How To Apply Ballast

by Arizona Rock & Mineral

Track BallastMany people ask me how to apply ballast even if they have done it before. They must not be satisfied how theirs turned out so the very best way will be presented here.

I use several techniques and each one has an advantage over the other as the desired effects or the situations vary. A neat looking roadbed is a major accomplishment and very satisfying to look at when finished.

Basic Information

The best rule of thumb is to apply it slowly and carefully. Each step is very important to follow because “now”, you will be in control of its finished appearance.

It takes extra work to “fix” areas where the ballast is too thick and mounded up. This problem is going to happen in places where we didn’t mean too anyway. I’ll show you how to “re-groom” a disaster. Study all the techniques we have introduced in the text and then evaluate the various options presented.

Getting Started

Cut a corner off the package. Sprinkle it right from the package directly to the roadbed. The four mil Poly package is ridged and will not collapse when you work with it. Keep the opening about four inches or less from your work. Shake the bag back and fourth and parallel to the roadbed as you tip it. Apply only enough to cover the area. You can always add some more later and you will have to anyway because of random bare spots after wetting and gluing. If you get to much on the ties, (knuckle head), stop!

Grooming Around The Ties

Use a stiff brush to move the extra down the line. There will still be a few grains on the ties and rail flanges. Tap the rail tops with the brush handle to bounce these stubborn particles away. Your can then wipe the tie tops with your finger tip to remove the rest.

For Track Without Roadbed

This applies to all track without roadbed such as industrial sidings, yards or even mainlines. If you want the ballast to be perfectly flat beyond the ties, lift the package up a little higher while sprinkling. This will disperse the grains further and help eliminate mounds. A piece of paper can be used as a guard where the ballast line stops against other scenery.


A big mound of ballast maybe to big too feather out so, just scoop it up with a spoon and remove it. Those little unwanted mounds occur in places where I don’t want them. I use a small piece of news paper and drag it over the mound back and forth to feather it out. What ever you use, it will leave a mark. Your fingers will leave prints and a brush will leave furrows. The best way to erase these marks is by tapping the bench work from below with a hammer to flatten them out.

Ballasting With Roadbed

Split cork roadbed always has a rough burr that needs to be sanded smooth. Other roadbeds such as Homosote need to have the sharp edges sanded round. If the track is not centered on the roadbed, plan on using more ballast to make it even from side to side.

Start ballasting from the bench work up to the top of the roadbed first. This allows the lower grains to become a foundation for the grains that pile up on top. If you ballast from the top down, the rocks pick up speed on the sloped roadbed and make a mess as they bounce all over. Now you can ballast around the ties as we mentioned before.


Wherever the ballast is uneven along the sloped bank, drag a piece of news paper over it to grade it. You may even have to drag material from bottom to the top. Sprinkle more ballast only to even out your repair marks.

Ballasting With Two Or More Colors

Western railroads are notorious for re-ballasting with different colors over the years. You can see different color bands in the roadbed as a result of this. Begin by applying an earth product on the bench work up to both sides of the roadbed. Start applying the lowest color along the base of the roadbed and cover it up to the top edge of the slope. Apply the second color around the ties but don’t let it spill down the slope and mix into the other ballast. Three colors can be done the same way, however a taller roadbed such as Homosote makes it easier.


All dry scenery material should be wetted before bonding. We add a few drops of liquid dish soap to a quart of water as a dispersant. This helps the water flow thought the material evenly and thoroughly. The material needs to get wet right down to the base. The wetting operation prepares the material for accepting the bonding material.

Some modelers prefer to use rubbing alcohol or photo flow as a wetting agent because they are of a lower viscosity than water. This means that it’s less likely to leave “pot holes” in the dry ballast.

How to wet

Eye Dropper Method.
It is very easy to disturb the ballast with even a drop of water.

  1. Start wetting the ballast by dropping water on the ties. The water will slowly run off them and into the ballast. You will see the water spread out into the dry ballast
  2. Now you can drop water where ever the ballast is already wet. Do about a foot of track until all the ballast is wet.

Spray Bottle

  1. Use a spray bottle that gives a fine mist. Hold the nozzle about a foot away and start spraying in a sweeping motion. The one foot distance allows the sprayer to disperse the water into a mist without blasting the dry ballast.
  2. Some nozzles will sputter water drops just as you pull the trigger. Start the spray action where the ballast is already wet and then move it over the dry ballast.
  3. Continue spraying until the ballast is soaked.

Before You Bond It

Take a good look at the wet ballast. If you are not satisfied with the neatness of it, stop! Allow it to dry out and then “fix it” while you can.

Bonding Materials

White Glue
One part white glue and three parts water is the most economical type of bonding agent. I mix up a batch in a pint bottle and use it for all scenery work. It sets up very hard and will even amplify the train wheel sounds to the bench work. Have you ever heard a quiet train? White glue can be softened by wetting the area with water. Now you can make any changes with the track work if necessary later on.

Matte Medium
Matte Medium can be purchased in art supply stores. It is more water resistant that white glue, however, the cost can be several times more. Some modelers use it because they want less “sound board” effect while running trains.

Granular Glue
Some modelers like to pre-mix dry glue into the ballast. All you have to do is spread it in place and then wet it. “Weldwood” powdered glue will cure “water proof”. One disadvantage is that the ballast may leave depressions as the glue dissolves while wetting. The major problem is that once you “wet” it, you can’t fix it anymore.

The same bonding method is used for “white glue” or “matte medium”. Wet ballast is fairly stable and is not disturbed like dry ballast during the bonding process. Spray bottles get glue on the rails and make clean up more difficult. I have found that an eye dropper is a safer tool to use for “N” & “HO” Fine ballast.

Start out by dripping over the ties and then out to the edges of the roadbed. You can see the milky color from the glue seep into the wetted ballast. This is how you can tell where you need to apply more bonding agent.

HO Mainline and Large Scale ballast is bigger rock so you can apply the bonding agent faster. An eye dropper is still the safer tool to avoid making those “pot holes.” You can use a 6 or 12 oz. bottle with a small extended tip and just stream the glue on between the ties. Now you can finish the sloped area the same way.

Touch Up

Once the ballast is wet, look at it for excessive mounds. They will still be there when it dries and hard to fix. Use your finger to pat it smooth and then leave it alone to dry. Hopefully this problem exists in only a few places at the most because you don’t want the finished job appearing with a lot of finger prints.

Let it dry and then lightly scrape away the loose grains sticking out and then re-ballast the area lightly and re-bond.

About Model Train Tips

I am a complete model railroading novice, and I’ve started this website to share what I learn with others who are also new to the hobby and want to learn about it. I invite you to sign up for my newsletter and get the free report: 7 Model Train Mistakes To Avoid.


  1. I simply want to mention I am just beginner to blogging and site-building and actually loved this web page. Most likely I’m want to bookmark your site . You amazingly come with fabulous writings. Bless you for sharing with us your blog site.

  2. My set, Kato, comes with track/ballast together. It’s too even and I hate the look. I want to add some extra ballast to make the top and edges more irregular and natural looking.

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