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Ballasting Part 1: first find your sandpaper

Ian Simpson









Early railway companies were usually launched in a mood of heady optimism, only for the disgruntled shareholders to learn that building the damn thing was going to take a lot longer than anyone had expected. You may have noticed that the Middenshire & Fiddleyard Trunk Railway continues this venerable tradition. Even so, taking 18 months to ballast two foot of track did rather play on my conscience.


I decided to tackle the problem with sheets of Poundland sandpaper. Early railways completely covered their sleepers with ballast, so I figured I might as well use paper inserts and have done with it. I don't expect my layout will get too many knocks and all my locos moved out of warranty more than forty years ago, so I'm prepared to try this idea out - but at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious I guess I should point out that delicate precision mechanisms and abrasive flakes of grit may not be the best combination for prized locos. This is an experiment to test whether it really is possible to seal the surface of the sandpaper so it's not a risk to stock (nor a constant source of tidying up).


The sheets of sandpaper come in an assortment of grades, and I used the fine sheets for this project. I'll explain this choice and discuss whether I should have used a larger, coarser grade in my next post. The sheets have thin backing paper, making them easy to score, easy to cut – and also quite easy to tear. I shook them and vacuumed them to get any loose grains of sand off the paper, then sprayed glue over the sheets to try and fix all the remaining grains in place. (Matt vanish works as well, but I had a spare can of spray mount glue to use up.)

Here's my recipe for anyone reckless enough or desperate enough to consider sandpaper inserts:


Place the sandpaper face up over the trackwork, and holding the sheet firmly in place rub a suitable object over the top of the rails so that they are embossed through the paper. I used the rounded handle of a disposable knife to do this, but a coin would do just as well. It’s basically brass-rubbing for modellers.
For sections where the rails are straight, it's best to move the now-embossed piece of sandpaper to a cutting board and use a steel ruler to produce a perfectly straight edge. Given the rough surface you'll be cutting and the thin backing paper's propensity to tear, make sure the ruler is positioned so that any slips or tears are on the outside of the insert.


When working over curved rails or pointwork it's probably easiest to just cut the paper in situ using the inside of the rail as a cutting guide. The best way to do this is to make shallow cuts with just the tip of the blade, running it along the inside face of the rail just below its head, using the web as a guide. (I'll very happy to admit it: I'd never even heard these terms until I visited https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_profile )
Don't cut deeply enough to hit the chairs or sleepers, or you won't get a smooth edge that fits snugly against the inside of the rail afterwards.


Cutting through gritty, abrasive material does your knife blade no good at all. Change it frequently to avoid tearing the backing paper as it gets blunted. Actually, make that very frequently – I found one of those cheap tear-off-the-blunt-length-of-blade-with-pliers DIY knives is much more convenient for this work than a Stanley knife.


Once the inserts are in place, push a wagon (ideally with the deepest flanges you can find) over the rails a few times to press down the inserts where they fit up against the rails.
Very small blobs of blutack on the sleepers at strategic intervals will keep the inserts in place, while still allowing them to be easily removed for track repairs. By small amounts, I mean about one-fifth of the blutack in the early photo below.


Here's my first attempt, warts and all. And since all the materials cost me less than a pound, and the inserts are only held in place with Blutack, it'll be quick enough and cheap enough to do it all over again properly now I've had a bit of practice!


I'm not sure any railway did have ballast this colour, so my next blog will describe my attempts to paint it a more realistic colour.

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Very interesting blog Ian, I've contemplated this method many times but never actually tried it. Looking forward to the painty bit...!

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Thanks, Chris. That's the great thing about dioramas and micro layouts - they're ideal test beds for experiments like this.


My main tip so far is to use the cheapest, flimsiest sandpaper you can find. Anything more expensive is likely to have backing card that is too thick and too sturdy to become in-track inserts (unless you're working in 7 mm, I guess). This experiment only became possible when I noticed the Poundland backing paper was not much thicker than standard printer paper.   

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