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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Backyard Folk-Art Houses

Though I use and enjoy the plastic structures that I have made as weather-resistant as possible, I'm always on the lookout for beginner-friendly alternatives using materials that were meant to be used outdoors. In my last few visits to Springfield Ohio's semi-annual antiques "Extravaganza" (like a flea market with just antiques), I've noticed several examples of decades-old miniature houses that were built with real building materials - in some cases it looks like they are models of houses built just for fun with leftover materials from the house itself.

There's not a real classification for this folk art. I'd seen something similar years ago - home-made outdoor dollhouses built to stay outside (often mounted on a stump or something), with doors that could be closed to protect the inside. The level of detail would be very simple (to resist freeze-and-thaw cycles that would otherwise bust up tiny shingles or gingerbread), although siding or shingle lines might be painted on. The inside and outside would be painted with house paint, and usually only a few coarse piece of furniture were left in the dollhouse. That way, a child could put the "doll house dolls" and a few accessories into a basket, take them outdoors, and play with them outside on pretty days. This is a typical backyard folk house.  Though the door is hinged, you really have no access to the inside, unless you're 3 inches tall. Click for bigger photo.Sorry, I don't have any photos, but I'll add one the next time I come across it.

Lately I've seen more and more home-made model buildings that were obviously meant to be left outside, but were not intended for use as dollhouses, birdhouses, mailboxes, or anything else I can think of. I haven't been buying them up, but the last time I went to the "Extravaganza," I had the presence of mind to take my camera and photographthe "folk art' houses I saw.

Size Does Matter

Most of the buildings that were definitely built to go outside are pretty large - too large to fit on the average garden railroad. Think of it this way - if your house is 35' long, and you built a 1/24" scale model, that structure will be 17.5" wide, bigger than the average plastic garden railroad station. (Why aren't the "scale" plastic buildings that big? Because, while the doors are the "right size," the overall building's length and width are scaled down to keep their "footprint" from taking over the garden.)

That said, if you have a lot of space, and you entertain or relax in your garden even when the trains are put away, a structure or six made like this would add a great deal of charm.

"Collector's Value"?

This house is apparently more modern than the one above, probably built after 1970, based on the home design, fancy shingles, and doll-house windowframes that have been incorporated.  Click for bigger photo. Apparently there's no particular classification for these, unless they get misclassified as handmade dollhouses, which they're not. Because they're all basically "one-off's" there's not exactly a "Greenbergs" guide to make the collectors feel good about the stuff they want to keep and overprice the stuff they want to sell. In short, they're "worth" whatever folks are willing to pay. (For a deeper discussion of the "value" of one-off "collectibles," see the article "How Much is My Collectible Worth?"

I could have got a nice piece or three in the $75@ range, but then where would I put them? And the vendors who didn't put prices on them are the worst - they probably picked them up in a $20 lot at an old farm auction. But when you ask them what they want for something, they suddenly think that your interest indicates unforseen hidden value and tell you it's "worth" $250, as though they even had any idea of what the thing is.

Materials Used

Now, I'm not trying to get you interested in tracking down these relatively rare collectibles. I'm more interested in looking at how they're made, and determining if garden railroad structures could be made that way economically without herculean effort.

Walls and Roofs

As far as I can tell, most of these are made either of solid wood or heavy plywood - neither of which stands up to direct weather well without heavy coats of paint or real roofing material or some such. In other words you could use the same techniques that most custom birdhouse builders use for the basic construction, although you'd need a jigsaw and not just a hole saw to cut the windows. In fact, if you have a lot of windows, that might be the most time-consuming part.

This house is made of tinplated sheet steel.  I included it as a folk-art house because it looks home-made.  Maybe a family commissioned a model of their home from a tinsmith.  Click for bigger picture. I did see one folk-art house that was not wood - it was made of tinned steel. I also saw commercially-made tin buildings that may or may not have been made for outdoors, and home-made buildings that were probably meant to be used indoors. So if you go hunting these yourself, you'll likely come across all kinds of variations.


Cutting strips of wood to make such things as the windowframes, doorframes, and shutters would be relatively simple.


Many of the older houses use real glass for the windows, though I would tend to use acrylic. (see our article on "Glazing Structures with Lucite(r)" for more information on that approach. Advantages of glass or lucite windows include:

  • It's harder to see inside during daylight, so it's easier to get by without interioris.

  • Yellow Jackets are less likely to set up house, if they do, a sunny day could boild them and put them out of your misery.

  • A dim light in the evening shines through and makes the building "come alive." 12-volt garden lighting is useful for this.

This relatively small example uses scavenged stamped metal stampings as the Sometimes thin strips of wood are glued onto the glazing material to represent mullions. Sometimes the mullions are painted on using a white "paint pen." (If you're using acrylic or glass, consider doing the inside as well as the outside). Sometimes there are no mullions.

Some wooden craft houses you see, especially more recent versions, use hardware cloth in the windows. Sometimes the look is nice, especially if you choose a scale that could pass for mullions. But expect wasps to enjoy the relative shelter of your structure.

