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I got lucky and scored some cheap figures yesterday

Now and then I hear about people scoring bags of figures suitable for O gauge trains at dollar stores.

I finally became one. Here’s what to look for.Most dollar stores have bags of toy soldiers. Soldiers are the most common thing but sometimes you can score policemen, firemen, construction workers, cowboys and indians. Far and away the most common size is 54mm (roughly 2 inches), which works out to about 1:32 scale, and that’s much too tall for me. Whether that works for anyone else isn’t for me to decide–you’ll just have to see how it looks with your vehicles and trains. Personally, when I see figures that are 8 scale feet tall I think of the Nephilim, so I avoid them.

A few times I’ve found figures that were closer to 3/4 of an inch tall. Those would actually be great for an HO scale layout. It seems to me that I’ve found 1-inch figures (22-25mm) once or twice before too. I didn’t get any and I’m kicking myself. Those would be perfect for an S gauge (1:64 scale) layout, or for use on a larger-scale layout for forced perspective.

The best figures for O gauge are 40mm tall, but those are relatively uncommon. Many more figures are made in 45mm size, which is about 1 3/4 inches. That’s seven feet tall in O scale (they’re actually intended to be about 1:36 scale) but for most people, 45mm is probably close enough.

Yesterday I found soldiers, policemen, and firefighters in 45mm size, 53 to a package, for a dollar. I picked up a package of policemen because I figured it’s easier to make excuses for a police-heavy population than any of the other choices, and I figured police officers would be relatively easy to turn into other types of people. Besides, it’s hard to argue with 53 figures for a dollar, even if they’re all going to end up looking like Brad Garrett. For a dollar I can paint up one of each pose to yield six usable figures and then figure out what I’ll do with the 41 leftovers. I paid $12.99 for a box of 32 civilian figures about a year ago.

The figures you find in dollar stores are cheap Chinese recasts of figures from defunct companies such as Marx and Ideal. When the companies liquidated, the molds were sold, and those that survived ended up over there. Since the molds are in most cases approaching 50 years old, the detail isn’t quite what it once was, but we do have much better plastics today. And did I mention it’s hard to argue with a price of 2 cents per figure?

I don’t know if it helps any, but the package I bought was marked Greenbrier International, Inc., and it came from Dollar Tree. There is no other useful information on the package, and the figures are simply stamped "China" on the undersides of the base.

Who knows, I may go back for another package or two tomorrow. Five bucks would score me 265 figures, total. It takes me about 30 minutes to paint one, so that ought to keep me out of trouble for a long time.

A compelling toy train layout with animations done on the cheap

Layouts featuring Lionel, American Flyer, and other O or S gauge trains don’t have to be expensive. Joe Rampola has lots of ideas for creating a good-looking layout with lots of animation (aside from the trains) using mostly inexpensive items. His site has lots of pictures and video clips.

His work has been featured in both Classic Toy Trains and O Gauge Railroading magazines.Among his better ideas: Lay a loop of HO gauge track, then put 0-4-0 mechanisms from cheap HO scale locomotives in the frames of 1:43 scale die-cast cars and make streets for the layout. This is a similar approach to K-Line’s new Superstreets, but Rampola did it years earlier, and his approach is a lot less expensive for those who can live without instant gratification. His approach also allows you to use any vehicle you want, so long as you’re willing to modify it.

He also has plans and instructions posted for lots of inexpensive animations he did using the cheap unpainted (and unfortunately, discontinued) K-Line figures from the classic Marx molds of the 1950s. Sometimes you can still get lucky and find a box of unpainted K-Line figures hiding on hobby shop shelves.

He even has his animations controlled by an old Timex Sinclair 1000 computer. He gives enough detail that I suspect someone good with homebrew circuits could adapt his circuit and his program to another computer, such as an Apple or Commodore. Even a 3.5K unexpanded VIC-20 ought to be up to the task, let alone a behemoth Commodore 64.

I’ve always bristled at the thought of adding electronics to my traditional layout, because my trains are my escape from computers. But using a real computer–real men only need 8 bits–to control parts of a layout does have some appeal to me.

XTrkCad model railroad track software is going open source

XTrkCad, one of the many model railroad track planning programs–and the only one I know that has both Windows and Linux versions–is going open source. This also means the program is now free.

