Department 56 scale: The definitive guide

The Department 56 product line is rather extensive, but there are items they don’t produce and likely never will. If you want to complete your village with other items, or use Department 56 in other settings, such as a train layout, then scale might matter to you—and “Department 56 scale” is undefined. Here’s how to make sure the things you want to use together will go together, size-wise.

The answer, by Department 56’s own admission, is that it varies. But since I see the question come up again and again, I’m going to tackle it. It varies, but there’s a method to it the madness.

Why are the people out of scale?

I’ll tell you a story. When buying stuff for my train layout, I look for size, and when I find something the right size, I ask if it looks good enough. My wife, when she comes with me, will bring things to me and ask exactly the reverse. “This is nice. Is it your scale?”

The people are oversized because at the size Department 56 makes them, you can see their expressions and what they’re doing, and you can see it without being right on top of the display.

At least that’s my theory. What’s not my theory is that it sells. Department 56 has been doing this since the 1970s, with no sign of letting up. Since the formula works, they’re not going to change now. If the size difference bothers you, you can use different figures with them. If it doesn’t bother you, roll with it.

The figures work out to about 1:24 scale, if you’re interested.

Consider theme, instead of scale

This idea may be controversial, but hear me out. Department 56 has several lines of villages, some of which have a definite theme, like Peanuts, or the movie A Christmas Story. One thing you could do is outfit a Peanuts village with some of Lionel’s Peanuts line. And while Lionel doesn’t make anything themed to match the movie A Christmas Story, the movie features a department store display that features Lionel trains. Lionel’s current PRR Flyer set isn’t an exact match for what’s in the movie but the time period is correct. Lionel still uses a lot of the same molds it was using in the late 1940s and 1950s.

In this scenario, some of the elements might be a bit out of scale, but it would present a unified theme.

What scale are the buildings?

It varies, but most of the two- and three-story buildings work out to about 1:56 scale. That’s not what the “56” in the name stands for, but it’s an odd coincidence. But the scale varies, especially once you get into the larger buildings. Department 56’s Independence Hall is an example. The Dept. 56 version stands 13.5 inches tall, which works out to 1:156.4 scale.

It’s a matter of practicality. If the Independence Hall were scaled 1:56 like most of its others, it would be over 3 feet tall, and probably more than two feet wide. There probably isn’t much market for a 1:56 scale Independence Hall.

The Department 56 Chrysler Building is even more extreme. It’s huge, standing 23 inches tall, but that works out to a 1:548 model.

Are Lemax buildings the same scale as Department 56?

They are pretty close. The four-story Dirk’s Bikes building, released in 2015, stands 11.73 inches tall, which works out to approximately 1:57 scale. Their 2-story buildings frequently are a bit shorter than a similar Department 56 building but are still within range.

At times you may have to be careful with placement, but it’s certainly possible to make them work together. Generally speaking, if you use the two brands together, the Department 56 buildings will look a bit larger, and perhaps a bit more majestic. But you see this in the real world too. Not every building in the same neighborhood is built to the same standard.

The figures are similar in size as well, at around 3 inches.

What exactly is scale?

Scale is just a ratio of the size of the model in relation to the real thing. A 1:2 model is half-size. A 1:160 model is 160 times smaller than the real thing.

Some hobbies express scale by a name other than a ratio. Trains are one example. 1:48 scale is called O scale. 1:64 scale is called S scale, 1:76 scale is called OO scale, and 1:87 scale is called HO scale. Notice that none of these scales line up precisely with the 1:56 scale I calculated for Department 56, but it’s still possible to make it work.

How is scale calculated?

I prefer to calculate scale by measuring the height of a known real object, such as a door. For modeling purposes, we usually assume doors are 84 inches tall (7 feet). Measure the height of the model, then do the math—we’ll get to that in a minute.

Using millimeters gives better precision, but you can get in the neighborhood quickly using inches if you’re comfortable with that. Just be consistent. If you measure the model in inches, convert the size of the real thing to inches as well. If you measure in millimeters, convert the size of the real thing to millimeters too.

So, if a door on a model is 1.25 inches tall, here’s the math:

84/1.25 = 67.2

That’s close enough to 1:64 that 1:64 was likely the target scale. Rounding errors can cause that kind of variance, or maybe the building was modeled after a building that had an 80-inch door. 80 divided by 1.25 is exactly 64.

