How to Realistically Ballast Your Railroad

For many modelers, adding ballast is one of the first steps in the process of creating realistic scenery for your layout. When planning this stage, traditional gray stone gravel will likely come to mind, but take a closer look at real world railroading, and you’ll notice that each railroad and each ​type​ of railroad has its own very distinctive look to it. There are many reasons for this, depending, for example, on the level of maintenance, amount of use, or geographical region. In this post, we’re going to look at how to use ballast effectively and realistically to replicate three markedly different types of railroad.

Our base is made up of ​Midwest Products HO Cork Roadbed​. While chiefly providing a quiet and smooth surface to lay your track on, this roadbed also elevates your track to a prototypical height reflecting the appearance of most mainline railroads. Although we will be using this material in all three examples, you can opt to lay your track directly onto your baseboard or foam to reflect sidings and less ballasted lines. We will additionally be using ​Atlas Code 100 Flex Track​. This is the standard track code found in train sets, and is generally the most widely available. Again, to further reflect different types of railroads, you may want to use the more prototypically scaled ​Code 83​ for mainlines, and ​Code 70​ for branch lines and lesser used sidings.

Ballast Method One – Mainline Freight Railroad

The classic mainline freight railroad is likely what most people will visualize when picturing how a railroad appears, and is therefore generally the inspiration for most ballasting on model railroads. While it is ​generally​ a consistent gray tone, there are some steps you can take to make it more authentic looking.


First, we’ll use ​Woodland Scenics B1395 Coarse Gray Blend​ to lay along the sides of the cork roadbed. This will serve as the larger, less weathered ballast found in the base of prototype railbeds. After making sure it’s somewhat evenly spread, covering as much of the sides of the roadbed as possible, we’ll come back with ​Woodland Scenics B94 Medium Gray Blend​ to add between the rails and around the ties. This will serve as the top layer of smaller stone, more prone to being ground down and weathered by the elements and the weight of trains traversing the line.


Depending on how well maintained you’d like your line to look, you can come back again with a different shade of medium ballast to add some variation and a more weathered appearance. In our case we used a light dusting of ​Woodland Scenics B78 Dark Brown ballast​, but this step is really up to you and the appearance you want to achieve. Once your ballast is fully laid, make sure to brush it into the spaces between the ties to the best of your ability, as you want it to appear neat and tamped. Finally, as this is a mainline railroad, you’ll want to make sure that there is a decent amount of space between the tracks and vegetation, as most mainline railroads will leave at least enough space for maintenance vehicle access.

Ballast Method Two – Short Line or Lightly Used Railroad

Short lines and lightly used railroads generally don’t receive the same level of care and maintenance as mainline railroads. This can be due to budgetary reasons, or the fact that less frequent, slower moving traffic will not require the same level of conditions to operate safely as fast moving road trains, and will inflict less wear and tear to the railbed over time.


Ballast used on short lines is often of a lesser quality than what is seen on mainline railroads, and can be sourced more easily from the line’s local area. Depending on the region, this can produce some very different appearances in color, combined with the fact that the ballast is allowed to weather for long periods of time before being replaced. To create a base for this look, we’ll use the same ​Woodland Scenics B78 Medium Dark Brown​ that we used to create texture on the mainline. This will serve as our base. Once this has been evenly spread to cover the sides of the roadbed, and added lightly between the rails, we’ll come back with ​Woodland Scenics B72 Fine Brown ballast​. This is a much finer texture than we used on the mainline and adds a satisfying “well used” look. In this case we won’t be as careful with brushing it between the ties, and will let it essentially sit where it falls (with a little leveling out if necessary).


Weed spraying is less common on these lines, and combined with the slower turnover of ballast and heavy maintenance, nature can often be seen encroaching on the trackbed. To replicate this, we’ll use ​Woodland Scenics T49 Green Blended Turf​ to add the appearance of grass growing in the track, and encroaching more heavily on the sides of the right of way. Likewise we’ll bring the trackside scenery in closer to the rails, as these types of railroads typically don’t maintain wide borders on the sides of the track.

Ballast Method Three – Station or Maintenance Track

For our third track type, we’ll be replicating the appearance of a track that sees frequent locomotive or cars idling on it. This isn’t necessarily a mainline track, but it also isn’t an under-utilized short line. Perhaps it would be seen on a scenic railroad, or a well maintained rural line in the steam era.


For this appearance, we’ll start with ​Woodland Scenics B80 Medium Buff​. This gives the appearance of potentially locally sourced ballast that’s clean and well maintained. We’ll be using this as the dominant ballast type, so make sure to add it to all areas, including between the ties, until the cork roadbed is completely hidden. Once this is done, we’ll come back with a dusting of Woodland Scenics B72 Fine Brown​ which we’ll spread in a relatively thin line along the each side of the rails. With trains sitting for periods of time on this track, the ballast in these locations would be subject to much more dirt, drips, and wear, which this will help to replicate.


Once this is done, we’ll return with one final layer of ​Woodland Scenics B92 Mine Run​ spread down the center of the track. This will effectively give the appearance of ballast which has been subject to a covering of coal, oil, and other weathering from the underside of trains over a long period of time. If there are only certain sections of the track where locomotives would be stopped, focus on these areas for this. Completing the look, vegetation and scenery can be placed at your discretion depending on the location of the track.

Once any of these methods have been used, you can add further realism to your track by painting the sides of the rails with a ​Woodland Scenics Track Painter​, and you can further enhance or blend the different stone types by adding additional weathering with an ​airbrush​. We’ve used Woodland Scenics products for our project here, but there are plenty of other manufacturers with a great variety of colors and blends to choose from. To start your realistic ballasting project, check out our scenery department ​here​ to see all available materials and product lines.