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 two distinctively non-traditional sources of figures, one for O and one for S. Prices vary, but so does selection.
We’ll talk O gauge first, just because there are more O gaugers out there. In the fall and winter, Dollar Tree sells a line of Christmas village it calls Cobblestone Corners. The buildings appear to be about HO scale, but the figures themselves measure 1.25-1.5 inches standing, which scales out to 5-6 feet in O scale (1:48). Perfect. Don’t get too uptight on the size variance–the five-footers are children. During the same timeframe, Big Lots and the large drugstore chains such as Walgreen and CVS often carry similar figures as well. They’re typically sold in bubble packs of four or five figures and they cost a dollar–a fantastic price for already-painted figures.
There will be some overlap or duplication, but there are ways to deal with that. I’ll cover that in the coming weeks, so feel free to buy up some duplicate figures to get the layout populated. If you don’t plan on a winter-themed layout, take care in picking out the figures. Some figures can work in any season, or can be modified to work in any season.
Two words: War gaming. Wargaming figures come in a variety of scales, but three popular scales are 25mm, 28mm, and 30mm. All of them are close enough to 1:64 scale to be suitable for an S gauge train layout. (I run primarily prewar American Flyer and Marx trains, which are 1:64 scale on O gauge track–I guess you could call it Sw6.67–so I personally use 1:64 scale vehicles and figures.)
The theme of wargaming figures is typically not railroading, but there are a lot of tabletop games that feature adventuring and gangsters and military themes, and most of those lines also feature a handful of civilian figures meant to represent bystanders, in an early 20th century setting. The police figures from a gangster-themed game would be useful on a layout, and the unarmed gangsters could depict just about any type of well-dressed gentleman. Armed gangsters could be used to depict any sort of criminal activity. Military figures would be useful for a number of things, such as depicting a parade, or a group of sailors walking around downtown would depict sailors on leave, and an unarmed officer figure walking around in uniform would be perfectly believable. Plus an officer figure painted differently could pass for a civilian. Many of the adventurer figures–“pulp” is the keyword to look for–could easily pass for the neighborhood mad scientist.
If you want a particularly imaginative layout, there are plenty of monsters and other things available in wargaming scale that you’ll never find advertised in any of the railroading magazines.
There are any number of wargaming dealers online, but I buy most of my figures from Brigade Games.
Keep in mind wargaming figures almost always come unpainted, so you’ll have to paint them. I’ll cover that in the coming weeks as well–it’s not as hard as it looks. I have no art education after the 8th grade, so if I can paint a 1:64 figure, so can just about anyone.
There are a lot fewer S scale figures in the magazines than there are O scale, but there’s nothing in O scale that matches the variety of figures available to someone with some imagination who taps into the wargaming source.