How To Creative thrift store finds for garden railroaders

Creative thrift store finds for garden railroaders

By Rene Schweitzer | July 19, 2021

How to find useful—and inexpensive—items for your line

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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.

Two wood birdhouses
For just a few dollars, these birdhouses could be the start of a structure. Photo by Rene Schweitzer

Garden/outdoor decor

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.

Hand holding a small wood barrel
Keep a look out for detail pieces. This wood barrel was located in the garden section of the store. Photo by Rene Schweitzer

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.

Hand holding a toy zebra
This zebra could become a horse with the addition of some spray paint. Photo by Rene Schweitzer


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.

A plastic toy boat
This toy could be based on a vehicle in a popular space-based science fiction movie — or a boat. Paint it and secure it to a flatcar for a unique load. Photo by Rene Schweitzer

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.

Box of tools
Need another screwdriver? Find tools of all kinds for just a buck or two. Photo by Rene Schweitzer


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.

Figurines/household items

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.

Large-scale gazebo with two female figures next to it.
This gazebo is a repurposed metal tealight hold purchased at a thrift store. Photo by Bill Zuback

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.


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