Last Updated on October 18, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
People frequently ask me how to save money on model trains. After all, I write about them a lot. And I’m pretty outspoken about being cheap. Actually, cheap might be a bit mild.
It turns out there are plenty of ways to save money on trains and some of them increase your enjoyment of the hobby.
Buy a starter set with a coupon
Not many retail stores still deal in model trains. Hobby Lobby tends to get in and out of that business. If they happen to be in while you read this, and they offer a 40% off coupon this week, use the 40% off coupon to buy a starter set or some other hobby supplies.
Buy used to save money on model trains
The first thing you can do to save money on model trains is buy used. Model trains tend to depreciate pretty rapidly unless you’re talking the most exotic stuff. Used trains can sell for 1/3 the cost of new ones, or less. It’s supply and demand at work. There’s more stuff out there than there are people to buy it.
I buy a lot of used trains from Ebay. But there are other options. If you live in a decent-sized city, it’s likely you have at least one hobby shop who deals in used trains. It’s also likely you’ll get the occasional train show. Train shows are great sources for used trains. If you have a model railroad club near you, think about joining it. Some clubs are great. Some aren’t so great. But if you happen to have a good club near you, odds are some of the members will be more than happy to sell some of their stuff they no longer use to you. Many clubs even hold a swap meet once a year. It helps people clear out the boxes under their layouts, and helps newcomers get some new-to-them stuff affordably.
Other creative sources for used trains
It’s not hard to find trains at estate sales and while prices vary, you can expect not to have too much competition. You may also score some stuff that’s been out of production for years. That’s a nice bonus. Keep an eye on your estate sales. Odds are once or twice a year you’ll find a worthwhile sale. You don’t have to go out every weekend.
Garage sales are much spottier, but if a sale says it has trains and it’s near you, go. The key to trolling garage sales, though, is to have more than one thing you’re interested in. You won’t find trains every Saturday. You just won’t. But if there are other things you like, it can make going out worthwhile.
Fix up damaged trains
A really good way to save money on model trains is to buy and fix up damaged goods. I do this routinely. Even when I don’t save much money, I enjoy fixing stuff up and getting it onto the rails again.
When I do this, I generally don’t buy parts to fix them up. I’ll buy two damaged cars, put together one good one, and put what’s left in my parts bin. Beat up cars often sell for less than their value in parts.
Paint and detail inexpensive trains
Another trick is to paint and detail inexpensive trains to make them look like more expensive ones. Even if you do nothing else to them, spraying a bit of Testors Dullcote on starter-set trains to get rid of the plastic shine can do a lot to improve their appearance, and an $8 can will spray a good number of cars.
If you take it a step further and paint and re-decal them, you can really improve their appearance. And paint and decals cost less than new rolling stock. I have plenty of tips for decals.
Use craft acrylic paints
Here’s another tip. Rather than using expensive hobby paints, check out a big-box craft store for a close-enough match in their acrylic paints section. Instead of paying $6 for a half-ounce jar, you can usually get a 1-ounce bottle for around $2.
Don’t be shy about spending on your layout
One year nobody could figure out what to get me for Christmas so they just gave me cash. I was eyeing a $150 locomotive and then I realized I’d be better off spending that $150 on buildings for the layout instead. I can only run about three locomotives at a time on my layout and I have more than that. So I talked myself into spending the money on buildings that are always on the layout. I’m really glad I did.
For some reason, a $10 train car always has more value in our heads than a $10 building. It really should be the opposite. The buildings stay on the layout all the time. We’re always swapping around trains on the track.
In the long run, you’re likely to be happier with a starter set on a nice layout than with a fleet of trains running in a circle on bare plywood. So don’t forget about your layout in your quest to save money on model trains.
Depending on the materials you use, you can save a lot of money by building your own stuff. Especially in small scales, you can build buildings out of cereal box cardboard and after you’re done painting them, nobody will know the difference.
Use paper buildings
Here’s another variant on that theme. There are plenty of paper models around these days and some of them are very good. I’ve had some paper models I built on my layout for more than a decade with no problems. You can start out by populating your layout with paper buildings, then demote the paper buildings to the back of the layout as you acquire better buildings. You will find a layout with paper buildings and cheap figures looks better than bare plywood and it will help you maintain interest.
Speaking of figures, you can easily buy cheap plastic figures on Ebay. The scales don’t match up perfectly with model railroad scales but they are close enough, especially for the money. We’re talking 100 figures for less than 10 dollars here. For O scale, you want 1:50 figures. For HO or OO scale, 1:75 figures are the best match. For N scale, use 1:150 figures.
You’ll find the paint jobs aren’t the best, but you can touch up the worst figures with acrylic paints to make them look a bit better, or to tone down loud clothing.
Name-brand figures look better, but you can use these as fillers in the meantime, then as you buy higher quality figures, place them in the prominent scenes and use the cheap figures at the back of the layout, or even to make crowds for your nicer figures to stand out in.
In a similar vein, the same suppliers who sell cheap figures sell cheap 1:75 and 1:150 vehicles. The quality isn’t spectacular, but for a few dollars, you get 10 vehicles to get your layout started. As you get better vehicles, migrate these to the back of the layout.
Name-brand diecast cars sold as toys, like Hot Wheels and Matchbox, tend to be close to OO or S scale, so if you model one of those scales, you’re in luck. They’re a bit oversize for HO scale but many budget HO scale railroaders still use them.
Save money on ballast
Model railroad ballast is expensive. For larger scales, you can use chicken grit as a cheap alternative. Farm supply stores sell it. For small scales, you can use play sand. A 50-pound bag costs around $4 and you won’t use most of it.
Even if you don’t like the look of the alternatives, use cheap alternatives to stretch the good, costly ballast further. Put the cheap stuff down as filler, leaving just enough room for one layer of the good stuff on top. This can cut the amount of ballast you need to buy by 1/3 or more.
Save money on ground foam
Ground foam is a versatile landscaping material but it’s expensive. You can make your own by grinding up dollar store sponges in an old blender.
Tons of items sold for other purposes work just fine on train layouts. Many holiday village accessories, for example, work fine. Even if the villages themselves are out of scale for you, the trees will work fine. Buy them with a coupon when it’s allowed, or buy them at a heavy discount the day after Christmas.
Wargaming sites are a great source of repurposing ideas. Many wargamers work on tight budgets yet get impressive results. They’ve been borrowing ideas from us for years. It’s time we started doing the same. The tricks to save money on wargaming work to save money on model trains too. You’ll find craft stores, dollar stores, toy stores, and other places have lots of things that will work on your train layout and spark your creativity.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.