If you can’t measure the door, you can go by building height. First you need to determine the height of the model.

We’ll take the Independence Hall model as an example. The real building is 176 feet tall, something easily verifiable by Google. The model is 13.5 inches tall, also verifiable by Google. 176 feet works out to 2,112 inches. Divide 2,112 by 13.5, and you get 156.4, dangerously close to the 1:160 scale of N scale trains. Tiny N scale isn’t what usually comes to mind when thinking of Department 56.

When the model can’t be determined, you can estimate the height of the real thing. A single story of a building is typically 10-20 feet tall; 14 feet is a comfortable medium. That would put the height of a believable 3-story building at 42 feet tall, or 502 inches. If the model is 9 inches tall, which most Department 56 3-story buildings are, divide 502 by 9, and you get 56, so the building is about 1:56 scale.

If a two-story building is 6 inches tall, which most Department 56 2-story buildings are, then we can take 336 inches, divide it by 6, and we once again get 56.

I used to have a small number of Department 56 buildings for my train layout, and I measured those at 1:48 scale based on the size of the door. But it’s just as likely they rounded the size of the door up to the nearest quarter-inch. There isn’t much distance between 1:48 and 1:56.

Fudging scale

Those of us who like trains any size other than HO or N scale have to learn how to make out-of-scale items look believable, practically as a matter of survival.  So it’s possible to make Department 56 and similar competing buildings work with a fairly wide variety of scales if you want. You’ll need to be selective about what you use at times, but it’s possible to make it work.

G scale

G scale is a bit of an oddball, since the scale varies from 1:22 all the way up to 1:32. But, coincidentally, Department 56 figures are about 1:24 scale, so their size fits in very well with G scale trains.

The danger you would run into with teaming up a G scale train with Department 56 figures and buildings is that the train will dwarf the buildings. Chances are you’ll either love it or think it makes it look like some kind of miniature golf course or amusement park.

The good news is, very inexpensive G scale sets are available, especially around the holidays, so you can cheaply experiment with a G scale train with your village if you wish.

1:43 scale

I bring up 1:43 because it’s a popular scale for collectible model and diecast vehicles, such as Brooklin Models, and Brooklin releases a lot of older, nostalgic-looking vehicles that could fit in well with older, nostalgic-looking buildings.

Using 1:43 vehicles with Department 56 isn’t an uncommon stretch. Fans of O scale trains use 1:43 vehicles on their layouts due to a lack of 1:48 scale vehicles to use, so 1:43 is the closest size. A mix of 1:43 vehicles, Department 56 buildings, and O scale figures would give a reasonably well proportioned display where everything fits. Department 56 figures will dwarf the vehicles, just not quite as much as they dwarf the buildings.

O scale

O scale trains are a bit of a special case, because their size varies. Strictly speaking, O scale is supposed to be 1:48 scale, but the most popular manufacturer of O scale trains, Lionel, made most of its O scale trains smaller during its history. Coincidentally, much of what Lionel produced from 1945-1969, at the height of its popularity, were very close to 1:56 scale. And while Lionel makes a lot of true 1:48 scale trains today, the trains in its starter sets, where they package together a train, track, and transformer, tend to be made from the same tooling from the 1950s, so the size goes extremely well with Department 56.

Marx train with Department 56
This display features Department 56 and a 1940s tin Marx train running on modern Lionel O scale track. Note how the painting-like qualities of the building and the train blend together into a whimsical, surreal display. Marx was a longtime competitor of Lionel. Photo credit: Thomas J. Martin

I’ll throw out another idea. Department 56 buildings tend to look more like a painting than like a model, almost surreal. There was a time when Lionel and its competitors made their trains out of tin, printing the designs on tin using a lithographic process and then punching out and forming them. Tin lithography is pretty much a lost art today, but a consist of lithographed cars pulled by a steam engine would look the part, and need not be expensive.

