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Tinplate Times Profile: Alex Procyk

Alex with Bliss paper litho,
Marklin, Beggs, etc....

Tinplate Times: Alex, please, tell us about yourself and your background.

Alex Procyk: I was born in Pittsburgh. This would explain my streetcar and incline railway fetish. I obtained a B. S. in Chemistry at Kent state in Ohio and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University back in Pittsburgh. I actually finished the last year of my thesis at the University of California, Riverside and worked in L. A. for about a year and a half where I met two of my closest friends, through trains of course. When I started working, I found out my employer had an office for oilfield services in Houston, and immediately had a bad premonition that I would be transferred there. I was. California was in a recession at the time and it was nearly impossible to get a job with my background, so off I went. Goodbye swimming pools, movie stars. There is a sign in a country store in altogether-more-congenial Gruene Texas that says “life is too short to live in Houston”. And you know, there’s something to that. However I must admit that the cost of living is low and that had contributed greatly to the collection. Also our symphony is one of the best in the world and I can drive my convertible in the winter and don’t have to deal with road salt (boy, I remember those times when you would slam your car door and rust would just fall to the ground. Eeeeeee). So its not all bad. I am currently an oilfield engineer (so much for the Ph.D.) for ConocoPhillips.

Tinplate Times: Besides tinplate toy trains, do you have any other collecting interests or favorite hobbies?

Alex Procyk: I was a pretty dedicated mountain biker (ok, so we don’t have any mountains here; we do what we can) but I hurt myself repeatedly and badly last summer and have toned it down a bit (I found the only ravine in Houston and fell down it, twice). I like architecture, 20th century art, mid-century furniture, and old movie and travel posters. I have been very slowly transforming my generic 50’s ranch into a weird combination of Wright-style Usonian house and contemporary inner city loft. Like a lot of train collectors I had a fling with antique cars (’59 Nash Metropolitan) but got tired of that tingling feeling in the back of your neck when something breaks and all you can think about is “how am I going to get back home and how much is this going to cost?” I haven’t had that experience with a toy yet. I don’t just collect tinplate trains, I have some boats, cars, and airships from the usual suspects (Bing, Carette, Lehmann, Markin, etc). Also my “cheap” hobby is collecting early N gauge from ~1959-1980 and O gauge streetcars. I have also collected a small representation of Pre-1900 toys including paper-on-wood lithographed trains and boats from Bliss and Reed.

Schoenner locomotive,

home made passenger car, Doll lighthouse, Fischer car

Tinplate Times: Tell us about your toy train affiliations.

Alex Procyk: I am a TCA member and occasionally the Train Collectors Society (TCS) in England. I am not a clubby guy. If you ask my friends (all 5 of them) they will tell you I am a pretty antisocial bas-, er, person (this may explain the science degree).

Tinplate Times: Have you co-authored or acted as a consultant on and toy train books, articles, web sites, etc.?

Alex Procyk: I wrote an article for Classic Toy Trains on the evolution of small gauge (H0 and under) trains from the early 000(S) gauge Schoenner and Carette trains from 1900 to Bing’s table top railroads to Marklin and Trix’s systems. They paid for the article but never ran it. Looking back I really should have made it an article about Lionel 00 and squeezed the other stuff in as an aside to get it published. File it under Life Lesson #1: know your audience.
I just had an article published in the TCA quarterly on a home made 2” gauge trolley I had acquired, and a short article in the TCS newsletter feature called “Desert Island Trains”, in which authors are invited to state which 5 trains they would most like to take with them if stranded on a desert island. I have several more ideas for TCQ articles, some actually worth something, others just “hey look at this” type stuff. I really need to get around to writing these.

Bottom: home made (by me) interurban from Lionel 18
coach, home made(someone else) 2" gauge trolley, Lionel 202, Carlisle
and finch 42 trolley, Lionel #1

Elevated: Fandor glass Dome, Finch interurban
Background: home made (by me) Duquesne (Pittsburgh)
Incline (in progress)

Tinplate Times: What was your first toy train set?

Alex Procyk: Apparently my first set was a 60’s era Marx windup. Although I still have it, I don’t really remember it as well as a Lionel turbine freight set my Aunt bought when I was 5.

Tinplate Times: Do you have a layout now? What gauge interests you the most?

