|You Are Here.
||Jump to other pages.|
Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains
Update for September, 2006 - This article was originally written in
2002, and it was targeted to garden railroaders, people who run big trains outside. (Click
on the Family Garden Trains logo above for more
information on that hobby.) As a result, the original article included many references to brand names and other information that would mean nothing to the average person who didn't have trains running in his or her back yard. If you stumbled across the article in that iteration and it made no sense to you, don't feel bad--it was my fault.
Recently I've discovered that many non-garden-railroaders have read this article, in search of information about specific products I mentioned. I also became involved, somewhat by accident in another kind of hobby: Christmas Villages and the trains that go with them. This happened when I tried to write an article about Christmas Trains, and it turned into a catalog after
people kept asking me where they could buy things. Before this, I confess, I saw the Christmas Village stuff as mostly a way to scrounge figures and accessories for my garden railroad without paying inflated hobby shop prices. After learning about the wide variety of holiday village products available (including some for year-round displays), I realize that I need to make this article more useful for people coming from that aspect of the hobby.
In addition, I have incorporated some of the content from this article into a much longer article on Choosing Figures For Your Garden Railroad. I'm also told that Garden Railways printed an article in December, 05, about the same subject.
A note about the size of things - If you've ever seen a garden
railroad or a big display railroad at a botanical garden or some such, you were probably
watching "G scale" trains. These are over twice the size of the O scale trains that we recommend for people to purchase to run with Christmas or other display villages indoors. (In fact, the O scale trains are twice the size of the HO trains most model railroaders use,
but that's another issue.) You wouldn't think that there would be much overlap between the two hobbies, what with the scales being so different. But there is an overlap that you probably wouldn't expect: the figures. Except for a few exceptions (most of which we'll try to note in this article), the figures made to go with Christmas villages fall in
between the scale of garden trains and the scale of Christmas villages.
If you can
handle numbers, here's a breakdown:
- Modelers state scales in ratios like 1:24, which means that the model is one
twenty-fourth the size of the "real-world" item being modeled. A model that is 1:12 (or one-twelfth the size of the real thing) will actually be twice as long as one that is 1:24.
- Trains made for garden railways vary in scale between 1:20.3 and 1:32. Most buildings made for garden railways are somewhere around 1:22.5 (The weird ratios have to do with metric to English conversions and other calculations that aren't worth explaining in this article. If you can just remember that outdoor trains tend to be about twice as big as the biggest indoor trains, you'll know most of what you need to know for this article to make sense.)
- The buildings in most Christmas villages, such as those made by Lemax and Dept. 56 are around 1:48 (although a shack might actually be modeled in a slightly larger scale and a lighthouse in a smaller scale so the larger buildings don't overwhelm the smaller ones).
- Most Lemax and Dept. 56 figures are about 1:32. That means that they are
technically too big to fit into the doorways of the Lemax and Dept. 56 houses, but most people don't notice--the companies make them that way because otherwise they'd be overwhelmed by the structures.
Now, most garden railroaders use figures that are made by hobby companies, and most of those were made to go with the 1:22.5 structures and trains. These brands of figures include:
- Bachmann figures (about 1:20.3)
- LGB, Preiser, and TrackNTrain's Just Plain Folks (mostly about 1:22.5)
- AristoCraft (advertised at 1:29, closer to 1:24)
- Lifelike (about 1:32)
Most garden railways you visit that are more than five years old are populated mostly by LGB figures, since for many years, they were the most widely available figures for garden railroads. However, LGB people are made to be "generic," that is their clothing is designed to look "OK" with any train from 1895 to 1985 or so. They are also shiny plastic, and too big for my own garden railroad trains, which are mostly either 1:29 or 1:32, a little smaller in scale than most garden railway trains.
So, like many garden railroaders who want figures with a tad more personality and realism, I've turned to Christmas Village figures, which would be too small for some garden railways, but look great with my trains, as long as I choose carefully.
Figures created to go with Christmas Villages include:
- Dept. 56 figures, which are top quality and made of porcelain (about 1:32). They're a little too expensive and a tad to fragile for me to personally feel comfortable using them on my garden railroad.
- Lemax figures, which are good quality and made of resin (about 1:32). They're inexpensive enough and sturdy enough for garden railroader to consider using, especially those who use mostly trains in the 1:29-1:32 scales.
- Thomas Kinkade figures, which are top quality, made of resin and designed to go with the Thomas Kinkade villages and trains (about 1:48). Ironically, these figures look tiny compared to the other figures discussed on this page, but they are the only name brand discussed on this page that is the "right" size for most Christmas or display villages. (They're both too small and too expensive for most garden railroaders to consider using, however.)
- St. Nicholas Village (Kohls' brand), made of resin, slightly lower quality than Lemax, and slightly smaller, probably about 1:40
- Off brands, and way off brands, both porcelain and resin. These tend to be useless for garden railroads , because they are too small, generally in the 1:40-1:50 range. They also tend to be of much lower quality than any of the "name-brand" figures.
