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Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

How to build and paint miniature buildings (and make kids have fun with what they learn in school)

I found this tutorial on building a miniature building and a companion article on painting. The intended audience is wargaming, but the same tricks work for buildings for train layouts, or for kids to build cities for their Matchbox/Hot Wheels-brand cars or their action figures.To me, the gem was the technique on painting windows. I have never figured out how to draw or paint a glare on a window that looked the least bit convincing.

The most convincing way to get a glare or reflection on a window is to cut out the window, cut a piece of slide glass–or, in a pinch, plastic packaging–and glue it into the window. Or if you’re not going to detail the interior of the building, cut a piece from a gallon milk jug. Nothing looks more like a window than a window.

But for those times when that’s impractical, or for those times when you want a bit more of a toy look, the technique in this article is exactly what you need.

Don’t discount this as a fun craft for kids. Kids get bored easily, but this allows them to use their creativity, and it teaches them hand-eye coordination, problem solving, and it’s the only fun and interesting application of math I’ve ever found. If a child is struggling with division, like I did, here’s a motivation.

How do you turn this into a math lesson? Instead of eyeballing the size, encourage the child to figure out how big the building ought to be. If the building is intended for die-cast cars, measure a toy car. Then measure a real car. You now have a ratio. (Most die-cast cars scale out to somewhere between 1:64 and 1:76 scale). So, figuring that a one-story house is about 12 feet tall, multiply that by your ratio to figure out how big a floor should be. Measure doors and windows and multiply that by the ratio to figure out how big those should be.

The result will be toys that look better because some thought went into their proportions, and your kids might learn to enjoy math a little bit. I know I would have paid a lot more attention in math class if I’d realized I could use it to make cool toys.

At some point you might want to head down to Radio Shack to pick up some miniature light bulbs and teach your kids a little science lesson too. Horror of horrors, they might find they like that too.

Or, if your child is very inclined towards math and science, and hates art class, this might be a way to give them a bit more appeciation of what they learn in those classes.