Roofing Materials

Most of the antique originals I've seen have real asphalt roofing shingle material for the roof. My guess is that, for the houses that were models of the family home, leftover shingles from the actual house were used. Other choices include:

  • Contrasting paint color.

  • Shingle outlines painted meticulously on the roof.

  • Strips of wood to represent the vertical joints of metal roofs.

For a more realistic model look, you might try coarse waterproof sandpaper cut into shingle shapes, or crinkled aluminum sheeting (as documented in our article: "Making Corrugated Metal Panels from Disposable Aluminum Pans".

Modern Wooden Craft Houses

Sorry, I don't have a larger photo of this just now.Within the last fifteen years or so, in Ohio at least, a certain kind of wooden colonial-style craft house has become popular. They tend to be much wider than they are deep, with a roof line that runs the length of the building, and to be two to four stories tall, with one door in the middle of the front wall and identical rows of windows above that. One web page calls them "salt box" houses, but that's a misnomer. The photo to the right shows an unfinished wooden version that is only a few inches tall, but I have see finished handmade versions as tall as four feet tall. They are seldom finished to withstand harsh weather, but there's no reason they couldn't be. As mentioned above, window mullions may be nonexistant or may be made from hardware cloth or white paint or wood strips on lucite or glass. One builder in Clayton, Ohio, uses stretched barb wire to delineate the mullions. Cool look, but for a model house you'd probably want one of the other choices.

Could something like this be used on a garden railroad? Certainly, if the proportions were adjusted to look more realistic and if realistic detailing were added, including perhaps door and windowframes, some sort of texture on the roof, etc. Frankly, it would break the monotony of all those two-story buildings that our plastic-house manufacturers keep giving us. And no one says you can't use textured spray paint to add stucco or some other way to disguise the smooth surface.

The one big obstacle - to me, anyway - is the amount of time it takes to drill and then jig-saw through all of those windows. Bird-house builders get around that by using hole saws, which can drill a mess of bird-shaped holes in no time. But your miniature people will expect doors that go all the way to the ground.

Here are two ideas for getting around some of that jigsawing:

  • You can create arch-topped windows (works great for stations or churches). Make the wall an inch or so "shorter" than it will be eventually. Use the hole saw and straight cuts to create each window shape. Then add a block of wood under the windows to get piece you've cut off the "ground." If you have a door on the same side, simply have two blocks of wood that close off the "windows" and leave the "doorway" open. This will require some sort of back bracing, but is still way easier than using a jigsaw or coping saw to carve out all of those windows. Over the years, I've seen several antique homemade stations that were built this way, but, sadly, never got a photo.

  • Another option is to align horizontal strips of wood on a backing structure of some sort, and just leave open spaces where you want the windows to be. On the modern example shown below, the crafter has tacked strips of rough-cut wood (possibly ripped barn siding) over black plywood walls. He has added strips of wood to "dress up" the "windowframes," and painted the mullions right onto the black wood. If you like the idea of a "country craft" look for your railroad, this is a great way to go. Again, the proportions are somewhat toylike, but that shouldn't stop you from trying your own hand at a similar project.

Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.


Wherever these oddities came from, whatever inspired their builders to make elaborate weather-resistant model houses just for show, it's evident that it's possible to make long-lasting, attractive buildings for only a few dollars worth of scrap wood and materials. I may try one myself after I get caught up on the six years or so worth of projects that are currently on my workbench.

Below this paragraph, I have a few more photos of structures that didn't quite belong in this article, but are worth a good look nevertheless. Click on them for a bigger photo.

This structure was definitely built by a craftsman, but it was hand painted. It is enclosed front and back.  Color and design resemble tinplate buildings made in the 1910s-1920s in Germany to go with early electric trains.  The vendor knew nothing at all about it except that it was 'worth' $115.  Click for bigger photo. This may have been made for an early (Standard Gauge) model railroad or as a Christmas decoration, or both - families used to build elaborate railroads around their Christmas trees.  The twin front doors were common in certain Protestant churches in certain parts of the country a century ago - the women went in one door and the men went in the other.  Click for bigger photo.
This one is obviously a commercial product, but it was too unusual to leave out.  It had many stamped individual piece soldered together like, say, a saxophone.  I'm guessing it was made to be used on early-1900s model railroads.  Unlike the home-made tin-house above, it was certainly never made to be used outside.  Click for bigger photo. Log houses are a common theme for indoor craft houses. This one seems to have been 'home-made' from a commercial product.  Notice the oddly hinged roof - which would technically make this a doll-house, I suppose, though you could only get into it from the top.  Click for bigger photo.

Tell us about your projects

If you have a structure project you'd like to tell other garden railroaders about, please contact me with the details, and I'll be glad to pass them on, giving you full credit, of course.

Reader Response

Alert reader Howard Lamey remembered an article he saw about a whole village of these that were built during the Great Depression. Apparently the local mayer, unable to find real work for the town's carpenters, asked the government for money to hire them to build replicas of the towns important buildings. Click here to go to the article.

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