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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
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Trashbashing a Fisher Price Schoolhouse

Longtime readers know that back when I got interested in garden railroading, only two companies were making US-style buildings in scales that looked good with my trains - Fisher Price and Playskool. Current Fisher Price and Playskool buildings are much flimsier and much more toy-like, but some of their classic pieces are still around.

Please don't spend $60 on a collectible-quality set, then pull it apart to repaint it - you can get a variety of structure kits on our Buildings for Garden Railroad Page. The CMS structures on that page are especially affordable. But every time I go to a really big flea market I see at least one beat-up-but-usable Fisher Price or Playskool structure for a few dollars.

A century and a half ago, both schoolhouses and churches had belfreys for calling their respective flocks. So it's no coincidence that the Piko schoolhouses and churches are identical under the paint. And it took no great imagination to turn the Fisher Price schoolhouse into a church. In fact, it's so large in comparison to most building kits for garden trains, that it would look out of place if I finished it as the single-room schoolhouse it was based on.

I converted my first one back in the 1980s, and didn't take photos. After a decade outside, the pressed-wood ends had swollen to the point that the building began to lose its structural integrity. I took it out of service in 2011, hoping to have it refurbished in time for the June, 2013 open house season, but I didn't quite. Nevertheless, I did some work on it that summer, hoping to have it ready for our November, 2013 open railroad. In the meantime, I've taken enough photos to help anyone who has come across one of these turn it from a toy to a model church that will outlast most out-of-the-box kits.

Fischer Price Schoolhouse before disassembly. Click for bigger photo. Fischer Price Schoolhouse before disassembly. Click for bigger photo.

What You Get

The Fisher Price Schoolhouse has plastic walls, a Masonite floor, and pressed-wood ends. One of the most useful features is the hinged roof and side, made so children could access the inside of the building. The hinged part of the roof is partially metal, and it includes a long metal "piano hinge" that is mostly hidden when the roof is closed. When you flip up the hinged portion of the roof, one of the walls drop down, giving you all kinds of room to get things in and out. Looking for a place to hide your sanding pad, shrub snippers, or a small dandelion fork? Look no further.

If you're only going to use this indoors, ignore everything we say about disassembling the thing and replacing the ends and bottom with plexiglass. The ends and bottom will last indefinitely indoors. On the other hand, if you want to use this outdoors, you'll want to replace the Masonite floor at least. In damp climates like Ohio, mealy bugs and other insects can make short work of the floor. In my case, my open railroad schedule often results in me leaving most of my buildings outside year-round. I replaced the floor after about year three, and the ends after year eight. Your mileage will vary according to things like rainfall, termites, etc. If I ever do another one of these, I will replace those components starting out. That's how I'm writing these instructions.

What You Need

  • Plexiglass. Clear plexiglass for the windows, and any kind of plexiglass for the replacement floor and walls - the thicker the better. I used a chopped up "drive-through" menu that was discarded by a fast food restaurant near my work years ago. Note: Some folks use pressure-treated boards or plywood for the ends. They will work as long as you keep the thing from sitting in moisture. They won't hold paint until they've been exposed to the weather for several months, but if you're painting them white you can always slap some white outdoor latex on them later.

  • Spray Primer, probably gray. Probably two cans. The WalMart cheapy stuff works as well as anything else for this project.

  • Spray Paint for the walls. I used white. In fact, the first time I did one of these I used white primer, then sprayed flat white over it. What I learned was that it takes MORE, not less flat white to cover white primer than to cover gray primer. And white primer doesn't protect the plastic from UV rays like gray or rust/red primer does.

  • Spray Paint for the roof. When I first painted this, I used "trunk paint" which is provides a nice texture but isn't supposed to be used outside, then I topped it with flat black, which has protected the trunk paint for several years. A textured paint solution on the roof allowed me to make it seem less toy-like without doing anything (like shingles) that would interfere with the hinge.

  • Some material for extending the "porch roof." I trimmed down a vinyl siding corner left over from our home's siding project. I also used a bit of the same material to extend the roof on the belfrey, covering the remnants of the lever that used to let little kids ring the bell.

  • Cick to see the full-sized template.Some material for covering the gash left where you cut the handle off. I used a piece of angled plastic from the hobby shop.

Print and Check the Template - If you click on the picture to the right, you'll get a PDF template to use when cutting out the replacement ends. I've adjusted it to correct for a mistake I made in the project shown - I cut the ends about 1/3" too long, and I had started gluing things together before I noticed. I made up for it later by gluing some strips of plexiglass under the walls before I permanently fastened the thing to the new base.

