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I am at the point where I need to ballast my 9 track yard.  It's 3 feet by 22 feet in area.  If I use commercial ballast that's on the market,  I'm guessing it would cost about a couple hundred dollars in product. I've read that some people use chicken grit as a cheaper alternative.  A bag of 25 pounds at the local Tractor Supply store is $15.99 If any of you forumites have used it I would like your opinion on it. I've read that it is crushed granite, but am uncertain about the size of the grit,  is it a reasonable size that will look good with Gargraves track. What is its color and is it possibly magnetic, which would exclude it from use.

Thanks in advance.

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I ballasted my whole 20x13 layout with it and couldn't be happier with the looks and the price.  It looks like what it is: granite, just like the real thing.  The only possible downside is you have to rinse it yourself to get rid of dust and whatever they put on it for the chicks.  Get a cheap strainer for the purpose and it's quick and easy.


If you need to do a yard, however, they don't usually have nice, thick ballast like on the main lines.  I cut strips of foamboard to be level with the tops of the ties between the tracks.  Then, I covered it all over with a mix of dirt, cinders, and a little ballast, and glued it down.  Doing it this way saved a lot of material.


Ballasting was one of the things I enjoyed most - have fun!


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@third rail posted:

What is its color and is it possibly magnetic, which would exclude it from use.

While granite in general isn't magnetic, it can have strands of iron through it, those will be magnetic.  I was fascinated by this effect on a bathroom granite top, the magnetic toothbrush head would stick to it in the veins of iron.   I suspect there's not enough of the iron through it to be a big problem.  You could also just use a strong magnet and separate any magnetic material.

Thanks for the quick response.  I too have buried my tracks with foam board to the tops of the ties. So I think I won't be needing a great deal, but more than one 25 lb bag.

On a section of my layout I used blasting grit for ballast and ground cover.  I didn't like it as the blasting grit is too shiny,  kind of small for O gauge (would look better in the smaller gauges). Also it was magnetic so I had to make sure that the grit was firmly glued down.

I also tried masonry cement but that also is magnetic,  want to keep small particles away from those motors.

So I'll go with the chicken grit and if it's too bright a color I will tone it down with dirt and cinders. Also I will add black India ink to my diluted glue .

I also use foamcore to raise the area between yard tracks or anyplace where the ties are somewhat buried.

One can always search around and find a cheaper alternative.  However, the idea that commercial ballast is too expensive is not true in comparison to other train related purchases.

To put it in perspective, a 5 pound bag of my ballast will cover 22 feet of Atlas O or GarGraves track.  And, I can fit 5 bags of my ballast in a USPS Priority Mail Medium Flat Rate box for 17.10 shipping.  So, 25 pounds of Brennan’s Better Ballast (if you need that much) is about equal to the cost of a Lionel , MTH or Atlas O boxcar, or even less than a Menards or Woodland Scenics pre-built kit .  Remember, ballast is a limited expense. In the grand scheme of things, you will purchase many more train cars or buildings.  And, even on the largest layout, using 10 or more bags of ballast, the cost will be less than the cost of a mid range steam engine. And if your layout is that big, I offer a discount on 10 or more bags.

The point is, I have many satisfied customers and I don’t expect to get everyone’s ballast business. But, before you make a decision on a major scenic element of your layout, don’t base it solely on a misguided sense of economy.

My new 2nd home is surrounded by granite rocks.

But I will need a chain-gang to make them small enough for my new layout.

Rubber ballast was an idea, does anyone still make it, or do I need to grind up old tires to get some.

I have be also told to heat home-made ballast to kill any seeds or critters living in it, so BBQ time.

Having used lots of different ballast materials, I have to say "use a commercial ballast in the size and color you find works best on your layout".  After you get done cleaning and picking through the bargain stuff its not really a bargain anymore.  I do not subscribe to the ballast vs car cost argument, but the point is if you want your layout to look its best after all the investment already sunk,  why would you cheap out on something that really draws attention?

But they are your pennies, spend them where you want to.   

