scene on someone's layout one of the first things I wonder is, what did they use for ballast? Modelers have so many options to recreate the rock or cinders that real railroads use, it's a question that will always have different answers.

For my yard scene I wanted to get the look of track which sat on a bed of cinders and decades of spilt coal from passing hoppers. An example of this is a photo of the Jensie Mine on the New York Central's Southern Ohio LEA&W Branch. The photo is found in a link near the bottom of a great story of a mine run by Penn Central/Conrail/Norfolk Southern engineer Chip Syme. At that mine's yard the coal comes practically to the top of the rail in most areas. While somewhat extreme it shows what I had in mind.

I had on hand several potential candidates of material collected over the past few years for my cinder/coal ballast.

My cinder ballast options.
  • Este's Black Art Sand from the local craft store Pat Catans.
  • Scenic Express Dark Grey Ballast.
  • Woodland Scenics Fine and Medium Cinder Ballast.
  • Decorative Black Sand from Dollar Tree.
  • Aqua Terra Black Aquarium Sand from Pet Supplies Plus.

Este's Black Art Sand

The Black Art Sand from Pat Catan's Craft stores had a nice fine texture and a two pound bag was only a $1.97!  Others have used black art sand for a yard cinder ballast like Tony Koester's large Frankfort yard on his large Nickel Plate Road St. Louis Division layout. It looks pretty good on video and in magazines.

Scenic Express's #50 Dark Grey Ballast

While at the 2014 NMRA Cleveland Convention I picked up a bottle of Scenic Express's Dark Grey Ballast. Being a natural rock material ground to a fine texture and the right color it seemed like a sure thing to use for my yard. However when I threw a small high powered magnet in the bottle it came out looking like a science experiment with iron particles. This is bad for model locomotives with magnetic motors. A good soaking in diluted glue would hopefully seal the ballast and prevent rogue particles from harming engines.

Woodland Scenic's Medium Cinder Ballast

The Woodland Scenic's ballasts are made from ground walnut shells so there's no magnetic danger here. I've used these before on a different project long ago and can't say I'm a big fan. For me they have a tendency to float around when applying wet water or diluted glue. The final result wasn't what I had hoped for at the time. However I've seen some very good looking use of WS ballast when various types are blended together. This is the medium cinder ballast, I did try the fine type and it looked a little better.

Dollar Tree Decorative Accents Black Sand.
I give credit to Ted Dilorio and his Ma & Pa RR 1943 Blog for this craft sand material. After reading about his use of the Dollar Tree black sand on his blog I also started using it for coal loads, coating the plastic load inserts from Accurail and other manufacturers that come with hopper cars. The black sand seems to have just enough sparkle and color shifting to look like chunky fist sized coal. I don't intend use this sand as ballast but instead as "spills" around the tracks.

Aqua Terra Black Sand
While buying cat food one day at my local Pet Supplies Plus I noticed a bag of Aqua Terra Black Sand on their clearance table near the registers. I'd read about the possibility of using aquarium substrate as ballast and with the 5 pound bag marked down to a dollar due to a hole, how could I go wrong? Right away I felt this material gave me the coal yard look I wanted. It has a nice mix of fine and larger material, it wasn't magnetic and my only concern was easily finding more. Plus it might also look good as coal load material for hoppers or steam tenders.

A better view of the Aqua Terra black sand.
To achieve what I wanted, I thought the Este's sand or the Aqua Terra sand or a blend of both were my best bets.  For a quick second opinion I called my wife down to take a look and see which she thought looked realistic. Having been constantly shown photos of other people's fantastic scenery from the Yahoo Proto-Layouts Group, like Jason Klocke's Chicago Great Western, she has an idea of what I'm trying to achieve.

It was a tough choice but we both agreed a blend of both would be worth a try.

I did a 50/50 mix of both sand types and quickly got into "the zone" again doing the whole area in one shot while forgetting to take photos until I was done...

I can at least describe some of what I did.

Working in about 8" x 8" areas, using a spoon I applied the ballast down the middle and sides of the tracks, then spreading and shaping the ballast with a cheap 1" foam brush. It took some practice but soon I was quickly laying down my mix. Keeping the sandy bits off the ties was much harder than I imagined, luckily I'm doing a yard where I want a little of that but when it comes to doing mainline track that should look better maintained I'll need to figure something out.

By now I was just using straight Isopropyl Alcohol and a couple drops of dish soap as my "Wet Water". Starting at the back track of the module, I misted two tracks at a time with the alcohol until the ballast was pretty wet. Then doing one whole track at a time from end to end, I spread a 4:1 mix of water to Elmer's Glue(and a drop of dish soap to be safe) with an eyedropper. I flowed the glue along each side of the tie ends and down the middle between the rails. Capillarity action pulled the glue through out the ballast ensuring full coverage.

Only a couple times did I get heavy handed with the eye dropper and make some craters or small washed out areas. This was easy to fix by sprinkling some more ballast mix in the affected area and rewetting.

One thing to note, it wasn't long before I was rushing to open some basement windows due to using the alcohol wetting agent. If you can't get good ventilation in your layout area, just use water with the dish soap to wet scenery materials.

I let it dry over night and by morning everything was rock hard, barely any ballast fell off when I tipped the module up to check for loose material.

Ballasting finished and yep those hoppers need some weathering.

With that part done I still need to clean off some of the sandy ballast that migrated up the sides of the rail, but since its supposed to be a coal yard cleaing off the tie tops isn't that big a deal.

After my first real big experience ballasting yard track, I think I can say it went pretty good. I'm really happy with how it turned out. I don't know how much other people do, but it seems like a 36" x 12" stretch of yard is enough to ballast in one sitting.

Next bushes, grass and ground foam.

Quick links to the rest of this Series

Scenery Test Module Part 4
Scenery Test Module Part 5
Scenery Test Module Part 5a


  1. Chris ... excellent choice of ballasting materials and an excellent application of these also. You are creating "something special" railroad-wise ... keep up the good work! jim talbott

  2. Thanks Jim! Building this module has been more enjoyable than I imagined. It hasn't been all easy but a good challenge was needed.

  3. Jim,

    Thanks for doing this research, especially the close-up photos of how the materials look.

    Very helpful!

    Mike H.

  4. No problem Mike. Like I said I love seeing what people used for ballast and wanted to share some of the unusual options out there.