Slinging Rock

“I loaded sixteen tons of number 9 coal and the straw boss said, ‘Well-a bless my soul!'”
-Tennessee Ernie Ford

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I understand why most model railroaders dislike ballasting track. It’s a tedious, repetitive process that takes patience and concentration; two traits that I have in short supply. However, much like benchwork and wiring, its a necessary task that when complete will allow me to move on to more enjoyable aspects of constructing The Hills Line.

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I’m using limestone paver base, picked up from my local hardware store, for ballast. One bag cost me less than five bucks and will last a lifetime. I know that since this is the same bag I used on the IAIS Grimes Line.

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Since it is an organic material, I do bake a batch in the oven to remove any moisture or other foreign matter. 400 degrees for 30 minutes is more than enough. Just don’t use your good cookware for this process.

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The limestone base is sifted to screen out the larger pieces. Sometimes I’ll pass the rock through the strainer several times to ensure I’m getting the finest ballast possible.

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The result is a scaled-sized, naturally-colored ballast appropriate for HO scale.

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Without a lot of concern for accuracy, the ballast is poured out in small doses over the track. One of these years I’ll need to try handlaid track, so I can ballast the ties before laying the rails, which seems to be the only way to keep ballast off the rails.

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Then begins the tedious process of spreading and shaping the ballast. I don’t have any additional tips about this step other than what others have already said. I will say that I have a lot more success with a large 2-inch paint brush, but still keep a few foam brushes around as needed.

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Once the ballast is shaped, I spray rubbing alcohol as a wetting agent. With limestone paver being organic, it avoids the common issue of floating away when wet. However it does take longer to dry than other materials.

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Matte medium is applied using a small pump sprayer. And then the waiting game begins. While the ballast is drying, I double check and look for any loose grains on top of ties or along the railheads. Otherwise I let it set for at least 24 hours.

One argument against using natural material for ballast is that its too uniform in color. I’ll concede that fact, but counter that I can easily weather and detail it as needed. The money saved by not using commercial ballast far exceeds any shortcomings from using natural stone.

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Besides, natural stone paver base is ultimately adaptable to other needs. What do I do with the material that’s too big to be sifted for ballast? Use it as talus and rip-rap for along the banks of the Iowa River.

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