KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

WEATHERING & BALLASTING
ROKUHAN Z SCALE TRACK

 

Any commercial products mentioned here are purely bona fide indications of what I have been using myself.
I have no connection to any manufacturing companies nor do I profit from listing any products or brands.

 
Rokuhan (which means "6.5" in Japanese, refering to the Z Scale track gauge of 6.5mm) track was introduced in 2011 and features an integrated trackbed which simulates ballast, similar to Micro-Trains' Micro-Track in Z and Kato's Unitrack in N and HO. The rails are nickel silver and have an H profile, aimed at providing better wheel to rail contact and thus current pick-up.
 

  Rokuhan track has become popular amongst Z Scale modellers due to the large and varied track geometry avilable; standard track pieces even come with either wooden or or concrete sleepers.

One criticism voiced with all makes of track with integrated roadbed, regardless of scale, is that it looks "toy like" straight from the blister pack. One could however argue that all model track looks anything but realistic as long as it is used in its original factory look and not weathered.

Rails on the prototype always display a variation of rust, dirt, grime and other residue from trains; colours depend on the location, season and weather conditions. In a larger modelling scale, time and effort spent in adding different shades and hues of colours pays off, but in Z Scale even a basic coat of rust or dark colour (easier applied before the track is put down permanently) makes for an incredible change in appearance.

Improving the visuals is even more important for modellers of North American railroads using Rokuhan track, because it is modelled on Japanese permanent way, which is closer to the European average of 2,640 ties per mile of track rather than the up to 3,000 ties on North American track (which Micro Track seeks to replicate). In 1:220 scale this means 7 ties per inch on Rokuhan track (as compared to 10 on Micro-Track). This difference is visible but it can be toned down with weathering.

 
 
 
The weathered rails in the images above have all been brush-painted using Revell Aqua Color #83, which is aptly labelled "rust", although under certain light conditions it can appear to take on a slightly redish hue. Rails on the prototype actually come in a huge variety of colours, so if you're modelling a specific prototype it is always worth checking either on location if possible or by looking up pictures on the web or in relevant books. Then again, you can simply go for the colour effect you like best.

Another matter of taste is the method of how the paint is applied to the rails. Using an airbrush is less of an option in Z Scale unless a complete re-ballasting is planned (as masking the roadbed would seem an arduous task), but using a very fine paintbrush gives excellent results. Some "overspill" is unavoidable in this small modelling scale but usually even creates an additional weathering effect. Using this method does have a tedious side to it, however, which is why track painting pens can be a real alternative especially if a substantial amount of track needs to be weathered. Woodland Scenics, to name a widely available example, offers three colour options, two of which are "rusty rail" and "steel rail" (the third is "weathered tie"). The lighter of these two colours needs two applications if used on its own but the darker steel pen can also be used as a base colour to tone things down a bit. The result looks good and applying the colour is a lot quicker and tidier than by paintbrush. Either way, the top of the rails need to be wiped clean with e.g. a small piece of cloth while the colour is still wet in order to ensure that elctrical conductivity is not reduced by the weathering.

 

 
Additional ballasting can take many forms and also goes a long way in making the Rokuhan sleeper spacing less obtrusive.
 

 
For regular modern mainline track I use Woodland Scenics gray ballast in "fine" grade (B74). It is just a bit lighter in colour than the Rokuhan trackbase, so for even more convincing visuals a very thin wash of e.g. india ink would be the solution.
 

I use a small food storage box about half filled with the Woodland Scenics ballast to provide a portable "ballast hopper" from which small quantities are spread out along the edge of the moulded ballast base of the Rokuhan track, using a regular size teaspoon - the back of which can be used to tamp down the ballast in a nice even slope to the height of the sleepers.

Again, because Rokuhan's trackbase is a lighter colour than Micro-Track's, it doesn't blend perfectly under closer scrutiny.

 

 
  The ballast is then fixed in place using the etablished method of applying a 1:1 mix of white glue and water with a few drops from a syringe of washing up liquid to help break surface tension and prevent the ballast from rolling up into clumps.  
 
This can further be avoided by applying the glue, water and washing up liquid mix close to the edge of the ballast shoulder where it will be drawn in by its capillary force, i.e. its ability (thanks to its lower surface tension) to flow into narrow spaces without the assistance of, or even in opposition to, external forces such as gravity. The effect is ultimately similar to blotting or household paper sucking up liquids, and it leaves the carefully prepared ballast undisturbed.
 
 
The ballast should be well saturated with the water and glue mix, which makes everything take on a "soggy" look. After 24 hours, all will be dry and set and hard.

This end result is also the reason why ballasting around switches should only be done in a very careful and restrained manner. Both the underside of the switch as well as the edge of the plastic roadbed should be sealed prior to applying any diluted glue in order to prevent the switch mechanism from clogging up permanently; this can be done e.g. by some tape (for the underside) and a line of paint (running alongside the edge of the roadbed).

In Z Scale it is even more important than in larger modelling scales to make sure that the ballast stays put where it is supposed to. One alternative way of ensuring this is to lightly mist some rubbing alcohol from a spray bottle over the dry ballast rather than use a syringe with "wet water".

 
Some modellers fully ballast Rokuhan (i.e. between the rails as well) even though it has a premoulded ballast base, while others put operational reliability above visual appearance. In any case, close-up pictures of Z scale track always look cruel, when in reality the track is always viewed from a distance which tends to blend the whole scenic setting for better.

For most modellers, ballasting is a tedious job - possibly even more so in Z than any of the larger modelling scales. The trick is to do it in steps over a certain period of time. Patience and diligence invested here will pay off big in the end when the ballasted track is blended in with the surrounding terrain.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

page created 6 June 2015
last updated 20 May 2018