Without people on your platforms or streets, your stations and towns can look like ghost towns. In the best case, the right figures, effectively used, lend a sense of proportion and purpose to your railroad that nothing else can. And it's worth remembering that visitors who are not railroaders or gardeners are going to spend at least as much time looking at your communities as they do looking at your trains and plants.
That said, there are almost as many choices of figures for garden railroads as there are trains. And a garden railroad with a few well-chosen figures will be more effective (and probably less expensive) than one that is crowded with a mishmash of figures in obviously different scales and periods.
To choose figures most effectively, you should probably consider a number of issues of period and place, scale, and aesthetics.
Yes, most manufacturers of Large Scale figures try to make them as "generic" as possible. But no figure can really span all periods and all continents. Think about the time and place of your railroad and the communities it serves. Then think about whether one or more of your figures are creating a "time warp," or at least a "space warp."
The picture above shows a collection of figures that are commonly used with Large Scale trains on garden railroads. Except for the Lemax fireman at the right, the rest are all advertised as "suitable for use with all G scale trains" or some such. Surely they can't all belong on the same station platform.
The relationship your figures bear to your buildings and trains is just as important as the relationship they bear to each other. Figures that look right with standard gauge trains (such as those by AristoCraft, USA Trains, and MTH) will wind up eye-level with the doorknobs on many Pola buildings, and some of the larger Piko sets. On the other hand, figures made to go with narrow gauge trains (such as those made by Bachmann and LGB) will be able to stare into the cabs of some standard gauge locomotives. When was the last time you stood on the ground beside a real train and were able to look directly into the cab windows?
Sadly, buildings for Garden Railroads aren't labeled for scale any better than people are. Since I mostly run standard gauge trains, I look for buildings with doorways under 3.5 inches, with other details, etc. to match. If you get picky about it, you'll notice that many Pola buildings have doorways that are 4 inches high, making them more suitable for use with narrow gauge trains from Bachmann and LGB than for standard gauge trains. The photo at the right shows two stations set side-by-side on a children's railroad in Ohio. By the way, some Piko stations are just as large in scale as the Pola station shown; the Red River station is just one example of a station that is better suited for a smaller scale. Once again, nothing on the packaging of either station tells you that a building will work better with one kind of train or another.
|Now it so happens that I have accumulated one Pola-manufactured station with doorways and details that are better suited for narrow gauge trains. I put that building and most of my LGB people right in front, on a "short line" that runs equipment that could pass for narrow gauge. A little further back, I have a Piko brand station (a repainted "Red River" station), that has doorways a little closer to 3.5 inches. That station gets populated by some nice figures from Lemax, which tend to be closer to 1:32 in scale. (This photo is from a club meeting, but I do use these figures with a Red-River based Piko station on my railroad.)|
Most garden railroaders use figures that are made by hobby companies, and most of those were originally made to go with the 1:22.5 structures and trains, the most common scale of the early LGB and Bachmann narrow gauge trains. Brands of figures that still suit Large Scale narrow gauge trains include:
Figures created to go with Christmas Villages include:
Note: More details about using Christmas Village figures in garden railroads are available in our aptly-title article Using Christmas Village Figures and Accessories on Garden Railroads
Figures From Other SourcesI don't have any great photos, but I have noticed some creative use of figures from other sources on other people's railroads. A "Curly" figure left out of a "Three Stooges" set was the right size and had just enough detail to look right in a village on one railroad. I have also seen a Grover Cleveland figurine that must have been mislaid from a set of Presidential figures. In both cases, I was the first person who had noticed the "celebrity" hiding in the communities - they were that close in quality and scale to the hobby shop figures.
When you come across such a figure and wonder if it will be useful, determine if it is about the right size, represents about the right period, and has about the same amount of detail as the other figures that it will be near. This standard generally rules out figures such as the birthday cake decorations that look like a baseball team, or the blank-faced plastic workers that come with some toy truck, construction, or farm sets.
Update for 2009 - I just came across a few other "off the wall" sources for people you might could use on your railroad. They're documented in our More about Scrounging Figures article.
Summary:Overall, you have a pretty good range of sources for figures for your garden railroad, as long as you know ahead of time what you're looking for. The "short and sweet" version is that:
If you have anything you'd like to add, or any special "finds" you think our readers would like learning about, please contact us and we'll try to get it in on the next pass.
Best of luck, all,
Appendix: What do All Those Scale Designations Mean?1:32 is a scale in which the model is one thirty-second the size of the real thing. This is the scale of MTH trains. It is also the scale of the LifeLike figures that were advertised as "G scale;" although they're not made any more, there are still some on the shelves. The better Holiday Village people, such as those by Lemax tend to be 1:32 or so. Off brands tend to be smaller, all the way down to 1:48 (the right size for Lionel sets). Preiser also makes several lines of 1:32 figures, although they are harder to find in the States. Many of Britains' animals and models and some of the Ertle farm sets are in this scale.
1:29 is a scale in which the model is one twenty-ninth the size of the real thing. This is the scale of most AristoCraft trains. It's worth noting that very few figures are produced in this scale, since most AristoCraft figures are closer to 1:24. Nevertheless, I've been able to populate some 1:29 communities effectively with LeMax and LifeLike 1:32 figures and a few Lionel 1:24 figures - I just don't stand them next to each other.
1:24 is a scale in which the model is one twenty-fourth the size of the real thing. This is the scale of most Hartland Locomotive Works trains. It is also a common (though not the most common) dollhouse and "toy soldier" scale. Most AristoCraft figures and the Lionel railroad worker figures (if you can find them) fall about into this category. Preiser also makes a few US-style figures in this scale.
1:22.5 is a scale in which the model is 1/22.5 the size of the real thing. This is the most common scale for LGB European trains and Bachmann Large Scale starter sets. It is also the most common scale for model buildings made to go with garden trains. Most LGB figures fall about into this category, although LGB people have been growing a little taller over the years. Several companies, including Preiser, make figures in this scale.
1:20.3 is a scale in which the model is 1/20.3 the size of the real thing. This is the scale of the Bachman Shay and many other new models of narrow gauge trains. The Bachmann figures look at home in this scale. Even though they're not much taller than the 1:22.5 LGB figures, their heads are proportionately larger and they are wider, so they look like big models of 5'5" people instead of small models of 6' people.
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