Category Archives: Toy trains

Learning about scratchbuilding the hard way

I haven’t had a lot of free time the past couple of weeks, and as you’ve probably gathered, I haven’t been spending a lot of it in front of a computer. I’ve been in the basement, learning how to make stuff for the train.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things, mostly from experience rather than from books. I still have a long way to go.Not all paints and finishes are compatible with one another. When I tried to spray one brand of glossy finish atop a different brand of black paint, the paint crinkled. Spraying paint thinner on it would have done less damage.

Aside from the hard lesson on paints, clones of the old 6-inch 4-wheel Marx train cars are very simple to build. That must have something to do with why they cost 59 cents when they were new.

The look of lithographed tin can be reasonably approximated by printing a design on, of all things, plain paper, then spraying it with the same glossy finish that ruined the paint job on the first car I built. Attach said paper with spray adhesive, and only the very observant will notice your car isn’t tin litho.

Styrene plastic is very easy to work with. You can build simple things from it very quickly, so long as you use an MEK-based solvent, rather than the cement that comes in tubes. Solvents give a stronger bond, and after holding the joined piece together for two minutes, you can continue to work with it.

Aluminum is essentially free, and can be cut with scissors, but joining it is a pain. Joining two pieces with solder is very difficult. Epoxy is easier, but it’s harder to work with than the plastic solvents.

Tin and brass are extremely easy to solder. I now know why so many hand-built metal models are made of brass. It’s strong, reasonably easy to form, and not terribly expensive.

Sheet metal is dirt cheap at onlinemetals.com, but the $3 worth of brass that it takes to make a train car will cost $10 to ship, even if you have them deliver it by stagecoach UPS ground.

It’s very easy to end up paying $12 for a rustbucket Marx train car on eBay, and it’s more satisfying, if you have the requisite ability, to watch cars you made yourself go around your track than to watch cars you sniped with four minutes left. (I’ve only done that once. The rest I bid the way nice people do.) So most of the time you’re better off with your $13 worth of brass, whether you bought it online or at the local hobby shop.

You can fabricate your own Lionel- and Marx-compatible axles using 3/32-inch brass rod from a craft or hobby shop, cut to 1 3/4 inches in length for Lionel, or 1 7/8 inches for Marx. Put a dab of solder or epoxy half an inch inside to keep the wheels from going in too far.

Fixing a Marx 490 O27 toy locomotive

Note: Please don’t do what I did in this post. Chances are you’ll make things worse in the long run.  If you’re looking for information on fixing a Marx train that won’t run, go here for instructions on how to do that.

I fixed my Marx 490 locomotive this weekend. I used the tips in The All Gauge Model Railroading Marx Trains guide. Scroll down to the heading titled, “The Marx motor.”

I was skeptical because these instructions call for WD-40, and it seems I’ve read a hundred other places never to use WD-40 on any model train. But my Marx 490 wasn’t running well, and it would cost more to have it professionally repaired than it’s worth.But before I continue, let me interject something. If you’re here from Google because you just found a box of old trains that say “Mar” on them, the company is Marx, not Mar. And the trains look a lot like Lionel, but they’re not Lionel. In a few rare instances, Marx trains are very valuable. But in most cases, a Marx isn’t worth as much as the box a Lionel came in. Which is why I said it would cost more to repair my Marx than it was worth. I just had two Lionels repaired for $25 each, plus parts. You can usually get a Marx 490 with some cars on eBay for $25.

But that’s not to say Marxes don’t have charm. They certainly do.

There. I feel better now. Back to the story. Where was I? Oh yeah. WD-40. I didn’t use WD-40 on my Marx. I used Gunk Liquid Wrench instead. Two reasons: The main purpose behind WD-40 and similar oils is to clean, rather than lubricate. They leave a little bit of lubricant behind, but not a lot. Gunk Liquid Wrench, like WD-40, is primarily a solvent. But it has synthetic oil in it, whereas WD-40 has kerosene in it. In my mind, this makes Liquid Wrench a better choice for this purpose because what little lubricant it leaves behind when the solvent evaporates will be of higher quality and last longer than WD-40’s lubricant.

But there was a second reason. Liquid Wrench was on sale, so it was cheaper. I also thought long and hard about Marvel Mystery Oil in a spray can–it works in cars and airplanes something wonderful–but opted for Liquid Wrench because the instructions called for a penetrating lubricant, and I didn’t know if the Marvel would exhibit the same kinds of properties. I’m a journalist-turned-computer tech by trade, not a chemist.

