How To Expert Tips Build an N scale drive-in theater

Build an N scale drive-in theater

By Jerry Paladino | February 11, 2024

Bring the lights, camera, and action to your layout with this quick project

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Side view of an N scale model of a drive-in theater
It’s Friday night and the town has all headed to the drive-in theater. Tonight’s features: Ratatouille and Star Trek. Photos by Jerry Paladino

Over nearly 40 years I’ve built seven train layouts. I started out with N scale, then discovered large scale trains. I’ve built both indoor and outdoor large scale layouts over the years. I loved my backyard garden railroad but had to give it up due to structural issues and age.

So I returned to my first love, N scale, and I’m about 95 percent done with my layout. I love building train layouts that feature small-town U.S.A. and a rural farm area. I wanted something different on my layout, so I came up with the idea of scratchbuilding a drive-in movie theater.

I started the project by looking for prototype drive-in photos online. Since my layout represents small-town U.S.A., I wanted a theater that would fit that theme. I also knew that I wanted to utilize my iPhone 11 for the screen and build the theatre structure out of styrene.

A T-square, razor knife, X-Acto knife, and scoring knife on a table
The only tools needed to make this were a T-square, scoring knife, razor knife, and X-Acto knife.

The tools that I used include a small T-square, a scoring knife, X-Acto knife, and razor knife. I tend to use either the X-Acto knife of the razor knife to cut fine grooves first into the styrene as a guide, then use the scoring knife, as the styrene is 1/8” thick. Make sure to take your time making the cuts. These are crucial to achieve a tight-fitting structure.

A sheet of styrene with measurements and markings on it
After measuring his iPhone, Jerry marked measurements on a 1/8” styrene sheet.

I bought my styrene from a sign company, but it’s a typical 1/8” styrene that can also be found in hobby stores. [Evergreen sells styrene sheets in this exact thickness –Ed.] To start, I measured my iPhone to get the critical measurements and proceeded from there. You might want to make a cardboard prototype first and then transfer the measurements that work onto the styrene.

Illustration of drive-in movie theater

Download the drive-in diagrams here.

A styrene box with a rectangular hole cut out of it.
This “phone box” is what will hold the phone when it’s in the theater. The opening is the size of the phone’s screen, while the fascia will keep the phone in place and hide the non-screen parts of the phone.

Once the iPhone enclosure was built, shown in the diagram above, I built the support structure. Ensure that you do add these supports as it gives the structure the stability that it needs in order to stay upright.

A styrene enclosure with triangular supports around it
These triangular supports are integral in the theater’s design. They keep the screen upright and not “Gone with the Wind.”

After the support structure was completed, I painted the structure a flat white color. I purchased some movies for my smartphone and slide it into place when the townspeople want to watch a movie. This was a fun project to build and didn’t take much time at all.

A smartphone inside a styrene enclosure
Starting a movie is as easy as sliding the iPhone in the top of the movie screen.
An N scale train passes by behind a drive-in theater
The railroad is still very active even if a movie is showing at the theater. The crew may decide this is the perfect place to stop for dinner, though.
Star Trek plays on a drive-in theater screen
Everyone has their popcorn, and it’s time to watch Star Trek. There’s no better place to be on a Friday night in small-town U.S.A.
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