Basement Fireplace

When we bought our house last year, it came with a wide open, unfinished basement. Nothing but cinder-block walls and concrete floor, with exposed rafters. Not exactly the nicest area for a game room, or play area for the kids.

Needless to say, after more pressing projects were taken care of, the basement became a significant projects. Thanks to help from friends, and lots of drywall, the basement has been partially finished, with a large, mostly finished room (exterior walls are still just cinder-block and floor are just large area rugs over concrete) , and two smaller utility and storage rooms.

But, how to heat? Being the frugal guy that I am, it didn’t seem to make much sense to use electric space heaters. Too much energy used = money floating away.

My first idea was to make a solar air heater (more on those in a future post), but the opportunity to get a cheap propane fireplace came by and I jumped on it. The savings each year using it over an electric space heater would pay for the unit in a matter of a few years, so definitely a no brainer. Not to mention the ambiance it adds to the room!

A few evenings (ok, probably more than a few) on pinterest provided some useful design ideas, and it was off to the races….. well, kind of. This project ended up being a off and on project for most of this winter, though it was hooked up and running for most of the season, which was helpful some weeks!


Hooked up to the propane line, Set in corner on platform of 2x4s


Framing it in- Always make sure to frame correctly for proper clearance to combustibles!


Drywall….this below grade sheet is much nicer color than the last I bought at Lowes..that one was dark green


Layering the plywood for the mantel


Rocking the Harbor Freight tools- worked well for this project!


Faux hearthdetail


Next layer



Final layer and shelf


Altogether, 3 layers of 3/4″ plywood, and some ivy trim board across the shelf and hearth


The “finished” fireplace. Since this picture was taken, the top crown molding has been installed.

(The photos were all taken on my phone, so my apologies for quality.) The mantel was constructed of 3/4″ plywood, layered into desired shape. One 4’x8′ was adequate for the mantel, and a little bit of wood filler took care of the imperfections.

Overall, I am pretty satisfied with how it turned out, and it does a nice job of heating the basement, especially on game nights. Somehow, time with friends just seems that much better with a fire going…. well maybe. Enjoy!


#30- A Look Back, and a Look Ahead


According to WordPress, this post is my 30th post on this blog. While certainly not a huge achievement, or an overly significant milestone, especially since it has been stretched out over many months. But, in my my mind, it is a milestone, and I am sure there is a philosophy out there that encourages you to celebrate every milestone, now matter how minuscule, right? Right….

So, what does one write for a 30th post?  I frankly have few ideas, so I decided to look back at highlights of these past few months, and then attempt to speculate what lies ahead for this blog.

So without further ado, lets look at some highlights of these past 29 posts:


1. The Most Controversial Post: Downsize Your Hobby: This post generated lots of comments of various reactions both here ont he main blog site, and on the forums I frequent where the link to this post was uploaded. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was more of a negative reaction from the board game crowd- It’s hard to argue with the Cult of the New.

2. The Most Overlooked Post: Unplugged Gaming – Taking time to unplug and spend it with friends is a great way to spend time.


3. The Most Popular Post: Idea #1 Find the Free Stuff!– This post really kind of kicked of my Low (or No) Cost Ideas Series. According to WordPress’s stats, this was the most viewed post. Hopefully you all found it helpful. This series has been for me  a great way to encapsulate my philosophy and my approach to my hobbies- the essence of being a Frugal Hobbyist.


4. The Best Board Game Review Post: If I defined best by “most views”, my review of Occupation of the Rhineland would easily take the cake. However, I think that my review of Pay Dirt takes the cake. This game has spawned more posts, or parts of posts than any other game, and has been my favorite game to review to date. Seriously, I think it is that good! Notable runners up in this category: Harbour, which really kickstarted this blog, Serica: Plains of Dust, and Yardmaster Express.


So, where do we go from here? That is where you, the reader comes in! I realize that I am pulling from two very different groups of hobbyists: Those who like trains, and those who like games. Granted some of you are probably like me and like both! But, I do want to cover both to the best that I can. So, if you have ideas of what you want to see discussed , or reviewed, let me know in the comments.

