“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.
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
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.
This type of transformer is cheap, it’s reliable, and it’s easy to find. I talk more in depth about the 1033 here. Lionel made these for years and kept them in production under a different model number well into the 1970s because it was a reliable, dependable design and had enough power for a typical starter set while leaving some room to grow.
The modern equivalent is the Lionel CW-80, but frankly I like the old ones better. I’ve talked about why here. These transformers are much cheaper than they were even just a few years ago, but that just makes them a bigger bargain today.
A little more power: the RW or LW
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.
Frankly, it’s hard to go wrong with either of these transformers, especially at today’s prices. They give a great deal of power in a single handled transformer, and if you run trains along with another person, it can be more convenient for you to both have a smaller transformer than for two people to huddle around a larger KW or ZW transformer and share its handles.
The Buick: Lionel’s KW
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, which makes it a very nice bargain today on a rugged and powerful transformer with an impressive presence. I’ve talked more about the KW here.
The Cadillac: Lionel’s ZW
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.
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.