But first, I tried omitting the WD-40 step and just cleaned it with Goo Gone and TV tuner cleaner. Like I said, every time I turn around I read somewhere that you shouldn’t go near a model train with WD-40. Between the TV tuner cleaner and the Goo Gone, the train looked brand new very quickly. I was impressed. It ran very nicely too, but the next day it didn’t run at all. Figuring that now I had nothing to lose, I broke out the Liquid Wrench.

After a spraydown with Liquid Wrench, it ran too well–it flew off the track and fell 4 feet to my concrete floor. Ouch. That left a mark. One corner of the cab busted off, and it took me a good 15 minutes to find it. After I’d let the locomotive run 20 minutes–with a big load this time, to slow it down and keep it on the track–I re-glued the broken corner with some Tenax-7R plastic welder. Tenax is great stuff–apply a small amount of it, hold the pieces together for a minute, and they’ll stay. It’ll take 8 hours for the joint to completely dry and reach full strength, but after just a minute, the joint is as strong as it would be with every other glue I’ve ever tried on plastic.

Lesson learned: Keep your test track on the floor. Or surround it with pillows. Or use a Marx transformer that can send just a couple of volts on its lowest setting, so slow actually means slow.

The next day, I ran my 490 the opposite direction on my track–the first time I’d ever run a locomotive that direction on the track. And guess what? I found a bad spot on the track. It derailed–again–and the piece I’d glued fell off in spite of the cushions I’d placed all around my table.

Then I remembered that Tenax is amazing stuff if your two pieces fit snugly, because unlike some glues, Tenax doesn’t fill in the gaps at all. The break must not have been clean enough to give the Tenax adequate surface area to create a very strong bond. So I re-glued with epoxy, since epoxy will fill gaps. It held this time.

So now Marxie has a battle scar and he’s probably worth half what he was worth a week ago, but he runs very well. It’s short on ability but long on heart–it struggles pulling loads that won’t make a Lionel break a sweat. But it’ll pull them, and you can see it working hard doing it. And where a Lionel will just give up on a grade with a curve with a long load of cars, the Marx just keeps spinning its wheels, ever faster, until something manages to catch and it propels on its way.

I think that’s what I like about it. It never gives up.

There are a few other things to like about them too. Like I said before, you can buy a Marx locomotive for less than the price of the box a Lionel locomotive came in. Marxes are easy to take apart–mine’s held together by four joints, easily pried apart with a small slotted screwdriver. And the motor is simpler than a Lionel, so it’s easier to understand. If you want to learn how to fix toy trains, Marxes are easy to learn on, and if you mess up, you ruin a $15 locomotive rather than a $100-$1,000 locomotive.

Operate incompatible rolling stock together with conversion cars

In the early 1950s, Lionel had two different standards for the couplers on its train cars. “Serious” sets used its knuckle couplers. Entry-level, or “Scout” sets, used one-piece couplers that came to be known as “Scout” couplers. My Dad had cars with both types of couplers in his collection.

Once I got Dad’s set running, I found a Marx car on eBay that I absolutely had to have–an operating Missouri Pacific cattle car. Marx used its own couplers. So how to get both types of Dad’s cars, plus my new Marx car operating together on the same train?

Enter the conversion car.A conversion car is just a car with two types of coupler on each end. I went to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton to get mine made. Ideally, I’d have done a Marx-to-knuckle conversion car and a Marx-to-Scout conversion car. Then I could convert either type to Marx, and if I wanted to convert Scout to knuckle, I could just use the other two conversion cars. But Marty only had one Marx truck, so I got a Marx-to-knuckle and knuckle-to-Scout made. One could also make a makeshift Marx-compatible coupler with a Lionel truck that lacks a coupler but has a rivet hole (such as those used on the back end of some Lionel cabooses) and a wire Marx coupler substitute.

The only thing to say is to not use a collectible car to make your conversion car. There’s so little market demand for Scout cars that you won’t hurt their value of most of them by making them into conversion cars, and the same holds true of most Marxes. I used cars out of Marty’s $10-and-under box. I’ll also add a suggestion Marty made: Use an open car, like a gondola or a hopper, that you can put a load in to weigh it down. I find my conversion cars derail much less when loaded down with some weight. Even just a film cannister filled with pennies is enough to make a difference.

