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:

common household items used as model railroad parts 2

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

common household items used as model railroad parts 3

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

common household items used as model railroad parts 4

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:

common household items used as model railroad parts 5

common household items used as model railroad parts 6

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:

common household items used as model railroad parts 7

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

common household items used as model railroad parts 8

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:

common household items used as model railroad parts 9

common household items used as model railroad parts 10

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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45 Responses to “Common Household Items You Can Use for Model Railroad Scenery”
  1. Bob Rorabaugh
    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
    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
      Customer Service

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

      Reply
    • Murray Smith
      Murray Smith

      You can use the bottle for sand, placed on a match stick frame to raise the bottle up. Murray

      Reply
  3. Don Kane Jr
    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
    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
    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
    Russell Root

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

    Reply
    • Gene R Petro
      Gene R Petro

      I make birdhouses from cedar fence planks and they always have knots. the small ones can usually be pushed out & make great tree stumps. Add twigs to base if you want roots.

      Reply
  7. John Reynolds
    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
    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
    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
    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
      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
    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
      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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
  17. Matt Jackson
    Matt Jackson

    Drawer knobs make nice O scale roof vents. We have a lighthouse made from a Quaker Oats box, a funnel, and a Pepsi bottle that’s a perfect match for the lighthouse at the Port of Los Angeles breakwater. We make roads and parking lots from asphalt roofing paper. Of course, for dirt we use real dirt.

    Reply
  18. Roger
    Roger

    There seem to be two types of those little plastic “wires” that hold the price tags on your new clothes. Those that have rectangles at one end can be used for all kinds of signs, but the others have a slide things in a “t” shape that make wonderful valve for utilities going to your buildings or anywhere in your power plant.

    Reply
  19. William
    William

    Lots of great ideas here, will bookmark for later. I too am “frugal” and a packrat. First idea I’ll contribute-finally bought an airbrush, but no holder for car shells, so I folded a TP core and inserted it in a PT core, for springiness, and it holds HO freight, passenger and loco shelves beautifully. Just don’t put it back in your recycling bin if you’re not using acrylics, or if it is really soaked. I checked, small overspray is fine with most recyclers.

    Reply
  20. Michael Cipres
    Michael Cipres

    Used the toothbrush stems as weeds,on a few l cut and superglued them.l then painted various colors as weeds would appear.

    Reply
  21. Michael Cipres
    Michael Cipres

    Used the inners of old DVDS as parts as barrels,super thin wire for fences,trees,and junk parts for gondolas and flatcars. You even use old remote controls and the older version fat TV’s.

    Reply
  22. Robert Thomson
    Robert Thomson

    Soak sections of corrugated cardboard box panels, peel off one side to expose the ripples, paint brown and you have a freshly plowed field ( can sprinkle fine dust/dirt to shallow the furrows if ripples are too deep)

    Reply
  23. William
    William

    Used small dead branches for piles of firewood, small rocks from stream for rocks in my water, old round paint bottles for a small oil depot.any suggestions for n scale

    Reply
    • Alfred Bowman
      Alfred Bowman

      I use the bubbles on cards for tablets & capsules for covered loads on N Scale Flatcars. A little toilet paper painted dark green, brown, or tan makes a realistic tarp on it.

      Reply
  24. Joseph Plank
    Joseph Plank

    I run O and S gauge I use sawdust that has been placed in a blender and then colored with food color for grass. There is a lot of great ideas on this forum.

    Reply
    • John Christy
      John Christy

      I like your idea with the saw dust which I have PLENTY of it from my wood working projects.

      Reply
  25. Timothy Heggaton
    Timothy Heggaton

    I use flex straws often included with drick boxes as electrical insulators for Hi Voltage Lines. The Cap and mouthpiece can be used for rooftop vents, they have a collar to simuale flashing. Dust or shavings from pencil sharpener can be used in lumber yards. Matchsticks can be used for small scale lumber.

    Reply
  26. Timothy Heggaton
    Timothy Heggaton

    I use PVC Pipe Caps as oil storage tanks (available in sizes up to 6-8″ diam.) They are cheaper than PLASTRUCT products. For height add a no-hub coupling glued to the cap. There are also reducing couplings to add a taper to tanks in PVC.Plastic Push pins can be used at docks for ship lines. Plastruct has triangular tubes which is perfect for oil storage tank berms covered with ballast can be added.

    Reply
  27. Steve Wright
    Steve Wright

    Made N scale arch bridge out of bamboo basket material for the arches, toothpicks for the vertical supports and square wooden matches for the horizontal braces. It measures 14″ in length and is quite impressive. Made a jig for both sides then attached those completed sides to a 1/8″ slice of scrap plywood. by drilling holes for each piece used, nothing but wood glue holds it all together. Very solid.

    Reply
  28. John Christy
    John Christy

    Since I do wood working and save a lot of my scraps pieces of wood I used some of it for road a crossing on my fast track, I managed to use thin pieces of wood in between the tracks. It took some time to get the right width to fit between the tracks since I have O gauge tracks. I also cut a wooden dowel to the length and drilled out the center to simulate old wooden barrels that you find in and around railroad yards, but now have to paint or wait till the summer time to weather the look of the barrels.

    Reply