That said, some printers will print this the wrong size, so hold the template up against the building before you disassemble it.

The floor actually serves as part of the hinge. Click for bigger photo.Deconstruction

Examine how the hinged wall works. You can see that once the floor is gone, the wall piece that includes the blackboard will simply come out. You'll remove the floor early in the process, but if you pay attention to how things go back together, the replacement floor will work just as well.

You'll also notice that the entrance door frame and the plastic corners adjacent to the hinged wall are attached to the pressed wood ends and nothing else. So when you remove the pressed wood ends, those will come out as well. Don't lose them.

Remove the Floor - The Masonite floor is attached by screws or tacks going up into the pressed-wood end pieces. If you accidentally bust up the Masonite while you're working that's not a problem, since you're going to discard it anyway. Again, the wall piece that contains the blackboard will come loose when you remove the floor. That's not a problem either.

Underneath the roof, you can see two slivers of red plastic sticking through. These have little 'barbs' that hold the belfrey in place.  Sorry, I don't have a bigger photo.Remove the Belfrey - I find that it's easier to work with the building if you take the belfrey off. Examine it closely where it attaches to the roof. You'll see that the roof has little "tracks" and the bottom of the belfrey is shaped so that it "snaps" in place. This wasn't made to be disassembled, but once you see how it snapped in place, it's not hard to use a screwriver or something to nudge the little "catches" into releasing.

Remove the Handle and the Lever that Rings the Bell - I use a hacksaw for this sort of thing, then file down any parts that stick out where they shouldn't. (Again, you'll cover the mess this leaves in a later step.)

Remove the Stickers - If the stickers are still on the roof, you can loosen them by getting a washcloth wet and laying it on the roof, re-soaking it whenever it starts to dry out. An old toothbrush, a "chore ball," or some "Goo-Gone" may be required to get the rest of it off. Try not to expose the metal components to water any more than you need to. You could do the soaking at the same time you're doing the following step if you want.

Remove the Walls - This is the biggest and messiest part of the deconstruction. The walls are removed most easily if you soak them first. (The tacks or screws that hold them in place are generally so rusted that you can't pull them out without breaking things.) However you don't want to soak the metal roof. So find a plastic bin or washtub or something that you can set the thing in, and fill it with water until it almost reaches the roof. Set the building (sans floor and chalkboard wall) into the bin. Walk away for a day (a week is better). The water needs to wick up through the "pressed wood" ends and dissolve the glue holding them together. Eventually you'll have a mess of soggy sawdust where the walls used to be. The longer you leave it sit, the more easily the bits will come out.

Once the building's ends are bloated and wobbly, you may start removing them. Put on very old clothes and take the building, a pair of pliers, a flat screwdriver, and a lined plastic wastbasket someplace where you can make a real mess. Turn the thing upside down in your lap. If the building has soaked long enough, the bottom three inches or so will just fall away once you tug at them. Be careful not to break any of the plastic pieces as you work, though - you'll need them intact to make the reconstructed building sound.

The building's plastic parts before the remaining pressed wood bits have been removed. Click for bigger photo.As you get to the part that didn't get soaked, you'll go more slowly, using the screwdriver to gently pry bits out of the plastic frame. You may find that the screws or tacks stay in place as the pressed wood comes out from around them. That's okay; they won't be in the way. Once you've completely exposed one, just break or snip it off. As long as it doesn't stick out enough to be in your way, any remnant is okay.

The corners where the hinged wall was will come completely away from the thing. Be careful not to throw them away. The same goes for the front door frame.

Once all of the pressed wood is gone, use an old toothbrush and soapy water to clean as much residue as you can from the inside of the plastic frame bits.

Removing the blackboard will allow you to glaze the 'windows' on this wall and add a stained glass pattern.  Click for bigger photo.Remove the Blackboard - Drill out the little rivets holding the blackboard to the "hinged" wall. This way, you can put glazing and "stained glass" on both sides of the building - which results in a nice effect, especially when the building is lit.

Fabricating Replacement Parts

I used plastic scrounged from a discarded drive-through menu to make the ends and the floors. I like to make the base a little larger than the original, so I have room to set up a little scene like the pastor greeting his parishoners or some such. But that's just a rectangle. The ends pieces are a bit more complicated.

