Use asphalt roofing shingles for cheap and easy roads and ballast

Last Updated on July 13, 2016 by Dave Farquhar

I saw a great idea in a train layout photo last week–you can make ballast for your track out of asphalt shingles.

My first thought was that you can get asphalt shingles for free when someone in your neighborhood is getting a new roof. Just ask for a few of the old shingles. Hauling the old shingles away costs money, so they’re likely to oblige. Or, if you’re impatient, some stores will sell you damaged shingles cheaply if you come in when business is slow and you ask. For best results, be friendly, and buy more than just the damaged shingles.

My second thought is that you can use gray shingles for ballast, and if you can score a second slightly different color from a different house, you can use those to make roads.

To make roads, just cut pieces of shingle to fit with a pair of heavy duty scissors, lay them down where you want road, and then, for good-looking curbs, lay down pieces of 1/8-inch hardboard cut to fit the size of your city blocks. I suppose you could use a third color of shingle to make sidewalks, for that matter, then butt those shingles up against the hardboard, then sprinkle your fake grass on the hardboard, or paint the hardboard green if you’re more of a tinplater like I am.

To make ballast, lay the shingle down, with the black side facing up. Set a piece of track down on top, then set a gondola or box car on the track. Hold a pencil tight to each side, then roll the car along the track. This will leave an outline on the shingle. Cut the shingle along the outline, then repeat. Lay the ballast down under your track, with the textured side facing up, of course.

You probably could manage straight lengths without using the car and pencil, but the trick makes cutting ballast for curved pieces much easier.

If you’re a vintage guy like me and you’re concerned about what materials were available when your trains are new, asphalt shingles were invented around 1901 and were in widespread use by the 1930s. So it’s likely that at least one roofer in the past thought that scrap and damaged shingles might look good on his son’s train layout and would have used them.

There are any number of ways to make roads and ballast, but this method is cheap, doesn’t make much of a mess, and keeps building materials out of landfills even though they’ve outlived their usefulness for their original purpose. It’s always nice to be able to make something pleasing out of something that most people would regard as trash.

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