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© FEBRUARY 17, 2008  

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Building an Air Powered Ballast Tamper


Written by Carl Schmidt

With the start of building my own 1/ 8 th scale, 7.5" gauge railroad this past spring, I quickly was introduced to the large amount of "armstrong" work required to build even a small railroad. With plans for a railroad of over 3200 ',and after having tamped the first 100 feet by hand in 80 degree weather, blisters, a sore back, and out of energy, I thought there has to be a better way than using this dandelion spade

The dandelion spade used for tamping down ballast.

Air chisel and bit purchased at the hardware store.

I began my search for a better way with friends in the hobby and online at the Live Diesel group on This air powered tamper is not all my idea, as credit also goes to Bruce Saylor and Jon Hollahan, for their help. What I have done is taken a basic air chisel that you can buy at almost any hardware store for around $50.00, a chisel set that cost me $12.00 , a four foot piece of 1/2" steel rod, and two bicycle grips, and have made a real back and time saver for tamping track. The second picture is of the air chisel and the bit that I chose to use.

Cut the bit at the location shown above.

Arrange parts as show for welding.

Use heavily padded BMX bike grips.
The first thing I did was to cut the bit off just above the bit, at the location where it becomes round again (upper left). I then took the four foot length of steel rod and cut one foot off of it to make the handle. I then assembled the pieces on the welding table, the tip, then the three foot piece of rod, then the one foot piece centered crosswise, and then the remaining end of the original bit (center top photo).  I then squared them up and welded them together. You can adjust the length of the three foot rod as is necessary for different size guys who may use it. This just happened to be the size that fit me. As a side note, as I am not a professional welder and was just learning how to weld, it is necessary to get a good, deep penetrating weld on the chisel bit parts, as this is hard steel compared to the rod, and the hammering will test your welds. I learned the hard way and had to make a couple of trips back to the shop to re - weld it, as I broke my welds. It was good practice with the welder, but not very good for tamping production.

I then put a coat of black paint on it, and when it dried, slipped on the foam bicycle grips and attached them with a couple of zip ties (above right). Here is the finished tool, ready to work (left). This was a quick and inexpensive tool to build, in less than an hour, and has proven to be a real asset in building my railroad. See it at work in air tamper at work picture # 1. With this air tamper, I am able to fully tamp a 10 foot long track panel made of 2 x 3 plastic lumber, every eight minutes. I have used it for almost 2 hours straight, and did not get one blister or a sore back ! The most I was able to do at one time before with the old armstrong method, was about 5 panels ( and not in 8 minutes a panel either ), and then I was shot for a few days to let my hands heal back up. One other helpful hint is to connect the air hose directly into the air chisel, and not use one of the quick connectors. The quick connectors that came with my air chisel, after only a short while, would get hammered from the vibration and the air hose would then pop off. By threading the air hose directly into the air chisel, and having the quick connector at the other end of the hose eliminated this problem.

As I have gotten farther away from the buildings and an electrical outlet with almost 700 feet of railroad built, I now use a portable generator and my air compressor. This works very well, and I am thinking of strapping the two of them to a couple of flat cars and have my work train transport the generator and air compressor back and forth from the end of track. I hope you find this air tamper to be as helpful to you as it has been for me to help build and maintain your or your clubs railroad.


Written by Carl Schmidt

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