Now, I do have some ideas, and hopefully that work is slowing down for me, the next 30 posts will come at a faster speed than before. (but no promises!)For the next 30 posts, expect more of the same. More board game reviews, more updates on my train layout, and more ideas and opinions about how to enjoy both without breaking the bank.

Now, a word about board games: I would love to review more games. If you are a designer, promoter, or publisher, big, or small, I will gladly review a game for you. Simply send me an email, and we can work something out!

Tea Time! A Brief Manifesto on the Benefits of Tea, or, Idea#3 (MR)

I realize that in a lot of ways, I am different from the majority of my contemporaries. Most people in my generation, or in those directly before mine have iPhones or iPads  in one hand, and a cup of coffee in  the other.  We are a nation addicted to our coffee and to our electronic devices.

As for me? I usually have a book in one hand and a mug of tea in the other. Or, I am playing a board game, with a mug of tea. Or working on a model railroad project, with a mug of tea in hand. And yes, I do mean “mug”. As in, big, German mug typically used for….other beverages, (which I do not use it for). I certainly don’t use a sissy cup for my tea, thank you very much!


I guess, really, at least in this aspect, I am not too abnormal as there are plenty of people who like to drink tea. Tea does have some good effects on the body, and it tastes good. There is nothing quite like a warm, creamy spiced chai, or a refreshing, slightly sweet, peppermint tea, or even the warm and bright flavors of an orange spice tea.

(Coffee just never has been my thing. By the time I get enough cream and sugar in my cup to make it palatable, it hardly counts as coffee, but maybe a coffee flavored  sweet dairy drink! )

So why this fascination about tea? Or more specifically, why devote a post to it?

Simply, because tea has two great benefits: It is a great drink, and it yields useful modeling material for my railroad. Now, I will not delve in depth in the first point beyond what I have already written because more than likely, you didn’t come here to be convinced of the joys of tea-drinking.

What about the second point, that it yields useful material? This is a tip I have really just recently discovered anew, thanks to surfing the MRH blogs and forums.

When you finish brewing your tea, don’t throw away that tea bag! While it is still wet, snip the top off the bag, and spread the tea leaves out on newspaper to dry. Set aside the tea bag to dry as well. (assuming you have a paper tea bag)


The results of your frugal craftiness? Scenery materials and canvas tarps!

The dried tea leaves can be used in a couple different ways. They can be used as ground cover, but I think they would also be better suited to simulating leaves. Instead of dunking tree armatures in ground foam, dunk it in dried tea leaves, to give it more of a leafy texture.  Sprinkle it on top of bushes, or, paint some white glue up a wall, cover it with the tea leaves, shake it off, and you have an ivy vine!



Just another ivy covered wall. The surrounding scenery is still in progress

Now, all tea leaves are not equal here. Green and Mint/Peppermint/Spearmint leaves are green in color, and so are best suited for the methods described above. Black tea leaves could be good for a late fall tree holding onto a the last few of its brown leaves. My preferred method is to take the black tea leaves, blend them with a little bit of orange and yellow ground cover, and then shake this mixture liberally on the areas around the forests and trees on the layout. This nicely simulates the fall ground covered with fallen leaves.




As for herbal or fruity teas? Dry them out, and see if the resulting shades of leaves are useful or not. Not every tea is equal in its usefulness. If you dried some out, and don’t like the texture or color, just throw them out! Nothing lost save for a few minutes of your time.

The tea bags can be used as a canvas tarps. Cut them into scale sized squares, soak it with diluted white glue and drape it in place. After it drys, you can leave the color as it is or, paint another color on the tarp. Highlight the texture with a black wash, and then dry brush it gently with an off white paint. Voila! now your inhabitants of the railroad can keep their equipment covered and dry in inclement weather!


Tea really is a wonderful drink. It relaxes and satisfies. And, when that cup of tea is gone, you have some useful, cheap materials to work with to enhance your Model Railroad! Sounds like a win-win to me. Now, if you excuse me, I am going to make myself another cup of tea!