Alex Procyk: I have a combination standard and 2” gauge-2 rail layout. I made it exactly as one would have around 1910 – wood, chicken wire and plaster. I turned 11 elevated railway posts on a $60 flea market lathe and never want to do that again. I’ll tell you what, once you go to 2 rail, you will never want to go back to 3 rail. The 2” gauge line is hand laid Carlisle and Finch track. Many people have heard my rant about this track. It looks fantastic, but is painful to put together, and by the time you are done you understand why Carlisle and Finch lost out to Lionel and IVES with their glories of sectional track. It was doubly painful for me because I was using a combination of original Finch ties and George Hopkins “Trans Attic and United” rails. After nailing in the Finch ties – 2 nails per tie for good measure - I found out George’s rails didn’t fit into the finch ties, so I had to hammer – hard - about 30’ of rail into the ties. I didn’t realize that I had original Finch rails in my coils of George’s rails until after I hammered George’s rail in. DUH! I also had to redo some curves to get the radius right. Finch tried to solve this with prefab track, but it was horrible. It was held together with carpet tacks and falls apart if you look at it wrong. Also for some strange reason the radius is too tight for the larger locomotives. I borrowed some from a friend, tried it out, and quickly un-borrowed it. Actually I didn’t have any large locomotives when I built the layout and never though I would.

L: Carlisle & Finch #34 R: C&F #20

Top: Carette #1 gauge trolleys

As it turned out, I did manage to procure a large Finch Interurban and #34 locomotive, and discovered that 1) I made the radii too tight for the interurban and 2) made the clearances around the elevated poles and mountain too tight for the #34. DUH! Ultimately I gave up on the hand laid track for the elevated line and made my own 2” gauge track using Lionel rails screwed to wood ties. This worked fine until I noticed one of the tracks I was cutting apart with a moto tool was early Lionel split pin. DUH! I had a big 2” gauge jag going on for awhile but I am not really too interested in getting much more as the prices are taking the fun right out of it. However one of my Holy Grails is a Voltamp Interurban. Right now I am becoming fixated on European 3 and 4 gauge. However, if there is anything more expensive than American 2” gauge, its European 3 and 4 gauge, so I expect this will be an unrequited fixation.

Tinplate Times: Have you always had a layout as an adult?

Alex Procyk: Always. Even in my horrible 250 sq ft efficiency during graduate school I made a tiny Z gauge layout under the tree (said tree was 2’ high). Fortunately I lived about 6 miles from my parents at the time and built a proper 8x20’ Lionel postwar layout in the basement, with all the accessories. Between college and graduate school it only took 5 years to build.

Tinplate Times: What tinplate do you enjoy collecting the most?

Alex Procyk: It switches from early American to European, about on a yearly basis. The folk art quality of the early 2” and Lionel Mfg. era really appeals to me. It wasn’t meant to look like folk art of course, they (and here I mean Carlisle and Finch, Knapp, Howard, and Voltamp) were trying to make the most advanced product that they could. My theory, which wasn’t built on any research or anything but has a certain “truthiness” to it, is that they were caught in a situation of relatively low market share and relatively high production costs compared to the European imports and IVES. There simply wasn’t market share big enough to tool up for the mass-produced fit and finish of IVES lithographed and cast iron trains, and there wasn’t the highly skilled workforce – or at least the ability to pay for one – to make detailed hand assembled and hand painted trains like those from Europe. So they evolved a style unique among 2” gauge tinplate; relatively simple subassemblies that were easy to fabricate and assemble but still captured the look of the prototype. Details were kept to a minimum. Hand painting was restricted to simple striping and highlights, and most added decoration was stamped, stenciled, or transferred onto the cars. Carlisle and Finch increased surface detail with paper labels, sometimes covering the entire car or engine, but after 1903 they went with the simpler painted style. However, even though a lot of it looks like it was knocked up in someone’s garage (and I have made some original pieces in my garage that look like Finch), when its good its very good. Voltamp’s quality is amazing. Finch’s 42 trolley and Voltamp’s Interurban are perfect studies in toy design; they have excellent proportions and look great from any angle. The same can be said for Finch’s #34 Atlantic steam locomotive. I actually like it better than their large #45 locomotive. The #45 is essentially a model of a NYC&HRR Atlantic. It is very large and elegant, but the #34 is much more toy-like with stubby proportions and oversized drivers. It is a cartoon of the #45. And if you think this is easy to do, try to make something original yourself. I have been working on a Finch-like (brass, paper-labels, and wood) model of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Incline for some time now. It is made in 2” gauge but due to space constraints I had to shrink the head house in proportion to the cars. In the process, I managed to take out all the appeal of the real building. Somehow I made a toy that is less toy-like than the real thing! Back to the drawing board.

