Thrift stores can hold a wealth of treasures for hobbyists, if you know where to look. I have suggestions of which departments to look for items for your garden railroad. I suggest going into a store with an open mind. For just a few dollars and a little paint, you might find something spectacular for your railroad.
I’m surprised at how often I find wood birdhouses, sometimes higher-end ones, for less than $5. With some modification, these can become inexpensive structures, or use the wood for another project. “Fairy garden” items have become popular in the past few years, and the detail pieces may work in your railroad.
You may find gardening tools, rakes, shovels, or other yardwork items too. Within the past year, I purchased a bow rake for just $5.
Check for acrylic paints, paint brushes, and wood craft sticks. Look for kids’ craft kits too, which might have a group of supplies together. For instance, I’ve seen kits to make a concrete garden stepping stone. Use this to make a foundation for a smaller structure instead.
Don’t overlook the possibility of finding hobby shop items too, like paint and scenery materials. Thrift store employees may not know what these items are, and may shelve them in the kids/craft areas instead.
The kids’ toy area can be a goldmine for garden railroaders. I often find Schleich/Safari brand animals, many of which are approximately large scale in size. Many thrift stores put several small toys in bags and sell them for $1 to 2.
Looking for flatcar loads? I found a boat that, with some spray paint, could make a convincing load. Toy blocks could become shipping crates. Or try covering a load with a tarp, like in this article.
Need clutter to add to a scene? Buy a couple of kids toy vehicles and disassemble them. Add a stack of tires and some rusted automobile shells (via spray paint) behind a gas station.
Need a spare screwdriver, one that you won’t mind losing? I found a box of tools for around $1.20 each. You may also find other odds and ends, like nuts/bolts/screws/washers.
The selection of figurines at my local thrift store is overwhelming. Depending on the theme of your railroad, you may find a figure that, with the addition of spray paint or a clear coat, may work for you.
Look for metal tea light/candle holders to kitbash a gazebo.
Canning jars can be used for just about anything. Use them to store small screws/nails/other bits. My father-in-law had wooden shelves in his garage, where he secured metal canning lids on underside. He screwed the jars onto the lids. See a tutorial of a similar design.
Use jars to store mineral spirits, weathering solution (find a recipe for one), small amounts of paint, and more.