Idea #2 In Search of Cardstock (MR,BG)

DSCF3405Crafting is, for me at least, a relaxing, unwinding activity. Whether making a PnP game, or crafting a station for my layout, or making a retaining wall for a bridge, it is a great way to relax, relieve stress, and enjoy that feeling of accomplishment.

But to be able to craft, you need materials. After all, that house you want isn’t going to come just out of thin air! So, how do you get those materials, and how can you do so cheaply (or even for free)?

When it comes to making board games, or making structures for a model railroad, having good cardstock on hand is helpful. It is one of those basic materials (at least for me) in my crafting supply. You can buy sheets of poster board, or printable cardstock paper to get what you need, but why do that when there are other ways to get the materials you need?

To clarify terminology, when I refer to cardstock (here in the US) I refer to a sheet of cardboard that is solid, and not corrugated. The cardboard that is used on the back of legal pads of paper are a good example. I realize in other parts of the world, especially Europe, you might have different names for such stuff, “Chitboard” being one such term I have heard of.

Now, how does one find such cardstock, and how do you use it? This is the focus of my thoughts here. First, let’s run through some frugal sources of this versatile crafting material:

Cereal Boxes. (And other “food” boxes)



DSCF3409 This is my favorite source for crafting material right now. Breakfast is something most always have on hand, especially if you are like me and have a toddler in the house! (Cheerios are to toddlers what Cheese puffs are to adults.) If you are like 97% of those who consume cereal, you just throw out the box (or recycle) when you finish the contents.

But it is better to up-cycle this material. I have found that the cardstock in these boxes to be very usable (the Cheerios boxes get high marks- they are thicker than other boxes, and bigger.) I prefer them for making nice, thinner tiles for games (like Pay Dirt. A review will be coming soonish)DSCF3243

Legal Pad backs.  These tend to be thick- they are great for player boards or extra thick chits or tiles for a game, like I did for Dune Express:DSCF3411


Shirt cardboard: With some dress shirts (or in my case, my work shirts), the shirt comes pinned or clipped to a sheet of thin cardstock. Typically it has a white, glossy finish on one side. I really like to use this for making thick cards, like for the Empire Engine. The smooth white back nicely complements the card’s appearance.DSCF3173

I have also painted the white side of the cardboard, and scribed it to give the look of concrete. I used this technique for the inside of the bridge I am finishing.




These cardstock materials are handy for model railroad projects. They can be used as bracing for an interior of a scratchbuilt structure (as I did with this house). DSCF3281

They can also be used to make textured sheets thicker for walls. The bridge scene on my railroad is cereal cardboard with the textured sheet layer on top. It makes it sturdy and thick enough to be believable.

This cardboard is also good for making the cores of many models. I am planning to scratchbuild some passenger cars in the future, and I believe having a cardstock core should be easy enough to do, that I can layer detail on top of it.

Also, with a steady hand and a good knife, cardstock can be carefully scribed to look like wood siding. This is a skill I am working on mastering, but it sure beats buying stripwood or textured wood sheets. With extra care and attention to detail, I could imagine you could carve/cut brick or dressed stone texture into a sheet of cardstock as well with reasonable results.

It very well may be that you may argue that you can’t get great detail from cardboard as a building material, that styrene is the best choice, or better yet, buy your own stripwood. There is merit to this. I would hope that something you buy be a little better than something I scrounged. But, my point is this: In most cases, you can get a very reasonably detailed, good looking building out of cardstock for a fraction of the price. (Or, if you do use those textured sheets, like I do (they were a gift), cardstock is a good brace and add some more body to the sheet. )


If you look at the great layouts of yesteryear (think John Allen, etc.), many of their great buildings were done with cardstock or similar materials, with great result. Granted they did not have the same selection of products as we do now. But what they did do with what they had is inspiring to us making do will up-cycled materials.


So when you finish that box of cereal, don’t throw it out! You next game waiting to be made, or the materials for a great little station could be in your hands.

Idea #1- Find the Free Stuff! (MR, BG)

This one probably goes without saying, but allow me to elaborate. When word gets out that you like a particular hobby, well meaning people who have a desire to deep clean, sort , yard sale, or trash their belongings  will often find out. I have had this happen numerous times over the years.