Yes, chicken grit is one of several DIY alternatives that are lots of fun and can produce superlative results. Even if one doesn't care about money, many of us get great satisfaction from the clever use of simple materials--just as they did out of necessity in the old days. If there is any area where the saying "it is the journey, not the destination" applies, it is in layout building, IMO. Otherwise, you could just hire a professional to build your layout while you go on a world cruise.  ("Compared to the price of a Lionel 400E State set..." )

A note on color:  As several have said, it is very easy to color stone to any shade you decide. Washes, such as ink/alcohol mixtures often work extremely well.

Last edited by Avanti

I also don't believe the " price equivalent to a boxcar" theory.  Besides the body of yard track, there are also the yard lead, runaround track and engine facility tracks that have to be ballasted. Plus the area between the tracks also will need ballast not as much as the tracks but maybe 1/3-1/4 the amount. So if a 5 pound bag at $15 will do 1 track 22 feet long and I have 9 body tracks,  that's $135 plus $45 for in between and another $60 minimum for the rest of the yard.  Looking at $240 just for ballast , doesn't include any other scenery.  More like the price of a second hand command locomotive.

I'm on a very tight budget so I'll either take my chances on chicken grit or will find another inexpensive alternative.

Here's a picture of an area that I used black blasting grit.  Also contains HO sized ballast as a gravel drive. Coated the blasting grit with several coats of flat varnish to tone down the shine.



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Third rail. In my  "price equivalent to boxcar theory" as you put it, I'm specifically referencing  an order for 5 bags or 25 pounds of ballast.  I wasn't speaking directly to your yard situation but to the idea that commercial ballast is not expensive when compared to  other train related expenses. Like one's track,  it's a finite outlay as opposed to purchasing boxcars, engines, buildings etc.

Having said that, I take no issue with anyone who wants to save money wherever they can, for whatever reason. This is a hobby to be enjoyed however one wishes to approach it!

By the way, I really like your blasting grit!

Last edited by DennisB

I used Chicken grit on my last section of layout.    I got the size for baby chicks and it looked great.   It was crushed marble in my case not granite.    The smaller size looked most like my O scale ballast in other areas.     the only downside was it was bright white.     I sprayed it down with diluted black ink.   Mostly alcohol with a little ink.    I can't remember what the ink is called but it is the very black stuff.    A little goes a long way.    It is still lighter than my gray stuff, but not too bad.

If I buy chicken grit my wife will see it and insist we get baby chicks so it can be used on them *lol*. Seriously it all comes down to your budget and also what your own want and desires are. I have used clay cat litter for ballast, and it didn't work badly (I sort of 'blipped it' in a coffee grind to make it a bit smaller, it worked). When I get to the ballast phase *hah* of my layout sort of in progress, I prob will use commercial, but if the budget is tight I prob will use chicken grit or something like it, and maybe use an old trick with spray paint if I don't like the color.

@DennisB posted:

Third rail. In my  "price equivalent to boxcar theory" as you put it, I'm specifically referencing  an order for 5 bags or 25 pounds of ballast.  I wasn't speaking directly to your yard situation but to the idea that commercial ballast is not expensive when compared to  other train related expenses. Like one's track,  it's a finite outlay as opposed to purchasing boxcars, engines, buildings etc.

Having said that, I take no issue with anyone who wants to save money wherever they can, for whatever reason. This is a hobby to be enjoyed however one wishes to approach it!

By the way, I really like your blasting grit!

No offense taken.  With this hobby you can spend as much or as little as you like.  The idea is to have a little fun and show off your creativity.

BTW,  I decided to scenick the devil's strip with ordinary dirt,  I bought a bag of top soil and cooked it for an hour to sterilize it then double sifted for size. Then added some dollar store lichen and chip brush bristles for weeds.  If I am thrifty with the extraneous then I can spend a little more on specifics.



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I've also been looking at using chicken grit to ballast my layout.  I ordered a 5 pound bag of chick grit from Amazon (Manna Pro brand, which also seems to be the brand carried by Tractor Supply).  Did a small test section on my layout (not glued down).  I'm torn on the color; part of me likes the more red/brown but I do think gray would also look nice.  Tried a gray/black paint wash but it only seemed to darken the ballast and didn't take away any of the red.  (The lighter gray you see is another test I did with cat litter).  Any opinions on the color of the chick grit here?



