The online magazine on the history and operation of vintage scale model trains in American OO gauge

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Collecting old kits, to build or not to build

In American OO gauge virtually the only models that were sold ready-to-run were by Lionel, and even Lionel offered OO in kit form. Thus, anyone interested in American OO will very quickly run up against the topic of “to build or not to build” when it comes to old kits.

I recently was given a copy of the 1956 publication Collecting Model Trains by Louis Hertz. A real visionary among early train collectors, Hertz addresses a wide range of topics from the practical to the deep, including that of collecting old kits. Beginning on page 284 he wrote,

This brings up the question of whether it is desirable to assemble such kits and display the resulting models, or whether the kits, when found, should not be preserved in the form of which they were originally manufactured and sold. Collectors who seek certain discontinued kits so as to use the models on their layouts naturally assemble the kits, and, of course, the collector is far more likely to find models assembled from kits in the past than the kits themselves. A number of scale model collectors, and especially those interested primarily in the history of the scale model industry, feel that when old kits are located and obtained they should be preserved in their original form. They feel that such kits stand in the same relationship to the scale model industry as do all tinplate models to the tinplate train industry, and that therefore such models have a greater historical and intrinsic value when preserved in the exact form in which they were sold by such pioneer manufacturers of kits as Walthers, Lobaugh, Scale-Craft, the American Model Railroad Co., Conover, and Nason.

First, in this quote it is interesting that he is thinking about OO collecting in 1956 when he mentions Scale-Craft and especially Nason. In the following paragraph he speaks of the value of “individually made” (i.e., scratch built) models of this same time frame as having value (especially models featured in early issues of Model Craftsman or Model Railroader, such as for example the early Nieter MU car in this post) and he continues in the next paragraph on to the topic of kits that have already been built up.

It is also open to question whether collectors will take much interest in kit-built models of the 1930’s or 1940’s that have been badly botched in the assembling, although here there is, in the parts employed at least, a definite relationship to contemporary scale model railroad manufacturing. Certainly collectors of kit-built models will prefer models that have been neatly assembled and finished. Of course, there arises here the point of whether such models should be refinished, or rebuilt by the collector. And it is here that the custom in scale model collecting takes a definite and quite understandable departure from the accepted practice pertaining to tinplate. Inasmuch as the models were designed to be assembled by individuals, and have already been assembled once, thereby destroying whatever extra value there might be to some scale model collectors in the old kits themselves, it is considered quite proper and permissible to rebuild or refinish the kit-built model in question, and thereby make it into a better looking specimen of a model built from a particular kit.

It is an interesting topic to ponder. I enjoy rebuilding old “junker” models so what Hertz says in the second quotation fits well with that. In general an un-built kit is worth more than all but possibly the best built out version of the same kit. I would offer these basic guidelines for today.

Pre-war kits. Don’t build them. There is a rarity factor here as many kits of this era were built during the war. There are just not a lot of kits of that age around. Locomotive kits of this era are especially rare.

Post-war kits. Maybe build them, especially if is of a fairly common item such as late production Scale-Craft. But be aware that the un-built kit is probably worth more than the finished product no matter how nicely you build it.

Over the years I have built a few old kits, almost all fairly common freight and passenger cars, and I have painted Schorr brass imports that came to me unfinished. Undoubtedly they all lost some theoretical value in the building, but I did get a finished car out of the process that I can use on the layout. In the end it boils down to a balance between rarity and the needs of what I would like to have running.

Looking forward into the future for me personally, I don’t see much need to build out any more kits that I have. I do use them as information sources; they really help in figuring out how to rebuild items that have made it to me in fair to poor condition, and I have plenty of models on hand to rebuild. It is an interesting topic though as while on one hand I do collect OO, it took me a while to actually admit that to myself and I am still also building an operating model railroad. It is not a museum; the models that interest me the most actually do fit with the scheme of the layout.

So in the end to build or not build a kit is something we have to weigh out and get comfortable with on an individual basis. But if in doubt I would say don’t build the kit, there really are plenty of models out there that deserve a good rebuilding.

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