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Building A Tinplate Dream

By Josh Wayne

I'm a collector by nature. That’s a good way to describe me. Tinplate, coins, stamps, firearms, antique furniture and appliances, and a recent rekindling for redline Hot Wheels. But toy trains hold a special place in in my life. It could be the cowboy in me or the kid, who knows. As a baby, my mom tells me, I use to go crazy while waiting for a train to go by…guess some things never change. But why on earth would I build my own tinplate train?

My first experiences with toy trains weren't great. Just those cheap Christmas tree trains and some HO stuff that rarely worked, but when I was about ten, from my parents closet came down a Lionel. My grandfather bought it new in the late 1950’s. It has a three piece Santa Fe engine, gondola, boxcar, spotlight car, oil tanker and a caboose. That satisfied me for a while but it didn’t last. From there my eye turned even farther back in time. I would stare at pictures of turn of the century tinplate trains, wishing there was one under the Christmas tree. Eventually I bought a 1930’s Lionel electric type engine set, restored it and ran it under the tree for more than a decade. I even managed to get a cast iron American Flyer steam set which I build a western town layout around using period materials. The Lionel was great but it still never felt quite right. It should be a steam engine running around the tree after all. The problem was that trains built before 1910 have three major flaws: they are hard to find, they are expensive, and most are clockwork. Now its not that I don’t like clockwork trains, I have a couple, but if it runs out of steam, pardon the pun, on the other side of the tree then it can be a problem. So it had to be electric. I once heard someone say “If you want something buy it. If you can’t afford it, save up for it. If you still can’t get it, make it.” So that's what I did.

The project started out with a vintage motor I bought off Ebay for 15 bucks. I didn’t know who made it or even if it worked, but it was simple and cheap. Now the truth of it is that this was meant to be a “someday project”, but by the time it got to the house I already had an idea of using an old broken flashlight as the boiler and a few days later the engine was done. I was now in a race to finish the set before Thanksgiving weekend when the tree went up. Rather than picking one train and replicating it, what I did is take inspiration from my favorite early trains. I took elements from turn of the century Lionel, Marklin, Bing, and a few others to create my dream train.

The set has the usual components of a steam train set; locomotive, tender, boxcar, pullman and observation car. The engine’s cab was built around a vintage flashlight I cut to use as the boiler with brass railings all around. It uses a Lionel “strap” light fed with cloth wiring for retro effect. I added two bells, one for use as a bell and one that was modified into a steam dome. The cowcatcher is built into the base of the body with cut brass tubes on both sides for pistons. The tender is an open coal-less design found on many trains made prior to the 1920’s. I was worried that not being weighted might cause tipping, but with only three other cars it’s not a problem.

The other cars have brass rails at the front and back, along with slide on roofs. The boxcar has working doors that are kept in place by brass strips, with brass handles on each door. The pullman has open doors on the front and back along with four sets of stairs, with brass window frames that have clear blue plastic in the top for glass.

The observation car is identical to the pullman except it only has two stairs and a larger deck rail on the back. While I was originally planning a more standard paint scheme with a black engine and tender, I decided to do something a little different. I have always been a fan of the 1930’s all blue sets, so I painted it two tone blue. To be exact, navy and brilliant blue, with lots of brass trim. The motor, two bells, a light socket and the car wheels represent the only components of the train that where bought. The rest was cut by hand and bent using a simple bench vise. Throughout the project I only used two types of power tools, a drill and a rotary tool. Well…a jigsaw too but I’ll talk about that next.

Call it going the extra mile, or just call it overdoing it, I didn’t stop with the train. I also built a station and a customized transformer to go with the set. The station is pretty basic in design. Its' just a small western style station with a ticket window, clock and a bench, but it still was quite important to me. Despite owning many trains, the only O gauge station I have is with the train layout and it just felt right to finally have one under the tree.

What wasn’t simple was the controller. The transformer itself was a 1980’s Lionel unit that I ripped apart and built a new box around, which is were the jigsaw came in to play. I based the styling on the early mulit-volt controllers and partly on the high voltage light bulb Marklin controllers. To make things more difficult for me I built in a steam whistle that someone pulled from an old Lionel whistle station. Now I have a proper whistle at the push of a button.

A couple of months and two cut up hands later and it was finished just in time for last Thanksgiving. The train ran proudly under the tree, where it will reemerge to each year for the rest of my life. If you want to see me build this train, which I have affectionately dubbed Blue Thunder, build videos are up on my You Tube channel, AzShootinStar.

Happy trails, and good luck to anyone who decides to build their own tinplate dream…Oh, and wear gloves! I wish I had.

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