Cinders redux


Cinder-ballasted track on the York-Durham Heritage Railway at Uxbridge, Ontario.

I’ve seen a lot of cinder-ballasted track over the years.  Cinders were a cheap form of ballast from coal-burning locomotives’ ash that was used extensively on railways in the steam era.  It was as near as the the loco ash pit at engine terminals, and the price was right.


Test section of ties on a length of 1″ x 2″ pine.

I want to compare various methods of modelling ballast, so made this short section of ties using my standard yard tie spacing of sixteen ties per 33′ length of rail.


Woodland Scenics’ cinder ballast.  I ground this ballast to a finer texture in an old blender; it’s not as fine as I’d like it to be.

I was scared of using real cinders as I’d found the stuff to be attracted to a magnet when tested.  So I ground up a mix of Woodland Scenics’ cinder and other ballasts in an old blender made redundant when my wife got a new one.  I dyed the wood with some leather-dye-and-alcohol tie stain to impart some darkness to the roadbed before gluing on the ballast.

I painted on some matte medium, and immediately dropped the Woodland Scenics’ ballast mix onto the spaces between the ties.

But I found the ballast to appear a bit coarse in appearance compared to the real thing.


Back to basics.  A bag of sifted fine real cinders, matte medium, and a dollar store paintbrush.

I had collected some cinders from a local railway yard.  I sifted them through a mesh strainer–not the good one from the kitchen, rather a dollar store item.  I wound up with a nice bag of very fine real cinders.  But I did not care for stray particles of ballast being picked up by a magnet–loco motors may do the same thing, to the detriment of the motor.   So much for that!–I thought…  It turned out that my fears may have been unfounded.  UK EM gauge model rail club Shipley Model Railway Society — — uses real cinders, and reports no problems with their use.

UK magazine Model Railway Journal recently ran an article titled “Modelling one of Britain’s least photographed stations” in MRJ #176.  Author Frank Davies of the Shipley club writes —

“It was our quest to effectively model scale ash ballast that first caused me to coin the term ‘extreme modelling’ for the Clayton project.  We had already discussed that the best way to represent ash ballast was to use graded fire ash which can be readily obtained from any of the steam preservation lines around Yorkshire, but processing it to produce scale ash ballast is a different story.

We initially intended to prepare the ballast using a mortar and pestle to break up the large pieces.  We then tried using a pepper grinder to create finer granules and graded the ash using a plastic tea strainer.  Not only did it take hours to create just half a jar, but we destroyed three grinders in the process.  On the plus side we were able to determine that the resultant ballast was exactly what we had been looking for.  Given the size of our layout, it was impractical to produce all the ballast needed in this way.  We therefore owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) of Exeter University………Cambourne School Of Mines who generously agreed to process our ash using specialist equipment normally used for preparing mineral samples for research.  

Frustratingly, the traditional use of diluted PVA glue to fix the ballast doesn’t work with ash; instead we are using small artist’s brushes to paint slow-drying polyurethane varnish around the sleepers and the ash is then sprinkled through our trusty tea strainer onto the ballast.  Once dry, the surplus is removed using a dedicated vacuum cleaner so that the recovered ash can be be recycled.  This process is repeated until the desired depth of ballast is obtained.  Finally, the sleeper tops are cleaned up with a Stanley knife blade as preparation for installation of the rail and C&L chairs.” 

While my cinders are not ground up from the real thing but instead sifted to fine particles, I thought this technique worth another try.  I painted some matte medium between the ties on my sample roadbed, dropped some sifted cinders on, and voila!


I like this!

Passing a powerful magnet over the completed ballasting work removed a very small amount of fine metallic dust–but nothing that would be too detrimental to motors.  Most dust appears to be trapped by the matte medium.  Besides, just about every loco that I run either has a can motor sealing the motor magnets from outside materials, and/or is high enough off the rails that any material remaining after sweeping the track with a magnet would likely not be picked up by the magnets.

A trip back to the real Santiago Yard site east of Lindsay will happen in the next week or two, where I’ll collect some more cinders, sifting it to a fine, almost useable, material on site.  No sense in taking home what I can’t use.