New end walls cut from scrap plexiglass.  Click for bigger photo.Because I used a relatively heavy stock (about 3/16") for the ends, I cut them with a plexiglass-rated 120-tooth carbide-tipped blade in my circular saw. You might have a fancy jig saw or a big hole saw that would cut the arch for the plastic. In my case, I drew the shape of the arch and made a bunch of passes with the circular saw, about 1/8" apart. The resulting strips were easy to break out, leaving a jagged edge which would nevertheless be covered by the flange of the doorframe.

This is a good time to figure out if you're going to extend the "roof" over the front door. In my case, I had a bunch of vinyl "corner" material left over from having our house sided. I used the same material to cover what remained of the button on the belfrey. The material had a wood grain, but I used the trunk paint to camouflage that and make the pieces look like the main roof.

Priming

Primer prepares the surface of your building to accept the colored paint you choose and helps seal the plastic against damage from UV light or acid rain.

You can spray outside on a warm, calm day. Most spray paints work best over 60 degrees Farenheit. If you can't spray outside, try to create an environment away from anything that could be damaged by overspray inside. And don't spray near the pilot light of your water heater or furnace.

Before you prime, wipe down every surface you are going to prime with Glass Plus, Fantastic, or something else that doesn't leave a residue, and dry with a lint-free soft cotton towel. This removes fingerprints and oils that you can't see but which might keep the paint from sticking evenly. From this point on, handle each piece by the back and edges the way you would for a photograph.

You don't need to mask anything on the model before you prime, because you're going to be priming everything, including the inside of the walls.

Shake the primer can until you can hear the little ball rolling freely. Do NOT aim the can at your piece until after you've pressed the button. Instead hold the can off to one side about 8" away from your piece. Press the button and bring the spray pattern all the way across the piece and off the other side before you release the button. Otherwise, you'll wind up with a circle of extra paint where you started or stopped spraying. The whole process should last two or three seconds. By the time you've bent over to take a look at the surface of your piece, the paint should already be drying or dry. If there are any drips or even any shiny spots, you moved too slowly.

Make several quick, light passes, allowing a few seconds in between. This helps you avoid the danger of drips or runs and helps provide a more even coverage in the long run.

You probably won't get 100% coverage from your first coat of primer. Don't try to "fix that" by saturating the paint on the piece. Even if you don't get any drips or runs, you'll create areas with uneven coverage. After you have 80% or greater coverage, walk away and let things dry. In twenty or thirty minutes, come back and repeat the same pricess from another angle. Then walk away again.

The end walls, primed.  Click for bigger photo. The side walls and corners, primed.  Click for bigger photo.

The roofs awaiting priming.  Click for bigger photo.Prime the "inside" surface as well as the "outside" surface of the pieces - this helps protect the plastic. In the case of the plexiglass pieces, it also reduces the amount of light that will shine through the walls when the building is painted. (If you use clear plastic for the ends, use several coats of primer, and including one interior coat of black paint if you have any handy.)

At the end of this process, let the pieces dry overnight.

Even after the primer coat is thoroughly dry, continue handling these pieces like photos - only with very clean hands and only by the edges.

Painting the Base Coat

I added my "base coat" next. In this case, I chose white because that's the most common color of country churches in Ohio. I painted the plastic corner pieces and the doorframe the same color. Obviously if you choose differently for the doorframe and corners, you'll need to do some hand-painting or masking later on to complete the look.

I also painted the "eaves" under the roof the same color, not bothering to mask the roof since I was going to paint it afterwards.

Use the same "baby step" approach to paint as you did to prime. Add several light coats twenty minutes or so apart, and coming from different angles. Be sure to spray up under the "eaves" of roof.

Roofs painted black.  Click for bigger photo.Painting the Roof(s)

Once the eaves are thoroughly dry (usually overnight at least), you can mask them with masking tape and paint the roof.

Reassembling

Now comes the most "interesting" part of the whole project. The plexiglass end pieces are nowhere near as thick as the pressed wood ends you've removed, but they will work fine as long as you brace them in place while the glue dries.

Get the four walls and the corner pieces from the hinged wall, get your favorite glue, and spread out a bunch of newspapers wherever you're going to work. Lately, I've been using "Fix All" glue which I've been getting at Big Lots. It dries much slower than Superglue, but seems to hold better over the long haul. If you use this, crack a doorway or window - the vapors are strong.

Put the end walls up into the corners of the gables and test the fit. The channels that held the old pressed-wood ends are far too wide for the plexiglass. That's fine. The OUTSIDE edge of the plexiglass wall will go where the "outside" edge of the pressed-wood wall went.