S scale

S scale is 1:64 scale, a very popular scale for inexpensive diecast vehicles that, coincidentally, tend to steer toward vintage. It’s not an especially popular scale for trains today, but the American Flyer trains of the 1950s and 1960s were 1:64 scale, and they retain a cult following today. Department 56 is slightly oversized for 1:64, but only slightly, and since the buildings tend to use selective compression in order to fit in packaging and on store shelves, a slightly-undersized train and/or vehicles is hardly noticeable.

1:64 is definitely the closest die-cast scale to Department 56, and S scale trains are the second-best match, size-wise.

If you want to make sure the buildings you’re buying or already have aren’t too big for S scale, 10 feet works out to 1.875 inches, so a 1-story building ought to be between 1.875 and 3.75 inches tall. It follows that a tall 2-story building could be up to 7.5 inches tall, and a tall 3-story building can be up to 11.25 inches tall. Since most 2-story Department 56 buildings are about six inches tall and their 3-story buildings are about nine inches tall, they fall well within the range of believability in S scale.

OO scale

OO scale isn’t common in the United States but it’s the most popular size of train in the United Kingdom. Some of their products are British-themed, so wanting to pair a OO train with Department 56 isn’t out of the question.

In 1:76 scale, 10 feet works out to about 1.57 inches. So that means a 1-story building should be somewhere between 1.57 and 3.14 inches tall, and it follows that a tall 2-story building can be up to 6.28 inches tall, and a tall 3-story building can be up to 9.42 inches tall. This means Department 56 buildings will be on the tall side in OO scale, but within the realm of possibility.

Hot Wheels/Matchbox

The actual scale of Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and similar cars varies because the goal is for the cars to all fit in the same sized package. As a result, a small car like a VW Beetle can end up being rather close to 1:55 scale, while a large pickup truck can end up being much closer to 1:87 (HO) scale.

So there’s really no reason why you couldn’t display Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars with Department 56 buildings. The vehicles tend to be on the small side but they aren’t too small to fit in.

HO scale

By far the most popular size of train in the United States is HO scale, which means whatever era and whatever part of the country you’ve decided to place your village, you can find an appropriate HO scale train for it—guaranteed. Your chances of finding era-appropriate HO scale figures and vehicles are pretty good too.

The downside is that Department 56 buildings are very much on the large side for HO scale. In 1:87 scale, 10 feet works out to 1.38 inches. So a 1-story building should be between 1.38 and 2.76 inches tall, so a tall 2-story building will work out to 5.52 inches tall, and a tall 3-story building will work out to 8.28 inches tall. Some buildings will make it into this range but many do not.

There are certain types of buildings that will lend themselves to HO scale with a great deal of leeway. A church or a movie theater, for example, frequently doesn’t have architectural details that betray where the floors are supposed to be inside, so any oversized movie theater merely becomes a movie palace in a too-small scale, and a church becomes a larger church or cathedral.

Disguising scale differences

This layout featuring Department 56 buildings and figures and a Marx train (American Flyer sized running on Lionel track) does everything right. Photo credit: Thomas J. Martin
This layout featuring Department 56 buildings and figures and a Marx train does a great job of not only disguising but taking advantage of the scale differences in play. The oversized truck is way out front and figures are slightly away from the buildings. As a result, the display looks larger than it is. Photo credit: Thomas J. Martin

So let’s say you have buildings from different product lines, perhaps even some items from different manufacturers, and they aren’t all the same scale but you want to use them together. How can you do it?

The trick is to place larger items toward the front, and put the smaller items toward the back. This not only disguises the scale, but it also makes your display look larger because the smaller items toward the back end up looking more distant than they are. You can elevate the smaller items so they will still be visible, and this tends to heighten the illusion.

When you place undersized or oversized items in your village, you’re more likely to get away with it if you don’t place something right next to it that betrays the size difference. This is evident in the picture above–the oversized truck is way out in front, and most of the people are out away from the buildings, making the scene look larger than it is, given that it’s taking up an area of about two feet by four feet.

I’ve even seen O scale train layouts with Department 56 skyscrapers on it to evoke the look of New York City. The buildings are 1/10 the size they need to be to approach proper scale, but they still look impressive. They still tower over all of the other buildings, and they’re the first thing people notice, and by placing them somewhere that the entry doors aren’t visible, the illusion works better than it probably should. And let’s face it: If you have one of the skyscrapers, it would be wrong not to use it. If you had more than one, it would really be wrong.