Silly Rant: HO Scale Figures

Is it just me, or is it difficult to find appropriate and realistic figures in HO?  Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but it seems to me that the companies making scale figures are putting a great deal of energy into what I’d call “novelty” figures, and not paying nearly enough attention to the basics.

Recently, I started to take note of the people in the reference photos I use for modelling.  Roster shots and the like almost never have people in them.  That’s verboten by the conventions of the genre, but action shots are often populated with humans.  Most often, these people show up as crew members sitting in the cab of a locomotive, barely discernable in the shadows.  I’ve seen brakemen standing on the platforms of switchers, operators hooping orders to a passing train or giving a visual inspection as it rolls past, head-end crew members walking together toward their train, conductors standing on the platform of a caboose.  Many times, I’ve seen a couple of brakemen conferring with each other, either on the ground or on the locomotive, and sometimes talking into a radio.

I decided that it would be nice to populate my models with the occasional person or two.  I’m specifically modelling the ’70s, so I thought that having three crew members riding a locomotive might suggest an era when more people crewed a train.  To that end, I started searching online and at my not-so-local mega model train store for natural looking miniature people to populate my models.  What I found was frustrating.

It seems that I’d be in luck if my miniature crew members wore suits and carried briefcases, or were women either sunbathing or on a stripper pole.  What’s up with model railroaders and scale naked people?

I could easily model an entire European circus or a zoo complete with every conceivable animal.

There are plenty of steam locomotive engineers with polka-dot scarves and bright blue shirts, right elbow on the armrest, left harm high in the air on the throttle.  That guy is usually sold along with his wing-man: a half-stooped fireman with a shovel, in mid-throw as he stokes the firebox.  These two are ubiquitous.

It seems Preiser is the leader in quality and variety of HO figures.  They sell all manner of scale railroad employees from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England, Japan, and the Netherlands, to name just a few.  Clearly their market is assuredly NOT North American because the requisite North American casual wear worn by nearly every train crew in photos I’ve seen taken in the ’70s is conspicuously absent.  The plain old blue jeans, t-shirts, and running shoes is not to be found among the garb of their puny people.  What is common among the Preiser’s scale population is headwear.  Apparently the HO scale haberdasheries are thriving in the world of HO scale figures.

It seems there is a much more lucrative market for WWII soldiers (of all ranks) in HO scale than North American train crew figures.  One can build entire battle groups consisting of uniquely posed individual soldiers, but good luck trying to find three middle-aged guys wearing dungarees and t-shirts, standing in natural and relaxed poses.

C’mon Preiser! What makes you think that people actually wear yellow flood pants?  Maybe that’s what people wear in Europe; I don’t get there often enough to know.  All of the manufacturers of miniature figures are guilty of assuming that people should be represented as if frozen the midst of some flailing gesture that suggests they’re being pursued by zombies or killer bees.  By the way, if you’re looking for HO scale zombies and beekeepers, my bet is that someone makes them, plus mermaids  hanging laundry.  I can’t believe there’s a bigger market for HO scale minotaurs than  North Americans in casual clothing.



15 thoughts on “Silly Rant: HO Scale Figures

  1. Rant not silly. Rant good! Need ordinary people, ordinary cars and trucks, ordinary houses ans stores, ordinary pets, and ordinary dutritus of modern life ( shoping carts and diiscarded tires (sans rim) for the ditch! Ordinary everything (era specific too). Llife is not sanitary, why should our railroads be? End of rant addendum.

  2. Dear Hunter,
    Preiser figures are easily mod’ed, and it’s far easier to start with a Preiser figure than to try and “make real” a WS caricature figure. For examples, google “Brooklyn : 3AM”, “Nine Mile”, and “Broughton Vale Tramway” 😉
    Happy Modelling,
    Aim to Improve,
    Prof Klyzlr

    • I started thinking about how to modify them once I realized I was going to have a hard time finding figures that were suitable. It seems absurd that I should have to modify figures to recreate banal and common scenes. One would think that modifications would be necessary if the goal was to model a scene with a gymnast in an orange jumpsuit standing rod-straight on a ladder in front of a billboard ( That kind of wacky scene should require some kitbashing, no?

