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

Visit our Garden Train Store<sup><small>TM</small></sup> Buyer's Guide Pages

Garden Railroad Structures

Trains need people and businesses to serve. Industries give your railroad a raison d'etre, while they add a sense of realism and points of interest. Houses and stores symbolize the communities that the railroad serves.

As the hobby of Garden Railroading has matured, we've recognized the many differences between structures built for indoor railroads and structures built to look good and to last in harsh weather conditions. (We've also recognized the economic differences, which is one reason trashbashing caught on early and continues to be practiced.)

Buildings and Bridges for Garden RailroadsDeprived of cardboard, brick paper, and many kinds of paint and craft products, learning to use weather-resistant materials such as PVC, concrete, and aluminum, or to protect other materials, such as wood and plastic, against the weather, many garden railroaders have "pushed the envelope" for model structures, in terms of size, realism, and durability. As the rest of us stumble in their wake, we occasionally pick up tips that we can apply. That's where Family Garden Trains comes in. Our hope is to provide articles that summarize what we have learned so far in ways that any new hobbiest can understand and apply. Eventually we hope to add other articles that provide details and alternative methods that may appeal to the more experienced modeler.

Our primary goal is to help you populate your garden railroad with structures that you can prepare with reasonable (but not exceptional) skill and effort, for prices that won't dwarf your investment in the rest of your railroad. At no point will we claim that our way is the only way, or even necessarily the best way. Rather, we describe approaches that have worked for us and will probably work for you.

The articles currently available in the Structures category include:

  • Stuff to Have on Hand - A list of products you should keep in your shop so you don't have to run to the store for a couple dollars' worth of glue or primer every time you want to work on a structure.

  • Preparing Plastic Garden Railroading Structures for Long-Term Use

    • Click to go to articlePainting Plastic Structures - Detailed instructions for making a plastic building kit far more attractive and weather-resistant before exposing it to the elements.

    • Click to go to article.Painting a Piko Gingerbread House - Everything a beginner needs to know to make small Piko building more attractive and much more durable than if you just followed the kit instructions.

    • Click to go to article.Painting the Colorado Model Structures Tower - Though, sadly, CMS structures are no longer available, the details in this article will help you maximize the usefulness, appearance, and durability of nearly any plastic building kit.

    • Click to go to our article on detail painting these buildings.Detail Painting Storefronts - Colorado Model Structures' new Market Street line of inexpensive 2- and 3-story city buildings was the inspiration for an article to help even beginners help city structures look their best. The techniques used will make any storefront building look better and last longer outside. New, August, 2013

    • Click to go to article.Prepping a Plastic House for Year-Round Service - While cleaning out the "train shed" and other places that trains and train stuff have accumulated, I've come across a couple kits that I REALLY REALLY did plan to put together. One was the (now discontinued) Colorado Model Structures Cascade Summit Dispatch Office - an inexpensive kit that was one on of CMS' early offerings and is often overlooked. I decided to paint it as a (small) private home instead of a railroad yard office, and to document every step, of course. Even though CMS structures are no longer available, most of the content applies to anyplastic building kit. Best of all, the end result is attractive and durable. September, 2013

      To see how we painted and assembled our Dispatch Office, please click on the picture.

      Click to go to article.Structure Buyer's Guide Update - Along with the new emphasis on kitbuilding, we have updated the Garden Train Store's Structure page to include mostly kits. I still like several of the pre-built buildings we used to feature. But A: those buildings are getting harder to come by, and B: they don't actually hold up as well as kits you paint properly. To see a nice selection of entry level building kits from multiple vendors, plus links to articles on painting and assembling those buildings, click on the little picture.

    • Click to go to article.Introduction to Craftcutters - A popular scrapbooking accessory can be quite useful in model railroading applications, but only if you buy the right one. We include it in the "structure" section because we've been busy using this to cut out windowframes and other useful structure parts. New, March, 2013

    • Click to go to article.Cast in Concrete - Ben Hartman's Stone Houses - A depression-era artist's "rock-solid" technique for making miniature outdoor buildings that have lasted 60+ years.

    • Click to go to article.Glazing Windows with LuciteŽ - A step-by-step example to help you add a professional finishing touch to your buildings.