So Now to Our Main Subect:
When I got my garden railroad ready for an open house in 2001, I realized that, when all my outdoor towns were set up at the same time, they looked like ghost towns. That big box of people I had accumulated didn't even make a dent outdoors when all the buildings were out. I couldn't afford to go out and buy a bunch of $4-6 figures (and I didn?t like the shiny plastic anyway). So I took the plunge that fall and winter and picked up several figures by Lemax and similar brands. The next year I left several outside all summer long. Except for me accidentally stepping on and breaking
one that the raccoons moved to an unlikely location, they held up surprisingly well.
That's when I wrote my first report on this subject, of which a modified version appears below.
On the Plus Side:
The following list of features relates mostly to Lemax and other name-brand figures. For off-brand figures, you need to decide if they look realistic enough. If you plan to use them with 1:29 or 1:32 trains, figures of adults should be 2" or taller.
- Some of these figures have a lot more character and detail than the plastic "train
people." Yes, many of the Lemax "male" figures seem to have the same face, but there are
also details of expression, clothing and accessory choices, that give real clues to the
presumed "personality" of the people they represent.
- Many of these figures have period clothing that really establishes a period (rather than
the generic somewhere-between-1920-and-1980 outfits of most plastic train people).
While this means you have to be more careful picking out figures, once you have done so,
you will establish the "era" of your RR much more effectively than if you use the plastic
girl in the halter top just because she came with the set. If I were modeling Victorian
England, I'd be in "hog heaven" with these figures. But even modeling early- to mid-19th-
century Ohio, I can come up with figures that look like they belong next to my Atlantics
- Resin Christmas figures are also cheaper than most plastic train people. I've picked
up Lemax workmen for $1-2,and a few nice groupings of people and accessories for $2-$3, less than or equal to the usual train-show price of one LGB or Bachmann figure. In one case, a
$2.99 Lemax flower vendor package, the people are "off period" for my RR, and the
lampstand is silly-looking. But the flower pots alone were worth the price of the package.
- Many resin Christmas figures generally have more believable paint jobs than most
plastic figures (except for Prieser's better line, of course). Some even have two-tone
shading or "washes" on their clothing or accessories to give them a more three-
dimensional or weathered look. In fact, when I can find appropriate figures, I find that they
look better near my more carefully-weathered and detailed structures than my plastic figures do.
- Finally, the resin figures that hover around 2 1/4" look better around Standard
Gauge trains (1:29-1:32) than the LGB giants, some of whom can almost peer into the cab
of my locomotives. Using people in scale with my trains helps establish the relative size of
these "golden-age" monsters. For years I've been griping about lack of suitable accessories
for Standard Gaugers, but as my collection of usable figures in scale with my trains begins
to grow (usually by three or four figures each year), I find that my trains are looking more
"realistic," too, than they did when they were surrounded by plastic giants.
That said, resin figures made to go with holiday villages may have some disadvantages, especially if you were hoping to use them with Narrow Gauge garden railroads.
- They are almost all of them too small to look right
with Narrow Gauge garden railroads (1:22.5 or 1:20.3) A brand commonly sold at JoAnne Fabrics has people as short as 1 5/8", putting them about 1:40, or more suited for indoor Lionel railroads than for garden trains. Of course that is not a problem for people who are using them with holiday villages, except that some of the off-brand figures will look funny if you stand them next to the brand name figures.
- In addition, most resin Christmas figures are too short--that is, their legs aren't long
enough--for whatever "scale" they are in. I'm thinking that, in addition to the
caricature-like design, the designers also compensate for the extra quarter-inch or so of
base by shortening their legs the same amount (or more). So if you stood them, say,
inside a newsstand where their legs didn't show, you'd never notice. My first "serious
purchase" of one of these figures was a girl feeding pigs. She was on one knee, so you
couldn't tell how disproportionate she was. Most of the others I have chosen are sitting or
wearing long coats or skirts or something that disguises their stumpy legs. But there are
quite a few figures in the stores which are proportioned roughly like Dorf standing (or
kneeling) on/in a pillow.
- You have also to have a good "eye" for period and culture if you don't want to wind
up with a "hodge-podge." In the same "collection," you'll see Ragtime-era US-style
figures, traditionally-dressed Eastern European accordian players, 1970's-era sportsmen,
and Victorian English street vendors. If you don't want your railroad to look like a
miniature version of the last scene in "It's a Small World After All," you may have to start
paying more attention the clothing styles of your miniature citizens than you probably pay
to your own.
- The clunky bases are even more obvious (and usually more objectionable) than the "plastic puddles" that stabilize most plastic figures. They're also WAY
harder to saw off without breaking something. I compensate in some cases by standing
the characters in sand or fine gravel and spreading the medium around their shoes.
