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Imitating KATO Ballast

Since my Shelf-Top Modules are reliant on KATO Unitrack, the logical ballast medium was KATO's own product. Unitrack, as most are familiar, is KATO's track product, with built-in roadbed under the track. The roadbed is a flecked gray color, and KATO's ballast is color matched to be nearly indistinguishable from the molded plastic base.

That said, KATO's ballast has a few shortcomings:

  1. It's pricey, going for about a buck an ounce. If one is doing anything more than a few feet of right-of-way, the number of little baggies of the product (and the attendant price) will add up quickly.
  2. It has the unfortunate characteristic of appearing "glittery", even after a liberal application of matte medium. While a perfect match color-wise, there's something about the stuff that gives it that fairytale look that takes a lot of effort to subdue.

I had tried other products, but wasn't really too impressed. In some cases, not only was the color very clearly wrong, I seemed to be trading pixie dust for kitty litter.

Recently, while browsing a particularly well-stocked LHS, I saw Woodland Scenics' products, in particular their fine ballast line. The Fine Gray product seemed to be a dead ringer for Unitrack's roadbed. Absent only were the little black and white flecks that gave the "naked" roadbed its characteristic mottling. Then come adjacent WS Fine Cinders and Fine Light Gray ballasts to the rescue.

Hmmm... could work.

Buying the three containers, I find that a 1:1:5 mix of Cinder:Light Gray:Gray ballast out-KATOs KATO's own ballast. As you can see by the photos below, the color matches from afar, being indistinguishable from the roadbed, while holding up to up-close scrutiny as well. Clever blending around the ties, and you're not likely to notice where the plastic ballast ends and the real ballast begins.

There's nothing magical about the ratio. I just started with equal parts of the black and light gray ballast, and added the regular gray until the results looked good. 4 parts gray started to get close, but 5 looked almost perfect. You might also play with those ratios to get ever-so-slightly different colors, to suggest different rights of way (siding, say, with more cinders, branch with more white, etc.) while remaining within the Unitrack color spectrum.

Moreover, the price is considerably less than the KATO ballast product, coming in at about 30 cents per ounce, at least for the 32-ounce containers.

Of course, that presupposes you're interested in the granite-gray appearance that naked Unitrack offers. There are those that have deliberately sought different colors, but for those that just want to match, this is one possible way to do just that.

Sections: 1

 — Thomas M. Tuerke

Earlier this year, fellow hobbyist Eddie Stavleu posted a variation of this mixture, which found its way to the ttrak wikidot site. The concotion above is a 1:1:5 ratio, as described. Eddie's variation is 1:1:9. Cool; experimentation.

Having a few minutes of time, I thought I'd see how the two compare. The preliminary results? You decide. Click on the image to see an enlargement.

Plain Kato Ballast. The whitish highlights aren't white flecks, they're glinting reflections. Hello Tinkerbell! Can you see the pile of 1:1:9 and 1:1:5? (Oh, and note ignore the stuff I think looks like kitty-litter on the module to the left... that's still gotta go...) Same place, same piles, only closer...

The quick take-away: really hard to tell apart. From far away, you hardly notice (as the thumbnails themselves crudely illustrate.)

Kato's own product seems to be small bits of the plastic used to make the roadbed: ground up ABS pellets, or something similar. It has a slightly translucent character, and the cleaved surfaces shine, giving it that glittery effect. Also, the black "cinders" in the ballast mix are larger than the black inclusions in the roadbed (which could just be an optical illusion, depending on how close the inclusion is to the surface of the roadbed plastic... the proverbial iceberg: you don't see what's submerged.)

The Woodland Scenics products appear to be finely-ground clay or something. The three colors mentioned seem to be really close matches for the palette Kato uses. Both recipes, when put between the tracks, are pretty hard to spot. From about 2 feet away, it doesn't seem that you'd notice one or the other.

In short, it becomes a subjective matter: use which one do you think looks better. Or decide based on how much of each color you have, as there's plenty of leeway. Even though the ratio of cinders and light gray (the black and light flecks) to plain gray vary almost two-to-one between the recipes, the difference doesn't really stand out.

In fact, you're probably likely to rely on other factors—like lighting, and what track you use—than the recipe when making your decision.

The two recipes placed against old "wood tie" track. Small piles of Light Gray, Cinders, and Gray are in the foreground.

What lighting the ballast and roadbed are viewed under seem to have an effect, too. The roadbed has an ever-so-slightly bluer cast, and this is made more evident under flourescent light.

Varying Lighting
Concrete Ties
Flourescent lighting Incandescent lighting
Wood Ties

Finally, it seems that the roadbed itself is subtly different between the older "wood tie" roadbed, and the newer "concrete tie" roadbed. The older roadbed has a more pronounced texture, and seems to have more dark inclusions in the plastic mix (though that could just be an optical illusion, owing to the black ties, and the deeper texturing.) So you may find the 1:1:5 more suitable for wood-tie roadbed, but the 1:1:9 mixture for concrete-tie roadbed.

Texture, inclusions in both roadbeds

Or not. In short, it's your call. I really don't think there's a clear winner here.