2008 Family Garden Trains Bargain of the Year AwardFolks who have been with us since we started this web site in 1999 know that I have always tried to find cost-effective ways to do what I needed to do in the hobby. In part there's been the financial pressure of sending three daughters to college (and one wedding to pay for so far). But also, this is such a great hobby that I want it to be accessible to people who have to count their pennies as well as folks who can afford to keep the local hobby store in business singlehandedly.
That's one reason I started the "Bargain of the Year Award," to reward companies or manufacturers who are going out of their way to keep this hobby affordable. And if the business climate in the last months of 2008 is anything like they're predicting, that will be even more important to more people this year.
That said, every year I watch for someone new to come up with something that really "blows me away," offering a revolutionary new way to make the hobby more affordable for folks who are struggling to get started. (Affordable track, anyone?).
But this year, after checking out the new and newly-reissued products for 2008, as well as the product announcements for 2009, I have to go back to a previous winner that just keeps churning out values.
It Makes a VillageThis year Colorado Model Structures is churning out additional value - for a limited time you can get four building kits for $69.99. Each of these kits is already a bargain at its $19.95-22.95 cost. If you think about it, most garden railroaders spend the winter indoors anyway - why not spend the cost of a SINGLE kit, put a little extra work into it and have a whole rail-yard or small town's worth of buildings ready to go onto your railroad this spring?
I have the tower on my railroad right now. In fact, I wrote a whole article about my experience with the building.
About Colorado Model StructuresAs I mentioned in my 2006 award article, I first became acquainted with this company in the spring of 2006, when some of my readers showed me photos of railroads that used Colorado Model Structures buildings. When I checked out their web site, I couldn't believe the values.
Turns out that the owner's real job is making "machine tools," and he has the technology to make certain kinds of injection molds in the shop he owns. He also enjoys garden railroading and has occasionally been called upon to consult on various model projects for other companies. So going from that experience to making his own buildings that other hobbyists could easily afford seemed to be a reasonable step, although I know the process well enough to know that each new project has been a "labor of love" that requires countless hours of "donated" time.
I do admit that you don't get a fancy box, a store-bought paint job that will fade in a few seasons, or signage that will give your businesses the same names as everyone else's businesses. But my experience is that prepainted models age more quickly and look worse in a few years than models you paint yourself anyway. (See my article on Painting Plastic Structures for more details on that topic.)
And our site give you free Business and Station Signs and curtain patterns that you can use to give any of these buildings a finished look. (If you need something specific, please email me and I'll see what I can do.)
One other concern is that the models have "mitered corners," which means that the fit is a little "touchy." These kits do not "snap together." You may need to file or sand an edge slightly to get the best fit. There is some flash (places where excess material got in between the "plates" of the mold and formed a sort of plastic halo around the main part). On a few pieces, the "texture" detail (such as the shingles) protrudes a tad beyond the edge of the structure. I know enough about the owner's machinery to know that this is a result of trying to make a mold for a few thousand dollars instead of a few hundred thousand dollars. And most models have "flash lines" of some sort that you have to trim off, so I don't consider the trimming a problem. You are allowed to handle sharp objects, aren't you?
Update for December, 2008: A Note About Glazing - When they began building their kits, CMS included a soft clear plastic sheet for glazing windows. I have to confess that I have never used that material, from anyone's kits. I prefer to get small scrap pieces of Lucite(r) or Plexiglas(r) from the local hardward store, cut it to size, and use it. In fact, I have a whole article just on Glazing Windows With Lucite(r). Lucite(r) or other acrylic glazing material lasts longer, looks better and strengthens buildings better than any of the "soft" glazing material supplied by any of the kit manufacturers. Now CMS has told me that, due to rising cost, they have stopped including the flexible glazing material in their kits. As you can imagine, this didn't affect me any more than the fact that the kits were unpainted. On the other hand, if you would rather have the flexible glazing material, you CAN still order it at CMS' cost when you order your buildings.
Other Colorado Model Structures Products - Once you get into using these products, you'll get "spoiled" in a hurry. CMS' offerings include some two-story "big-city" buildings that are substantially larger than most building kits. Yet they are inexpensive enough to let you buy two and combine them into a four-story building if you want, at the cost of other company's small-footprint two-story buildings.
In addition, if you have an idea for a model that nobody is making, take a look at the Colorado Model Structures' modular sections, including wall segments, roofs, window frames, etc. You can put these together many different ways to create many different kinds of structures, including power houses, engine houses, and many more.
In short, many CMS buildings are priced to make great "stocking stuffers" (if you have really big stockings). And they are inexpensive enough that you could buy enough to keep busy all winter without stressing the budget.
By the way, as I write this, I have no business relationship at all with CMS - I just appreciate the fact that they're doing what they can to keep the hobby affordable.
Honorable MentionLast year's winner, the AristoCraft Christmas Freight set still gets an honorable mention. Despite rising cost of materials, AristoCraft has deliberately kept the price of this set substantially lower than the rest of their starter sets, and they toss in a remote control that will easily operate any garden train. This train and its more expensive PRR and AT&SF twins (shown on the Large Scale Starter Set page) have been best-sellers at their regular pricing. But AristoCraft's "premium" pricing on this train, combined with the included remote control (a $95 item by itself), still makes this is an exceptionally good value.
Update for November, 2008: Sadly, many suppliers are out of this train at the moment. In the meantime, I apologize for the inconvenience. If you are interested in the freight version of this train, please contact me and I'll either help you track one down or put your name on a list of people to contact if I find a source again. Alternatively, you might check for other attractive Large Scale Christmas trains on our Large Scale Christmas Train page.
Enjoy your trains, and especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.
Best of luck,
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