You can’t download the source code yet but you can download binaries, enter a registration code, and play with it. I’ve been doing just that.One thing I noticed right away when I started trying to use it to plan a layout using Lionel and Marx O27-profile sectional track–which it doesn’t support directly, so I had to enter the track, confusingly, using the “custom turnout” tools–is that the model railroad and toy trains people measure track differently.

A Marx or Lionel O27 curve isn’t an O27 curve in XTrkCad. It’s a curve of radius 12.5 and angle of 45 degrees.

Here are some measurements. Keep in mind this is what they’re supposed to be. Manufacturing tolerances and the effects of age sometimes cause these measurements to be off. Some of my vintage track is off by 1/8 inch or more.

O-2712.5″
O-3415.75″
O-4220.25″
O-5426.375″
O-7235.25″

I happen to know that O27 and O34 tubular track use a 45-degree angle, and that Lionel and K-Line O42 tubular use a 30-degree angle. Unfortunately I don’t have a piece of K-Line O54 or O72 sectional tubular track to measure.

Since O42 track is supposed to be 12 sections per circle, and 180/12=15, I believe to calculate the angle measurement of O54 and O72 you can divide 180 by the number of O54 or O72 track sections in a full circle, then multiply that result by 2. The math works for the O27, O34, and O42 track sections I have, but since I don’t own any K-Line O54 or O72 track I can’t be certain.

Also, confusingly, traditional O gauge switches are straight turnouts in XTrkCad, even though one leg of them is curved. Here are the parameters I got by measuring a Lionel 1121. The measurements are close enough to represent Marx or Sakai O27 switches:

Diverging length: 8.5
Diverging angle: 45
Diverging offset: 3.75
Overall length: 8.75

And here’s what I measure on a Marx O34 switch.

Diverging length: 11.375
Diverging angle: 45
Diverging offset: 4.5
Overall length: 11.188

I believe the diverging angle would be 30 degrees on a Lionel or K-Line O42 switch, but since my vintage Marx and American Flyer locomotives won’t make it through modern O42 switches, I don’t have any of those to measure.

I’ve already used the software to draw a layout using Marx O34 track that will allow two-train operation with room on sidings for three additional trains. It’s much easier than setting up track on the floor and measuring it to see if it will fit on the table. And you can do your layout and then print an inventory to compare what you have with what you need. Not having enough track to mock up a layout isn’t a problem anymore.

On the computer some of the things I want to do don’t quite fit; if the track measurements are slightly off, the solution is to cut a section of track to move things a bit, or, if they’re off by less than a quarter inch or so, force it. O27 track has a lot of give, and, like I said, manufacturing tolerances and the effects of time can cause real-world track to not match the published standards.

Last weekend\’s find

You never know what you’ll find when someone advertises “old trains.”

This is an American Flyer Type 4 locomotive. This variety was manufactured in Chicago from 1927 to 1929. It’s powered by clockwork, as many inexpensive toy trains were at the time. You wound it up with a key. The key for this one is long lost. I may be able to find another one, but keys are easily fabricated from K&S brass parts, available at hobby shops.

Amazingly, the motor still runs. The train doesn’t. It’s missing one of the drive wheels, and the other wheel isn’t soldered to the axle very well. Replacement wheels are still available and I can re-solder the other one. It ought to take about $5 worth of parts and about 15 minutes to get it running again.

It runs on O gauge track, the same as Lionel. But the track has two rails, you say? It sure does, because it’s not an electric train, so there’s no need for the third rail. This train predates American Flyer’s 2-rail S gauge electrics by about 25 years.

The locomotive is made of cast iron, cast in two pieces and held together by a screw. The tender and passenger coach are made of pressed steel, plated with tin. This is commonly called “tinplate”. The graphics on the coach are lithographed, a form of offset printing. This was very common on cheap toys up until the 1950s, when lithographed tinplate was gradually replaced with molded plastic, which was cheaper, could hold more detail, and could be made without any sharp edges.

This item isn’t particularly rare, but it’s an interesting curiosity.

I’m very happy to have it, but the genealogist in me really wishes people would hang on to things like this. This was someone’s grandfather’s train. All too often people’s reaction to an old train is “What’s it worth?” They’re looking for a fast buck.

In this condition, this particular train is worth about 50 bucks, give or take a few dollars.

Any toy that once belonged to any of my grandparents would be worth 10 times that to me.

Converting Bachmann On30 cars to O or O27?

