The Lionel LW Trainmaster is a 125 watt transformer that Lionel produced from 1955 to 1966. They are reasonably durable and Lionel made them for a long time. That means you can find them easily on the secondary market. They can be expensive if they have their original box and paperwork. But if you just want to run a train and don’t care about the paper, you can get a serviced LW for $50-$60, and an as-is one for under $40. At 125 watts, it’s the most powerful single-handle transformer of the postwar era.
The LW is a quirky transformer so there are some things about if you need to be aware of if you have other Lionel transformers, but as long as you keep those in mind, it’s a fine transformer that will serve you well. The quirks have nothing at all to do with reliability. Lionel just designed its layout a bit differently than many of their other models. In some ways it’s the ideal accessory transformer. We’ll cover that later.
One thing to keep in mind: Unplug the LW when you’re not using it. It doesn’t have its own power switch. I plug my transformers into a power strip and turn all of them on and off with the strip’s on/off switch.
Someone asked me recently about the Lionel CW-80 and how it compares vs older transformers. That’s a fair question, and one that tends to stir up a lot of emotions on train forums. So I’ll try to present the pros and cons in a fair manner.
The Lionel Multi-control 1033 is a 90 watt transformer produced from 1948 to 1956. They are reasonably durable and were popular in their day, which means there are still a lot of them floating around so they tend to be inexpensive. I paid $70 for one about 15 years ago but the price has come way down; today you can get a serviced 1033 for about half that, and an as-is one for $20-$25.
Even someone who has a larger transformer or multiple larger transformers for the layout might be interested in a 1033 for the test bench, as it has all of the functionality someone would need for testing locomotives and whistling tenders.
Bakelite was the world’s first synthetic plastic, invented in 1907 and was commonly used for everyday objects in the mid 20th century. Lionel used it for transformer cases well into the 1960s. As a general rule, if a vintage Lionel transformer case isn’t metal, it’s probably Bakelite. For example, the highly desirable Lionel ZW and KW transformers used Bakelite casing. If you’d like to try to repair Bakelite transformer cases, read on.
Today, Bakelite is a specialty material. Although it’s generally a strong material, there are other plastics that tend to be more durable in everyday use, and they are cheaper. Another problem with Bakelite is that it is difficult to repair, although it’s not impossible.
Lionel used 15 different types of light bulbs in its O gauge electric trains in the postwar era, but in most cases–87% of catalog numbers, and a lot more than that in actual number of items produced–you can get by with two. Since knowing when can be difficult, here’s a Lionel train light bulb chart.
Lionel almost always specified 14 or 18 volts. Using an 18-volt bulb in place of a 14-volt original, or a 22-volt bulb in place of an 18-volt original results in longer service life. And there were two base types that Lionel used more than any other. Read more
I have a Lionel RW transformer that I would like to put on Christmas tree duty next year. I had a KW on that duty last year, which is a nice transformer, but it’s overkill, and my sons find it easier to operate the whistle with a button like the RW has than with the KW’s handle.
I repaired the RW last year, but I didn’t do anything about the paint. The original paint wasn’t in too bad of shape, but it had some scratches and dings in it, as you would expect a well-loved 60-year-old toy to have. But since the paint wasn’t perfect, I could repaint it without offending anyone, which is what I wanted to do, seeing as the original paint dated to before 1978, and therefore might contain lead.
The job didn’t take long. I didn’t do a full disassembly, and I didn’t do anything resembling a professional restoration. My goal was to make the transformer presentable and safe, and I think I succeeded at that. Read more
I’ve advocated voltmeters on train layouts before, but I realized something, after checking out a new-to-me Lionel KW transformer: It’s very easy for a vintage transformer to deliver more voltage than you intend, and through no fault of its own.
The “problem” is that transformers step the voltage down on a percentage basis. In the 1950s when they were designed, household voltage was 110 volts. So a transformer designed to deliver a maximum of 20 volts stepped down to 20 from 110. Today, however, it’s not uncommon for the voltage at the outlet to be 115, 120, or even 125 volts. So that maximum throttle of 20 volts is now closer to 22 volts in this day and age, because you can safely assume the source voltage is 10% higher. And the voltage markers on your transformer, which never were all that accurate to begin with, will be even less accurate.
Most postwar Lionel trains are designed to run at 18-20 volts, so if you turn the throttle to the max, you’ll probably overvolt them. The situation gets worse with other makes of trains.
Marx and American Flyer trains run fine off a Lionel transformer, except that they’re designed for a maximum of around 14 volts. So it’s very easy to unintentionally overvolt those trains to 22 volts if you turn a Lionel transformer to the max. They’ll run, but they’ll soon overheat and the windings on the motor armature will burn and short out.
While one venue I won’t mention by name might advocate only using modern transformers, a more practical and sensible approach is to add a $6 AC voltmeter to your setup, to make sure you’re never delivering more than 14 volts to your trains. While you’re at it, you might add a similarly priced AC ammeter to make sure you’re not overloading your transformer either. See my earlier post for instructions on wiring them in.
With two young kids, we find ourselves fumbling around in the kitchen at night more than just occasionally. At some point, we turned to flipping the microwave’s night light on.Which was fine, except I found that one of its settings uses 30 watts, the other 60, and more often than not, that light stays lit 24/7. That’s more power than I want to leave on full time. LED night lights solve that problem neatly. Read more