Lionel 113 Station AF 4689 Lionel Trolley Ives 1764

Tinplate Times


Commentary Mailbag Links Archives About This Site Contact Us


By: Dennis G. Bonucchi

A leading model railroading author once commented, and I'm paraphrasing, that pre-war tinplate trains are "toys that aren't pretending to be anything else." Most pre-war tinplate makes no pretense about being an actual, physical representation of any real railroad counterpart. For many enthusiasts, this toy-like quality is part of the fascination, or the magic of tinplate.

A significant component of the magic of tinplate is the freedom to let the trains themselves be the stars of the show. The vintage trains rumble around the layout, in rainbows of bright colors, clanking and clattering, in all of their large, majestic glory, evoking the sights and sounds of toys from a distant past. Given these intense colors, the noise, and all of the ongoing activity, the greatest enjoyment for many tinplate fans is, just watching the trains run!

Equally as important, many pre-war tinplaters feel completely freed from any intrinsic desire to create a highly detailed layout, having scale mountains, watercourses, and other details that are intended to closely approximate some readily identifiable location in the real world. These are toys, and they can be fully enjoyed in a toy-like setting.

This philosophy was inspired during a visit to the Toy Train Museum of the TCA. There, I saw first hand, that a table-top layout, constructed of homasote painted forest green, and bearing roadways painted gravel grey, can be both exceptionally attractive, and entertaining -- especially when topped off with beautifully colored tinplate trains, accessories, and buildings, from years gone by.

Having now been involved in both sides of the hobby, from the construction of highly detailed layouts, to the building of more toy-like layouts, I personal1y find the greatest pleasure in just operating the trains as toys. This philosophy of tinplate layouts, although not universal, is shared by other tinplate enthusiasts. In this regard, I was particularly interested in reading a passage from the well written, and well known book, by Dr. Peter H. Riddle: "Trains From Grandfather's Attic," (Greenberg Publishing Company, Inc., 1991.) Dr. Riddle states at p. 9:

"Before beginning a layout, one must decide a number of things...There will be almost as many recipes for this as there are modelers. At my present stage of life, just past the half century mark, I spend as little time as possible on endeavors that do not please me...For more than twenty-five years as a builder in HO scale, I sifted and glued ballast, placed scale-sized apples on my trees, and endured the frustrations inherent in minuscule parts that looked great but were too small for reliable operation...[N]ow my priorities are different. My current trains are toys, and my first inclination is no longer in the direction of realism, but toward an impression of an era. I choose to spend my limited hobby time in ways other than tinkering with couplers, dusting ballast out of switch points and soldering nearly invisible handrails. Therefore consideration number one for me is that there must be ease of construction and detailing. My roadbed is unballasted; paint gives the illusion of a ballasted track, and allows me to change my layout almost at will, with no glued gravel to scrape off the ties and table top. My trains are toys, and I desire to have the appearance of my layout congruent with their toy like appearance. Therefore my scenery is simple, lightweight and easily changed, and while it would never fool the eye as the magnificent displays in Model Railroader magazine do, neither does the time invested in the layout make me hesitant to dismantle it whenever I feel the urge for a change."


Dr. Riddle has truly captured a number of my current sentiments about building a tinplate layout. My advice to someone who is considering the building of a pre-war tinplate layout: try to identify what you truly enjoy the most about the hobby. Is it the actual building of the layout, or the running of the trains and accessories? Perhaps, it will be a combination of both!

* * *

Would you like to comment on this article? Click here to Email TINPLATE TIMES

© 2007 Tinplate Times - All rights reserved.