A heavy bead of glue on the inside of the outside edge of the roof piece's gable molding.  Click for bigger photo.I glued the non-hinged side in place, taped it so it would stay put, and let it set to the point where it was almost stiff, but still a little flexible. Then, as you can see in the photo to the right, I laid a bead of glue where the end wall would need to contact the channel. I laid the end wall into the channel and used little wadded-up pieces of newspaper to force the end wall to stay on the glued surface until the glue set. By the time you have two walls in place, you'll be able to visualize how the rest of it goes together.

After you have the second end wall in place and the glue has set, test the fit of the corner pieces and the hinged wall (the one that used to have a chalkboard). Then, making certain you have the corners oriented the right way, glue those in place. Don't glue the hinged wall in place if you want to be able to open the building easily. Brace and tape the corners in place until the glue has set.

The hinged wall will not stay on the building until it is fastened to the base.

Glazing

Glazing your windows with something solid like Lucite/Plexiglass give you something solid to attach your stained-glass material to. It also helps keep out the wasps and dust.

For each row of windows, I cut a single piece of plastic. Our article on Glazing Windows with Lucite tells you everything you need to know about that.

Lighting

This fixture holds the wedge lamps from Malibu-style sets. Click for bigger photo Use your favorite solution to light the building from inside. I installed lighting, using a fixture that would hold the Malibu-style "T-5"wedge bulbs. I use 4-watt bulbs, though I would use 2-watt if I could find them. Any more is way too bright.

For more information on using 12-volt garden lighting to light your buildings, check out our article Lighting Buildings with Low Voltage Garden Lighting

Stained-Glass Windows

The building with one side open so you can see the sun shining through the 'stained-glass' windows.The first time I did this building, I printed a stained glass pattern onto a special "decal" paper that isn't available any more, then glued it right to the glazing. For this iteration, I'm using "windows" that I printed onto overhead projector film with a color laser. To download the stained glass pattern I used, please visit our Resources page.

The photo to the right actually shows building with the other side "open" so the light would hit the stained glass and give you some idea how it would look when lit. At night, when it is lit from inside, it looks especially nice.

Door

The original structure doesn't have a door, but I like to put something there to keep the wildlife out. You could cut a piece of plexiglass, paint it and glue it inside easily enough. Or you could use a piece of transparent plastic and use the stained-glass pattern on it.

One other thing I had to add that you won't - if you do it right: Because I accidentally cut the end walls taller than the side walls, the "hinged wall" wouldn't stay in place. Even if I glued it in place, there would be a huge crack for light to go through when I illuminated the building. So I cut four thin strips of plexiglass to length, primed them, and glued them under the side walls. They look fine gray because they could represent a foundation. But your building shouldn't need these.

Finished except for a few details. Click for bigger photo.Conclusion

The photo to the right above shows the "church" with new ends, new base, new paint, glazing, and stained-glass windows, before I added the strips on the side to compensate for making the ends too long.

Soon after I added those strips, I set it out temporarily for a November Open Railroad. It is on a 2x8x16" steppingstone, backfilled with gravel. It is also holding the sanding sponge I use to clean my track, as well as a number of small tools.

Unfortunately, I had to wait several weeks to a photo of it installed on the railroad - from the week I set it out until this week, it has been under six inches or more of snow. When I tell people that this is The church in Feb, 2014 after sitting out through a harsh winter.  Click for bigger photo.the kind of winter we used to have in my childhood (in Ohio), they point to news reports that say its the coldest or snowiest winter in thirty years. I say, "Exactly."

In the meantime, My railroad has gotten as big as it's going to get, so this is probably the last one of these I will do. With the organic components replaced and the plastic properly protected from the elements, there's no reason this can't help meet the spiritual needs of Donnels Creek for another ten years before it needs any more touchup to speak of.

You may like a challenge, or you may decide that it's a lot of work for what you get, and you'd be better off with a store-bought kit, even for much more money. But, in the meantime, I hope this has given you some ideas for projects you can try, whether with kits, repurposed toys or ????

Tell Us About Your Projects

Our club, the Miami Valley Garden Railway Society, has several individuals whose trashbashing efforts far exceed my own, so I know other folks have done the same sort of thing. Do you have anything you've saved from a landfill and converted into a useful model on your garden railroad? If you do, especially if you can come up with before-and-after photos, I'd love to post them here.

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