There’s always a discussion about the cost of O gauge/O scale somewhere, mostly because it’s hard to find new locomotives for less than $500 and new train cars for under $75. You’d think this was a hobby for trial lawyers and brain surgeons.

One guy pointed out how much bang for the buck he’s getting when he buys On30.

Now, a bit of terminology here. O scale is 1:48 scale. One quarter inch on the model is equal to a foot on the real-world equivalent. O27, the cheaper brother of O scale, is actually 1:64 scale, though it runs on the same track. “Serious” hobbyists often look down on O27, but the nice thing about O27 is it lets you pack a lot more into a smaller space.

So what’s this On30 stuff and what’s the difference between it and regular O or O27 scale?

I’m glad you asked.

On30, On3, and the like refer to “narrow gauge.” Most train track in the United States has its rails 4 feet 8 inches (or 8 1/2 inches) apart. That’s “Standard gauge.” Occasionally, a railroad would lay its track 3 feet apart, or 30 inches apart, or some other measurement narrower than 4’8.5″. This was especially common out west in regions where they had to deal with a lot of mountains. On30 refers to 1:48 scale models of 30-inch gauge trains. On3 refers to 1:48 scale models of 3-foot gauge trains. On2 refers to 1:48 scale models of 2-foot gauge trains. And so on. I’ve talked more about On30 here if you want to know more.

Now it just so happens that the distance between the rails on regular old HO scale track measures out to 31.3 inches in O scale. For most people, that’s certainly close enough. O scalers have been living with track that’s 5 scale feet wide ever since we decided that O scale was 1:48, back in the 1930s or so.

So Bachmann, the makers of the cheap HO and N scale train sets you see at Hobby Lobby, decided to take advantage of this convenient accident, make some 1:48 scale cars, put narrow trucks on them, bundle some HO scale track and commercialize On30. So now it’s actually easier in some regions to get a Bachmann On30 train set than it is to get a Lionel O train set.

I found this page on converting Bachmann On30 cars to S scale. What the author did was remove the Bachmann trucks and couplers and substitute American Flyers. Since S scale stuff is even more scarce than regular O scale, this is a slick trick. And, as you can see from the pictures, for the most part the stuff still looks right. Rivet counters won’t like it, but if you’re a rivet counter you’re probably not reading this page anyway. For people starved for inexpensive trains, or for trains, period, they’re fine.

Well, I like my Lionels. I’m not going to convert to On30. But I don’t like Lionel prices. So I build some of my own stuff, and the stuff I do buy, I buy used. So I’ve amassed a pretty sizeable collection, even though I’ve spent a lot less than most hobbyists will spend on a single locomotive.

But I’m always looking for something new and different.

A K-Line passenger car costs $117. A Bachmann passenger car costs $28.

A pair of K-Line freight trucks costs $8. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

You can’t put freight trucks on a passenger car. That’s what I’m thinking. Freight trucks are different from passenger trucks for some reason. Something about people wanting a smoother ride than cows.

But you get the idea. $36 is a lot less than $117.

K-Line passenger trucks are $25 apiece. That’s more than the car. But $78 is still less than $117, though I’d just live with using freight trucks, myself.

If the S scalers can do it, why can’t we?

They\’re just toys

I saw someone get up in front of a crowd with his new O gauge model trolley, based on a prototype from St. Louis, manufactured by MTH Electric Trains, that he had ordered a couple of years ago and had finally arrived this year.

He proceeded to tell us everything that was wrong with it. It was a long, long list. I started wondering if he regretted buying it.

And I started wondering what difference any of it made anyway, seeing as the biggest detail was already wrong: It runs on non-prototypical track with three rails and the outer rails a 5 scale feet apart!Tom Gatermann and I talked about it last night. He’s had HO-scale layouts since childhood; now he and another friend have pooled their time and money to build a bigger, badder N-scale layout.

They and I are on polar opposites. They like modeling rural settings; I’m trying to build a city. They like scale models; most of my stuff is semi-scale, and at times I’ve been known to clear all that off and run a bunch of toylike Marx trains and prewar stuff from Lionel, American Flyer, and Ives. Aside from scenery, they’re almost exclusively RTR models and kits for buildings; I enjoy scratchbuilding. (Yeah, I’m a strange, strange mix.) They’re runners; and while I run my trains, I’ve got a lot of collector in me too.

