Tuesday 24 March 2020

Bethungra - some thoughts on Trees, and Ballasting

Bethungra layout – Ballasting and tree making

Experimenting with tree making has slowed me down a lot over the last month or so.  The first lot of trees I installed, were those supplied by the Junee Broadway Museum, coming off their original now dismantled layout.  I have almost exhausted this supply.    Checking the ebay lists for more was disappointing.  Whilst I did find some more of the 3cm size I used for the Bethungra Hill, the bigger size  for foreground trees were far too expensive.  However, the size of the trees that I needed for the scenic forced perspective effect is around 5cm high, and there was very limited selection of any tree type in this size, let alone of gum trees

A small group of trees fairly typical of those on the south west slopes of NSW. 

Start of a windbreak.  Juvenile trees planted after the 2006 Junee district fire are around 13 years old
More trees in a sheep paddock

 This tree has a quite white bark, and an open canopy of leaves.  It was the inspiration for my initial efforts

The area around the Bethungra loop is open woodland, and farming, and this is what I am trying to simulate with the tree planting for the layout.
I am not a botanist, but eucalyptus trees (gum trees) are not the same.   Some of the varieties of trees near Bethungra Loop are Yellow Box, Forest Red gum, Blakely’s Red gum, Kurrajong, Ribbon gum, and Snow gum.  Then we have shrubs, like Cootamundra Wattle, and bottle brush.  A combination of the above would be most effective

A great little booklet, with colour photos and descriptions of 80 types of gum trees

I am not an expert when it comes to making trees.  Australian Model Railway magazine has had a few articles over the years.  (Check their on-line index for "trees").  If you are using real plants, the best looking gum trees are made out of dried sedum flower heads but these to me look mostly like alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatenis), and besides being fairly large, probably not suitable for Bethungra.  Seafoam (Heki) can also make some good trees, and there are a few great you-tube videos by Luke Towan on the subject.  I was told that you can buy seafoam in Australia, but "out-of-stock" was all I found.  

So after finding no suitable trees on ebay, my options were to make my own using the twisted wire method.
A selection of tools.  The wire I used was automotive - and contained 20 strands of copper

After cutting and stripping off the insulation, the 20 strands of wire were twisted into tree shape.  (An ideal task whilst watching the TV)  I have included a ruler to show the size of the tree.  Size is roughly 5cm high - around 8 metres in N scale.  This would be around half the height of a mature tree.  I am planning to install these in the background as a forced perspective trick

The trunks were then dunked into household flat plastic ceiling paint that was otherwise well past its use-before date.  Previously I had decanted around 2 litres into a plastic bottle, and poured a small amount of paint into a KFC plastic cup.  Once the trees were dipped, small droplets may form on the branches, and touch these with a brush and allow to dry.  The paint in the KFC cup poured back into the bottle.  The trees dry quickly, and the paint is flexible, so the branches can be rebent.
A dirty wash of used turps gives some colour to the branches.  The green foliage is  from Woodland Scenics, cut, and teased out and attached to the branches with white glue.  I was reasonably happy with the end tree, although the wire heritage is visible, and each one has taken me close to an hour to make.

One of the original trees from the old Museum layout.  They had been made using the twisted copper method, although with heavier copper wire.  The builder of these had used no-more-gaps to give the tree trunks some bulk, which complemented the heavy foam that is used to form the leaf canopy. 

There were quite a number of "dead trees" in with the museum supply.  I tried the Woodland scenics foliage on the dead trees to see if that would work.

In the effort to speed up tree making, here are some quickies.  They are basically woodland scenics foliage on a stick. They take under 10 minutes each.  Grouped, in the distance, they will probably be OK..

The Woodland Scenics foliage has an unfortunate characteristic, in that a lot of the foam in the fibre mesh is loose, and liable to fall out.  To counter this, I spray each tree with cheap hair spray.


Much has been written in the model press about ballasting.  Ballasting is not a without risks, so I thought I would share some of my experience.

         - Make sure the trains run properly before adding ballast
         - Adding ballast can create track problems due to expansion and contraction of the rails due to temperature changes
    Ballast can interfere with flangeways.
    -  Loose ballast can find its way into loco mechanisms
    - Gluing the ballast will add noise to train running
   Poor gluing can cause points or switches to stop working.
   Some ballast contains unwanted impurities, which can promote corrosion
   Ballasting too early can make scenery work harder

A successful model railway can be made without ballasting, but it is not finished without ballasting.

As our hands and tools are not scaled, most ballasting techniques will need clear space.  So, before I plant any trees close to the tracks, I needed to ballast.

Basic tools.  I transfer the ballast into a resealable container, as a nick in the plastic bag the ballast is sold in leads to a mess (ask me how I know). A film canister to pour the ballast onto the track.  A spray bottle to wet the ballast  The diluted whiteglue, and detergent mix in a jar, the pipette for transferring the glue to the ballast, and a brush, and stick to ensure that no ballast gets attached to the inside running rail of the track 

The area of track to be ballasted.  Basic scenery has been completed

After pouring the ballast onto the track, but before shaping.  You can buy  tools to pour and shape the ballast in one go, but there is something satisfying to use your finger to bulldoze the ballast into the gaps formed by the sleepers.  Remember, it is easy to add more ballast, and harder to remove - so take your time.  The brush and stick can then be used to clear the inside track running rails of any ballast  before gluing. A fingernail works too

Once happy with the ballast shape, mist the ballast with your sprayer.  Then, flood the ballast with your diluted white glue mixture.  I find the pipette very effective in dropping the glue exactly where it is needed.  The earlier painting of the track (covered earlier in the series), makes the oversized track "disappear".  Allow to dry for around 24 hrs
Another section of ballasted track.  The line of the original cork underlay is unfortunately visible, but one could add a bit more ballast, or some weeds to hide this.  The railhead needs to be polished too, before running a train.  I try and not use an abrasive  track rubber, but masonite is a good alternative with a little more elbow grease.

The last thing I do before returning to the scenery, is to locate, and remove the track fixing pins.  The ballast holds the track a lot better than the pins in any case.  If you ever need to adjust the track, the last thing you need is to have a pin preventing it being moved. 


A lot has happened world wide since I wrote my last Blog-post 3 weeks ago.  The COVID-19 coronavirus will have a different impact on the lives of all people, and we are all heading into the unknown.  But it is times like this when having such a great hobby as model railways, allows one, for at least some time, to escape to an alternate world that you have made.  In these troubling times, stay safe, and hopefully, we will all come through this a lot wiser.