Then you have the complete flip of the coin with the European trains. There is nothing folk art about them. Even the early pieces were made in large factories with highly skilled tinsmiths and artists. Early trains from Marklin, Bing and Carette have hand painted details that are astonishing, especially to someone who can’t paint a straight line (me). For example, take a look at the Marklin Grand Central Station in one of my pictures. It is a hand painted building but is so detailed it could be mistaken for a lithographed finish. Speaking of lithography, some of the early lithographed trains from Issmayer, Carette, Schoenner and IVES rival the finest hand painted trains in detail and design, and some of these are my favorites.

Tinplate Times: What trains or sets do you enjoy operating (running) the most?

Alex Procyk: My two favorite runners are a Pittsburgh, Harmony, Butler, and Newcastle Interurban I made from a Lionel 18 passenger car and Pride Lines Motor unit, and a Finch #20 suburban locomotive. The finch can crawl on D.C. power as well as any modern digital controlled locomotive. Not bad considering the drive train is basically nailed into a piece of wood.

Beggs Set

Tinplate Times: If you could keep only one toy train from your collection what would it be?

Alex Procyk: They are like your kids, you love them all. However I would have to choose between two that are pretty irreplaceable. One is a Beggs 12 wheel Erie car with early Beggs engine that was owned by Walter Lucas and shown in one of his two historic 1949 articles on Beggs in Railroader magazine. The engine is clearly Beggs’ first type, but repainted and lettered for the Erie railway and called the “Jay Gould”. Why someone (presumably Lucas as he was an Erie fan) would want to honor Jay Gould, a robber baron that nearly bankrupted the Erie in a stock fraud, I have no idea. In his article Lucas claimed the car was modeled after Gould’s private railway car. I have no doubt someone modeled it after his car, but I don’t think it was Beggs. Close inspection shows almost no similarity to typical Beggs construction. Regardless, it is a really cool piece.
Maybe the best thing about it was the arc it took to find me. One day I was looking at the Lucas article, wondering where that car could possibly be now, even if it still existed, and then a few months later I ran into a guy at York who was actually selling part of Lucas’s collection. I specifically asked about that car, but he already sold it to a collector. It turned out that the collector was a very good friend of mine who was not satisfied with its questionable originality and was somewhat soured over the fact that it was a bit damaged in shipping. He had his eye on one of my rarest pieces, which soon became one of his rarest pieces (an American Miniature Rail Road locomotive, if you must know), and within 6 months of wondering if the car still existed, I had it on my shelf.
[I also got to wondering what Jay Gould’s private car looked like. Well, I didn’t find his ca. 1870 Erie car but I did find his ca. 1890 Ma and Pa Car, currently sitting next to a hotel in Jefferson Texas, 5 hours up the street!]

The other choice would be a Schoenner floor toy modeled – very accurately - after the “999”, the fastest engine in its time (and currently residing in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry which I totally failed to visit last time I was there). Schoenner is a relatively obscure German company that built mostly steam toys from around 1890-1910, but also made about 6 different floor toy versions of the 999 from approximately O gauge up to a 29” monster. I was talking to noted collector/dealer Pierce Carlson, who had a bunch of the smaller ones scattered around his flat, and mentioned that I wanted the largest one like the type shown in “Century of Model Trains” and “Art of the Tin Toy” (same one pictured in both books). He said “good luck, that’s the only one known of that size”. Bit of a crusher, that. Eventually I came up with a second one (second known to us, at least) out of an auction of American pressed steel toys. However mine is a somewhat simplified version compared to the one in the books and in a different color. It also has a tag pasted under the cab that says it was given to “John Ray Taylor of Arlington for Christmas, 1904”, which I find very interesting as all the books and catalogs state it was made in 1905. This engine was featured in my Christmas card this year, running over Santa’s Sleigh (the hardest part of the set-up was finding a Santa that looked royally ticked off.)

