Common Household Items You Can Use for Model Railroad Scenery

Model railroaders are reputedly among the most frugal (read: cheap) hobbyists around. Why spend good money for details when you can utilize some very common household items? In the old days some folks swore by used coffee grounds for ground cover until the humidity turned their layout into giant Petri dishes of nasty mold and mildew. Or dryer lint for chimney smoke and who knows what? Wine corks converted into fuel tanks. Everyone has their favorite “free” scenery items and good on ya!

Here are some of Doug and my favorite “freebies”:

I save the bottle caps and seals from paper milk cartons for various rooftop vents. Spray painted aluminum and weathered, they’re passable for venting or rooftop “stuff”:

common household items used as model railroad parts 1

Doug makes a roof chimney stack (unpainted in this photo) from a brass water tubing compression fitting:

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I’ve found using the plastic cap from a deodorant bottle (not yet painted here) makes a passable rooftop skylight:

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Here’s a great use for finishing nails and some discarded screen material – Doug’s trackside cyclone fence:

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Have any small thin plastic bottles or old film canisters lying around? I use a jeweler’s saw to cut them in half lengthwise, and with a little dull paint and thin support wires, it serves as a building entry canopy:

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Doug likes to use wire caps (cut to desired height) with Adobe Red acrylic paint as flower planters – just glue some discarded ground foam bits in it for flowers:

Next time you’re in your favorite coffee shop, grab some coffee stir sticks. After some stain and weathering, I use them for scattered lumber piles or even at-grade railroad crossing timbers for my S-scale layout:

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Plastic flex straws make convincing culverts on Doug’s layout:

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I like to use thin wood skewers which I cut and round off the top to make those ubiquitous road and highway guardrails. You could also glue thin thread for cable supports:

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Who knows what half the stuff is that hangs off industrial building sides? If it looks and feels right, try it out. Doug uses Super glue nozzles for vents and other building details:

What are your favorite freebies to use in your layouts? We’d love to start a chat going and build on this list! Add yours in the comments below.

For more model railroad scenery ideas, check out the videos available here: Model Railroad Academy/Scenery

Discussion
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26 Responses to “Common Household Items You Can Use for Model Railroad Scenery”
  1. Bob Rorabaugh

    Plastic pen filler tubes scale out at 10″ stove pipe. And electrical tape, cut in small squares, with a small hole to force the “stove pipe” through, looks like lead flashing and can be installed with shingles.

    Experiment with tool stapes. I’ve painted and used them for “wood cribs” on back porches.

    Bob “Stumpy” Rorabaugh (“stumps for slopes and split cedar rail fences”)

    Reply
  2. Michael T Daly

    I’m using Ho and have empty insulin bottles,tops and used pump supplies.I used bottle tops for picnic tobles or sets. Could use help with insulin bottles, they are almost too big for HO any ideas? Mike

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Michael. Well, I’ve used corks for fuel tanks, chop sticks for poles, and fiberglass screening for fencing.

      Reply
  3. Don Kane Jr

    I use a lot of household and commercial / industrial products for train related items. I don’t see an option to upload photos. Most of the things I use are geared to ) gauge, but some can cross over to S and HO. For terracotta and concrete pipe, I use plastic bucket handles cut in half, and painted either primer red, or light gray. Crimp connectors for wires can also be used for smaller diameter pipe. Zip ties can be used for making car ramps, and trailer ramps. Springs from ball point pens can be cut into short sections as truck springs. Black stir straws from coffee shops can be used as pipe sections, and can be heated with a heat gun, and expanded at one end to represent ductile water pipe. Skid lumber can be cut on a table saw or band saw to make ties. I also use the weathered and splintered boards to make scrap ties. Metal cuttings from band saws and other metal working tools can be used as shredded metal either in piles, or as loads in gondolas. I also use fence caps with the ends cut flush to the bottom as containers for metal cuttings in gondolas. These are just a few suggestions; if you would like photos, let me know how to submit them.
    Don

    Reply
  4. pete

    I’ve found that archery shops throw away the left-over pieces of custom graphite and aluminum arrows …….they make culverts and pipe loads depending on the lengths

