When it comes to trains, I prefer older ones made of tin, rather than plastic. And I like tin buildings too. Any time I open a magazine featuring someone’s train layouts, the buildings all look the same. I want something a little different, so I look for tin buildings to go with my tin trains.
Many companies through the years made food containers with printing on them that look like buildings. The tins tend to be about six inches wide, around 8 inches tall, and two inches deep. They tend to resemble the two-story commercial buildings you used to see in downtowns, with a storefront on the first story and offices or apartments on the second floor.
You can use these tins to put together a very timeless commercial district for your train layout. If you know what to look for, you can find coffee shops, bakeries, candy stores, florists, and plenty of other stores to make your town a nice place to live and work. And the buildings usually aren’t terribly expensive, either.
In this post, I’ll cover buildings made after 1970. For pre-1970 buildings, see Vintage Tin Litho Buildings.
Finding new tins
You won’t find new tins every year, but most years around the holidays, you can find some tins in gift shops, party shops, and sometimes even in discount stores. In 2011 I even found one at Radio Shack. Stroll through the candy and seasonal aisles when you’re out and about and sometimes you can find something. You can expect to pay $5-$10 for new-production tins at retail.
Finding tins in the wild
There’s something about finding tins on your own, without buying from a reseller. It’s part of the fun. You can find them anywhere you find other secondhand stuff: thrift stores, garage sales, and estate sales are all good hunting ground. I rarely pay more than $3 for a tin I find this way, and sometimes pay 50 cents. If you’re willing to pay a bit more, antique malls and flea markets frequently yield tins.
Admittedly, it can be slow going. I scored three at a thrift store right after Thanksgiving in 2005. I would go months between finding any at garage and estate sales. By the time I factor in my gas and my time, it’s arguably cheaper to just buy them off Ebay. But finding them in the wild can be fun, especially if you have other things to look for. And you tend to find more in November and early December, when people are getting their Christmas decorations out and getting rid of things they don’t want to use anymore, and in the spring, when people are clearing out stuff.
Some makes of tins
Just searching Ebay for “tin building” turns up a lot of stuff. It helps to look for some specific makes to narrow things down. So here are some companies who made suitable tins, with links to help you find some of their stuff more easily.
Tinsmith’s Craft made tin buildings in a couple of different sizes, so you have to be careful with these. Designed by Elizabeth Greene, these tins were made in England and later Hong Kong in the 1980s. The haberdasher and the house, pictured to the right, are similar in size to the other buildings I talk about here. The series of four restaurants is about half as tall, at 3½ inches.
Look for listings that tell you the height of the building, so you don’t make the same mistake I made and end up with a bunch of too-small buildings.
Regarding the red house, I have two of them. I have them spaced a few feet apart on the layout and facing different directions. Unless I pointed it out to you, it would take you a while to notice the duplication.
Keller Charles was a Philadelphia based company that sold tins made in Hong Kong in the 1980s. They’re nostalgic looking and season-neutral. No snow. But be careful. All of the Keller Charles buildings I’ve found are 3½ inches tall. You really want buildings that are 6-7 inches tall for most train layouts.
The buildings include a florist, a library, a bridal shop, a pharmacy, a toy store, a bed and breakfast, a flower shop, a bank, a candy store, a general store, and a church. They’re fantastic background buildings for forced perspective, but keep that in mind if you buy them.
Lillian Vernon also sold tins made in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Be sure to always ask about size because I accidentally bought one that’s way undersized, at 3½ inches tall. They tend to be tea shops or houses. Some are season-neutral and some are Christmas-themed. The level of detail is a bit higher than Keller Charles but the variety is much lower. Most of the Lillian Vernon tins I’ve found are tea shops.
Once again, when eyeing a Lillian Vernon tin, ask about size.
Silver Crane is a UK company that sells extremely high quality tins. Many have a winter theme, but not all. These are good buildings to put close to the front of your layout where you can admire their detail.
These buildings are fairly easy to find due to their popularity and longevity. There have been several series and the styles of each series hold together pretty well.
Harry London is another make of British tins. Most have a winter theme. Their offerings include a post office, a school, a pet shop, a library and a chocolate shop.
They don’t quite match Silver Crane’s level of detail but they’re nice buildings.
Chein, or Cheinco, made a very generic looking train station in the 1930s that can pass for almost any brick building on a train layout. Another version of the same building with different lithography looks like a train station and only a train station.