Tinplate Times: What tinplate train or set that you don't own would you like to have the most?

Alex Procyk: My holy grails are a Voltamp interurban, Lionel 2 7/8” jail car and 1000 passenger car, but I may actually have a shot at those someday, somehow, someway. If you are talking about dreaming for the unobtainable, then it would be a Marklin Paris Metro set, Marklin gauge III set or even, dare I speak it, a Marklin gauge V set. Let’s just say this isn’t going to happen without a major change in my career path, and ConocoPhillips already has a CEO. Oh, there is a train owned by the Russian government… It was given to the Czar and made by Faberge. It’s a Faberge egg containing a Z scale sized clockwork train made out of silver (silver plate?) with jeweled windows. I don’t think I need to worry about that one either.

Tinplate Times: Are you still adding to your collection?

Alex Procyk: Almost on a weekly basis. Though I really need to take some time off and turn attention to some other things. Not more important things, just other things.

Bing 1898-1900 set in front of Marklin hand
painted station

Tinplate Times: Where do you find interesting new trains?

Alex Procyk: Almost all on EBAY and auction houses as there isn’t a whole lot of early American and European in Texas. We have a few world-class Lionel collectors here, but not much for sale in my interests. A $100 Knapp trolley did walk into a local Great American Train meet, but it didn’t meet me. I had a good run getting obscure early lithographed trains out of Europe through a friend in England (and I sent him a few in return), but that had tailed off over the last few years until this Christmas when he was able to find a Rossignol (French) Steam tram that I have been wanting for over a decade. Unfortunately it seems to be lost in the post. Maybe it will show up within the next decade.

Tinplate Times: Do you attend toy train shows? Which shows do you enjoy the most?

Alex Procyk: I only go to York and the occasional local meets. York is a hoot and my wife is now hooked. Everybody seems to enjoy seeing her more than me. Go figure.

Tinplate Times: Do you buy and sell on EBAY? How do you feel about online trading of toy trains?

Alex Procyk: I both buy and sell on EBAY I have a love/hate relationship with it. Without EBAY, it would have been very hard for me to acquire what I have without 1) living in more active areas or 2) having far more money and free time than I have now. I certainly have used the quick liquidity aspect of EBAY to raise money. In the cro-magnon days, to sell I would have had to wait 6 months to take everything to York, or 3 months to post in the TCA Interchange ad. By contrast, back in Pittsburgh it was typically less than 2 months between shows with the local TCA and gypsy meets, Greenberg's’s show and York. And the time in between could be filled with a quick trip across the state and into Ohio and New York, which includes some of the best toy shows in the country. Before EBAY I had to have the discipline to save and wait for the next show. With EBAY, I have a – certainly misplaced – sense of liquidity that is more fun to play with but in reality isn’t doing my financial health any good.

The downside to the internet is that the challenge is gone; just wait for what you want to come along, point and click. And just about everything has come along at least once (I loved the guy who put a Lionel 2 7/8” steel gondola on EBAY He had no idea what it was, and when I wrote to him after the bidding was over – in the $5K range and no I didn’t buy it - he said he originally was going to post it with a buy it now of $100!) The only challenge now is figuring out how to afford your winnings and to make sure you aren’t being taken. Believe me, you haven’t lived until you wired a couple thousand dollars you can ill afford to lose to an Argentinean bank account on the basis of a few fuzzy photos and a half decent feedback rating.

A friend of mine told me in the heyday of the Billy Budd meet at York you went out at 6 AM in the freezing cold (it was colder back then) with a flashlight to look into people’s trunks as they were unpacking. That’s collecting I can respect.

Tinplate Times: What is it about tinplate toy trains that appeals to you the most?

