Cheap, effective terrain scenery

Most traditional toy train layouts feature painted scenery: After plopping the 4×8 sheets down on some 2x4s to make a table, the hobbyist grabs a brush and some dark gray and green paint and paints roads and grass on the board.

If you want something that looks a little better than that but doesn’t take a lot of time, here’s my method, which takes 2-3 hours to complete.This method works well for traditional toy train layouts and for wargaming scenery, where ultrarealism isn’t paramount. You can also mix the method with modern model railroading methods if you wish, if you’re modeling flat land or flat areas.

First, buy enough 1/8 inch 4×8 hardboard sheets to cover your area. If you go to Lowe’s and ask for Masonite, you’ll get what you want. If you go to Home Depot, you’ll have to ask for hardboard (Masonite is a brand name, and Home Depot doesn’t carry it). A lumberyard should also have what you need, if there’s one near you that the big-box home improvement stores haven’t run out of business. When I bought mine, a 4×8 sheet cost about $6, so this project costs a lot less than those Life-Like grass mats that some people use. And unlike those mats, these don’t shed.

I had the boards cut into smaller boards ranging in size from 1×2 to 4×2. I can then arrange the boards on my tables, leaving six inches between them for roads, and then I have curbs and stuff on my layout. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took the boards outside and painted them. Don’t worry if you’re a horrible painter; you don’t have to be any good to use this method. I used random spray paints (whatever I had) of various shades of green, yellow, and brown. The greens I had on hand had names like Hunter Green, Forest Green, and Meadow Green. All of these came from garage sales and estate sales so they cost me very little (25 cents per can, usually). Cheap spray paints from Dollar General and other private-label brands are just fine for this project if you don’t have it on hand or you don’t make a habit of visiting every single garage sale in your neighborhood every Saturday like I do.

Here’s an unpainted board.

Next, take a shade of green and spray it. Don’t go for total coverage. Don’t think of it as painting the board; just try to stain it.

Here’s a board with one coat of green on it.

Now spray a different shade of green on it. Again, don’t go for total coverage. You’re making the green look less uniform and more random. But leave a little brown still showing.

Now dust some yellow and/or brown over the board. Basically spray the yellow above the board and let droplets fall where they may. This breaks up the monotony a bit and gives the illusion of texture. As you can see, my yard isn’t a uniform shade of green either, especially not in March.

And here’s a closeup of what a board will look like when finished.

Let the boards dry out in the sun for a few hours, then you can take them inside and use them.

This method is similar to what British train manufacturer Hornby must have used to produce its scenic panels, which it sold before WWII. They’re quick and easy and cheap, and if you vary the shade enough and lay on enough yellow and brown, the result doesn’t look like the surface of a ping-pong table.

If you want, before you lay the boards on the layout, paint curbs and lay down sidewalks where appropriate. To paint the curb, get a good-sized brush, mask off about 1/8 of an inch from the edge, and then paint the edge and that 1/8 inch from the side with acrylic paint. A bottle of Delta Ceramcoat from a craft or discount store, at a price of about a dollar, ought to be enough to do the trick. You could mask and spray the edge with white or gray primer, but I find I can do this part about as fast with a brush, and using a brush and acrylic paints lets me do this part indoors.

If you want more realistic scenery, you can get boards and then paint a base coat on them, then spread glue on the surface and sprinkle Woodland Scenics materials on it. The result is quick and easy and portable scenery that looks a little more realistic.

Take the boards inside, arrange them on the table, lay down some material for roads, lay down your track and ballast (if desired), and you’ve got very quick, easy, and inexpensive terrain for your layout.

Getting started in eBay

When I was hitting estate sales this weekend, an individual holding a sale figured out I was buying things to resell. He assumed I’m an eBay seller and started asking questions about getting started in eBay. I thought they were interesting, so I’ll repeat what I remember of the conversation here.

Can someone really make a living selling on eBay?

Yes. But it’s hard work. Probably it’s as much work as Amway or similar schemes, but at least the majority of the money you’re making for your work goes to you, not to the people above you.

Most businesses can’t support the owner until they’ve been around for three years. It’s possible for an online business to break that rule and do better sooner, but don’t expect it. Plan on it being a part-time gig for at least a couple of years.

What should you sell?

Sell things that you know and love and will be able to find. You need an ample supply if you want more than just a little mad money, and if you aren’t dealing in something you like, you won’t stick with it. And you need to know it well, otherwise you won’t know a good deal from a ripoff.

A nice example from later in the day: I saw a very large collection of vintage 1950s trains that day, both Lionel and American Flyer, with some desirable stuff from both companies. To a casual obverver, the asking price would have been a steal. Book value on the stuff in primo condition would have been well over $1,000. But lots of experienced train guys, including me, turned it down. I don’t want to think about how much work it would have been to get them running again. Had they offered the lot to me for 50 bucks, I would have taken it, and then I would have wondered all weekend if I’d made a mistake. As it was, the asking price was too high, and half the asking price would have been questionable.

Why’d I tell you that story? You need to deal in something that you know that well, and that you love enough to be willing to spend more than a week fixing up if necessary.

You want some ideas? Here’s some advice on baseball cards, video games, and toy or model trains, specifically, Lionel, Marx, and Tyco. My advice to you is to look for something you know well, and like enough that you’re OK with being stuck with it if you can’t sell some of it.

Where do you find things to sell?

