Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Interchangeable billboards

One feature of many layouts is roadside billboards, and especially prior to the 1970s, these were very familiar sights along roads and highways. They can be especially useful to the modeler who has chosen a particular era, because they very much help identify that time. There may be billboards with very specific time reference, such as an automobile model year, but even advertising of a general nature had a “look” in a particular era. The viewer, even someone too young to remember a particular era, may well have a sense of the era portrayed, because of that “look.” I am planning a broader column for a forthcoming issue of the “Getting Real” series in Model Railroad Hobbyist (see: http://model-railroad-hobbyist.com/magazine) but will develop one aspect of the topic here.
     There are many ways to build the structure of a billboard, and I won’t go into that, just because it can be pretty simple, but one shortcut is the Walthers kit, their number 933-3116, 933-3103, etc. A recent check showed that these are not currently in stock at Walthers, but of course may be on shelves at some hobby shops, and like many Walthers structure items, is likely to be re-manufactured in the future. I will use a billboard from that kit to illustrate my idea (the kit gives you three billboards).
     The core of my idea is that placing two or three billboards around the layout, with glued images on the signboards, limits you to display just those three images. I suppose you could build a whole bunch of billboards, and then rotate them off and on the layout. I wanted to do something simpler, and hit on the idea of simply changing the advertisements, which of course is what happened on the prototype too. Since I did find a good number of intriguing advertisements, I was happy not to have to choose just two or three, but could contemplate exhibiting them all in rotation.
     Here is an assembled Walthers billboard, a quick and simple project. But note the added white styrene strips. These are scale 1 x 6-inch Evergreen strip, and they overlap the ends of the image space recessed in the front of the board.

In this view I have not yet added the kit’s simulated floodlights.
     The Walthers signboard has an image space, in HO scale, which accepts a billboard image of 10 x 22 feet. Their 3116 “Petroleum” kit does supply six billboard images, but most are Eastern oil companies, and are all from later eras than the 1950s. Accordingly, I searched on the Internet for some time, finding all kinds of varied billboard and other advertising images. One of course need some historical knowledge of what is era-appropriate, and many on-line resources do provide the year or years when the image was used. Though many of the on-line images are copyrighted, you are permitted to download and print them for your own personal use.
     Here are a few examples, all adjusted to 10 x 22 feet in size, and printed out on glossy stock with a high-resolution color printer at my local copy shop.  As mentioned, some of these are subject to copyright. (You can click on the image to enlarge it.)

The gasoline images in the left column are especially valuable for regional reference. Everyone will also recognize the period Ford and Chevrolet automobile ads, as well as the Coca-Cola image. The two beer brands, Lucky Lager and Acme, were familiar California beers in the 1950s, and Levi’s was and is an iconic Western image.
     These images are readily inserted into the Walthers billboard, with the modification shown above of the side strips. I have left these strips unpainted in this view, to illustrate their use, though when placed on the layout they will be painted to match the dark green of the rest of the billboard. In the photo below, I am inserting an ad into the billboard, deliberately at an angle so you can see how the printed ad slides into place under the side strips.

    Once in place, the side strips hold the image nicely, if they have been printed on heavy glossy paper or even card stock. In the next photo I’m adjusting the final position. Friction seems to hold these well.

     To conclude, below is the same billboard, painted green, and shown in place on the layout. Just beneath it, a couple of people are enjoying a beer at the outdoor tables next to the tavern, and in the foreground, a train is returning from Ballard. (Click to enlarge.)

     This interchangeable ad idea really works for me. I can rotate among the dozen or so ads shown in the group above, and even if visitors may not appreciate the feature, it’s fun for me.
Tony Thompson


  1. A quick look on the internet shows these 1940s billboards as having a white border completely around the advertisement. Before adding the photo of the advertisement scan it and print it out at 80% of the original size. It just looks more accurate!

  2. You are right, and if you go back to early billboards in the 1920s, borders were not just white, but were fairly wide, too. They then got narrower. My own layout models 1953, and as history went forward, there were fewer and fewer white borders. But I have a few with borders, though most of mine don't have the border.
    Tony Thompson

  3. Clever idea! I was just googling for billboards for the SP layout I am currently researching... which I decided to base on 1953.

    (A shelf layout mash up of Geographic sections of Camp Cooke, as well as Santa Clause Lane) I had decided on 53 bc of the Korean War and Camp Cooke being active, and it is just before all the steamers were retired, but there are diesels also.
    Anyway, I’ll be reading your blog now as another fine resource!

  4. Those are interesting ideas. My personal choice of 1953 was because it was the last year that steam was the dominant power on the Coast Route. The following year saw a considerable decline in steam numbers.
    Tony Thompson