- Many of the figures have inconsistent painting and detailing - Even if you like one of the figures, it pays to go
through several "identical" packages and pick the one that has the best paint job. Look
especially at their faces, as those are harder to "fix" than an overcoat that didn't get properly
- Also, in some "collections," most of the characters are wearing overcoats, mufflers,
etc. Unless you just want to get these folks out for cold weather, you'll have to choose
figures carefully, then disguise the "snow" bases as something else.
- Last, but possibly the most frustrating, is the fact that the most popular and most widely available brand of these things--Lemax--can be hard to come by. Michaels is advertising them this year (2004), but two other stores which have carried them in the past--Wal-Mart and Lowes--now carry many more off-brand figures than they do Lemax. And both Wal-Mart and Lowes put the same brand names on the off-brand figures as they do the Lemax figures they import, so if you don't know what you're looking for, you can easily bring home figures with which you will be dissatisfied in the long run.
Neutral Information FYI
Overall, I'd say that what Christmas resin figures lack in proportion and adaptability to
"any" era, they make up for in "personality," realism of detail, and, if properly chosen,
sense of period. Is using them a compromise? Yes, but so is using the "plastic puddle"
people. Model railroaders are just more used to the latter.
- While breakable, these aren't THAT much more fragile than the plastic figures.
Which is to say that I've never broken either kind except by stepping on them (not
recommended). And superglue puts them to rights as long as you find all the
- They fade a little in the sun, but no moreso than my plastic people, as far as I can tell.
The heavy colors used on coats, etc., seldom fade noticeably, but the thinner coats of lighter
colors used for faces, etc. seem to get a little lighter. I probably need to get some flat UV
resistant spray before I set them out next spring.
- Distribution of these things is just plain wierd. Getting usable
figures for your railroad will always be like a scavenger hunt, which may or may not appeal to you.
Slow and steady will win this race. If each season you buy the two or three figures you can actually use year
'round on your railroad, you'll eventually wind up with a very nice collection that will bring
your cities, stations, and farms to life. If you buy a bunch of people with overcoats or
Victorian costumes, because you want to populate your summertime cities right now,
you'll probably wind up with a hodgepodge that will make your railroad look like a
"Christmas Village" gone berserk.
In 2002, I picked up three very usable figures, a baker, a barber, and a
traveling salesman with two sample cases. (Unfortunately, Hobby Lobby, the store where I purchased them, stoped carrying Lemax the next year.) The "uniforms" of the first two make them
suitable for any period, and none of the figures are standing in snow drifts. Unlike Prieser
models, if you see these on my railroad and decide to buy some for yourself, you'll
probably never see them, though you might find some other tradespeople who are just as
useful. But they cost me $2@ and are in scale with my trains.
If you're a garden railroader who is obsessive/compulsive or whatever and would rather have a
dead-certain choice of product than scrounge around relying on your own judgment about
what is suitable for your railroad, stay with Prieser and Just Plain Folks--they're great
products from companies that deliberately support garden railroading.
- Christmas Resin People are Bad because they are mostly way too small for
Narrow Gauge railroads, they have stumpy legs, they have oversized bases, their clothing
styles are too time-and-place specific, and the chances of finding specific figures you are
looking for are very low.
- Christmas Resin People are Good because some of them are big enough for Standard
Gauge railroads, they often have "personality," good detail, and nice accessories, their
clothing styles help establish the time and place of your railroad, if you choose them
properly, and they are very inexpensive.
Note: Information on many other sources of figures for your garden railroad is available in our Choosing Figures for Your Garden Railroad article.
Best of luck, all,
Other People's Feedback (from the original article)
Doug Langdon says:
I agree on most of the negatives. On the positive side, the ACCESSORIES are
often closer to narrow gauge sizes, maybe for "cuteness"
Bob Atwell says:
- Lamps can represent differing sizes
- Beverage bottles/cases/ same
- and the PRICES are very good!
I seldom use the resin cast people on my Garden railway
outside but I do use a lot of Dept 56 Snow Village figures on my public
Christmas displays that I do over the holiday season. I started
collecting the Dept 56 figures about ten years ago and now have about 75
or more sets of these figures for use on my displays which are almost
always indoors. They add a whimsical touch to the display and they get
a lot of attention from the children and their parents. You're correct
in pointing out that figures add interest to our railway displays. I
guess that I'm too lazy to do it for myself but welcome the opportunity
to do it for the public during the holidays.
Wil Davis says:
. . . I have been able to take advantage of some
of the kids and a few others. The scale(?) appears to vary wildly even among
a given line, Lemax for example.
Some are also good for 1/29th scale. I have several from the Coca Cola line
that are closer to 1/24 and might work for 1/20. I try not to place them
close to figures that are smaller.
to List of Available Articles
||Reading Index Pages||Buyer's Guide Pages|
Note: Family Garden Trains?, Garden Train Store?, Big Christmas Trains?, BIG Indoor Trains?, and BIG Train Store? are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically
Family Garden Trains is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
For more information, please contact