In the 1950s, Lionel’s knuckle coupler design gave the best combination of realism and reliability, but at a higher cost. Marx’s design was reliable and very inexpensive, but didn’t look very realistic. The Scout design looked realistic and was inexpensive, but wasn’t as reliable as either Lionel’s knuckle coupler or Marx’s tilt coupler. Today, the difference in cost of manufacturing is probably negligible, and people aren’t so concerned about cost anymore anyway.

Serious hobbyists prefer the Lionel knuckle couplers, and for the most part that’s all that anyone makes anymore. But if I like a car, I’m going to buy it, regardless of the coupler, and I want to be able to use basically whatever combination of rolling stock I like.

I’m not sure what that makes me, but conversion cars let me do it, and cheaply.

Troubleshooting Marx remote turnouts

Yesterday I hooked up Dad’s old Marx O27 remote turnouts, and again found one of them dodgy.
I can’t find any troubleshooting information about Marx O gauge switches online. I went to the library and checked out all the toy train repair books I could find. Nothing. One of Ray L. Plummer’s books offered advice on repairing Lionel turnouts. But the Marx turnouts are slightly different. Emboldened, I set off on my own.

Before you destroy what little collector value your switches have (The words “switch” and “turnout” are often used interchangeably; forgive me if I try to feed Google to get more traffic), let me tell you how to test them first. All you need your turnout(s) (don’t connect them–just keep them loose), two pieces of wire, and a transformer. I used a 25-watt Marx transformer from an entry-level train set I bought off eBay for $20. This eliminates the control panel, track, and everything else from the equation. Of course, you should use a transformer that you already know to be in working order.

Some transformers have posts for both trains and accessories. Some (like the one I used) don’t. Don’t worry about it; we’ll just use the train posts for this exercise.

Don’t plug the transformer in yet. Run a wire from the center post of the turnout (sometimes labeled “B” or “black,” although not on Dad’s) to one of the posts on your transformer. Connect another wire to the other post, but leave the other end loose.

Now, before you plug in your transformer, please keep in mind that you’re working with electricity and use common sense. Keep your hands dry, don’t do this if you’re bleeding, etc. I’m not responsible for what happens next, OK? If you’ve never done anything like this before, take it to a hobby shop and let a pro handle it–a switch that will cost you $15 on eBay in working order isn’t worth personal injury. Or you can buy a new Lionel or K-Line switch from the local hobby shop for $30-$35. Yes, a 50-year-old Marx turnout is worth less than a new one from Lionel or K-Line. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Got all that? Good. Still with me? Great. Plug in the transformer. Turn it on. Switches like to run at 16-20 volts AC, so crank the transformer’s lever to full speed. Touch the loose wire to either of the outer posts on the switch. Then pick it up and touch it to the other one. Alternate between the two a few times.

If the accessory is still in working order, the track should change positions based on which post you touched the wire to. If it doesn’t, there’s probably a loose or frayed wire somewhere inside.

If the switch works this way but not when you connect the Marx control panel, your control panel is dodgy. I read on The All-Gauge Model Railroading Page that Atlas controllers for their HO turnouts work fine with Marx O27 turnouts. I also read in the same place that Lionel and K-Line controllers will not.

You can also pick up a Marx control panel on eBay. I saw one sell for $5 this past weekend.

Or if you’re handy with wiring, you ought to be able to fashion your own with a couple of push buttons or momentary switches from your local Radio Shack or equivalent–just make sure whatever switches you buy can handle 20-24 volts of current. (Always over-engineer on this kind of stuff.) If you want to go this route and you’ve never done any model railroading wiring before, pick up one of the books on wiring Lionel/Marx/American Flyer layouts–many hobby shops, larger bookstores, and even a lot of libraries have them–and follow its precautions. I’m not responsible for whatever happens if you go this route.

How do you fix a Marx control panel? It’s held shut by four rivets, so opening it for cleaning isn’t an easy endeavor. I fixed my dodgy control panel by blasting some Radio Shack TV tuner cleaner ($9 for a big can) into the openings, then flipping the unit over a few times to get it circulating, then working all four of the buttons. Seeing as the switch is little more than a couple of handfuls of contact points, there’s a decent chance that’ll take care of you. There really isn’t much inside there that can go wrong.

If TV tuner cleaner doesn’t help, it’s probably corrosion. You can open it up and clean any and all electrical contacts with a piece of 600-grit sandpaper, or fashion replacements from some conductive material (copper foil would be best, but aluminum would work). But you’re on your own from here.

If the switch doesn’t work, period, there’s probably a loose or frayed wire somewhere inside. Fortunately, there are only five wires inside.