    Reply
  5. George Gilpin

    I take corrugated cardboard, soak it in water, then let it dry. After it dries the layers will peel apart. the rippled center can be sliced ( 2 ripples = 3 scale feet), painted a dull gray (primer works well) and have an HO scale guardrail.
    Also I use the center cardboard core from medical tape, cover it with wood slats to make vats, water tanks, etc.
    Pinecones that have been hit with a lawn mower lose their spikey tabs and end up a long tapered shape that can be sprayed with glue, rolled in ground green foam for a nice evergreen. Shove a hatpin thru the center, cut to suit, and paint it brown for a small trunk that can be pushed into plaster or foam base and glued.

    Reply
  6. Russell Root

    I use dried peeled banana stems as logs or tree stumps. Looks very convincing

    Reply
  7. John Reynolds

    Recently I have built/kitbashed a locomotive from the cardboard found in cereal boxes, cracker boxes, and soda can boxes. I have also built several On30 freight cars from the same material.
    Soda straws make great pipe loads for flat cars and gondolas BUT have also contributed to the headlights and exhaust pipes of my little locomotive.

    Reply
  8. Michael Jones

    Dean Freytag, the late great industrial modeler, used dry coffee grounds over almost his entire layout. The trick is to make them really dry!

    Reply
  9. Brian Hickernell

    I have used the cores of plastic wrap and aluminum foil in commercial kitchen cut down to make liquid tanks and extra silos for grain elevators

    Reply
  10. Joseph

    Those little plastic can shaped things filled with material to keep medicine in containers fresh and keep moisture out are great looking as metal drums when painted different colors. they even have writing on them that is tiny enough just to leave that section without a paint covering. All drums have writing on them. A lot of medicine containers also have moisture packets in them instead of the plastic barrels. these can be used as sacks such as flour, sugar, cement, etc. These things are also good to throw about four of them in your camera bag. They keep your camera equipment dry and moisture free especially when your traveling in an area that is very humid. When you have your camera equipment in your air conditioned room and take it outside it helps keep the camera lenses from fogging up when you take the bag outside.

    Reply
    • Trevor G Jones

      I use charcoal to run over roads to make them look like tires have been running on them, thicker on sharper turns.

      Reply
  11. Bob

    I’m a diabetic and the little needle covers on my insulin pens make really realistic short smoke or vent stacks on industrial buildings

    Reply
    • Steve

      My pens come with a small cover over the needle too, but the outer cone cover makes a good traffic marker cone when painted red

      Reply
  12. Mic Flynn

    I’m just starting out and these ideas are just what i need. Instead of buying things I like to look at something and try to figure out another use.

    Reply
  13. Dan

    Your local coffee shop can provide some useful tools. I prefer the square sticks as they more closely remember lumber, and the square edge helps to remove some excess glue, ballast, whatever. The rounded sticks when cut can be good for fences. The cup liners, to keep you from burning your hands, is corrugated and can be cut to resemble a metal roof. Hold on to those angled plastic sprus from models. They can be cut to fashion tubing and piping on the outside of buildings.

    Lots of good stuff here.

    Reply
  14. THOMAS c LEWELLEN

    I took tooth picks, painted them brown, cut them off at desired legth and inserted them in pre-drilled holes to make fence post for a stock yard. made steel girders out of small wood stir sticks for a rail bridge, painted them black and glued them together. metal fence posts out of 5/8 in chrome nales for fence post at an armoury

    Reply
  15. Steve

    I save the shells from my daily boiled egg. I pour boiling water over them to remove the membrane lining inside the shell. Then crush them in a pestle & mortar or put them through a ceramic coffee grinder. Put them through a sieve, into a bowl with suitable emulsion or acrylic paint watered to suit. It makes eggcellent gravel for road tracks, walkways or driveways

    Reply
  16. Don Rogers

    I save almost every thing, thought was saving too much but you’ve given me new ideas, one thing I will share probly every one is doing, Plastic popups, the small plastic containers or covers over small items on a card as protection, use the bubble in plastic cover with glue, then tissue paper, then paint. trim use for freight car loads.

    Reply