How to Realistically Ballast Your Track

Realistic model railroad track
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When it comes to your Model Railroad or Model Railway, few elements, aside from the locomotives and rolling stock themselves, can add that element of realism like track ballast and weathering. The track on your Model Railroad layout is as much a focal point as the trains themselves, and the time spent working on this critical element will often set your Model Railway apart from all the others. Read on to learn how to realistically ballast your track in any scale with proven methods from Model Railway Techniques.com

Ballasting the track on your Model Railroad should be approached with just as much planning and consideration as other areas of your layout as we recommend in our other articles, and one of the best ways is by studying prototype track. The pictures below show two different examples of track ballast profile, and the Model Railroad representation of those on my own N Scale layout. There are many photos here on our website, and on the web, that can provide you with all the information you need to accurately and realistically ballast your own Model Railway like the pictures below.

A prototype ballast shoulder on a section of fill
This picture illustrates perfectly how the different layers of ballast look over time. The darker older ballast has fallen down the sides of this railway fill, while the newer lighter ballast is still intact around the track. Also notice the track beside the mainline, an old team Track spur that is still occasionally used.
Railroad ballast profile without sub roadbed
Many secondary or branch lines don’t have the sub ballast roadbed, but instead just a single layer of ballast for the ties as seen on this section of industrial trackage. This type of ballast profile is best simulated using your typical cork roadbed, or slightly thinner cork sheets cut accordingly to fit your track plan.
Realistic Model Railroad ballast shoulder
The ballast shoulder on a small fill section on my N Scale layout, recreating the look of older ballast that has cascaded down the sides of the embankment similarly to the photo above of the prototype track.
Realistic track ballast with N Scale code 55 track
This section of mainline on my N Scale layout was installed directly on N Scale cork roadbed and doesn’t have the sub ballast profile. The cork was cut to the edge of the ties before the ballast was done, this keeps the entire roadbed narrower and more realistic in appearance.
Cross section of railroad ballast and track
This cross section of railroad ballast and track shows the two most typical ways railroad tracks are laid, with and without a sub ballast under the track ballast.

Before getting started on your ballasting project, consider doing some ‘dry runs’ with different colors of ballast. The color can have a dramatic effect on how your track looks, and unless you are recreating a certain prototype color this is a worthwhile investment of your time. Consider the differences between the two different color combinations below, simply by swapping the light for the dark and vice-versa.

Your track work should also be weathered first if you plan on doing so. This includes the rails and the sleepers themselves. I paint my rail by hand and have good results either painting the rail before or after applying ballast. I also weather all of my sleepers before track ballast is done, otherwise you will get the color on your ballast.

dark layer of sub ballast and a light layer of track ballast
dark gray track ballast over a light gray sub ballast

Below we will guide you step-by-step on how to ballast your track for the most realistic appearance. Patience is key, and you shouldn’t rush through this process. Work on short, manageable lengths at a time of about three or four feet. In this way you can complete sections and have your Model Railroad running again as you take a break, if needed, to focus on other aspects.

It should be noted that before you undertake any ballasting project ever, make sure to check and double-check your track work first for any problems. Correcting those now is far easier than it would be after your track is ballasted. The following is a list of some specific items you will need in addition to the ballast and roadbed of your choice.

An ultra-fine 3 or 4 inch pump style spray bottle such as those used for hand sanitizer or sunscreen; Used for wetting your ballast before applying glue mixture.

An empty or nearly empty Elmers glue bottle; Used for applying your glue mixture.

A plastic spoon; Used for distributing ballast.

A one-inch wide (for N Scale) makeup blush brush; Used for spreading your ballast.

A half inch wide soft bristle artist brush; Used for cleaning bits of ballast from around your track.

view of the 1/8" cork sub roadbed on N Scale track
1/8" thick cork applied along a curved section of track
applying latex paint to the sub ballast cork
You can just see the base layer of texture on the right side of this photo.
The sub ballast is applied by evenly distributing a mound along the edge of the 1/8" cork. this mound is approximately 1/4" tall and applied with a plastic spoon.
Leveling out the sub ballast on N Scale track
close up view of model railroad sub ballast
closeup of the completed sub ballast layer
applying ballast to mainline tracks
spreading ballast near turnouts
When working around your turnouts, leave about one inch of track clear of your mounds on either side of the point throw bar area. You can then carefully work the ballast towards the throw bar area filling in the space between the sleepers. Stay at least one or two spaces shy of the point throw bar, if you have excess ballast, brush it backwards away from the area. It’s better to have less ballast in these areas and add small amounts to fill in voids, than to try and remove excess, especially when you have many turnouts in a line such as yard ladders.
Creating the ballast shoulder
Clearing bits of ballast from the track

This step is the most critical in any ballasting process and one that often intimidates people and prevents them from ever ballasting their track, or not having success and having to deal with unsatisfactory results. I have used these methods on every single layout I have built in my 45 years as a Model Railroader and have always gotten consistent results. Ballasting takes patience, and there is no rule saying you have to complete all of your track at once. Work at your own pace, follow the recommendations below carefully, and you will see the difference of how realistically ballasting your track can be.