    • Adapting Inexpensive Materials

      • Trashbashing 101 - About twelve years after our first Trashbashing article was published, things have changed enough to justify updating the article. Can you still convert busted-up or discarded toy buildings into attractive, inexpensive, weather-resistant scale buildings, with about as much work as it takes to properly prep the average kit? Yes. But the source materials are getting harder to find, and inexpensive alternatives are becoming available. We have added more photos and tips, but we also discuss when it makes more sense to choose an alternative approach.

      • Click to go to article.Trashbashing a Fisher Price Cape Cod ("Play Family" House) After eight straight years outside, a building that I converted from a toy to a useful farmhouse over a decade ago needed some refurbishment. While it was in pieces, I took photos so I could explain how anyone who comes across one of these cheap can have a nice scale structure for a few dollars and a little elbowgrease.

      • Click to go to article.Trashbashing Step-By-Step - This followup to our "Trashbashing 101" article has additional tips on using masking tape to get a clean, professional paint job with no skill required but patience. The name "trashbashing" means that we're using busted-up toy buildings as a starting point, something we did back in the early eighties, when almost nothing else was available in Large Scale. But the principles apply to almost any model you paint. Detailed photographs record each step. October, 2012

      • Repurposing damaged toy castles to serve as a dramatic background for a G gauge Hogwarts Express railway. Click to go to article.Trashbashing Fisher Price Castles - When we considered using a discontinued G gauge Hogwarts Express train for our annual Christmas-themed open railroad, we also wondered how to make that train look at home without spending hundreds of dollars or hundreds of hours, or both, trying to build a representation of Hogwarts Castle. We settled for repurposing some battered old toy castles in a way that would let us use them for other purposes. But they served this purpose just fine, I think. BTW, this is on our sister site

      • Click to jump to article.Temporary Building Fronts from Recycled Plastic Signs - If you have access to a color laser printer, you can print inexpensive, attractive building fronts that you can afford to leave out in bad weather or public displays. September, 2012

      • Click to go to article.Printed Buildings for Outdoor Railroads Folks who are on a budget, or whose railroads are exposed to vandalism or theft should find this article useful. It describes an easy and inexpensive way to use your color printer, some waterproof label material, and some concrete blocks to make a whole business district. Click on the following link for more information. August, 2009

      • Converting an Artline Bird Feeder into a Gazebo - A popular, easy, and inexpensive trashbashing project that will result in a model you will enjoy for years. This particular bird feeder is no longer available, but some similar ones are on the market. November, 2008.

      • Recycle Road Spam - Our first article about getting free building materials by recycling illegally-posted fluted plastic signs. January, 2008 Click to go to article.

      • Making Corrugated Metal Panels from Disposable Aluminum Pans Create nearly-free building materials with a Fiskars paper crimper and some recyclable aluminum products. New, January, 2009

      • Click to go to article.Mullions - Whether you're scratchbuilding, kitbuilding, kitbashing, or trashbashing buildings, one of the hardest things for lots of folks to come up with is attractive scale windowframes. Here are tips for getting free windowframes from vegetable trays, fruit baskets, and more. Updated October, 2008.

      • Click to go to article.Using Stencils to Make Buildings - Borrowing a page from "crafters," use our window and door stencil patterns, to make effective, but inexpensive buildings. We include downloadable stencil patterns in three scales, as well as .svg files you can use with some craftcutters to make your own stencils quickly. 1:29, O scale, and S scale patterns are included. March, 2013

    • Bridges and Tunnels

        Click to see article.

      • Trestles 101 - Introduction to building trestles for your garden railroad - it's not as hard as it looks - you simply build a "jig" to help you align the pieces, then build a few simple subassemblies (called bents) at a time. Originally published, July, 2007. See also Rod Horsburgh's Windowsill Trestle article below.