Opening the switch’s case is a bit of a chore. It’s held shut by two rivets, easily found by flipping the turnout over and looking for indentations. Disconnect the outside wires and power off your transformer (of course). The proper tool to remove rivets isn’t exactly a household item (at least not in mine), so you can do what I did: Pinch the edges of each rivet with a pair of needle-nose pliers until it pushes through the case. The bottom should then come right off. You’ll notice three screws inside. There should be a wire connected to each. Overzealous loosening of the nuts on the top of the case followed by some jostling can loosen those wires. Tighten the screws (if they’re severely corroded, you might consider replacing them). If any of the wires appear frayed, replace them, or have someone handy with a soldering iron replace them.

If you find wires detached from screws and want to keep it from happening again, you can solder the wires to the screws, but this is probably overkill.

The small box on the top of the switch is held in place by six or so tabs on the bottom of the unit. This houses the electromagnet. You can gain access by gently bending the tabs with a small slotted screwdriver. Check to make sure those three wires are still soldered in place. The biggest place for something to go wrong on a Marx turnout is over by those screws it uses for terminals, however, so chances are there’s nothing wrong over in the electromagnet’s neighborhood.

Closing up shop can be as easy or difficult as you like. Since I don’t care about collector value on a pair of switches that might fetch $25, tops, on eBay, I replaced the rivets with a pair of very thin and short machine screws. If you care about collector value, procure a pair of small brass rivets to replace the two you just ruined.

A more permanent home for Dad’s Lionel

Gatermann and I spent the afternoon building a train table. I started building one about a month ago but got too busy to finish it. Today was the day I’d set aside to get some work done on it.
It’s slightly larger than 3’x5′, which is pretty much the minimum size you can do in O gauge if you want anything more than a big circle. I built it using lumber that was sitting in a corner of the basement, left by the people who sold me my house. It was a bit warped, and we had to do some piecing together, but the price was right, and it’s certainly good enough for now.

A proper O gauge layout really ought to be 4’x8′, minimum, and a lot of people believe a more realistic minimum is two 4’x8’s. But I don’t have enough track or buildings to fill a 4’x8′ table.

It’s hard to put together a layout in such a small space like mine without a plan. Fortunately, there are lots of free plans available at Thortrains.net, for a variety of sizes.

As we prepared to screw down the track (the trick is to screw it down just enough to hold it in place, but not enough to make it buckle), Gatermann experimented. I had a couple of hold turnouts I pulled out to measure with. They were Dad’s, way back when. We hooked them up once, probably more than 15 years ago. One of them worked but the other didn’t. As it was riveted together and so far as we knew impossible to take apart, we put the turnouts and the control panel back in the box. As this layout required some turnouts, I bought two pair of secondhand manual Marx turnouts from Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. A third pair of turnouts would have allowed me to do one of the more complex layouts, but, alas, Marty’s didn’t have any more manual ones when I bought my set.

The disadvantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them, and you have to get the order right. The advantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them so you get a little exercise, they cost about 1/3 as much as remote turnouts, and unless you do something stupid like back over them with your car, they won’t break.

At one point I flipped one of Dad’s turnouts over and spotted the Marx logo. I’d figured he was a Lionel partisan. As it turns out, maybe not.

Marx made toy trains in the 1950s as well. Lionel and American Flyer were the big names, and they were what kids asked for. Marx made trains that looked a lot like Lionel, and the tracks and transformers and accessories were all compatible with one another, but an entire Marx set sold for about what a Lionel locomotive would cost all alone. The saying was that if your dad had a good job, you had a Lionel or a Flyer. If your dad didn’t have a good job, you had a Marx.

Since Dad’s dad was something of an aristocrat, you can imagine my surprise at finding Marx gear in Dad’s stash. Either Dad bought those turnouts with his own money, or Dad’s dad, a notorious cheapskate, tried to get the best of both worlds by buying a Lionel starter set and expanding it with Marx track.

Well, now knowing that I had one working and one non-working Marx turnout, I searched the Net for information. There is no advice on troubleshooting Marx turnouts. They’re basically two electromagnets. Pushing a button deactivates the active electromagnet and activates the other. There isn’t much of anything to troubleshoot.

I did find a wiring diagram and a copy of the original instructions. I don’t remember much about how Dad and I wired the turnouts, but I’m pretty sure we tried to power them off the track, the same way you normally power Lionel accessories. The instructions explicitly say they have to run straight off the transformer. The wiring was a bit less than intuitive–the markings that are supposed to be on the turnouts aren’t–so for all I know, we didn’t wire them right either. Either reason may be why only one switch worked.