      [edit: he’s not a gymnast, he’s escaped from prison]

  3. I think that your rant touches on a few things I also find troubling about model figures. Figures frozen in mid-anything are always stupid. Why are the trains the only thing that move on the layout? If a figure is present, it should be at rest or standing still, not looking like he’s just completed a cartwheel and is trying to regain his balance. Cars standing for hours in the middle of an intersection are a similar problem, as well as a stream cascading over a waterfall. Why are we OK with that stuff being frozen in time? We have no choice? Model it stationary or do without?

    As far as crew members on locomotives go, I would rather do without. Most of the time you can’t really see inside the cab of a passing loco, so the lack of crew members will hardly be noticed. On the other hand, having an engineer and a conductor in every cab of a three unit lash-up might be a little hard to explain. Likewise, you will have to ask yourself why the brakeman is still standing on the running board of that switcher 3 hours after it was parked on the service track by the roundhouse.

    I think I’m of the mind that figures will usually not be missed, and no figures are better than a bunch of people frozen in time.


    • “why the brakeman is still standing on the running board of that switcher 3 hours after it was parked on the service track by the roundhouse”

      I wrestle with the same kinds of questions introduced by figures. Putting people into a scene can invite the viewer to create some kind of narrative and perhaps draw themselves into the fiction of it all. Maybe permanently mounted figures raise the wrong kinds of question and take away more realism than they add.

      At a minimum, I would like to use figures as temporary photo props on or around my models. The actual trains that I model exist as a part of human industry, and I think photos would be more compelling with people in them.

      • I’m definitely for using figures in photos. That is probably their best use, since their lack of actual movement will not be a detriment. It’s incorporating frozen figures into a dynamic model world that poses the problem.

        This is also why I’ve considered trying to use the Faller Car System on my new layout, since that would allow vehicles on the streets to actually move. Getting them to move realistically is then the new problem, and I think the technology has a ways to go there yet. Installing the guide wire and designing a workable road system into the layout are things that would have to be considered now rather than later, however, so I’m looking for opportunities to incorporate that now while I’m still in the planning stages.


    • Good point. We should model a scene as your mind’s eye sees it. Most places that we remember things about we don’t remember so much the people in the scene, unless the number of people contributes to what makes up the scene.

      So I’d only place some figures on a sidewalk for example to indicate the approximate “density” of pedestrians there. No poses, like someone just entering or leaving a building.

      On the other hand, if, for example, night operations are part of the plan, then I’d be inclined to leave out people altogether, maybe indeed only place some for photos.

      Vehicles are easier to explain at any time of day, but, again, I’d only place them in the middle of a block where they represent “average traffice density at any point in time”, not waiting for each other at intersections where they become very static.

  4. Not a silly rant at all. We should model to ordinary not the unusual. I have no place for a Bachmann Schnabel car or a Walthers “Golden Dragon Chinese Take Out” (released a few months ago).

  5. As someone who models a street scene with trams, I too have a problem of finding suitable people for my layout. Not everyone where a suit when commuting, and some of the colour schemes can best be described as flamboyant. As the timeline ranges from the 60’s to early 80’s, which covers a vast array of fashions. The suits are going to the races, the flamboyant are outside the theatre and every day people are either waiting at tram stops or browsing the shops. If I had to update to contemporary Melbourne, everyone and I mean everyone would be face down in a smart phone wearing ear buds, with a cup of take away coffee, decked out in shades of black.

  6. For your train crews, Hunter, you may be able to get away with some of the truck-driver figures from Preiser. I’ve used these on diesels. They’re wearing sensible clothing for working in and around rigs, so they look the part on railway equipment too.
    Some of the poses are goofy, but others look the part. Here are photos of a couple of the sets that are available in HO…

    • The Walthers figures are a great bunch for someone needing contemporary rail workers, but they’re far too modern for me. The first group of Kato figures represent a solid improvement upon the generic locomotive engineer. They’re very believable diesel locomotive engineers, and they’re clearly North American. Once again, everyone is wearing a hat! Oh well, at least they’re ball caps. The second Kato group of people (31-611) is the most usable for me. Good stuff!

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