They may hear that you like model railroading and so a conversation might go like this- “Would you be interested in Jimmy’s toy train stuff? He has out grown it, and I would hate to just throw it away or yardsale it”.


Typically, this is your run of the mill train set quality stuff- old TYCO and Life-Like cars, brass track, transformers from the dinosaur era, and assorted people and details. Not the kind of quality products you see in MR these days for sure. Even in the 70’s and 80’s it was of questionable and somewhat dubious quality, but now? I think I will pass. Thanks for the thought though.

Hold up! Wait a minute! Put a little love…. oh wait, never mind. (I never was a fan of Family Force 5 but it you are, enjoy that) Anyways, before you turn away from that quality plastic “junk” from yesteryear, why not take it home and sort through it a little later. Sure, those boxcar’s molded on detail look clunky, but with a little work and fresh paint, or just some careful weathering, you have a decent looking car, that while it may not match the individual quality of a boxcar from Branchline Trains or something like that, it does the job nicely.

The two boxcars closest are both scavenged from cheap train sets. With some weathering, they look pretty decent. They may not hold up on close scrutiny but in a passing train, it doesn't matter.

The two boxcars closest are both scavenged from cheap train sets. With some weathering, they look pretty decent. They may not hold up on close scrutiny but in a passing train, it doesn’t matter.


(Like the article I shared in my recent post) Let’s be honest with ourselves. Our goal is to capture the feel of railroading in minature, so we will be running trains, not examining each boxcar very carefully with a magnifying glass.

Or, you could take a sharp knife, carve off the clunky molded on ladders, remove the trucks, and give it a dull coat of paint, and plant it in your rail yard- you get a nice shed at zero cost. Much more economical than paying $9-$11 for a lower quality (by today’s standards) boxcar to use as a shed.


And it doesn’t stop there. I have a drawer full of these “junk” train details and cars. If nothing else, you can salvage some of the items for detail parts for a scratch-building project. Some clunky plastic buildings can be saved for window castings and doors, and if the wall details are not too bad, it could be a good base for a building project. It can be amazing what a little paint, some careful weathering and drybrushing can do to a model.

A Cheap Bachmann train set building with new paint, a new roof of construction paper shingles, and cinder-block loading dock made from an old kit.

A Cheap Bachmann train set building with new paint, a new roof of construction paper shingles, and cinder-block loading dock made from an old kit.

Granted, not everything is worth saving. Those ancient DC transformers are really not worth saving (unless you need a power pack for your railroad) save for maybe using to power “accessories” like lights or something. That brass track with the massive ties is probably not worth holding onto either for using as track. However, the rails could be chopped up and stacked in a rail yard somewhere for details. The same with the ties as well. A little trimming with a hobby knife, and some paint, and you can add a realistic detail.

This does take work and ingenuity on our part. If you have the cash to spend, you might justifiably choose not to root through the relics of yesteryear for some salvageable details when you could buy nicer ones with much less effort. But, for me, it is more enjoyable to spend my time this way, and keep my cash in savings. (And my wife appreciates it too)

Now what about board games? Those same, well meaning people might hear that you are into board games, and so a conversation might go like this- “You like board games? My kids played them for years. Would you like to have their old games? They had all the favorites:  Clue, Yahtzee, Sorry!, Monopoly, Risk, etc. I would hate to see them collect dust in my closet”

The typical gamer will likely start to back away at the mention of “Clue”. By the time Monopoly is mentioned, he might be running for the nearest exit. The Euro games of today, these ain’t. Instead, these are the ultimate example of the “Ameri-trash” games frequently bashed on the board gaming forums. (For those who like these games, no offense is intended. They aren’t terrible games…..maybe. 😉 )

But hold on. Anyone who has been reading this blog has noticed that I really like to make PnP (Print and Play) games. Many of you are PnP’ers, but I would wager a good many are not. I would also wager that a good many of you are intrigued by the idea, but are held up on one issue- components. Where do you cheaply get the pawns and the dice and the counters and the money and the cubes for such projects?