Since these turnouts would cost $30 a pop to replace (maybe $20 if I can find used ones), I’m definitely hoping that with proper wiring, they’ll start working again.

Meanwhile, my search turned up The Girard and Oak Park Railroad, a site by a hobbyist who got bored with his HO scale layout and replaced it with a large Marx O27 layout, largely by buying junkers on eBay and repairing and/or repainting them.

My layout doesn’t look as impressive as that one, but it runs. My Marx locomotive (a recent eBay find) ran fine on it once we added some weight to its front. The Lionel 1110 that must have been Dad’s first locomotive also runs fine. It takes a little time to figure out the right speed to run the trains on track with turnouts–something we found out the hard way, when my Marx 490 derailed and embarked on a four-foot tumble at high speed onto my basement’s concrete floor. Ouch. It survived without damage–certainly, its designers must have anticipated four-foot drops–but still made me nervous.

I hope someday I’ll understand this model railroad electronics page

Rob Paisley has a page of model railroad circuitry, including, most interestingly to me, a driver for stepper motors. You’d use stuff like this if you wanted to have people moving around inside your buildings, or if you wanted other moving parts on your layout.
I used to build electronic circuits, when I was a sophomore and junior in high school. It’s been so long now that I don’t even remember what all of the symbols mean. It’s almost sad.

But the good news for me is that I’ll be able to build all kinds of cool stuff once I figure it out. I’ve got lots of old 5.25-inch floppy drives in my basement, with stepper motors ripe for harvesting. A stash of 5.25-inch floppy drives with amber LEDs would be a railroad scratchbuilder’s dream, wouldn’t it?

Making two-part plaster molds

One of the station platforms from Dad’s old Lionel set only has one of its three supports. I could possibly track down new ones, or fashion new ones out of wood or some other material, but the easiest thing to do would be to just cast two new ones, using the first one as the original.
This guide to two-part plaster molds is written with action figure parts in mind, but the same principle applies for any solid three-dimensional object.

Keep in mind it’s illegal to do any of this stuff except for your own personal use, unless, of course, you’re casting copies of something you made yourself.

Vintage signs and lighting for your toy train layout

I couldn’t have possibly found this site too soon: http://www.gatewaynmra.org/download.htm.
Besides photographs of six vintage building signs, there are also numerous other photographs for download that might be useful, and also some articles with really good tips.

Emphasis is more on serious modeling in HO or N scale than in toy-train O or S gauge, but in the case of the photographs, all that means is you have to print them bigger in order to use them. And the tips for assembling and improving models from kits hold regardless of type.

I also found this tutorial on lighting your railroad buildings with Christmas lights. Seeing as most places have them on sale for 50, 60, or 75 percent off while they last this time of year, the timing’s pretty good.

One guy in rec.models.railroad suggested using yellow LEDs to light your buildings, but seeing as a strand of Christmas lights is dirt cheap and I don’t have anything to cannibalize yellow LEDs from, I may go the Christmas light route first.

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

Finally, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my incessant pestering paid off and the train found a new home in the basement. Dad and I plugged the track back together, and Dad wired the transformer. Then Dad produced two locomotives out of one of the boxes. Dad’s fanciest locomotive didn’t work at all. The smaller locomotive sputtered and sparked when he put it on the track. That was more than the fancy one did. Dad’s answer to everything mechanical was WD-40, so he went back up to the garage, got the can off the top of the gun safe (there was always a can of WD-40 on top of Dad’s gun safe), came back down, and blasted the locomotive with several spurts of the tinkerer’s favorite. (Incidentally, for those of you here seeking advice on trying to get an old Lionel train to run, this isn’t a good idea.) This time, when Dad put it on the track, the train produced a lot more sparks and a lot more noise, and it even moved a little bit. He picked it back up and blasted it again, with similar results. I asked Dad why the WD-40 helped. He said it would lubricate the moving parts, but it’s also a conductor of electricity.

Dad eventually gave up and started paying more attention to the football game. I ran the train around the track a few times by hand. When I was in the fifth grade, this was more interesting to me than football. For that matter, it might still be more interesting to me than football. When I got bored with that, I decided to go over to the transformer and give the train some juice. The train hesitated, and it sure didn’t move fast, but it moved. I gave it some more juice, and it chugged its way around the track, gradually picking up more speed and creaking less. The more we ran it, the better it got. We started adding scenery. There wasn’t much of anything realistic about it, and Dad didn’t have much scenery short of a plastic diner and two train stations, but it was fun.

