Monday, June 15, 2015

Rust and Ballast

We did some very minimal work on the layout recently. I was particularly busy working on a submission for an international meeting held in Quebec City this weekend to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Recollet Friars arrival in New France. It was a great weekend and a wonderful occasion to share historical knowledge among many searchers, students and historians from France, Ireland and Canada.

That said, we still found some little time to check up how the ballast turn out since it was glued in place. In general, the result is quite realistic. But some aspect could be improved, particularly the amount of ballast. I tried to keep ballast very low to make ties pop up, but it was a mistake since the tabs under the rails are now quite visible. I should have known better!

Also, the ballast mixed with white tile grout ended up not as great as other. Lots of white deposits here and there and the ballast was so impermeable that glue formed a thin shiny crust where it could pool. Lesson learned: don't use white grout and use it with parcimony.

Foreground ballast mix with too much white tile grout.

The best ballast job was done with my personnal mix of very powdery ballast. This is a mix of crushed stone power and very fine rock particles. I get this mix by sifting regular gravel until it is finer than HO scale fine ballast. Once glued, it really gives the look of older and packed ballast you can find on branchlines and spurs. It also accepts glue well and is very easy to put in place using a large soft brush.

Background track done with my powdery custom ballast mix

The only "real" thing I did yesterday was to weather rail sides with weathering powder. Until now, I used pastel chalk, but wouldn't be advisable for this use. I recently bought a set of A.I.M. powder. I knew the stuff was potent, but never imagined it would be so much!

Rails were weathered using the dark dirt pigment. This particular color is quite realistic to represent rust dust that gather on rails. Using weathering powered also have the superior advantage to color realistically the spikes and plates details. I remember doing this with paint a few years ago and it always looked clumsy. Using powder is truly the way to go for this particular job. I feel I should have invested in weathering powders years ago!

Ballast lacking between ties

I only have one complain. I found out AIM pigments aren't homogeneous. From time to time, patch of orange or yellow appeared in the mix. Unfortunately, you only find out when the powder is applyied on the model and since these pigments are tenacious, getting rid of the wrong color is not an easy task.

Anyway, that means I have now completely ballasted and weathered a stretch of track. Sure there's a lot of things to add here and there, but the basic stuff is done. In retrospect, I consider I found my personal formula to do efficient and realistic track work that I could sum up into a few basic steps that required no particular skill or artistic intuition:

  1. Spray paint track with Camouflage Brown (Krylon, Rustoleum, etc.) and make sure you clean the rail heads before paint dry.
  2. Using various shade of tan, greyish brown and other toned down colors, apply an irregular wash over ties to give them a weathered look. No need to be fancy.
  3. Apply you ballast with a small plastic container (pills container, film container, etc.) and brush the excess with a large soft brush used for home improvement.
  4. Soak the ballast with a mix of wet water (70% isopropyl alcohol and water) applied with a spray bottle (an old Windex bottle does wonder). Use a bottle that can produce a fine and regular mist to make sure it won't displace the ballast.
  5. Apply a mix of diluted white glue (50% glue / 50% water) to the ballast using a standard glue bottle with a nozzle.
  6. Use dirt brown weathering powder to rust the rail sides. Don't be shy and let the powder works its way on the spikes and plate details.
  7. Et voilà.
Each steps only takes a few minutes and allow you to paint and ballast long stretches of track painlessly and efficiently. Later, you'll be able to weather the ballast using powders and washes to give hints of oil spills. A few weeds here and there will complete the scene.

I didn't created any of these technics, but it took me years to finally apply them correctly. I can testify I wasted hours dropping alcohol and glue with an eye dropper, scrapping dried paint on rail, fighting my way spreading Woodland Scenics synthetic ballast with my fingers or with small hobby brushes and losing my temper when cheap ballast started to float around.


  1. Did you have any issue using the rustoleum in confined quarters?


    1. Greg, you’ve got a point and a serious one. Theses solvent-based paints release a lot of fumes and we took a few extra precaution. First, every access doors were closed to isolate the layout room from the house. The air exchanger was put in service to get the fumes out of the room as soon as possible. Finally, I wore a 3M solvent mask during all process. I was alone there and didn’t try to paint more than 15 feet of track at once (I could have painted much more track but felt the amount of fumes would be dangerous at this point). We didn’t get back in the room until a few days and air quality was back to the usual quality. We were also lucky Louis’ house is well built and fumes didn’t find their way in other room. I would not do this in my 1875 home, the most insignificant odor in the basement can be smelled in the attic.

      Is it perfect? No. Would I do it if children were in the home? No. And I would never do this in a room that can't be quickly ventilated (naturally or mechanically). For people building layout modules (Freemo, shelf layout), they can go outside. For us, basement dwellers, I feel there should be other options. But let’s face it, water-based paint don’t do a great job on bare metal. And anyway, you’ll have to use a solvent-based primer to get a decent job. Other hobby paints won’t be less harmful than Rustoleum and Krylon. Honestly, I’d be happy to find a cleaner and healthier way to do this job. At least, spray cans are quite efficient and give you the opportunity to leave the room as soon as possible. I remember reading somewhere Mindheim was only painting very, very short lengths of track at once to minimize exposure to fumes. That may be feasible but for a large layout, brace yourself. I’m sure some people have worked their way with healthier methods, wouldn’t mind learning about them!

      I’ve also been thinking about building a portable ventilation device similar to booth made for spray painting. Using a flexible duct that would exhaust the fumes outside through a window could be a possible idea.