Boards, dice, pawns. the remnants of an old game or two can be the makings of a new, better game

Boards, dice, pawns. the remnants of an old game or two can be the makings of a new, better game


That is where these “Ameri-trash” games can come in. Don’t save them for the game itself, but for the components. Those dice can be saved for another game, like maybe Infection Express. The money from Monopoly can be saved for other games like Pay Dirt.

The boards themselves can be papered over for another game board, or if you want nice tiles. It might seem sacriledgous to glue another game board or components onto a Clue board, and then cut out what you need. (I did this to make the unique board for Serica)

I wanted a folding board for Serica. An old Chess board sacrificed itself for a noble cause.

I wanted a folding board for Serica. An old Chess board sacrificed itself for a noble cause.


The board and chits for this little game were made from an old Monopoly-type game board

Note to self- have a strong, sharp cutting tool, or have lots of patience.

The boxes from these games can also be used- either for cardboard, or for boxes. With a little playing around on the computer, you can make images you can glue over top of an old box to use for a latest project.

Again, this does take some time and ingenuity, but these old tired games can be what you need to make a new board game with nice components. Between the re-used components and the effort you put into it, people might start asking- “Where did you buy that game? It looks really nice.” Or “I enjoyed playing Serica last night, but I couldn’t find it on Amazon. Where did you get it?”

For both hobbies, there are a two caveats.

1. Don’t save everything. While I would politely receive whatever I am given, I will later go through my “goodies” and determine what can be used and what can’t. Collect all the parts you either have a use for or have a project in mind you can use for it, and then junk the rest. Somethings aren’t worth the time. (Example- I went through my brother’s old toy train stuff. I found some useful things, but others were less useful- Ceramic Christmas village buildings and details, plastic toy train track, an old transformer.

2. Be realistic. If you are like most people, you do not have unlimited space. While it can be tempting to store tons of “Someday” use items like I have detailed, don’t take up a whole room with it. Realistically, you will not use all of that stuff. Really it comes down to the same idea from point 1. Save what you need, and pass along/pitch the rest.

This tip has literally saved me a lot of moolah, and has brought a lot of fun. For me, it is fun to re-purpose “junk” and give it new life. Not only that, it is frugally sustainable in its own way.

How about you? What junk have you saved and turned into something useful? Share your story in the comments below!

Low or No Cost Ways to Enjoy Your Hobby

I’ve talked a bit on some of my philosophy regarding hobbies in regards to cost and size. I would hope I have made a somewhat compelling case for the frugal approach to both trains and games. Admittedly, either hobby is not likely to be a low cost endeavor as a whole, but with the right focus and ideas, you can make it happen.

Thanks to scrap parts, a gift of textured plastic sheets, and lots of coffee stirrers, this nice little house cost next to nothing to create.

Thanks to scrap parts, a gift of textured plastic sheets, and lots of coffee stirrers, this nice little house cost next to nothing to create.

But having the right philosophy is only half the battle- you need to be able to make it work, to have an idea or several ideas of how to make it all work. You may want a nicely detailed railroad, with little $$$ put into it, but how to get from that idea to the reality you are envisioning? You want a nice board game that has a unique theme that you think your gaming group will really like, but you don’t want to spend $40, $50, $60 for it. How does one translate his goal into a reality?

Using cereal cardboard, and the paper I had already available, this good little game cost next to nothing to make, save the cubes, which cost around a $1.10

Using cereal cardboard, and the paper I had already available, this good little game cost next to nothing to make, save the cubes, which cost around a $1.10

That is why I thought it would be useful to have a series of more practical posts over the next couple weeks on this topic-  a how-to kind of list of some of my tips and tricks to enjoy these hobbies without spending a lot of cash. This is certainly not an exhaustive list but it is a collection of some of my best ideas to date (in my humble opinion, so take them with a grain of salt!)While some tips are applicable to both of my hobbies, others are not, so I will have the prefix MR for a item to indicate it is a Model Railroading idea, and BG for a Board gaming tip or idea

Hopefully an idea or two could be useful to you as you enjoy your hobbies. If you have some good frugal ideas to share, feel free to put them in the comments!