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Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

In 2004, after being back in the hobby a few months, I decided I didn’t want a train layout like the ones I saw in the magazines, which all take a hi-rail approach. The layouts looked nice, but they all had the same buildings and figures on them. I wanted to do something different. That got me looking for tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout. And it started a quest that continues to this day.

Don’t get me wrong. Today I have more than enough tin buildings to populate an 8×8 layout. Had I known what I was looking for from the start, it would have taken a lot less time. I might as well share my experience.

Pre-war vs post-war tin litho

tin buildings for a train layout

Most of these buildings date from the 1970s to the 1990s. The vehicles are somewhat older. Many of the Tootsietoys are beaters I restored.

There is no prewar equivalent to postwar Plasticville. After WWII, train makers started selling enough buildings to populate every square inch of your miniature world. The early approach wasn’t like that. You’d plop down a station and maybe a couple of houses next to it, and that was your town. Your imagination filled in the rest. Including the distance to the next town.

But if you want, you can fill in the gaps and supplement the pre-war and early postwar tin litho buildings with newer tin litho buildings. There are plenty of newer buildings that look the part just fine. I could add another 4×8 table to my layout and have little difficulty finding buildings to populate it.

I supplement it with 28mm wargaming figures and Liberty Falls figures painted fairly simply, like toys. For vehicles, I use Tootsietoys, Londontoys, and Japanese dimestore cars. These 1:64-ish figures and buildings match pretty nicely with O27 tin trains and the tin buildings I’ve been able to find.

Until I was able to locate enough vintage toy vehicles, I collected a number of vintage-looking Hot Wheels and Matchbox vehicles that I customized to look less like hot rods. Mattel tends to release 1-2 pre-1950 vehicles per year.

Where to find buildings and vehicles

My entries above about vintage and newer buildings contain links to Ebay that should turn up a fair selection of buildings. Even buying on Ebay, you may not spend all of your monthly hobby budget some months. But I do think the challenge is part of the fun.

I didn’t buy all my stuff on Ebay though. One year I decided to blow all my Christmas money on tin buildings on Ebay, but that shopping spree probably only accounts for 1/3 of my layout.

Thrift stores

Cookie-tin buildings tend to turn up in thrift stores in late November. I think people clean out their Christmas decorations around that time and donate stuff they don’t use anymore. These tins give you nice storefronts to use in your commercial district, yielding a nice, timeless Gaslight Square vibe that works for any time period from about 1870 almost to the present. I’ve paid anywhere from 50 cents to $2 for tins at thrift stores. The buildings are much more scarce the rest of the year, but I remember going to a thrift store the first weekend of November in 2005 and scoring four buildings. That was a nice day, at a time in my life when I needed a pick-me-up. Hobbies are good for you.

Drugstores and discounters

Drugstores and discount stores tend to sell Harry London-branded tins during the holidays. If you don’t mind paying full price, you can probably score 4-5 buildings this year.

Garage and estate sales

tin litho theater from 1980s

I scored this movie theater at a garage sale in 2006. The figures are all Liberty Falls. I once scored a bunch of Liberty Falls figures at a train show at a low price.

I rarely score tin buildings at garage sales but I scored my favorite one at a garage sale a few blocks from my house in 2006. It was the weekend before Memorial Day. In St. Louis at least, the trick is to go out the weekend before Memorial Day, and go to a 1960s subdivision. These tins were more common in the 1980s and 1990s, so you’re not very likely to find them in newer subdivisions.

Estate sales offer much better pickings. Go to the basement and look for a box full of tins. I don’t see one at every sale I go to, but it seems like one in four do. Most of them will be round, but you can usually find a few box-shaped tins, and with a little luck, some will have a building pattern printed on them.

I didn’t find tins every week. But it was fun, and it helps if you look for several different things. Sometimes you’ll find trains too.

Antique malls and flea markets

I found a lot of my buildings at antique malls. Flea markets are scarce in St. Louis. One time I was at an antique mall in Kansas City and I spotted a booth that was almost 100% tins. I found three suitable building tins there. One was an exact match for another one I already had but I bought the other two. That was a little unusual. More frequently I’ll find tins mixed in with other housewares.

Sometimes you can find 1940s tin buildings that actually came off someone’s train layout too. Prices on those can range from bargains to ripoffs. You can also look for tin banks. At least two companies made tin banks in the 1940s and 1950s that look good on a tin train layout.

Vintage toy stores and shows

tin buildings for train layouts

The tin ambulance came from a local vintage toy store. The Marx gondola behind it came from an antique mall. Sometimes a trip yields something other than a building that you can use. If you’re willing to work with what you manage to find, you can put together something pretty different from what you usually see in the magazines. Maybe it’s your thing and maybe it’s not. But I had fun doing it.

It seems like the vintage toy stores and shows are moving toward 1970s and 1980s toys but occasionally interesting tin shows up in these venues. Sometimes it’s very interesting tin. With a price tag to match. A lot of 1950s tin playset buildings are too big. Sometimes much too big. But some are only slightly too big. If it’s close and looks nice and you can afford it, buy it and make it work.

These venues are outstanding for finding vehicles. My favorite local vintage toy store gets Japanese postwar tin vehicles fairly often. Japan made a lot of tin toys right after World War II because Eisenhower encouraged it, believing if they sold us toys, they wouldn’t make weapons.

Train stores and shows

Train stores will be hit and miss depending on what they normally deal in. A postwar specialist probably isn’t going to take in a lot of tin. A prewar specialist took over the store nearest me a few years ago and he does get some interesting tin buildings from time to time.

Train shows rarely turn up tin buildings, but it happens. The first show I attended in 2004 after I started looking for tin buildings yielded a nice yellow ranch house made of tin.  Another show I attended a few years later yielded a big pile of Liberty Falls figures at a crazy low price. You’d go to the train show anyway, right?

Filling the gaps

You won’t get enough tin buildings in one shot to fill your layout. Supplementing tin with paper can help. They don’t have to be permanent, but they give you something to look at as you accumulate tin.


I designed my own scenery and printed designs on paper, basing it on patterns from old tin litho toys. I took about nine college credit hours of graphic design and that’s all I’ve used it for this century. Some people paint scenery with great results.

The road less traveled

There are a few other people who’ve taken the same approach as me, using tin buildings instead of the same MTH and Model Power buildings as every hi-rail layout ever built. If you take this approach, you’ll end up looking like you’re modeling the same town as me. But all the hi-rail guys are modeling the same town too.

If you want something a little different, give this approach a try. I like the look, and it cost me a fraction of what it would have cost to build a hi-rail layout too.

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