Alex Procyk: The sculptural elements. A friend of mine collects toys because he can’t afford fine art. I feel the same way, except I don’t really want to collect fine art beyond maybe a Picasso or Warhol. I don’t feel any real accomplishment out of acquiring things with a push of a button, but I get a great deal of satisfaction at just looking at the damn things once I have them. And like any sculpture, a picture just doesn’t do it, you need the real thing in front of you. I also like them because I am fascinated with the machine age, circa 1880-1910. The toys are contemporary representatives of what existed in real life, and sometimes they are all that’s left. I would love to collect real trains, trolleys, inclines, cars and Zeppelins, but there aren’t any Zeppelins left, and if you had one, where the hell would you put it? One of the things that turns me on is looking at pictures of the real stuff and seeing how close the toys came to the real thing. I have a picture of an English train shed Ca. 1910 filled with GWR stock, and darn if it doesn’t look exactly like Bing’s Sydney pulling Carette’s GWR coaches. I also discovered a picture of a pre- WWI torpedo boat that bore surprising resemblance to my Bing torpedo boat.

Have you noticed there aren’t any real torpedo boats anymore? They were rendered obsolete by “torpedo boat destroyers”, which are now just called “destroyers”, because there aren’t any torpedo boats left to destroy. But we still have Bing’s version, which looks a lot like the real thing and was built at the same time as the real thing. This is the kind of mixing of history and toys that I really like to study.

Tinplate Times: What do you think will be the future of tinplate collecting and operating?

Alex Procyk: I am afraid the future looks somewhat bleak. I am 41, and I know of only 2 people under my age interested in any of this stuff. And they aren’t interested in paying $20K for a trolley, I can tell you. A quick look at the demographics suggests that the supply/demand ratio will be on my side about 10 years from now, which is why I am so careful (cheap? tight? frugal?) with how much I am willing to spend on any one item. Having said that, quality always seems to hold value (try buying old Shaker furniture!) and many have wrongly predicted the demise of the hobby over the last couple decades. The best stuff will always be sought after, but I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed at where that “best” line gets drawn. Do you really see the kids of today lining up 15-20 years from now to pay top dollar for a Lionel postwar Geep or a 249E freight set? If you want to see the future of collecting, go to Comicon (comics, sci-fi and fantasy convention in San Diego). Its like York but bigger and with teenagers. How many teenagers are at York? These kids will be collecting first generation anime, pre-steroid era baseball memorabilia and “classic period” snow boards when they grow up, not trains.

Also people – or at least me - will be even more afraid of fakes then they are now. As this stuff keeps getting turned over, the provenance will get murkier while the artistry of the fakers gets better. Its going to be very difficult to impossible to determine what’s real and what isn’t (already is!). Pretty soon no one is going to believe anything rare is correct. I simply will not buy a Lionel 54, 1912 special, 6 special or 7 unless it comes out of an attic or from a charter member of the TCA who bought it before the repros started coming out (which was around the late 60’s!). On the other hand, the fine art world struggles with this constantly, and interest has never been higher. Let’s face it, collecting is like crack addiction without the tawdry sex.

Bing and Marklin on level 1,

Bing and Flieschmann ships, Carette cars level 2,

Carette trolley and trailer, Marklin 0
gauge set with Rock and Graner mountainside and
Marklin new production
Victoria ocean liner on top.

Tinplate Times: Do you think tinplate collecting and operating will still be around 50 or 100 years from now?

Alex Procyk: 20-30 years out I think the bulk of the collecting part will be back to what it was in the 50’s-60’s; a pretty small group of highly dedicated people who will be regarded as “funny”. You know how you feel about the short wave radio crowd or barbed wire collectors? Same thing. But 50-100? That would put most items in my collection over 150-200 years old. I expect there would be a lot of renewed reverence for old trains by then. As I alluded to earlier, the toys are going to largely be the only remaining tangible, original, and easily storable items from the early industrial age.

The operators will still be around as long as real trains are around and will be constantly pushing the technology along. Its only a short matter of time before operators will be donning virtual reality helmets and placing themselves in the cab. Of course you can do this right now in virtual space without a layout at all, but I think there will always be people who need to build something that takes up space in the house.

Tinplate Times: Do you have any final comments?

Alex Procyk: What is important is what we do now, with the time we have. And reflecting back, I find it interesting that the only people I talk to regularly outside work, several times a week, are friends I met through the trains. I couldn’t tell you where my college friends are now, I see my family only about twice a year (passing through to York!) and only get together with my non-collector friends in Houston once every couple of weeks at best. But my train buddies; we're tight. Now that’s a powerful hobby!

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