Well, we moved a couple more years later, and the train found itself back in boxes again. Eventually it made its way out of the boxes and into the new basement. If I remember right, this was Dad’s doing, and not mine. The second time around, Dad spent more time with the train than I did. But after I went off to college and my parents finished the basement, the train went back into boxes. After Dad died, the trains stayed in boxes in Mom’s basement. After I bought a house, one weekend the trains showed up in my basement, where they stayed for about a year, until this week.

What I found this week was a trio of dusty engines, three trailing tender cars, bits and pieces of scenery, one caboose, and a whole lot of rusty track. That was one more locomotive than I remembered and a lot fewer cars than I remembered. I suspect there’s still a box or two of train cars somewhere in Mom’s basement.

One of the locomotives was very clearly missing a few pieces. I set it aside. I recognized one of the others as the plain-Jane locomotive Dad and I first messed with. The other one was fancier. I took eight straight pieces and eight curved pieces and made a circle. One of the straight pieces had the contact piece for the transformer, so I connected the transformer with two pieces of wire. I put the fancy locomotive on the track, fired up the transformer, and recalled the episode from 17 years earlier.

I skipped the WD-40 this time. I didn’t have any, and the residue it leaves behind tends to attract dust, making the situation it was supposed to correct worse in the long run. I grabbed the other train. It was about as lively as I am first thing in the morning, but it made noise and it moved. I gave it a little push, and it moved even better.

Eventually I searched the Internet, and I consulted with Tom and his mechanically inclined sidekick Tim, and they suggested I clean the track with some 600-grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. After doing that, both locomotives ran pretty well.

As for the engines, the first thing you want to do is use a soft brush to remove any dust you can find, both on the visible surfaces of the cars and locomotive but especially on the underside. The most common advice suggests a small, soft paintprush. I didn’t have one, so I ended up using an old soft-bristled toothbrush. That was fine, but you want to make sure it’s a soft-bristled one, such as an Oral-B. A paintbrush would definitely be gentler. The idea here is to get the dust off the equipment so it doesn’t find its way onto the track or, worse yet, inside the engine where it can gum up the gears and motor(s).

Next, use a light grease to lubricate the gears and a light machine oil to lubricate the other moving parts. I didn’t have any grease, but I have a little tube of oil I use to keep my electric razor working well, so I applied some of that to a toothpick and lubed some of the moving parts on the two engines. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a difference the oil made. It seems to me that just running the engines, pushing them around the track with power applied until they were able to move on their own, made a bigger difference than anything else I did.

If the only lubricant you have handy is WD-40, skip it. If you happen to have some compressed air, blasting some of that into the crevices after you’ve done a job with the brush probably will knock loose some more of the gunk that’s accumulated inside, but I wouldn’t bother unless the engine isn’t running well.

It doesn’t seem to take much to get a vintage Lionel working again.

There’s a train store on the way home from work that has a Lionel sign in the window. I stopped in on my way home tonight. I bought a very overpriced Lionel-branded maintenance kit–for $14.50 I got a little tube of oil, a little tube of grease, a bottle of some substance with the words “track cleaner” and “biodegradable” on the outside, and a pencil eraser. I bought it mostly for the directions on the back, and to hopefully help ensure that train store will be there a little bit longer.

Perusing the store and perusing the awesome Postwar Lionel Trains Library, I found out, not to my great surprise, that few of the pieces I’d unboxed were particularly rare. The only rarity was Dad’s caboose. That did surprise me. It wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t made very long, so now it attracts interest. Figures. But that’s how it always goes with collectibles.

The store had an elaborate Lionel layout in the front, with three trains and a level of detail I’m more used to seeing in HO- and N-gauge layouts. They used an aftermarket track with wooden ties and the middle rail painted black to make the notoriously unrealistic O-gauge track look much more like real track. The new locomotives had digitized sound effects and the whole layout operated by remote control. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. But the cars and the engines looked cheaper and flimsier than Dad’s stuff made in the fifties.

“For $130 I can add sound effects to your old engine,” he said when I looked less impressed than most people probably are.

It sounded like a cool idea. But for now, I don’t think I want to mess with that. This set’s charm isn’t just about trains, and I’m not sure if jaw-dropping whiz-bang technology would enhance that charm or just cover it up.