In the late 1970s they made some tin buildings, intended as kitchen containers, that can help you round out your commercial district. Their 1979 line included a bakery, a cookie shop, a coffee shop, a tea shop, and a confectionery. The coffee and tea shops are single-story buildings. The larger buildings look like three-story buildings. They offer a nice level of detail and distinctive typography on the building signs. None of the other tins are quite like them, so adding one or more Chein buildings is a good way to get some distinctiveness in your layout’s architecture.
Another nice thing about the Chein buildings is that they have different printing on all four sides, so you can use more than one set of Chein kitchen tins, turn the buildings around, and get more variety.
You don’t see these every day, but they aren’t especially rare either. With a little patience, you can find a set or at least an individual building or two.
Hallmark made a tin in 1995 that looks like an early Hallmark gift and card shop. It originally held stationery. This building is usually very cheap when you find it, but it looks nice. The style is similar to Silver Crane even if it doesn’t quite reach Silver Crane’s level of artistry. I’ve also seen some similar sized tin houses attributed to Hallmark.
Hallmark also made a line of pressed tin ornaments that would be perfect for tinplate trains except they are much too small, at less than three inches in height. Stay away from them unless you plan to use them for forced perspective.
Texaco made a tin bank that looks like an old-time service station. Tin gas stations can be pricey, especially ones with brand names on them. This Texaco tin from 1997, originally sold as a bank, makes for a cheap alternative that looks the part.
Hershey made a few buildings in the early 2000s representing stores branded off some of their properties. They’re heavy on candy stores of course but you can also find a general store and a school house with some luck. The advantage with the Hershey buildings is they tend to be very inexpensive when you find them.
Coca Cola licensed its name to Bristolware in the early 1990s, and Bristolware made four Coke-themed buildings: a bottling company, a grocery store, a gas station, and a pharmacy. The grocery store and bottling company are suitable for O gauge trains. The gas station is about twice as tall as it needs to be, and the pharmacy is about half as tall as it needs to be. The pharmacy would be a good background building though. It would look right standing next to 3.5-inch two-story tins.
The tins won’t wow you like some of the others here, but they’re pretty easy to find and remind you of the days when small independent businesses used signage sponsored by soda companies.
Coca-Cola also licensed its name to be used on a few tin diners, any of which are fine for a tin-themed train layout. Look for a diner that’s between 3 and 5 inches tall, but most I’ve seen are.
The Girl Scouts sold three building shaped tins suitable for tinplate train layouts. As best I can tell, they date to 2004. The tins are the Cranberry Creek Library, the Ashdon Farms Snack Depot and the Walnut Street School. Although the school is a suitable size all around, the door appears oversized. The lithography is colorful and detailed and the buildings have snow on them.
ACP Enterprises made an attractive green house, but I’ve never found another one of these either. Mine is dated 1991. ACP was based in Philadelphia and my research indicates Elizabeth Greene was also affiliated with them. I found mine in a thrift store in an old neighborhood in 2005.
If you’re fortunate enough to find multiples of these, just put them on the layout away from each other a bit and facing in different directions. The design is compelling but generic enough that you can reuse it easily.
Enesco made at least one tin building, a blue movie theater. I found one at a garage sale in 2005 or 2006. It originally held unpopped popcorn, and the typography on the building suggests it probably dates to the early 1980s. It’s an interesting clash of cultures because that style of downtown movie theater was definitely on the outs in the 1980s. But it’s tin and it’s old, so I went with it and I’m happy to have it.
I’ve never seen another one, so that’s all I know about it.
Century Resources is a fundraising company based out of Ohio, founded in 1978 as best I can tell. I picked up a nice tall and thin row house from Century Resources at an antique mall. It’s about as tall as the other tins I talk about here but only half as wide. I’d buy ten of them if I could find that many. I’d line some of them up, alternating the direction, to make a nice line of row houses. And then I’d use any others in tight spots on the layout where nothing else seems to fit. I have plenty of those.
The architecture evokes the early 20th century or even earlier, but you can still find houses of this style in big cities to this day so the design is timeless.
Nestle made a couple of tin houses in the 2004 timeframe, a one-story and two-story house, both suitable in size for tinplate O gauge trains.
In 1984, A&P grocery stores manufactured a tin to commemorate their 125th anniversary. This tin is a bit larger than most of the tins here, making it perfect as a corner grocery store.
And if you don’t mind looking around, “tin village” can be a productive Ebay search.
Finishing off the layout
You can make your layout look bigger and more finished by adding a backdrop. Here’s how I made my own backdrop, if you can’t find a commercially produced backdrop that suits you.