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.



Where were we?


Looking west at the site of Santiago yard, circa 1975.  CN steam loco 6060 is on an excursion train about to cross Lindsay’s “Black Iron bridge”. To the right is the main track of the Campbellford Sub., with the flat area to its left being the location of Santiago Yard’s three tracks, taken up in 1964.  –photographer unknown.

I’d left this off a few months ago as I got swept up in other things.  Back to some modelling.

The piece of layout that I’m building representing Santiago is a foot wide.  The main track and three yard tracks still leave about six inches’ room for scenery, primarily on what is the north side of the yard.  The above photo shows a small hill north of the main track. I would usually employ plaster-and’cardboard “hardshell” scenery construction, but decided to use Styrofoam this time around for its lightness and resistance to damage.


Fitting 1″ thick blue Styrofoam insulation to create landforms.  Yellow carpenter’s glue bonds these quite well to each other and the wood roadbed, etc.


I’m following CN practice for roadbed profiles.  Here’s 1939 CN Standard ballast sections showing a slope of 1.5:1 for ballast slope on roadbed edges.

Something that I want to improve on in my own modelling is to accurately model ballast sections and landforms.  Excessively sloped landforms would fail quickly in heavy rain and look contrived on a layout.


CN 1939 Standard Roadbed Cuttings and Embankments diagram.  Note again how gently sloped railway embankments are compared to those as modelled on some layouts.  


A knife purchased at the dollar store (Styrofoam will dull a good knife quickly) is used to rough cut the Styrofoam sheet to suit the slightly undulating land around Santiago Yard.

A steel bristle brush is used to smooth landforms and cut ditches next to where the track will be.  Behind the brush is the start of that small hill to the north of the yard. A regular full-size wire brush will remove material quicker.  This work will create Styrofoam dust–keep the vacuum cleaner handy!


Some 80-grit sandpaper smooths landforms to suit. A ditch north of the main track is being modelled here.

There was a fair bit of sanding, fitting more Styrofoam sheet to the layout, and filling to come….




Great reading from across the pond


Sold at Chapters and Indigo bookstores in Canada, the price of an issue of Model Railway Journal seems rather steep at $ 16.25.  But it’s excellent value for money!  These are iPhone images, so may not be in perfect focus   

I and many Canadian railway modellers’ first model rail reads were UK books found at the local public library.  My first train set in 1972 was an OO scale (running on HO gauge track as most commercial UK outline does) Tri-Ang Hornby CP Pacific set made in Britain.  I enjoyed a visit to the other London in the UK a couple of years back.  So I’m no stranger to UK outline railways.

For about a decade now, I’ve been a reader of UK model rail magazine Model Railway Journal.  Written by and for epicurean UK railway modellers, every issue is packed with practical  articles well and colourfully illustrated by some excellent modellers.  Scales range from UK N scale to G and larger.  Many articles are of models built in UK scales and gauges Protofour, ScaleSeven, and EM gauge.  Almost all are of UK outline railway modelling.

So what does this pricey magazine have to offer a modeller of a proto-freelance Canadian railway in Eastern Ontario?


Many articles are cutting-edge in technique and execution compared to what we see in Canada and the US.

At least one gorgeous UK outline layout leads off each issue, this issue containing an article on Scale7 seaside branchline terminus “Orford”.

Here are just a few articles from my latest issue of MRJ to prove my point.


Gordon Gravett describes how to model road surfaces, including the realistic modelling of puddles, potholes, and use of colour in modelling roads.  His books on scenery should be required reading for the serious modeller.  This article shows you many of his very effective modelling techniques as applied to his latest work, Scale7 (ratio 1:43) switching layout “Arun Quay”. (Then you might do as I did, and buy some of his books to learn more!)

Some of Gordon Gravett’s superb and inspirational modelling on his layout “Arun Quay” can be found here–


A new scenic tool that augments Noch’s Gras-Master.  Expect to hear and read more of the Flockbox “fusion”.


An excellent tutorial on 3D drafting and printing for the modeller.  The author discusses how to make one-off models, multiple copies of a 3D CAD designed part, and describes 3D pattern-making for casting in resin and brass. 

I pay about eight dollars for a typical modelling magazine published in the US.  MRJ at twice the price is a magazine that I read cover to cover and then read again.   It takes time and re-reading for all the great modelling and modelling techniques contained in each MRJ issue to sink in!  Unlike other magazines, ads are limited to a few pages inside the covers of each issue.  Most of each issue of MRJ gives you scenery, mechanical, and modelling tips that I’m sure you’ll use in your modelling.

If you’re at a Chapters or Indigo Books store in Canada, check out Model Railway Journal in the magazines section.

I really should subscribe to this magazine!