There's just one word to describe ballasting: tedious. There really aren't any shortcuts that one can take and still achieve decent results. The one saving grace with the James River Branch was that there's so little of it to do, so it wasn't too bad.
A FAQ among beginners is when to ballast: first, before adding terrain; after adding terrain; or last, after everything else. There's no hard and fast rule, actually; it's more personal preference. My choice is after adding terrain, but before adding vegetation or any other scenic details. Ballasting after terrain is applied makes it more practical, as the ballast would ordinarily just flow off the edges of the roadbed; with the terrain in place, a natural contour can be made. But I ballast before adding vegetation in order to prevent damaging scenery materials from the wetting and bonding procedures.
Since I was ballasting along the edge of an access panel, I wrapped the panel in plastic food wrap to keep the ballast from bonding to it, while still allowing it to meet the edges snugly for a seamless appearance.
The ballast I used is made by minitec in Germany: Standard-Schotter Grauwacke Z. It's a good match for the medium-to-dark grey ballast found on aged Reading lines. I applied it with a tiny spoon sold in craft stores for stained glass work; then I spread and shaped it using a 1/2-inch rake brush. This particular type of brush has very soft, fine bristles, making it perfect for the level of control required.
Yes, this is the tedious part; it takes time and patience to get the ballast perfectly shaped. Most of this challenge stems from working in Z scale: I am sometimes teasing individual grains of ballast into place—seriously! Under the scrutiny of a macro lens, a few misplaced bits of ballast can stick out like a sore thumb.
Once this was accomplished, I sprayed everything with a fine mist of rubbing alcohol until it was saturated. The sprayer I used was chosen specifically for the very fine mist it produces, which avoids disrupting the ballast I worked so long and hard to get in place. The sprayer originally contained White Rain Classic Care hair spray, which sells for a buck and change—well worth the price, considering most sprayers that are sold for ballasting are just plant misters, which produce heavy droplets and strong gusts—usually for a lot more money, too.
The last step was to apply thinned white glue (50-50 mix of glue and water) with a small squeeze bottle. Sold at most craft stores, it has a cap so that I can mix up plenty of glue solution in advance and keep it stored until needed. I applied glue until it began to pool on the surface; this tends to look like too much, but after a little while it will all dissipate.
After everything was dry—about 24 hours—the inside surfaces of the rails were stripped of any encroaching ballast; I have found that my fingernail is a good tool for this: I can literally feel what needs to be removed, and my nail is soft enough to avoid damaging the paint on the rail. This process was followed by railhead cleaning, which I did—gently, as the Code 25 rail is quite soft—with an X-Acto blade.
Plastic food wrap is applied to the access panel.
Ballast is poured onto the track using a tiny craft spoon.
A 1/2-inch rake brush is used to spread and shape the ballast.
Straight rubbing alcohol is misted onto the track.
Thinned white glue is applied to the wet ballast until it puddles.
With the ballasting job done, the last steps come after it's dry.
A fingernail works well to clear ballast away from the insides of the rails.
Copyright © 2007-2013 by David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved.