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Cheap train accessories from Big Lots

Yesterday while the wife was scooping up cheap groceries at Big Lots (also known as Odd Lots in some parts of the country), I spied some useful stuff in the toy section.

They were cheap playsets, priced at 99 cents and $1.99, sold under the “Mini Wheels” and “Superior” brand names.The 99-cent sets generally consist of two or three plastic vehicles and a couple of figures; the $1.99 sets feature a vehicle, a couple of figures, a building, and a random assortment of plastic scenery items such as signs, gates, and the like.

I picked up a school set, a construction set, and an emergency set. The doctor and the paramedic will look good with the Plasticville Hospital, which was one of the last gifts I gave my Dad before he died. Construction workers are easy to place, and the kids from the school set will look good in conjunction with the K-Line figures from Marx molds that I already have. The school building looks pretty institutional and will probably just be a generic building flat in the back of the layout; I’ll see if I can pick up a used Plasticville or Marx/K-Line school building cheap at some point.

The school set sports a table with an umbrella; I have no idea how that fits into a school setting but it’ll look great sitting outside my O scale soda fountain building. I may have to pick up another school set mostly to get another table.

The actual scale of the items varies a little. These are cheap toys, not scale models. Adult figures scale out to about 6’7 or so in 1:64 (S scale) and a little over 5′ in 1:48 (O scale). The vehicles generally look like they scale out to about 1:72 but some of them, particularly the construction vehicles, would be fine in 1:64 and passable in 1:48. The buildings are about right for 1:64. They’d be fine on any traditional-sized American Flyer or Lionel or Marx layout and even rivet-counter modern hi-railers could find some usable parts inside.

The quality of the paint jobs on the figures themselves varies. I’ll probably end up doing some touch-up. I’m not sure yet what kind of paint will adhere well to the rubbery plastic they used, but I may be able to get by with just spraying some Testors Dullcote on them, touching up the offending areas, and then following up with more Dullcote. You don’t get a lot of quality for 99 cents, but for me, improving cheap toys to give them a home on a train layout is a big part of the fun.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Big Lots, it’s that not all stores carry the same things at the same time. I have three different stores within reasonable driving distance of me and there isn’t much consistency between them. These sets have also been spotted at other discount stores but I’ve only ever seen them at Big Lots.

I got lucky and scored some cheap figures yesterday

Now and then I hear about people scoring bags of figures suitable for O gauge trains at dollar stores.

I finally became one. Here’s what to look for.Most dollar stores have bags of toy soldiers. Soldiers are the most common thing but sometimes you can score policemen, firemen, construction workers, cowboys and indians. Far and away the most common size is 54mm (roughly 2 inches), which works out to about 1:32 scale, and that’s much too tall for me. Whether that works for anyone else isn’t for me to decide–you’ll just have to see how it looks with your vehicles and trains. Personally, when I see figures that are 8 scale feet tall I think of the Nephilim, so I avoid them.

A few times I’ve found figures that were closer to 3/4 of an inch tall. Those would actually be great for an HO scale layout. It seems to me that I’ve found 1-inch figures (22-25mm) once or twice before too. I didn’t get any and I’m kicking myself. Those would be perfect for an S gauge (1:64 scale) layout, or for use on a larger-scale layout for forced perspective.

The best figures for O gauge are 40mm tall, but those are relatively uncommon. Many more figures are made in 45mm size, which is about 1 3/4 inches. That’s seven feet tall in O scale (they’re actually intended to be about 1:36 scale) but for most people, 45mm is probably close enough.

Yesterday I found soldiers, policemen, and firefighters in 45mm size, 53 to a package, for a dollar. I picked up a package of policemen because I figured it’s easier to make excuses for a police-heavy population than any of the other choices, and I figured police officers would be relatively easy to turn into other types of people. Besides, it’s hard to argue with 53 figures for a dollar, even if they’re all going to end up looking like Brad Garrett. For a dollar I can paint up one of each pose to yield six usable figures and then figure out what I’ll do with the 41 leftovers. I paid $12.99 for a box of 32 civilian figures about a year ago.

The figures you find in dollar stores are cheap Chinese recasts of figures from defunct companies such as Marx and Ideal. When the companies liquidated, the molds were sold, and those that survived ended up over there. Since the molds are in most cases approaching 50 years old, the detail isn’t quite what it once was, but we do have much better plastics today. And did I mention it’s hard to argue with a price of 2 cents per figure?

I don’t know if it helps any, but the package I bought was marked Greenbrier International, Inc., and it came from Dollar Tree. There is no other useful information on the package, and the figures are simply stamped "China" on the undersides of the base.

Who knows, I may go back for another package or two tomorrow. Five bucks would score me 265 figures, total. It takes me about 30 minutes to paint one, so that ought to keep me out of trouble for a long time.

Converting Bachmann On30 cars to O or O27?

There’s always a discussion about the cost of O gauge/O scale somewhere, mostly because it’s hard to find new locomotives for less than $500 and new train cars for under $75. You’d think this was a hobby for trial lawyers and brain surgeons.

One guy pointed out how much bang for the buck he’s getting when he buys On30.

Now, a bit of terminology here. O scale is 1:48 scale. One quarter inch on the model is equal to a foot on the real-world equivalent. O27, the cheaper brother of O scale, is actually 1:64 scale, though it runs on the same track. “Serious” hobbyists often look down on O27, but the nice thing about O27 is it lets you pack a lot more into a smaller space.

So what’s this On30 stuff and what’s the difference between it and regular O or O27 scale?

I’m glad you asked.

On30, On3, and the like refer to “narrow gauge.” Most train track in the United States has its rails 4 feet 8 inches (or 8 1/2 inches) apart. That’s “Standard gauge.” Occasionally, a railroad would lay its track 3 feet apart, or 30 inches apart, or some other measurement narrower than 4’8.5″. This was especially common out west in regions where they had to deal with a lot of mountains. On30 refers to 1:48 scale models of 30-inch gauge trains. On3 refers to 1:48 scale models of 3-foot gauge trains. On2 refers to 1:48 scale models of 2-foot gauge trains. And so on. I’ve talked more about On30 here if you want to know more.

Now it just so happens that the distance between the rails on regular old HO scale track measures out to 31.3 inches in O scale. For most people, that’s certainly close enough. O scalers have been living with track that’s 5 scale feet wide ever since we decided that O scale was 1:48, back in the 1930s or so.

So Bachmann, the makers of the cheap HO and N scale train sets you see at Hobby Lobby, decided to take advantage of this convenient accident, make some 1:48 scale cars, put narrow trucks on them, bundle some HO scale track and commercialize On30. So now it’s actually easier in some regions to get a Bachmann On30 train set than it is to get a Lionel O train set.

I found this page on converting Bachmann On30 cars to S scale. What the author did was remove the Bachmann trucks and couplers and substitute American Flyers. Since S scale stuff is even more scarce than regular O scale, this is a slick trick. And, as you can see from the pictures, for the most part the stuff still looks right. Rivet counters won’t like it, but if you’re a rivet counter you’re probably not reading this page anyway. For people starved for inexpensive trains, or for trains, period, they’re fine.

Well, I like my Lionels. I’m not going to convert to On30. But I don’t like Lionel prices. So I build some of my own stuff, and the stuff I do buy, I buy used. So I’ve amassed a pretty sizeable collection, even though I’ve spent a lot less than most hobbyists will spend on a single locomotive.

But I’m always looking for something new and different.

A K-Line passenger car costs $117. A Bachmann passenger car costs $28.

A pair of K-Line freight trucks costs $8. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

You can’t put freight trucks on a passenger car. That’s what I’m thinking. Freight trucks are different from passenger trucks for some reason. Something about people wanting a smoother ride than cows.

But you get the idea. $36 is a lot less than $117.

K-Line passenger trucks are $25 apiece. That’s more than the car. But $78 is still less than $117, though I’d just live with using freight trucks, myself.

If the S scalers can do it, why can’t we?

What day is it again?

Passing a few minutes before a movie started tonight, my girlfriend and I went into a nearby store to look around. And what did we find?

Christmas stuff.

Am I smoking crack, or is it still August?I probably shouldn’t encourage them, but I bought some stuff. Many of those collectible holiday village sets happen to be sized about right for O scale Lionel trains. Those that aren’t are usually sized about right for HO scale. I doubt it’s an accident. Around 100 years ago, J. Lionel Cowen convinced everyone that a train belonged around the Christmas tree. These days, ceramic villages and figures are more popular than the trains, and the big brands are every bit as overpriced as anything Lionel or MTH have made in the past decade, but they’re still sized so they’ll look right if a Lionel train escapes from the attic and ventures into the neighborhood. New traditions have a better chance of usurping older traditions if they fit in with them first.

These weren’t Lemax or Department 56. They were cheap knockoffs. This particular series of knockoffs pairs up O scale-sized figures with HO scale-sized buildings. Not my thang. I’m anything but a scale bigot but half-sized buildings get on my nerves.

But I bought a few figures. They came four to a package for a dollar. You’re lucky to pay less than $4 per figure at a hobby shop. For my four bucks, I got 16 figures.

Yes, the figures are dressed in heavy coats and there’s snow on the bases they stand on. So I won’t have them on the train layout at the same time as my open-top convertible 1:43-scale cars. But the availability of the figures makes it just as cheap and easy to make winter scenes, just like the 50-cent Homies figures make it cheap and easy to make summertime scenes.

Useless trivia answer: If you’ve ever wondered where 1:43 scale toy cars come from, they come from trains as well. The British decided that O scale should be 1:43, and Hornby decided it would be nice to be able to sell cars with which boys could populate their cities. The cars became popular toys in their own right, and the 1:43 scale was copied by other companies, so 1:43 scale cars lived on long after Hornby stopped selling O scale trains.

End useless trivia.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Useless Christmas merchandising in August. I decided I wanted 16 vaguely O scale figures in winter dress more than I wanted $4.24.

But I passed on the wreaths and the holly. I can’t think of any good use for those in my basement.

A model railroad scale conversion chart

Plans in model railroad books and magazines are often in a different scale from your favorite. Having a model railroad scale conversion chart helps.

I’m into O scale and the rest of the world, it usually seems, is not. Dimensions for published plans are almost always sized to HO scale, or even S scale of all things. Of course, after A. C. Gilbert imploded in 1967 and took American Flyer with it, it seemed like the “S” is S scale stood for “scratchbuild,” because building it yourself was the only way you were going to get anything, so I guess that’s fair.

Here’s a cheatsheet you can use to convert measurements from one scale to another.

Assumptions: O scale is 1:48, G scale is 1:22.5. If you use a different measurement for either scale, I’m sorry. This won’t be much use to you.

G Scale O ScaleS ScaleOO ScaleHO ScaleTT ScaleN ScaleZ Scale
G Scale213%284%339%386%533%711%977%
O Scale47%133%158%181%250%333%458%
S Scale35%75%119%136%188%211%289%
OO Scale30%63%84%115%158%211%289%
HO Scale26%55%73%87%138%184%253%
TT Scale19%40%53%63%73%133%183%
N Scale14%30%40%48%54%75%138%
Z Scale10%22%29%35%40%55%73%

Find your scale in the table along the top. Then scroll down to the desired scale and find out the factor you need to enlarge or reduce. So, if, say, I have HO scale plans I want to enlarge to O scale, I run across the top to HO, then down to O scale, and see that I need to enlarge the plans to 181%. If I have O scale plans I want to reduce to S scale, I run across the top to O and down to S, and see I need to reduce the plans to 75%.

You can also do this if a building you want exists in kit form for a different scale. Measure it. Then do the math based on the chart to figure out what size to build everything for your scale of choice.

Further reading

I hope you find this model railroad scale conversion chart useful.

On a somewhat related note, if you’re unsure what scale something is, here’s how to figure that out before you convert it. You might also find my cross-hobby scale conversion helpful.