Recycle for your railway — money saving ideas

I’m always on the prowl looking for ways to save money and help the environment when building my model railways.

I hinted at this in 18 things only a model railway enthusiast will understand and Steve Hollands commented on how he uses coffee sticks.

This got me thinking. What else can be used from around the house to save money when building model railways?

Here are my top 10 fun recycling tips to save money when making a model railway.

Coffee sticks

These little pieces of wood have a multitude of uses around the layout, whether as sleepers, timber lying around, rail foot crossing and of course they make great stirrers for paint. Whatever the intended use, I always grab a few when offered.

Old sponges

old sponges make great hedge rows

Old sponges make great hedge rows

In a kitchen sponges quickly wear out but once liberated to your layout they have a new lease of life  They make great shrubs,  bushes and hedges (see DIY hedgerows and even trees) and foliage on trees and can also be used to dab paint to give a more blended coating than normal brushing.

Chinese takeaway containers

I don’t know about you but I bye a lot of ballast, flock and scatter material but unless you buy them in large bottles they’re a nightmare to store. The bags rip and the stuff goes everywhere. Luckily, I also buy a lot of Chinese takeaways and the little plastic containers that the food arrives in make great storage boxes for model-making materials.

Drinking straws

For larger scales — O and perhaps OO/HO — paper drinks straws make great drain pipes, gutters and culverts, as seen in the photo of a culvert I made from one previously. The smaller, plastic, thin ones can be used for smaller scales or downpipes and scaffolding on smaller scales.

Tea & ground coffee

Coffee granules can make great ground cover

I buy a lot of scatter material (see above) but also try to make my own where possible to save money. One of the reasons I buy a lot is the colours but for ash and dark sand, the kitchen has two ready-made and endless supplies. Tea leaves and ground coffee. Once dried out these are perfect ground cover. There’s more on this in my previous post.

Cereal boxes

Cardboard, particularly that from cereal boxes, is the perfect thickness for making buildings with. Cut it to size, glue it together and then glue printed photos of walls (scaled to size) on and you can save a fortune on buildings.

Tea bags

Several tea bags in hot water don’t just make a strong cuppa but also a wonderful wood stain effect. Brew up four or so tea bags, let them stand in hot water for a while and then place the wood (did someone say coffee stirrers?) in the cup and leave to soak for an hour or so. The wood patterning will come up a treat and will be just perfect for any model wood you need around a layout.

Pringles cans

Pringles tubes = tunnels. Say no more.

Corrugated cardboard boxes

Not so common now but if you have corrugated cardboard boxes around — the sort where the cardboard has an inner layer of ridges — they make perfect HO / OO scale corrugated metal for roofing.

Clear plastic bottles

Water bottles and the like, cut up, make great glass for windows.

What do you recycle or “borrow” from around the house for your model railway?

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Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.

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