How to Paint and Ballast a Model Train Track

  • 01 of 03

    Track Is a Model Too

    A painted and ballasted model track
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Modelers often spend hours working on locomotives and cars without ever thinking about the track beneath them. Model train track can look realistic right out of the box and with some simple work, it can be even better.

    These techniques will work with almost any type of track in any scale. After you’ve laid the track and tested it thoroughly by running trains for a while, paint and ballast will help complete the scene. Even traditional tubular 3-Rail track for O Gauge trains can be improved with a few extra steps.

    There are some steps, like super-elevation for curves and removing ties for a more light-weight look, which should be done before the track is completed. However, the steps shown here can be accomplished any time after you've settled on your track plan.

    Continue to 2 of 3 below.
  • 02 of 03

    Painting Track

    Floquil paint pen on a model track
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Only the tops of real rails stay shiny from passing trains. And ties are seldom all the same shade of brown or black. Simply painting model track can go a long way toward enhancing the total picture.

    The track can take a variety of appearances depending on its age, use, and maintenance. Study pictures to see what look is right for you. Don't be afraid to mix it up a bit—the colors can change in just a few yards.

    • Apply paint with a brush, can or airbrush. Brushes give great control, but the process can be tedious if you have a lot of track. You can also get paint pens for the job which will save the time of repeatedly reloading the brush. A general coat can be applied as a spray saving the brush for highlights. Oil-based paints work best for durability, especially when the track is flooded with glue during ballasting. Chemical blackening products are also available to age rail.
    • An airbrush is the fastest way to cover a large stretch of track. Aim the airbrush parallel to the ground to paint the sides of rails. Then go perpendicular to get the tops of ties. This is a great way to add some oil and grime streaks down the center of the ties or add a rusty brown effect to ballast near the rails after ballasting as well.
    • Paint is a great insulator. Clean the tops of the rail when finished with a simple track eraser block. Take care to keep paint out of contact areas around switches such as the inside of the rails on the points.
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  • 03 of 03

    Ballasting Track

    Sweeping ballast with a swift brush
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Ballast is the crushed stone used to support and drain water away from railroad tracks. Real and model ballast comes in a variety of colors and sizes. Often different stone is used for the ballast around the track and the sub-grade below it.

    It is important to glue ballast in place, or you'll be cleaning it up forever. Just remember however that once glued, it will be impossible to make small adjustments in track alignment without ripping out and starting over. Make sure the track runs well before you ballast.

    • Products made of real crushed stonework best.
    • Spread a thin layer of white glue along the angled shoulders of the roadbed to help hold ballast in place while you perfect the look.
    • Spread the stone evenly, keeping it off the tops of ties and away from the rail. Use a stiff brush or your finger.
    • Once completely happy with the appearance, saturate the track with a mist of water to prevent the groomed ballast from shifting. Add just a few drops of detergent to the water to prevent beading.
    • Use a dropper to apply a heavy coat of diluted white glue (50% glue/50% water) and a few drops of detergent to completely cover the ballasted area. The glue will dry clear.
    • Once dry, the track should be very secure. Clean the tops of rail again. The particular car must be spent when ballasting switches to avoid fouling the points.

    Add any final weathering and color to the roadbed and enjoy. The process starts slowly, but once you get the hang of it, you can cover a large area of the track quickly.