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by Neal R. Nicolay, (photos Jim Kelly collection)


I read with great interest and excitement Dennis Bonucchi’s article on the Philosophy of Tinplate. I find myself in the same place as Dennis and there are many of us out there. We have sensed that there is a vast difference between ourselves and scale modelers.

With this article I hope to continue the discussion started by Dennis. That is, to define Tinplate as a concept of toy train running- a style that is distinct from scale modeling.

Our thesis might go like this: Running tinplate electric trains is about fun, color and action and there is no effort toward imitating the “real world”.

Several influences have been at work on me to come to the place where I am:

1. I grew up with two Marx trains manufactured in the late prewar years. They were sheet metal, lithographed toy trains. One was a passenger set and the other was a freight set. I loved the passenger set because in my imagination I would wonder about the people on board and where they were going for the Holidays. (The trains were set up for the Xmas holidays only.) The layout was a 4x8 plywood board and the landscaping was several coats of forest green paint. A Lionel 48 whistle house added sound and the freight set had a through siding with an uncoupling device. Lights were provided by Marx accessories: dispatch tower, street lamps, floodlights and block signals. All of the add-on items and track-side accessories were completely off-scale, three times taller than the engines. But I was a kid and I didn’t know the “right” way to do trains and I had fun. It was my private world and I had no desire to make it look “real”.

I still have those two trains.

2. Several years ago I found a website organized by a guy named Thor Sheil. He is a toy train lover and a collector of Marx trains. On his website,, he has many informative articles on toy train running. Look for the articles under “The Tinscale Concept”. Regarding tinscale and trains he states, “They (are) toys, plain and simple”. In his lengthy articles, which have the dimensions of a scholarly dissertation, he sets forth his definition of tinscale and it is very close to that of Dennis Bonucchi.

3. Recently I discovered Lionel dealer display layouts and have come to regard these as a classic statement of the toy train or tinplate “look”. Briefly, the best of the dealer display layouts (my idea of the best) have a distinctive balance between the dimensions of the layout (tabletop), the track plan and the number of trackside and operating accessories. The layout and landscaping should not detract from the focus on the trains and the accessories. The landscaping is a simple “green on tan”- green grass and everything that is not grass is tan. A more complete discussion of this is offered in Terry Thompson’s article, “Building your own display-style layout”, in the February 1999 issue of Classic Toy Trains.

Conceptually, then, Tinplate is about enjoying toy trains that are fun, colorful and action oriented.

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