Which Lionel transformer do I need?

“Which Lionel transformer do I need?” you ask? Obviously, for a lot of people, the $700 Lionel ZW-L transformer is overkill. If you have to ask, your needs are a lot more modest than that. The good news is, Lionel made a lot of good transformers over the years. That means there are lots of them. And that means they’re affordable.

Transformer safety

You should always, always test your transformer for safety before you set it up, and unplug it when you’re not using it.

If you’re buying a transformer, you’ll be able to easily find one that a professional refurbished and upgraded with the links I provide below. If you’re comfortable doing some work yourself, you can buy a fixer-upper, and my informational links will tell you more about fixing one yourself.

That said, if you’re uncomfortable fixing a transformer, I won’t look down on you for buying one someone else fixed up. Safety first. If you like fixing things, fixing an old transformer is rewarding. Some people even find it fun.

Keeping it simple: the 1033

The Lionel 1033 is a great choice for small or medium-sized layouts.

For a classic setup of a single freight train running on a 4×8 (or smaller) sheet of plywood, a 90-watt Lionel 1033 or 1044 is an excellent choice. The 1044 is just a 1033 in a different case. It’s cheap, it’s reliable, and it’s easy to find. I talk more in depth about the 1033 here.

The modern equivalent is the Lionel CW-80, but frankly I like the old ones better. I’ve talked about why here.

A little more power: the RW or LW

Which Lionel transformer do I need? The Lionel RW
This diagram shows all of the controls and the pinout for the Lionel RW transformer.

For a passenger train with lighted cars, getting a little more power isn’t a bad idea. The 110-watt Lionel RW is a cheap option, and the 125-watt  LW, while a bit more expensive, gives a bit more power. I think the RW is a bit better value, but that could just be timing.

I’ve talked more about the Lionel RW and the LW as well.

The Buick: Lionel’s KW

Which Lionel transformer do I need? The Lionel KW
This drawing illustrates all of the key functionality of a Lionel KW transformer.

If you’re going to run more than one train, you can pair up two smaller transformers, or you can look at the two-handled transformers. The 190-watt Lionel KW was the second biggest and second best transformer of the postwar era. If your layout is bigger than 4×8, you may actually find trains run a bit better with a KW than with a smaller transformer.

The KW used to be really expensive, but since Lionel started making big transformers again, you can get a KW for what a 1033 used to cost. I’ve talked more about the KW here.

The Cadillac: Lionel’s ZW

Which Lionel transformer do I need? The Lionel ZW
The Lionel ZW has four sets of posts and six controls.

The iconic and legendary 270-watt Lionel ZW was the biggest and best transformer Lionel made in the postwar era. It’s expensive, but the same factors that drove KW prices down are also driving ZW prices down. Just not quite as much.

I can remember a time when a Lionel ZW would set you back $275. Today, with some luck, you can get one for closer to $100. It’s a bargain at that price.

I’ve written more about the Lionel ZW here.

Other transformers

Lionel made a lot of other transformers over the years. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, though I would shy away from the smaller transformers that are less than 75 watts. As cheap as the 1033 is, if you’re going to buy a transformer, you might as well pay a few dollars more to get a 1033. I didn’t mention the 1034 above because it’s easier to find a 1033. But if you already have a 1034 and don’t need a whistle button, go ahead and use it. It’s a good transformer.

In the middle range, Lionel made a lot of other transformers. I covered the more common ones, but if you have another vintage Lionel transformer of more than 75 watts and it’s in good condition, there’s no reason not to use it.

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