Beginners Five finds at model railroad swap meets

Five finds at model railroad swap meets

By Cody Grivno | March 1, 2023

Deals, hard-to-find items, layouts, and more await you at these events

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Five finds at model railroad swap meets. I always look forward to the fall and winter months. No, not because I enjoy raking leaves and shoveling snow. In this part of the country, October through March is peak model railroad swap meet season. These events are held at venues large and small, including county fairground buildings, bowling alleys, and fraternal organization halls. Some are annual events, others are monthly. For a few dollars admission, you can shop for model trains, check out layouts, catch up with friends, and perhaps find a few bargains. What’s not to like?

The next time you see a flyer for a model railroad swap meet, carve out some time to check it out. I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times at what I’ve been able to find. If I don’t find something to buy, I spend time catching up with my model railroading friends. And the nominal admission fee more often than not goes to help model railroad clubs, which serve a vital role in promoting the hobby at the local level.


Photo of HO scale model railroad boxes on white background.
Swap meets are a good place to find deals. Model Railroader senior editor Cody Grivno found Accurail HO scale freight car kits for $2 to $6 each and a pair of Bowser kits for $10 each at swap meets in his area. Cody Grivno photo

Yes, we go to model railroad swap meets because we like trains. But we also enjoy a good deal. Swap meets are where you can find individuals selling locomotives, freight cars, and structures, often at bargain prices.

Before splashing down cash at the first table with items that pique your interest, walk the entire show floor to see what’s available. Some sellers have all of their items on the table. Others may have additional items in boxes below or to the side of the table. Keep your eyes open and look around.

While searching for a good deal, remember to be respectful. It’s okay to ask if the seller will shave a few bucks off the price, but don’t be insulting. Remember, the sellers are there to make some money. They also have to cover table fees, gas, food, and perhaps lodging. If you can’t agree on a price, thank the seller for considering the offer and keep shopping.

Out-of-production items

Photo of six HO scale freight cars on white background
You probably won’t find HO scale freight cars like these on hobby shop shelves anymore. However, swap meets are great places to purchase old and out-of-production models. Cody Grivno photo

Perhaps your modeling interests have changed but the items you need are no longer in production. Maybe you collect models manufactured by a company that’s no longer in business. At model railroad swap meets, you can often find out-of-production items from current and former manufacturers.

It’s good practice to ask if you can inspect the model before purchasing it. On freight cars and structures, check for missing, broken, or modified parts. Most sellers will be up front about any defects, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

You’ll also want to check for the above items with locomotives. In addition, confirm that the model runs. That may seem obvious, but unlike a brick-and-mortar or online stores, there’s not much recourse if you purchase a dud locomotive at a swap meet. Most of the swap meets I’ve attended have test tracks in multiple scales.

Railroad publications

Photo of timetables and railroad publications on white background
Public and employee timetables, The Official Railway Equipment Register, and The Official Railway Guide are just some of the railroad publications you can find at model railroad swap meets. Cody Grivno photo

If you’re into prototype operations or have an interest in rail history, you’ll want to look for railroad publications. Public and employee timetables are the most common. On occasion I’ve found track charts, safety and operating rules, employee newsletters, train orders, maps, and diagram books.

In addition to railroad-specific publications, also check for industry books like The Official Railway Equipment Register and The Official Guide of the Railways. The ORER contains information on freight cars in service throughout North America. The Official Guide of the Railways (later The Official Railway Guide) includes passenger schedules, system maps, select freight schedules, and company officers, among other items.


Photos of railroad artifacts on white background
These pieces of railroadiana on display at the Kalmbach Media offices are among the types of items you may find at model railroad swap meets. Cody Grivno photo

Though most of the five finds at model railroad swap meets focus on scale trains, some events also have railroadiana. Over the years I’ve seen switch locks and keys, lanterns, signs, dining car china, locomotive builder’s plates, and number boards, among other items.

There are a few things to consider when buying railroadiana at swap meets. First, if the item is from a railroad that’s still in operation, ask questions. Yes, active railroads due get rid of items. But you also don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law by being in possession of stolen property. If an item doesn’t seem like it should be for sale, you’re probably correct.

Second, make sure the item is original. Most sellers will be honest if an item is a reproduction. Sometimes they may not know. Ask questions and study the object carefully. Look for markings or other clues that can help you verify the item’s authenticity.

Finally, set a spending limit. Yes, some railroadiana is truly one of a kind. However, in most cases there are other examples out there. Don’t make an impulse purchase and wind up regretting it later.


Photo of N scale layout at swap meet.
The Kettle Moraine Ballast Scorchers had its N scale modular layout on display at the Metro Model Railroad Club Spring Show swap meet in Cedarburg, Wis., in March 2017. Lloyd Bunkelman photo

Wrapping up our list of five finds at model railroad swap meets are operating layouts. Looking at other model railroads is a great way to get ideas on scenery construction, painting, weathering, and a variety of other hobby topics. If you have questions, ask. I’ve found most club members enjoy sharing their tips and techniques with others.

Model railroads are fun if you’re attending a swap meet with your family, too. Walking up and down aisles can be tiring for young children. Few kids will pass up a chance to look at an operating layout. I’ve noticed more and more groups handing out sheets with “Find these 10 things” or similarly themed scavenger hunt lists. Kids (and adults) enjoy playing along.

Clubs also benefit from setting up at swap meets. The events give groups a chance to get together and run trains outside of their regular meetings. In addition, swap meets are a great way to recruit new members.

I’d like to thank Dan Larkee and Lloyd Bunkelman of the Kettle Moraine Ballast Scorchers in West Bend, Wis., for their assistance with this article. The club’s 21st annual model railroad show and swap meet will be held October 8, 2023 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Washington County Fair Park, 3000 County Hwy. PV, West Bend, Wis.

One thought on “Five finds at model railroad swap meets

You must login to submit a comment