Related questions periodically crop up on sleeper spacing, rail and sleeper painting in addition to ballasting. At a couple of recent demos I was playing with a short plank and talking folk through some of the materials used. I thought it may be a useful reference point for future questions.
Peco track is the staple diet of modellers moving on from train set track. A basic limitation of the prototypical accuracy of the track is obviously the fact that it is OO gauge and any acceptance of it as it comes or to what it can be altered to is always a question of compromise. Improvements can be made that take the basic product beyond the common lay and ballast approach.
The first step is to turn the track over and cut away the plastic webbing between all of the sleepers. A sharp craft knife will suffice but don't go too heavy handed as too much pressure will cause the sleeper to to spring away where the narrow clasp of the rails chairs grip the base of the rail.
The sleeper spacing is then widened to a more acceptable compromise of around 7.5mm; PH Designs produce a useful tool if you have a lot of track to do - http://www.phd-desig...spacingtool.htm. The whole length of track to be used has the sleeper web cut away and spaced using the tool.
I fix the track using latex based adhesive (e.g. Copydex) or a thin line of PVA glue beneath each sleeper. The track is then laid and positioned. It will be necessary to use the sleeper spacing tool to tidy up any movement in the individual sleepers which will inevitably happen during handling, gluing and laying.
This makes a significant difference to the appearance making the track look lighter weight.
Once the track is laid and tidied I use Tan Plasikote Suede Touch spray paint to give a base coat onto the plastic sleepers and nickel silver rails.
Once the base coat has dried I then paint each sleeper with a mix of acrylic paints; in this case a mix of Tamiya Flat Earth (XF-52), Buff (XF-57) and Light Grey (XF-66). Before steaming ahead in painting the sleepers take some photos showing the actual track you wish to model; you should ideally do this in different weathers and observe the difference in appearance in dry sunny, cloudy and wet weather conditions. The colour that you then choose will at least have some foundation in fact rather than just a guesstimate and it will then be appropriate to the area and conditions you are modelling. In this case the sleepers are intended to look dry and sun-bleached with some time having passed since any treatment was used.
The same research criteria is relevant to the colour of the rail sides and chairs. The colour will vary with traffic types and volumes and the ambient light. A little used track in sunny conditions will look rusty orange whereas a busy track seen in dreary light on a wet day may look a very dark grey. In this case I use a mix of Tamiya acrylics Nato Brown (XF-68) and Nato Black (XF-69) to taste and with tones varying slightly on different lengths of rail.
Once the final colours have dried and all of the track is laid it's time to consider ballasting. Rewinding to the research really look at the type of ballast that's there. The chances are the actual chippings will be smaller than the size of most of the ballast sold. If the grains in your model ballast are over 1mm in length that means each stone would be 3". Were they really that big. The easy solution is to then use finer ballast intended for the 2mm modeller. Rewind again and look at the colour of the real ballast. Is it uniform in colour? What colour is it? Take care to select something that looks right for your model.
In this case I've used Green Scenes GS408 ballast which has fine grains (intended for 2mm) and a nice variation in colours (light grey in this case).
There are tools that make the job of laying ballast quickly easier but I find something very therapeutic in laying the ballast. I like it to sit a little below the level of the sleeper and rail to preserve the lightness obtained earlier on with the removal of the sleeper webbing.
Along the side of the laid track I'll lay some masking tape to achieve a tidy straight line at the edge or cess. The ballast is gently spread between the sleepers with a brush and tamped down with a fingertip. Ballast is laid along the edge of the track and gently brushed into the spaces between the sleeper ends. Running a fingertip over the sleeper ends moves loose ballast grains into position forming a gentle slope down to the edge of the masking tape. Run your finger along the masking tape to remove loose ballast and tidy the edge.
The loose ballast is then fixed in place with a 2:1 mix of Johnson's Klear or Pledge floor wax and isopropyl alcohol (IPA) with a few drops of detergent. This is the new formulation which is readily available at supermarkets (I keep the old Klear for other varnishing!).
The mixture is then sprayed on with a cheap plastic bottle spray or perfume atomoizer, these are available from Boots for Â£1.65. Give the ballast a good soaking so the varnish can penetrate and adhere to the ballast garnules through to the board.
As this product is intended to form a shiny coat on hard floors there will be a sheen on the track which can be dulled down with a matt spray varnish.
Once the ballast has set (normally overnight) I remove the paint on the top surface of the rail with a fine razor blade, the paint peels away leaving the clean rail head behind. It's worth checking that no ballast granules have moved and stuck to the sides of the rails; they wouldn't stick there in the real world so we'll try to make sure that reflected.
The cess at the side of the track in this case is treated with a painting of Tamiya acrylic Flat earth (XF-52) with a sprinkling of Treemendus Earth Powder on top.
The end product looks better for the time and attention given to it. This article isn't intended to be prescriptive but to get modellers at a certain stage to think a little more about the track appearance.
Source: Improving Peco Code 75