MRA Editors

Homemade Pro-Level Ballast

MRA Editors
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Duration:   7  mins

MRA Contributing Editor Martin Tärnrot makes homemade professional-level ballast. If you have a large layout, you need a substantial amount of ballast. By using this method, you reduce the ballast cost by at least 70%.

(For a video about laying the roadbed, tracks and ballast, see Martin’s How To Ballast Fast and Easy.)


The base material in the ballast is crushed walnut shells, size 0.018–0.04 inches for an HO-scale layout. You can purchase them from gun and ammunition shops. The first color Martin demonstrates is gray to go with concrete ties. In addition to the walnut shells, you will need pigments, which can be bought in a DIY or paint store. He shows how to put the crushed shells in a plastic container and add pigments. For gray, Martin uses gray and white pigments. He then covers and shakes the container. The walnut shells absorb the pigments’ color.

To bond the color pigment to the shells, spread the shells on a cloth or paper towel. Mix water and isopropanol in a sprayer and spray the ballast. Mix the ballast on the towel and leave it to dry.


Martin also shows how to make brown ballast, which is typically found on older lines with wooden ties. Mix the shells with burnt umber brown pigment.

He also makes custom-colored ballast. Some lines of the Southern Pacific in northern California have reddish ballast, which requires two pigments: burnt umber brown and iron oxide red.

This method is low cost and fully customizable.


Martin wants to make sure there’s no loss of color when adding the ballast to the layout. He pours it into his ballast spreader and spreads it along the tracks. He’s made four different colors and puts each on a bit of track. He uses a vacuum cleaner to vacuum away the excess. Then he sprays all the ballast with the same isopropanol/water mix, and after that he uses an eyedropper to put an Elmer’s Glue/water mix on the ballast.

The result? It looks great. All the colors maintain their look and do not bleed into each other.

For a more advanced project with ballast, see Martin’s Hyper-Elevation video.

Homemade Pro-Level Ballast Join Model Railroad Academy to continue watching for $10.00 per month / $112.00 per year