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Ballasting Part 2 - the painty bit

Ian Simpson




What did railway ballast look like in 1840? Obviously it depended on local geology and the tastes and budgets of the individual companies, but there were some common features that mark it out from later methods. We know that on most early railways the ballast completely covered the sleepers, hiding them from view (a feature that continued throughout most of the 19th century) . Lithographs that include track beds show a smooth plain surface, suggesting individual pieces of ballast were very small. Coloured prints of early railways around London often show the ballast with a fairly bland yellowy-orangey-buffy-creamy tint.


It usually wasn't the large grey chunks of crushed stone so common on today's railways. For example the London and Croydon company rushed completion of its line in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid a shareholders’ revolt. Francis Whishaw described the resulting ballast as a mishmash of “broken stones, brick-rubbish, and gravel”. Sadly Woodland Scenics doesn’t include that one in its range. In other areas convenient materials such as sand and ash were used as ballast. So there's plenty of scope for painting up the sandpaper to suit personal tastes.


My first attempt to paint the inserts that I had produced in part 1 using acrylic paints gave too uniform a shade - although I'm sure those more familiar with acrylics would have made a decent job of it. Rather than persevere and learn something new, I went back to my usual-default-in-a-crisis Humbrol enamels. Humbrol 129 is called Pale Stone, and ballast is only pale stone, I thought ...


I preferred working with the enamel paint, but I still felt the ballast needed more variety than just a single uniform colour. In addition, I found cutting out individual inserts then painting each one of them in turn was a bit of a hassle. I started to wonder whether it would be easier to paint up whole sheets of sandpaper, perhaps with a base colour dabbled over with splotches in other colours, and then cut out the painted track inserts.


Experiments showed that it was as easy to paint sandpaper with household emulsion paint as it was with acrylics or enamels. So I visited the local DIY store and came back with some small match pots of Dulux paints that were on special offer at a pound each. Looking at the colour charts I decided to experiment with Coastal Grey, Jurassic Stone and Muddy Puddle for my base coat. The three paint colours, brushed directly onto the sandpaper, are shown below for comparison:


In the end I settled for Muddy Puddle, for no better reason than it was the colour that I liked best. I applied the emulsion in the same way that I used for the enamel paints: a thin coat that covered the gritty surface rather than hiding it, using an old brush with reasonably soft bristles.
When the emulsion had dried, I started dabbling splotches of Humbrol enamel Pale Stone over the surface to add a bit of variation.


I used a technique that I can only describe as “rather damp dry-brushing” to apply the enamel paint: dipping an old paintbrush gently into the pot, dabbing a small blob of paint gently on the surface of the paper and then spreading the dab of paint outwards across the surface with a gentle scrubbing action for a centimetre or two in all directions before repeating the process a few centimetres away.


This was actually rather quicker than it sounds – and it was quite empowering to find an area of modelling where my haphazard brushwork and patchy coats of paint were actually a bonus for once.


The final effect looked like this. Since I'm colour-blind, I'll be grateful rather than outraged if you tell me I've got the colours wrong:


Cutting out the inserts was a bit easier second time around, and I estimate that I'll become quite proficient by my fifth or sixth attempt. This doesn't discourage me, as the materials are cheap and it doesn't take long to prepare the sheets and cut out the inserts. If you do make a slight mistake and leave a gap, the thinness of the paper means it's easy to paste a small patch of ballast sheet over the flaw to hide it.


Overall, I'm quite happy with what I've done at the moment. At least it looks as if I've made an effort. The fiddliest part using this methods is filling in the narrow spaces between ends of the point blades and the rails. It is possible to put narrow slivers of sandpaper in these spaces, but at the moment I've left them empty. This is still an experiment and I'm happy to progress slowly, testing how each part of the process works before going on the next task.


The colours I used are a bit too bright and clean, even for freshly laid ballast on a newly-constructed railway. The best solution would probably a gentle coating of darker acrylics or weathering powders to tone the finish down. Perhaps a dirty wash of acrylic browns brushed lightly over the inserts would work, provided the surface doesn't get sopping wet - it is only paper, after all, and while slight warping might look natural, drenching the paper will create long unnatural-looking ridges. All I've done so far is rub over the inserts with the plastic handle of a knife, which darkens the grains a bit:


This is just work in progress, but I think the method does have potential. It's great for plain track. It's a bit more fiddly for pointwork, but that gets easier with practice. It's a cheap process, made up of a series of quick little jobs that can be done in a few minutes while listening to the radio, and it doesn't require any special tools or skills, nor much outlay on materials. It may not produce the most realistic ballast I've ever seen - but then I've never seen 1840s ballast anyway. Overall I'm quite happy with the initial results, now I've dry-brushed a bit of Humbrol Leather paint over it to give a bit more colour.


But now I've done it, I'm already wondering whether it wouldn't be easier just to make up an A4 JPG of a bed of gravel and then print ballast sheets out on a colour printer ...

- Ballast painting final overall view.JPG

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  • RMweb Gold

Many thanks, Sem, that's a very good spot. And it does look very nice. The only slight problem is the price :O


Given my modest means, I'll think I'll buy your brilliant new 3D model of the Stockton & Darlington's 1845 Derwent​ loco instead:   http://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/topic/131803-school-project-the-victorian-railway/?p=3072486


This is marvellous work that deserves our support! I'm really very impressed at your clever design and the choice of materials offered for components like the wheels. 

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