applying glue mixture between tracks
The glue mixture is applied to the wetted ballast using an empty glue dispenser to control the flow of the mix.
Applying glue to your ballast
The glue mixture needs to thoroughly saturate the ballast to the point that it is milky white in appearance and doesn’t soak in quickly anymore. This ensures complete bonding of everything.
Mainline ballast profile close up
A close-up view of how the ballast profile appears once completed on this section of double track. Note the section of light gray, the sub ballast, still visible between the tracks since both mainline ballast profiles were created separately.
Heavily trafficked double-mainline railroad tracks
This heavy traffic double mainline stretch of track has very distinct ballast profiles. Note how the area between the tracks is not filled in for drainage purposes, just as it was modeled in the photo above this one.

In the two pictures below showing the model track work, and the prototype track, you can compare the sub ballast and top ballast profiles. There is no doubt that the added effort on the model representation considerably enhances the realism of the track work on my Model Railroad.

The ballast profile and the sub ballast profile are visible in this photo on my N Scale model railroad featuring realistic track and ballast.
A prototype mainline ballast shoulder next to a team track spur. Note the lighter sub ballast color showing through the actual track ballast.
The completed double mainlines with the track ballast, sub ballast, and initial earth texture for future scenery work are complete in this photo.
The completed double mainlines with the track ballast, sub ballast, and initial earth texture for future scenery work are complete in this photo.
The area around turnouts are especially time consuming, but if done carefully the results are well worth your efforts.
The area around turnouts are especially time consuming, but if done carefully the results are well worth your efforts.
Realistic model railway track work-ballasting
The different heights between the ballast profiles, the different colors of ballast, and the track weathering all come together to create realistic model railroad track in this yard area.
Prototype railroad yard tacks
The tracks in this prototype yard, which lead to a team track ramp, vary from a small amount of ballast to virtually none. there is little ballast shoulder remaining, and the area in between the tracks is almost level.
Model railroad yard track ballast variations
A closer view of the different colors used on the yard tracks and also the track weathering on my N Scale Model Railroad. You can also see the dipping an undulating track work, an article on creating this effect is coming along soon.
Extreme closeup of N Scale ballast
This extreme zoomed in view of some the ballast in my yard area shows all of the different colors and texture sizes I use to simulate realistic track.

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Last Updated on 3 months ago by James from Model Railway Techniques

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8 comments

  1. I loved your article on how to realistically ballast track on model railways. Your step-by-step guide and emphasis on studying prototype track for accuracy are invaluable. The suggestion of experimenting with different ballast colors and weathering the track before applying ballast is excellent. Your article is informative and inspiring. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    1. We appreciate your comment Eric and are happy you found the article interesting and informative. Be sure to check back often as we are adding new content all the time.

      James, Model Railway Techniques.

  2. This post offers valuable insights for ballasting the track on a Model Railroad. It emphasizes the importance of planning and studying prototype track for realistic results. The pictures showcase different track ballast profiles, providing visual examples. The post highlights the dual purpose of ballast for drainage and stability. The suggestion to conduct “dry runs” with different ballast colors is a practical tip. Weathering the track and sleepers is recommended for added realism. The post also mentions using segmented cork for curved sections. Overall, it provides valuable guidance for achieving realistic track ballasting on a Model Railway.

    1. Thank you for visiting Model Railway Techniques and reading our article Liam, we appreciate the comment and positive feedback. It’s our goal to provide as much information as possible to help Model Railroaders in all scales achieve realistic and consistent results when building their own Model Railroads.

  3. Thank you for this detailed guide on ballasting model railway tracks. The step-by-step instructions, along with the illustrative images, made the process much easier to understand. I particularly appreciated the tips on using the right materials and tools, as well as the advice on creating realistic effects. This article has been incredibly helpful for my model railway project. I look forward to more content like this!

    1. Thank you Constanza, we really appreciate your comment. We strive to provide detailed, informative information for all Model Railroaders, and we are thrilled you found the article helpful! Hope to see you back again!

      James, Model Railway Techniques.

  4. Hi James,

    I really enjoyed reading your article on how to realistically ballast your track. I’ve been wanting to do this for my own model railroad, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Your article was very informative and easy to follow. I especially liked the step-by-step instructions and the photos that you included.

    I’m definitely going to try your method of creating a sub ballast profile. I think it will make my track look much more realistic. I also like the idea of using a spray bottle to wet the ballast before applying glue. This will help to prevent the ballast from flying everywhere.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise with us! I’m sure your article will be very helpful to other model railroaders who are looking to ballast their track.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Jeffrey, We really appreciate it. We’re glad you found the article helpful and informative. We’d love to see pictures of your Model Railroad layout and post them on our site if you’d like. It’s always great to see other Model Railroaders layouts. If you’re interested, you can check out our page: 

      Contribute Content – Model Railway Techniques

      Thanks again, 

      James, Model Railway Techniques.

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