Department 56 scale: The definitive guide

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.

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Tips for using Dept. 56 and Lemax-type buildings with Lionel trains

A frequent question I see regards the proper scale of snow village-type buildings, like Department 56 and Lemax, and whether they’re suitable for use with Lionel electric trains.

The answer is that their scale varies, but the buildings work very effectively with traditional Lionel trains, or, for that matter, 1:64 S scale American Flyer trains. Many hobbyists have built elaborate winter-themed layouts using these buildings. Typically the scale runs from anywhere from 1:64 to 1:48, with lots of selective compression to make the buildings fit an approximate footprint. The very same thing is true of the Lionel trains of the 1950s, so, intentional or not, they end up being a pretty good match.

The figures sold with these buildings, on the other hand, tend to be much larger–very close to 1:24 scale. This discrepancy bothers some people more than others.

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What is On30?

To a newcomer, and even many people with years of experience, the phrase “On30” is confusing. Basically, it’s O scale models (1:48) of narrow-gauge (30 inches in this case) railroads.

And that probably raises a few more questions, so I’ll try to answer them.
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Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

Note (1/4/2017): I wrote this blog post many years ago after deciding to try something different.

The approach to train layouts has changed a lot over the years and I assumed in the 1930s it was similar to the 1950s. I’m no longer certain it was. That said, if you want to know about how to make a 1950s-style layout that looks prewar, I have blog posts about vintage tin buildings and newer tin buildings that describe what I found after years of searching. If you want to know what’s available for you to buy for your own layout, check out those two links.

If you want to hear my questions that started my research, read on below.

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What day is it again?

Passing a few minutes before a movie started tonight, my girlfriend and I went into a nearby store to look around. And what did we find?

Christmas stuff.

Am I smoking crack, or is it still August?I probably shouldn’t encourage them, but I bought some stuff. Many of those collectible holiday village sets happen to be sized about right for O scale Lionel trains. Those that aren’t are usually sized about right for HO scale. I doubt it’s an accident. Around 100 years ago, J. Lionel Cowen convinced everyone that a train belonged around the Christmas tree. These days, ceramic villages and figures are more popular than the trains, and the big brands are every bit as overpriced as anything Lionel or MTH have made in the past decade, but they’re still sized so they’ll look right if a Lionel train escapes from the attic and ventures into the neighborhood. New traditions have a better chance of usurping older traditions if they fit in with them first.

These weren’t Lemax or Department 56. They were cheap knockoffs. This particular series of knockoffs pairs up O scale-sized figures with HO scale-sized buildings. Not my thang. I’m anything but a scale bigot but half-sized buildings get on my nerves.

But I bought a few figures. They came four to a package for a dollar. You’re lucky to pay less than $4 per figure at a hobby shop. For my four bucks, I got 16 figures.

Yes, the figures are dressed in heavy coats and there’s snow on the bases they stand on. So I won’t have them on the train layout at the same time as my open-top convertible 1:43-scale cars. But the availability of the figures makes it just as cheap and easy to make winter scenes, just like the 50-cent Homies figures make it cheap and easy to make summertime scenes.

Useless trivia answer: If you’ve ever wondered where 1:43 scale toy cars come from, they come from trains as well. The British decided that O scale should be 1:43, and Hornby decided it would be nice to be able to sell cars with which boys could populate their cities. The cars became popular toys in their own right, and the 1:43 scale was copied by other companies, so 1:43 scale cars lived on long after Hornby stopped selling O scale trains.

End useless trivia.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Useless Christmas merchandising in August. I decided I wanted 16 vaguely O scale figures in winter dress more than I wanted $4.24.

But I passed on the wreaths and the holly. I can’t think of any good use for those in my basement.