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How to create a believable large-scale scene

By Kevin Strong | March 1, 2021

Tips for finding affordable structures, figures, and detail items for your garden railway

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A caboose passes the station on a garden railway.
A caboose passes the station on a garden railway.
Properly scaled figures and structures bring a scene together, giving the trains running through the garden an air of believability. Photo by Kevin Strong

Structures are the easiest way to bring a scene to life. As with anything on the railroad, scale is the primary concern. You’ll want to find structures that match the scale of your trains. That’s not always as easy as just looking on the box. Even in commercial kits where a scale is designated, architectural details, such as doors, may be too big or too small for the specified scale. (Rule of thumb: Doors should be between 6′ and 7′ tall.) For instance, a kit specified for 1:24, but with tall doors, may work well on a 1:20.3-scale railroad.

Custom-built storage shed and water tower on Jim Strong’s Woodland Railway
Plastic buildings are perhaps the easiest structures to build and maintain on a garden railroad, like these plastic structures on Jim Strong’s Woodland Railway. Photo by Kevin Strong

If you want low maintenance, look at the commercially available lines of plastic kits. By and large, these are sturdily constructed and will stand up to UV (ultra-violet) sun damage. A coat of paint will further aid the UV resistance of the plastic.

If you want a medium that will give you more flexibility in building design and construction, look at wood kits. Wood must be treated with a preservative of some sort or it will fall apart in short order.

Once the set is constructed, you need to fill it with props. These come in the form of figures and other accessories, like vehicles, signs, and furniture. Some of these items show up frequently at local hobby shops. Many more show up in stores and at flea markets and garage sales. The trick is to know how to shop.

Large-scale figures posed next to dollar bills to determine scale
On the left, a dollar bill shows this figure’s height at 6′ in 1:24 scale. His counterpart on the right is 5’8″ in 1:20.3, the same size as a credit card. The action figure in the center scales out at just over 6′ tall in 1:20.3, still acceptable. Photo by Kevin Strong

If you don’t have a ruler handy, there are some common items we all carry when we go shopping that can help. The first is an ordinary dollar bill. It is 2 1/2″ tall, which is about 6′ in 1:29 scale. If the figure you’re looking at is as tall as your dollar bill, then it’s the right size for that scale.

That same dollar bill, when folded in half widthwise, measures 3″, or 6′ in 1:24. If you’re modeling in that scale, then a proper figure needs to fall around that height. If you’re modeling in 1:20.3, pull out your credit card. The width of a credit card measures 5’8″ in 1:20.3.

I find a lot of children’s action figures to be acceptable. Around Christmas, you can find a variety of Department 56-style figures that will also work well. You can also find properly scaled accessories, such as lamps, benches, vending machines, and the like, in these collections.

Hobby shops often carry plastic military figures in various scales, most commonly 1:32, though I have seen them in 1:20.3. The Britains line of figures may work for 1:32 or 1:29, depending on the figure’s size.

Dollhouse stores are good places to look for various accessories. These are typically limited to 1:24 scale, but items like lamps, hinges, and door knobs can be used in other scales without looking at all bad.

Flea markets often turn up unique items. I’ve found birdhouses and mailboxes that would make suitable structures. I’ve also found refrigerator magnets and pencil sharpeners that scale nicely.

A vintage tractor model found at a yard sale fits in this garden railway scene.
Yard sales and flea markets offer many suitable finds. This model of a vintage tractor fits in nicely with the rest of the structures on the railroad. Photo by Kevin Strong

Vehicles, be they horse-drawn or automobiles, are harder items to find in the proper scale. If you model in 1:24, you’re in luck. Many plastic kits are built to this scale. The old Hubley line of metal car kits is available in 1:20 scale. Many die-cast metal cars found at hobby shops are labeled as 1:18.

Horse-drawn wagons and stagecoaches are harder to come by, but check a toy store. Many “old west” play sets have stagecoaches that will work well. They’ll need a coat of paint before going outdoors. Play sets are also great for farm animals.

 

 

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