How to determine scale of an unknown toy or model

A frequent question on train forums involves a particular diecast toy car, usually available for a limited time but at a good price, and asking if it’s suitable to use in a particular scale. It seems not everyone knows how to determine scale themselves.

I understand why. I’ve never seen anyone explain how to do the math to figure it out, but it’s really not hard. All you need is a search engine, a ruler, and a calculator.

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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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Convert scale between wargaming, diecast, trains, and slot cars

Borrowing materials and models from other hobbies can often be productive, and in the early stages of a hobby, often it’s a necessity due to a lack of products available. But it occurs to me that other hobbies borrow from model railroading more often than the other way around, and that means there are untapped resources available. To do that, you need a way to convert scale between wargaming, diecast, trains, and slot cars.

In that spirit, I present a chart of scales. Two neglected train scales, O and S, it turns out, can borrow heavily from elsewhere to make up somewhat for the greater selection of products available for HO and N scale. But this chart will, I hope, prove useful to other hobbyists as well.

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I was on vacation

I went on vacation and I guess my DSL connection got jealous. As far as I can tell it died two days into the trip. Figures. So that’s why the site’s been dead.

If it interests youm I’ll tell you about my trip.I went with the girlfriend’s family to Orange Beach, Alabama, which is close to Pensacola, Florida. In Alabama the beaches are just about as white and much easier to walk on because it’s softer, but the shell hunting is better across the Florida border.

My St. Louis buddies say I’ve already lost the twang I picked up down there. That’s a good thing. I’m a northern boy.

Train fans will have something to look at near the intersection of highways 59 and 98 in Foley, AL. An old Louisville & Nashville diesel switcher locomotive, L&N caboose and boxcar are there, along with a St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) boxcar. They appear to be in reasonably good condition.

The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is excellent. I could spend days there. Take the 11 AM restoration tour if at all possible. They take you out into the airfield where planes that won’t fit in the museum are displayed, but they also take you inside the hangar where you can see their works in progress. In front of the hanger was what was left of a Brewster Buffalo, an early Navy fighter from World War II. It’s something of a holy grail today, because its ineffectiveness against the Japanese Zero doomed it early in the war. We sold a bunch of them to Finland and palmed a few more off on the British while the Navy did its best with the Grumman Wildcat, which was slightly less ineffective, while waiting for the Hellcat and Corsair fighters.

But anyway, they had the *censored*pit section of a Buffalo in front of the hangar and another Buffalo inside, which was waiting for its wings to be installed and a trip to the paint shop. They were also working on a replica of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. She wasn’t in the Navy, but her role in aviation and women’s acceptance in it means the museum was interested in the plane. The widespread belief that the Japanese believed her to be a U.S. spy and shot her plane down doesn’t hurt, either.

For great fish and seafood, check out Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, AL. We had an hour and a half wait, which we passed by browsing the adjacent shops. I imagine that’s the source of most of those shops’ business. The shops aren’t earth-shattering but won’t bore you to tears either. The seafood is.

Flounders Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, Florida, is also amazing. Don’t ask me which one’s better. I think Flounders has the better atmosphere but the food in both places is first-rate. While just about every seafood place in the area is going to be better than Red Lobster, it’s easy to find disappointingly mediocre seafood in the area. But these two places knocked my socks off.

I made a new friend outside Papa Rocco’s in Gulf Shores. A sign outside Papa Rocco’s advertises warm beer and lousy pizza. Seriously, that’s what it said. I was walking across the Papa Rocco’s lot on my way to a souvenir shop when a woman started yelling at me. I kept walking but turned a couple of times. When I turned and looked at her, she yelled, "Yeah, I’m talking to you!" She wasn’t anyone I knew and she was obviously drunk. I have no idea why she was upset with me. I picked up my pace and got lost in the souvenir shop as quickly as I could.

I was crossing Papa Rocco’s to get a good look at Tracks To BBQ. Obviously if I’m on the Atlantic coast I’m going to eat seafood, since I can get good BBQ closer to home. But the ad for Tracks To advertised "Antique model train cars on display." So of course I wanted to check it out. Peering into the window, I was able to see that it was a small establishment, with only two or three tables inside. I saw a couple of Lionel posters on the wall and some assorted trinkets in the window. Further back, next to the cash register, I saw a couple of old OO or HO scale train cars that looked pretty old. What appeared to be a locomotive in the original box sat next to them. On a shelf below that I saw a postwar Lionel hopper car. I paid $10 for the same car at a swap meet last month. Nothing earth shattering there, at least not from what I could see inside. That’s not to say there wasn’t something cool running on a shelf under the ceiling, but I couldn’t tell from outside and the establishment was closed.

I’d hoped to see some prewar tinplate. Oh well.

The outlet mall in Foley is large and you can spot the occasional bargain. Some of the shops were handing out 40% off coupons for other shops in the complex. I got a pair of $50 Reebok tennis shoes for $20. I thought about buying a pair of the canvas Reebok Classic shoes as well. They would have been $12 with a coupon. I’ve had a couple of pairs of them in the past and they’re decent shoes. I’ve had shoes that were better looking and lasted longer, but in most cases I also paid $60 for them.

But as with all of these kinds of places, caveat emptor. I tried on plenty of shoes with lumpy soles. Those shoes aren’t worth taking for free because of what they’ll do to your feet. And mixed with the bargains you can find some high-priced items that are trading on reputation. Careful shoppers can save a bundle though.

I also learned that a large sand castle can attract a lot of attention. We built one large enough for a 4-year-old to hide in completely. It drew lots of looks and comments.

A model railroad scale conversion chart

Plans in model railroad books and magazines are often in a different scale from your favorite. Having a model railroad scale conversion chart helps.

I’m into O scale and the rest of the world, it usually seems, is not. Dimensions for published plans are almost always sized to HO scale, or even S scale of all things. Of course, after A. C. Gilbert imploded in 1967 and took American Flyer with it, it seemed like the “S” is S scale stood for “scratchbuild,” because building it yourself was the only way you were going to get anything, so I guess that’s fair.

Here’s a cheatsheet you can use to convert measurements from one scale to another.

Assumptions: O scale is 1:48, G scale is 1:22.5. If you use a different measurement for either scale, I’m sorry. This won’t be much use to you.

G Scale O Scale S Scale OO Scale HO Scale TT Scale N Scale Z Scale
G Scale 213% 284% 339% 386% 533% 711% 977%
O Scale 47% 133% 158% 181% 250% 333% 458%
S Scale 35% 75% 119% 136% 188% 211% 289%
OO Scale 30% 63% 84% 115% 158% 211% 289%
HO Scale 26% 55% 73% 87% 138% 184% 253%
TT Scale 19% 40% 53% 63% 73% 133% 183%
N Scale 14% 30% 40% 48% 54% 75% 138%
Z Scale 10% 22% 29% 35% 40% 55% 73%

Find your scale in the table along the top. Then scroll down to the desired scale and find out the factor you need to enlarge or reduce. So, if, say, I have HO scale plans I want to enlarge to O scale, I run across the top to HO, then down to O scale, and see that I need to enlarge the plans to 181%. If I have O scale plans I want to reduce to S scale, I run across the top to O and down to S, and see I need to reduce the plans to 75%.

You can also do this if a building you want exists in kit form for a different scale. Measure it. Then do the math based on the chart to figure out what size to build everything for your scale of choice.

Further reading

I hope you find this model railroad scale conversion chart useful.

On a somewhat related note, if you’re unsure what scale something is, here’s how to figure that out before you convert it. You might also find my cross-hobby scale conversion helpful.