Garden Railway Buildings – The Best Materials To Use

300 buildings garden railway

“Honey, do we have money in the railroad budget for replacing the movie theater building”?

Why do we need to replace it, it’s only three years old?

“I know but it’s falling apart.”

Not all model railways are built indoors. Garden railways are a lot of fun but come with their own problems. Making the buildings and scenery that stands up to weather for starters.

Vic and Sue Thies have built 300 buildings along the 1800ft of track on their 60ft 25ft garden railway and have put together this guide to the best materials to use for outdoor models.

Over to Vic and Sue:

During the years of designing and constructing the TooMuchFun RR (TMFRR), we have “explored” numerous types of buildings for our various scenes and areas. From balsa and other soft woods, hardwoods to plastics, ceramics and concrete, and other products, various materials for buildings and structures in a garden railroad all have their pluses and minuses.

This article is a short summary of what we have found works best for our needs and some of the challenges (meaning replacing and spending more money!) we have faced. Your experiences may certainly differ and we have found there is no one or right way for every layout.

Unlike an indoor railroad where just about any type of building will last the lifetime of your hobby, outdoor garden railroading environments can take their toll relatively quickly on your structures. We have replaced a good number of our buildings, signs and structures, which were not made of “appropriate” materials for life outdoors.

Additionally, if you want something “unique” to your railroad, the kit or plastic buildings available through the normal manufacturers limit that possibility without kitbashing. Scratch building from the ground up is a possibility as well, but for those of us with limited modelling skills, it’s more frustrating than rewarding.

Precision Board

By far the most amazing building material for outdoors we have found is precision board (PB) available locally through Rainbow Ridge in Lakeside, CA,

The material is lightweight, comes in many textures (brick, stone, wood etc.) and has proven to be our material of choice for long-lasting structures as it does not absorb water and is unaffected by weather extremes.

In addition to its extreme weather durability, precision board is lightweight, easy to paint, cut, glue and use for scratch building projects. We’ve made several buildings, (our two gondola buildings, walls etc.) with our limited abilities.

If you want one of a kind buildings, the owners of Rainbow Ridge (Sue and Ross Piper) have a CAD program which combines with their abilities to take photos of real buildings and create amazing scale model replicas. Our Banff Helix Hotel, Route 66 Museum, numerous building signs, and the yellow brick road for the Wizard of Oz scene are just a few of the custom designed buildings and structures made out of PB.

The castle & jousting arena are just two examples of unique one of kind Precision Board buildings

The castle & jousting arena are just two examples of unique one of kind Precision Board buildings

While we don’t want this to sound like a commercial for Precision Board, it’s simply the best discovery we have found for durability and ease of use. I think the only negative might be if you drop a building made out of PB, there is a possibility it will suffer some damage but then again any building dropped will most likely suffer the same.

MRE Note: I believe Precision Board — High-Density Urethane (HDU) — is apparently available in the UK from IndasolTrident Foams are also worth a try.


Many of our bridges and elevated (“L”) line are made of steel or aluminium and we have had varying degrees of success. Even though painted or supposedly powder coated, many of the steel bridges started showing signs of rust within just months and several had to be replaced within 2-3 years.

While obviously strong and realistic in looks, if possible we would highly, highly recommend any steel structures be left unpainted from the manufacturer so you can take it to a reputable powder coating business for galvanizing and painting if you want long-term durability. We’ve replaced several of our two to three-year-old steel bridges with aluminium bridges and have no rust problems with them at all. The negative of aluminium bridges is their lack of strength and care must be taken not to lean or run into them, as they will bend.

metal bridge rusting

Many of our metal bridges suffered from rust within months of installation and like this one had to be replaced after 3-4 years


Trains passing bridges wide #1

Of the five original conyon metal bridges, three had to be replaced with aluminum bridges.


Plastic: Piko, Aristocraft, Pola etc kits.

We have quite a few plastic structures from these and other manufacturers and have had varying success with appearances and durability. It seems that within a few years, many of the buildings need to be re-glued; plastic walls and roofs potentially curl due to heat and cold expansions and their plastic signs or decals suffer from the weather and quite frankly they look plastic, which of course they are.

The positives to these plastic buildings are that they are kits, highly detailed and fairly easy to assemble. They are available to represent many eras, available in both American and European styles and are “relatively” inexpensive. Unfortunately, due to the lack of long-term durability, we have had to replace several of them after they were too far weathered. Seems that the more finely detailed the building is the quicker it has a tendency to come apart.

garden railway plastic buildings

Many of the “pricier” plastic buildings seem to be holding up quite well after four years in the sun and rain. Some regluing of delicate parts though is a yearly task


Early in the construction and detailing of the TMFRR, we bought several inexpensive softwood buildings on eBay.

Highly detailed with fun decals, figures and decorative trinkets, these buildings looked great for about 6 months before suffering the effects of the great outdoors. Made out of pinewood or other soft woods, these buildings just won’t last in a garden railroad unless covered from fog, rain, sprinklers etc. While the expense wasn’t much (the buildings were around $30 + shipping) it turned out to be a total waste of money.

We replaced several of the buildings with precision board buildings or similar structures made out of redwood. The redwood buildings were sprayed with Rust-Oleum Ultracover UV protector clear spray or Thompson’s water sealant and seem to be holding up fairly well. With good care and yearly sealing, we anticipate getting 5-8 years of enjoyment from these buildings.

Our Bridgemasters ( trestles, bridges and other trackside structures are made out of redwood and with their staining have shown little if any degradation in the up to five years some of them have been installed.

wooden buildings for garden railways

Two redwood buildings with PB signs – we anticipate a 5-8 year life-span for the buildings;
the PB signs should last for as long as we are in the hobby

Ceramic and cement

Incorporated into our Wizard of Oz and other scenes are quite a few ceramic and cement buildings from various sources including M&M Nursery in Tustin. Several of the buildings are made for garden/outdoor use while others are Dept. 56 or Lemax made and are technically not usually for outdoor use. These buildings are pre-painted and while not in direct rain and sunlight, seem to be holding up extremely well.

The nice thing about these buildings is the eclectic themes available for fantasy scenes. Obviously, most are pretty fragile and care must be taken in handling as they will crack or chip easily if dropped or hit. Pre-installed lights or electronics in Dept. 56 type buildings need to be protected from moisture/rain or replaced with suitable weatherproof lights.

We’ve installed over 15 of these buildings in various scenes and highly recommend them as alternatives to the traditionally available railroad structures if appropriate for your layout.

ceramic buildings for garden railways

Our Wizard of Oz scenes have numerous ceramic buildings
and all appear to be holding up extremely well


There are many other types of materials available for building railroad layout structures and we look forward to working with them and gaining experiences with their pros and cons. Scratch building cement buildings is on our list for experimentation after attending a workshop at the Denver Garden Railroad convention in 2015. Some of these buildings and bridges were absolutely stunning and mimic prototype structures beautifully.

Again, your experiences may differ from ours regarding building materials and their durability. As we continue to refine and detail the TooMuchFun RR, it will be interesting to observe the degrees of success in incorporating various types of materials for outdoor structures. For now, we are gravitating towards Precision Board products as our preferred material.

It’s flexibility in use and long-term durability just can’t be beaten.

For more information and garden construction tips, see Words and pictures reproduced here by kind permission and copyright of Vic and Sue Thies at TooMuchFun Railroad.

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