Improving the Look of Track

There’s been something missing from our display diorama over these past weeks – the track! In week 3, we created a realistic roadbed base for the track using foam insulation board. The track could have been laid any time after that step, but I chose to keep it off until most of the mess of scenery making was complete. That is easy enough to do when you’re building a small display – less so when you’ve got a layout with tempting trains to run. If you do lay track earlier, or if you’re applying these scenery techniques to an existing layout, simply protect the track with painters’ tape.

Finished track

With some additional ties and ballast, even older track looks right at home on this scenic module.

You could use any type of track for this project. It was tempting to use FasTrack with the ties and roadbed already in place, but using traditional track gave the opportunity to show how you can make some simple enhancements to help it compliment the realistic scenery we’ve created.


To add just a little more elevation and contour to the scenic base already in place, a piece of 3/16″ thick insulating foam was cut to length and glued onto the base. The sides were beveled using a rasp just as had been done with the other foam to create a realistic shoulder for the ballast. This step is optional, but it does add a nice profile to the ballast and helps deaden the sound if you are applying track directly on plywood.

In order to make the track confirm to the angle of the track on the display, the ends of the rails were cut to fit with a cut off disk in a Dremel motor tool. Always wear eye protection when doing this as the disks can shatter.

Staining ties

Ties can be stained a variety of colors to represent age. Blending colors is also an option.


Ties were added from a strip of 3/16″ x 1/8″ bass wood. First, the strip was cut to length, using the metal ties of the track as a guide. A simple jig was made on the edge of the workbench to cut the ties to the same length by clamping a block to the table and then marking the cut line. A sharp hobby or utility knife will easily cut the wood.

Next, the ties were stained with a gray wood stain. You can vary the look of the individual ties by using additional colors and applying multiple coats of stain. Most ties are coated with creosote, a sticky tar-like preservative, that is black in color. As ties age, they become more brown and gray. Individual ties may be replaced as well, so it is quite possible to see old and new ties on the same stretch of track.

Glue track

Use wood glue to bond the track and new ties to the roadbed. Small screws or nails in the metal ties will also help maintain the alignment until the ballast is added.

Space the ties evenly between the metal ties of the track and mark the locations with a pencil. Then take up the track and ties and put a bead of carpenters glue down the center of the roadbed. Relay the tracks and ties. If you’ve already laid your track, you can put a little glue on the bottom of each tie and slide them under the rails. You don’t need a lot of glue, just enough to hold everything in place until the ballast is glued.


Apply a heavy coat of white glue to the shoulders to keep the ballast in place on the slope.


To complete the track, just add ballast. There are many commercial ballast products available in a wide variety of colors. Some railroads had ballast that was so uniquely colored it became part of the corporate image, like the Chicago and Northwestern’s “Pink Lady” stone which had a unique pink hue. Most were shades of gray or brown. Black cinders were also commonly used in subroadbed like fills as well as for ballast on secondary lines and sidings.


The most important part of ballasting is putting the stones where they need to go. Sweep the ballast off the tops of ties and rail.

Adding ballast is much like applying any other scenic ground cover. Begin by applying a layer of white glue (full strength) on the shoulders outside the ties. This will help hold the stones in place on the slope.

Carefully sprinkle on and spread out the ballast . Use a small brush or your fingers to get the stones in between the ties and make a nicely contoured shoulder. The stone should be around the ties, not on top of them. If you are working around switches, take special care not to get any stones or glue around any moving parts. They can be protected with painters tape.


Saturate the track with diluted white glue. It will dry clear and lock everything, track included, into place.

Once you are happy with the look of the ballast, wet the area with 70% isopropyl alcohol and secure with diluted white glue (50/50 glue and water.) Apply the glue with a pipette or an old bottle. Don’t flood the area with glue, you’ll disturb the ballast. Drip glue on the edges and center between rails and allow capillary action to draw the glue through the stones. When you can see the white glue everywhere, you’ve added enough.

Once the glue has dried, your track will have a realistic roadbed and profile just like the prototype.

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