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The chicken grit I bought locally was the decomposed granite white and grey color. Looks like depending on where you live the grit may be different colors - like the granite it comes from.  I've posted different ballast colors on my layout. While "white" is more prototypical in the midwest (Illinois) I prefer the darker grey ballasts because they tend to hide the black center rail. All a matter of personal preference.  ballast options

I've also used sand and coffee grounds for different ground applications but not for ballast.

Here’s an alternative that I’ve settled on exclusively (third layout).    I use polymeric sand (landscapers use it between pavers—new generation product)).  Contour it where you want it, wet it with water and the binder sets it up quickly.

You can easily add vegetation, oil spots, etc. but there is no painting needed.

9CF1AA1E-78BA-4043-86A8-F5BC1FF9003AAA5F060F-9537-4156-ABB4-4BB3F5E988D468F7E57F-AF7D-49BF-B2C4-9C4E5B94D5FD It comes in two or three basic colors, grey, tan, etc.  

It’s available in most hardware and big box stores at less than $25 +/-  per 40-60lb bag.  If you need to change your track plan, a dull chisel makes quick work of removal.  I have 2 bags for my 1600 sq ft operating (card system) layout.  


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To each his own, but I found stone dust at the local rock crushing plant at $5 - $10 (total) for 6-8 large grocery sacks full (Don't try putting more than that in the back of your car!) worked well. Hosed it down to get rid of the dust; screened it to size in a homemade box - 4 pieces of wood & a piece of screen; dried it a a cheap aluminum roasting pan - 275 deg. oven for 30 minutes. Result was over 100 coffee cans of ballast. Note: price was a tip to the guy at the gate of the rock crushing plant ($5 coffee break, $10 at lunch time). Prototypical? -- same as CSX uses for ballast just a finer version!


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Last edited by modeltrainsparts

Check out roofing granules in the roofing department of your Menards, Lowes, Home Depot, etc.  It's cheap, many colors to choose from and/or mix to get exactly what you want.  I was able to mix to almost the exact color of the Texas & Pacific light red ballast they use in West Texas.  It's clean, too, and while I ran a magnet through it before applying, I did not discover any that was magnetic.  I got mine at Home Depot (no Menards in El Paso 25 years ago),    Just another cheap alternative that works very well.


On my 027 toy train layout I have taken the easy way out and painted the area under the tracks light grey.  I was glad it was not ballasted when I decided to add additional track ties last year.  I used a some roofing granules, from my gutters, in the pit of my homemade turntable to act as gravel.

I have enjoyed reading of the ways and efforts others have posted on their adventure at ballasting their layout and all the sources of ballast.

On observing an old active IC train track that runs through City Park 9 hole golf coarse, I see lots of variations in the ballast.  It has had more ballast added and some ties replaced over the years and is not monochromatic.  Just saying, variation of the ballast color is not unusual on real train track ballast.


Last edited by Choo Choo Charlie

If anyone uses the polymeric sand - please read the safety precautions. It has very fine power/dust that is easily inhaled. Mixed with water it reacts and solidifies. I do not think you want that stuff in your nose or lungs.  I used it for a patio and ended up wearing a good respirator and protective clothing after reading the warnings. Not something you want to do indoors. But it is a great idea. 

At AGHR we used #16 construction sand (silver) for ballast. It's paintable and about the right size, but we ended up using it unpainted for stretches. We bought a 100 pound bag for about $10 and still have a bunch left over after ballasting a couple of hundred feet of track.

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I even used some from the surplus for my OGR Micro Layout contest entry.

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Last edited by AGHRMatt

I've also considered using sanded tile grout. Easy-to-use,  just lay it down and add water.  I  know it comes in a variety of colors,  most are to garish for ballast.  But the darker colors might be appropriate for sidings and yard tracks. Next time I'm going to the big box home center I'll check prices and particle size.

As an aside, this past week I took a ride to Chicago on METRA'S Rock Island line and spent the trip staring at the roadbed.  Limestone pieces quite white in color and they looked to be no larger than 2 inches. Being a commuter line, METRA does a great job of maintaining the bed for a smooth ride. But I'm trying to model a 1950's era industrial site.  So I want something a little less polished.

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