      • Click to see articleBuilding a Simple Foam ViaductClick to see article. - An easy and possibly impressive way to fill the gap between your raised railroad and the ground - September, 2007

      • Building an HDPE Tunnel Portal - an easy but effective project by reader Daryll Smith, New April, 2009

      • Click to go to articleRod Horsburgh's Windowsill Trestle - An indoor display bridge that can be moved outside when the time comes. This uses the basic principles explained in the Trestles 101 article above, but adds additional details such as a water barrel platform. New, July, 2009

      • CribbingClick to go to article. - Build attractive "retaining walls" to complement your tunnel portals and mountain trackage, another easy but effective project by reader Daryll Smith. New June, 2009

    In addition, if you want to get some buildings onto your railroad now, with very little fuss (and not too much expense), check out the Buildings for Garden Railroad catalog page.

    Buildings for Indoors

    Of course any building that will hold up outdoors will also hold up indoors - if you have room for it. Here are some ideas that will only work indoors, but are perfect for storage tracks, train shows, - wherever rain and UV are not an issue. Most of them also keep down space, expense and weight. Also, they're mostly from our BigIndoorTrains(tm) pages.

    • Click to go to articleEasy Street Scene - This popular building project uses downloadable building graphics and a little cardboard or foam board to build up a convincing downtown scene that is only a few inches deep - perfect for shelf layouts, tight spots, and dioramas. We also provide links to high-resolution graphics that will work for any scale. - April, 2008

    • Click to go to article. Photo-Based 3-D Buildings - Bob Anderson used our building front graphics to create an entire Large Scale downtown setting for a local train show. It was so well received, he's already thinking about how he can make it better for next year. If you have an indoor railroad of any kind, or if you've been asked to loan buildings to a train show or other display, and you don't have any to spare, this could give you some inspiration. - New, December, 2010!

    • Click to go to articleLog Cabin Building Flat - This "building flat" uses downloadable graphics and foam board or cardboard to dress up a narrow corner of your railroad or village. The techniques in this project can be used for almost any kind of building you want to represent in a tiny space. December, 2007.

    • Related Resources - In addition, we have many photographic and graphic resources you can use to add structures or building fronts to your indoor railroad, including:

    Related Articles from Other People

    Most of the articles below are for people of "intermediate" skills. However reading them before you start your next big project may help you find a way of doing things that works for you.
    • George Schreyer's structure articles - George likes to try out new things, then tell us what he did wrong as well as what he did right. Among his experiments are buildings made of concrete and other inexpensive materials. His pages have a number of articles on these structures and methods. I'm putting a list of the ones I find most interesting here, but once you get to his site, you're bound to find more. If you wind up talking to George, tell him I said, "Hi."
    • Making Your Own Windows, by Bruce Chandler - Using styrene strips and a simple form to build attractive windowframes from scratch. Hosted by Large Scale Central web site.
    • Building a Stone Mill by Bruce Chandler - Using materials from Stoneworks model builders' supplies, scratchbuilder Bruce Chandler builds an impressive stone-and-concrete mill for his outdoor railroad. Also hosted by Large Scale Central web site.
    • Build a Backwoods Water Tank by Dwight Ennis. Redwood "timber" construction makes this project eye-catching. Dimensions are given for 1:20.3 scale, the same scale as the Bachmann Shay. Several parts that you might have to buy from hobby providers are recommended, and navigating the articles is a little tricky, but if you're interested in something truly original and "backwoodsey", take a look. This article also has many tips on scratchbuilding with wood in general, so it's worth a read even if you don't build this particular project. Free, downloadable plans are included.

      Note: is planning on moving these articles to a new area, so if this link breaks, please notify me, then go to and navigate to the new articles section. Thanks, Shad, and Dwight for making this resource available.

    Tell me about your projects

    Our club, the Miami Valley Garden Railway Society, has several individuals whose structure-building efforts far exceed my own, so I know other folks have also pioneered new techniques. Do you have any new technique or recommendation you'd like to add to our list? If you do, especially if you can come up with how-to descriptions and photos, I'd love to post them here.

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Return to Family Garden Trains Home page Return to Big Indoor Trains Home page Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and  running well Big Indoor Trains Primer Articles: All about setting  up and displaying indoor display trains and towns. Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading Big Christmas Trains: Directory of Large Scale and O Scale trains with holiday themes
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Note: Family Garden TrainsTM, Garden Train StoreTM, Big Christmas TrainsTM, BIG Indoor TrainsTM, and BIG Train StoreTM are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications ( 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, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.
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