The main thing we have in common is that none of us could care less if our model has 133 rivets and the real-world version had 139. Without a magnifying glass and way more time than we’re willing to spend, we’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

I wonder less now whether the person who bought the trolley regrets it. I read in a book that a lot of hobbyists relish finding and pointing out the inaccuracies in their toys. I guess I have something in common with them too. I want to learn as much about something as I can, and so do they. I guess pointing out every detail that was wrong (besides that pesky third rail and wide track) is a way of demonstrating how much you know; much like artists of old painted people in various stages of undress in order to demonstrate how much they knew about anatomy.

Too bad it comes off as stuffy and, well, just plain geeky. This stuff is supposed to be an escape from the real world. It’s supposed to be fun.

And besides, why get so uptight about the realism of the train? I can find all sorts of inaccuracies if I look elsewhere on the table. See that hill on the layout? What’s its real-world prototype? Do you have the right kind of trees on it? Did you count them? What about that road? Is the width right? Why hasn’t that 1946 Ford pickup truck on that road ever moved? The train moves, why don’t the cars? Why do the people look like department store mannequins? Why are there two Walgreen Drug Stores across the street from each other in your town? (Well, actually that last question might have a real-world prototype…)

American Model Toys and Kusan trains

While almost everyone knows American Flyer and Lionel, and a lot of people have heard of Marx, there was a fourth maker of toy trains in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was much smaller, although very innovative, and today is nearly forgotten: Auburn, Indiana-based American Model Toys.

Its legacy, however, ties into virtually every major producer of O gauge trains in business today.

Read More »American Model Toys and Kusan trains

The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Toy trains are a funny thing. Vintage Lionel trains are almost a status symbol, and their value has almost taken a mythical quality. Marx, on the other hand, was the working class brand in the 1950s, the company that had something for you no matter how much you had available to spend.

For the most part, today’s prices reflect that. Lionels are expensive and Marxes are cheap.

Sort of.

Read More »The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

You still think outsourcing is a good idea?

Don’t be fooled by the topic I put this in: This has potential implications for any area of manufacturing.

Lionel, the most famous U.S. maker of toy trains and model railroads, has been found guilty of industrial espionage and ordered to pay $40 million to competitor MTH Electric Trains.

What happened? Well, both Lionel and MTH outsource their production. As it turned out, some work that was done for MTH ended up in Lionel designs as well.I really don’t think anyone has a good grasp of what happened, but the story I heard is that a contractor who worked for MTH’s subcontractor designing locomotives moonlighted for Lionel’s subcontractor, and that he reused some work that he did on an MTH design on a Lionel design. MTH claims Lionel knew about this. Lionel claims it did not.

Regardless of who you believe, somebody was wronged. R&D work for one company ended up benefiting its competitor, and now that mistake is costing lots of money.

As a consumer, I’m disappointed because I’ve been led to believe that Lionel and MTH do their own designs and outsource production to Korea and China. Evidently they outsource some of their lucrative R&D as well.

Apologists for both companies have said that Korean companies tend to be related by blood or marriage and that workers routinely move from company to company, taking trade secrets with them and using them. That’s the corporate culture. U.S. corporate culture, of course, is exactly the opposite. We demand that you somehow forget all of your proprietary trade secrets when you change employers. Or at least don’t use them in your new job.

The products involved in this case aren’t the $20 locomotives you see at Hobby Lobby or Toys ‘R Us either. We’re talking premium products that sell for five figures here. I’ve seen them in person–they’re definitely impressive looking. But they’re playthings for people who make six figures per year, minimum. I like O gauge Lionel stuff an awful lot. But I don’t expect to ever own one. They cost more than I’m willing to pay for a computer.

I suspect that with those kinds of profit margins, they could have afforded to build them in Michigan or New Jersey, where Lionel understands how its workers work and its workers understand how its employer works. That’s the scenario if you assume Lionel is innocent. If you assume Lionel is guilty, well, that scenario makes industrial espionage much more unlikely. It’s always best not to allow yourself to be tempted to do something wrong–it’s easier to avoid temptation than it is to resist it.

And if they’d had to raise the price of a $1,400 locomotive by another $100, I doubt too many people would have screamed. Especially if the words “Proudly made in USA” were prominently featured on the package.

There’s some question whether there’s even room in a $100 million hobby for both Lionel and MTH. When your industry is worth $100 million as a whole, and you have to share that pie with four or five competitors, you can’t really afford a $40 million jury award, can you?

Saving a few bucks in labor and R&D may have just cost Lionel its life.