That depends on what you’re selling. I know it sounds evasive, but you need to decide what you’re going to sell, then figure out where you need to go in order to find those things.

Now, this is just a guess, but if your passion is collectible fishing lures and you live in Arizona, you may be out of luck. It helps if the thing you’re looking for is common where you live, but not necessarily common everywhere else.

Still need some ideas? Here’s my advice about garage sales, estate sales, and thrift stores in one particular area. You’ll need to know at least as much about your local thrift stores as I know about mine. And here’s some advice on finding vintage computers. If there’s something you’re better at finding than I am at finding vintage computers, then there you go.

What books do you recommend?

There are lots of eBay books out there and I can’t say any of them really blew me away. They pretty much say the same things. If you can describe your item thoroughly and accurately and provide good, clear pictures that don’t hide anything, you know 90% of what you need to know from those books.

It’s business knowledge you need, not eBay knowledge. Go to the library and read everything you can about the field that interests you. If you check out a book, read it, renew it, and then don’t want to give it back at the end of the renewal period, you probably should buy that book.

A good book or two about business can be helpful. Principles matter more than specifics. Times change, and they can change very rapidly. If you know specifics, it’s easy to get swept away, but if you have a good grasp on the principles, you can adjust to the changes. If you adjust more quickly than your competition, a change for the worse can actually benefit you.

Closing thought

When I was younger, I found myself doing things for the love of doing them, and it didn’t really matter much to me if I’d get paid for doing them. The field changed and it stopped being fun. Now I’ve found something that I think about when I don’t have to be thinking about it, and I’ll read about it because it’s enjoyable.

That’s really key. Going into business for yourself isn’t going to get you out of working, and especially not at first. I’ve read the books that try to tell you how to become a millionaire and describe a life where their income is pretty much on automatic pilot and they spend most of their time doing leisure activities.

That’s not what being in business for yourself is all about for the majority of people. If anything, they probably work a bit harder, because if they don’t, they won’t get paid. So you pretty much have to do something you enjoy in order to stay motivated.

It’s not an easy road, but it’s not an impossible one either.

The second-cheapest way to get household necessities

The topic at lunch at work turned to saving money around the house earlier this week, largely because one of my coworkers suddenly found himself with full responsibility for his two pre-teen nieces. The coworkers who are parents started talking about the best places to get good used clothes, the best places to get food cheap, and other stuff. Not being a parent, I just listened. I’m not at that stage in life.

I’m in a different stage of life, still a relatively new homeowner. Yesterday I paid a grand total of $5 for an ironing board and a stepladder, two things I’ve been surviving without. I’m about ready to quit going to the hardware store and to Kmart.The secret is estate sales.

Estate sales are usually crowded affairs, as people swoop in from all corners of the globe to cram themselves into tiny houses in search of things that are rare, things that are cheap, or best yet, rare and cheap.

I see two types at estate sales. The first is the well-to-do, who are there in hopes of securing antiques and collectibles for pennies on the dollar. The other is recent immigrants, who are generally there in search of inexpensive household necessities. They already know the secret.

The best time to go to estate sales is either really early or really late. If you get there early–it seems like people show up an hour early sometimes–you’ll get the best selection but you’ll pay top dollar. In some cases I’ve seen things priced at literally 10 times what they’re worth. In less extreme cases, I’ve seen tools priced the same as a new one at Sears.

Then again, yesterday I bought a pair of small pruning shears for 50 cents and a sharpening file for a quarter.

If you get there on the last day, reality has kicked in, the sucker prices have generally gone away, and dickering becomes the rule of the day. Prices drop by a factor of two or three, and the later it gets, the more willing they are to listen to prices.

If you’re shopping for household necessities, this is a good thing. The antique furniture dealers have no interest in ironing boards and laundry baskets and trash cans. Recent immigrants do, but chances are they already have those things. Stuff like this is often priced low to begin with, and it gets cheaper as time marches on because the chances of someone buying it are pretty low.

You can get household appliances cheap too. I saw a 20-inch Zenith TV marked at $50 yesterday. I know it works because they had it turned on. I’ll bet someone will get it for $20 today. I saw a washer and a dryer priced around $200 each yesterday. The washer was less than two years old. The dryer was a bit older but it was a Maytag. Those prices were decent, and could go way down if they sat long enough. If you’re willing to live without a warranty, you can save yourself a bundle. Two years ago I paid $900 for a washer and a fridge. A friend gave me a dryer. It looks like it could be 25 years old but it works and I was happy to save $250.

But yesterday I wasn’t looking for appliances. I wasn’t necessarily looking for household necessities either, but I’ve been needing a stepladder and a full-size ironing board. So when I spotted one marked at $4.50 and $6, respectively, I wasn’t going to pass them up. It was around noon, and it was a Friday-Saturday sale. They’d be closing up shop in an hour or two. Anything under $20 was automatically half price. I dragged the ironing board and the stepladder up to the checkout. “Five dollars is fine,” she said.

And it was fine with me too. I still remember the day when I went out to either Wal-Mart or Kmart (I try not to shop at Wal-Mart anymore but I did then), days before I moved out of my mom’s house for good, to buy household necessities. After spending more than $200 on things like trash cans and laundry baskets, there was still a lot of stuff I lacked.

If I’d known then what I know now, I probably could have gone to three sales, spent a grand total of 50 bucks, and ended up lacking a lot less.