The Lionel KW transformer

Lionel KW transformer

The Lionel KW transformer was the second largest transformer Lionel made in the postwar era. It delivered 190 watts of power and provided two handles to control two trains. Internally, the design is very similar to the ZW. If the ZW was Lionel’s Cadillac transformer, the KW was the Buick. I always thought Lionels were overrated until I ran a 675 locomotive with a KW.

There was a time when nobody made modern transformers the size of a KW or ZW. Now that they do, the ZW and especially the KW cost a lot less. I remember when a reconditioned KW cost $200. Today you can get one for under $100. An as-is KW with minor issues will cost half that. These days, the KW is a bargain.

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All about the Lionel LW transformer

Lionel LW transformer

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.

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How to attach wires to the posts of a Lionel train transformer

It took me 20 years to find out I was connecting the wires to my train transformer wrong–and this applies to American Flyer and Marx just as much as to Lionel–and I don’t want the same thing to happen to you. I was making it far, far too difficult to attach wires to the posts of a Lionel train transformer.

Modern transformers have a groove in the post to accept a wire, but vintage transformers don’t. If you’re having problems with the wires coming off your transformer while you try to cinch them down, here’s how to connect to a vintage transformer in three simple steps.

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Testing electric train track

Testing American Flyer track

I have a method of testing electric train track from Lionel, American Flyer, Marx or any other brand. The key is to test it one piece at a time, so you know any problem you found is isolated to a single piece of track.

Here are a couple of different ways to test, depending on what tools you have available.

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How the Marx 1249 transformer connects to track

Marx 1249 transformer

There are four posts on the Marx 1249 transformer, but don’t fret if you’ve lost the instructions. Connecting it is easy. But first, you’ll probably want to check it out for safety before plugging it in.

There are two sets of posts on the transformer, but don’t let that confuse you. One set of posts powers the train, and the other set powers any accessories you might have, such as a station. If you don’t have any accessories, you can simply ignore the second set.

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Fight voltage drop with copper anti-seize lubricant

If you have issues with your trains slowing down on the far reaches of your layout–and judging from my website hits, many people do–there are a couple of things to do about it. The first thing is to run additional feeder wires. Going by the book, you should go every third track section. Do I push it a little? Sure. Sometimes I can get away with a little less than that, and sometimes every three sections isn’t quite enough.

But over time, the conductivity between track sections can wane a bit, as moisture and oxidation creep in. Coating track pins with copper anti-seize lubricant keeps the moisture out, which keeps oxidation out, which makes the layout more reliable, especially if the layout is outdoors, in the garage, or in the basement.

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My $8 secondhand Lionel

I hear stories all the time about the Lionel train that someone found at a garage sale for $10. Or sometimes it’s a Marx. The one that bothered me the most was the story about a 65-year-old American Flyer locomotive for $10, and the guy who got it didn’t even like O gauge.

Whatever. Today was my day. I found a Lionel starter set from 1999. The price marked on it: $8. I didn’t haggle. I handed over Alexander Hamilton, scooped up the train set, grabbed a couple of Washingtons, and headed to the car with a train set under my arm.