Plastic buildings for train layouts are readily available, but like any plastic model, it takes a bit of work to make them look realistic. You can get what you need at the nearest hardware store.
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.
The best time to paint figures is when it’s over 50 degrees, because the first step is spraying them with a coat of primer, which requires a temperature of above 50 degrees. The problem is that when it’s that warm, that’s when you’re busy keeping up the yard and other stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could prime your figures with something safe to use indoors?
It turns out you can. I’ve searched years for a brushable acrylic primer. Such a thing exists; I was just calling it the wrong thing. What you need is called gesso. You can order gesso online, or you can buy it in craft stores like Michael’s, Jo-Ann, and Hobby Lobby and use a coupon. If all they have is white, mix some black acrylic paint in with it (which you can get there as well) to darken it. Or mix in any other color you wish.
I took the boys to Toys R Us the other night to do some Christmas shopping and buy a little (very little) something for them. I ended up finding 99 cents worth of something for me, too, in the diecast aisle. I like to buy Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars and un-hotrod them for my train layout. And the Hot Wheels shoebox, with a small amount of work, looked like it would make a very passable 1949 Ford. So I bought it.
The next morning, my youngest brought the car to me as I was getting ready for work. “Daddy, will you open it?”
In the 1990s, there was a brand of collectible village called Liberty Falls Americana, made by a company called International Resource Services and sold in department stores. The product line consisted of porcelain buildings that are close to HO scale, but the figures are pretty close to 1:64 S scale. Made-to-be-collectibles tend not to hold their value very well, which means they’re still inexpensive today, and not hard to find on Ebay.
Set in the American West in the late 19th century, the figures are passable on a train layout even if your layout is set in a later era. Women in long, formal dresses won’t look out of place near a church, for example. Perhaps there’s a service or a wedding going on. Men in suits and hats work in that setting as well, and men tended to dress much more formally up to the 1950s than they typically do today, so the male figures in suits and hats wandering around the commercial district are perfectly believable on a traditional American Flyer toy train layout.
Then again, if you want Western figures to complement an American Flyer setup featuring a Casey Jones loco, the Liberty Falls figures are the very best thing you’ll find.
Sometimes the figures come painted and sometimes they’re just stained pewter. If you can score some painted figures, of course, they can go straight to the layout. Painting unpainted figures can be part of the fun too.
Painting figures for train layouts is a task that few toy train hobbyists relish, but we can borrow techniques from other hobbies to solve that problem. The model railroading and toy train hobbies have solved a lot of problems for hobbyists in other fields, and I don’t think we borrow from those other hobbies as much as we could.
One problem the miniature wargaming hobby has solved is painting large quantities of figures rapidly while getting acceptable results.
Hobby shops frequently carry a decent selection of figures for O and S gauge layouts, but if you look at the magazines long enough, you start to see almost all of them have the same figures–and they’re probably the same figures the shop near you sells as well.
There are ways to get a better variety of figures so your layout can have something distinctive about it–and the good news is you can save some money doing it as well.
There are few things worse than fumbling around in the dark under a train layout. So I mounted a ceiling-mount light socket underneath my train table to create a work light so that I could see when I’m working on my wiring. It’s another one of my 15-minute projects, one that pays dividends by making future 15-minute sessions more productive.
I did most of the work with stuff I had on hand. If you want to duplicate my project, you’ll be able to get everything you need at your nearest hardware or home improvement store, and the materials will cost less than $10. I provided Amazon links for everything, so you can see what these items are. Some people know what a wire nut is before they know how to read, and some people may be well into adulthood before they undertake any kind of electrical project. Yes, this is an electrical project. As long as you check and double-check all your connections and don’t plug it into an outlet until after it’s done, it’s safe. Respect electricity, and you’ll find there’s less reason to be afraid of it.
Yesterday I wrote about my greatest estate sale find ever. Well, the very same month as that one, I found another estate sale featuring a Lionel 1110 locomotive, which happened to be my Dad’s first train. So of course I put that sale on my list. The 1110 wasn’t among Lionel’s finest moments, but I’ll note that in 1986 when Dad and I pulled his postwar Lionels out of storage, it was the first of Dad’s locomotives that we got running, and in 2003 when I got them out again, it was the only one that still ran.
Well, this 1110 didn’t run. The motor assembly was cracked and it wasn’t worth the asking price. But behind the locomotive, I found some paperwork. “Build these realistic models!” it urged. It was marked $4. The tag warned it was very delicate. I took it out of the plastic bag it was in, decided against trying to unfold it, and bought it unseen. Continue reading Finding a connection to my Dad in a suburban St. Louis estate
I’ve advocated voltmeters on train layouts before, but I realized something, after checking out a new-to-me Lionel KW transformer: It’s very easy for a vintage transformer to deliver more voltage than you intend, and through no fault of its own.
The “problem” is that transformers step the voltage down on a percentage basis. In the 1950s when they were designed, household voltage was 110 volts. So a transformer designed to deliver a maximum of 20 volts stepped down to 20 from 110. Today, however, it’s not uncommon for the voltage at the outlet to be 115, 120, or even 125 volts. So that maximum throttle of 20 volts is now closer to 22 volts in this day and age, because you can safely assume the source voltage is 10% higher. And the voltage markers on your transformer, which never were all that accurate to begin with, will be even less accurate.
Most postwar Lionel trains are designed to run at 18-20 volts, so if you turn the throttle to the max, you’ll probably overvolt them. The situation gets worse with other makes of trains.
Marx and American Flyer trains run fine off a Lionel transformer, except that they’re designed for a maximum of around 14 volts. So it’s very easy to unintentionally overvolt those trains to 22 volts if you turn a Lionel transformer to the max. They’ll run, but they’ll soon overheat and the windings on the motor armature will burn and short out.
While one venue I won’t mention by name might advocate only using modern transformers, a more practical and sensible approach is to add a $6 AC voltmeter to your setup, to make sure you’re never delivering more than 14 volts to your trains. While you’re at it, you might add a similarly priced AC ammeter to make sure you’re not overloading your transformer either. See my earlier post for instructions on wiring them in.