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

Monday, December 29, 2008

Is American OO Tinplate?

While I would say no as a first reaction to the question of American OO being tinplate or not, the answer is not clear cut. Three rail Lionel OO maybe, with those tight, toy train curves, although they were marketed in the 1938 catalog as scale models, "railroading for the city apartment." What about early Scale-Craft?

Thanks to my brother I now have a copy of Collecting Model Trains, the classic 1956 publication by Louis H. Hertz. A most interesting book! It covers a lot of topics from the practical to the philosophical relating to collecting model and toy trains. One of the more philosophical topics was that of early HO and OO being scale or tinplate models. In particular on page 29 Hertz took up the
question of the proper status of Knapp HO and Scale-Craft OO trains of the late 1930’s. Both lines were sold in both assembled ready-to-run and kit form. Knapp was classified as tinplate and Scale-Craft as scale, first because these were the expressed preferences of the makers themselves, and second because Knapp was a long-established toy manufacturer and many years previously had made 2” gauge, two rail tinplate trains, whereas Scale-Craft was essentially and originally a manufacturer of scale kits. At the time both manufacturers endeavored to sell their models in both the toy train and scale model hobby fields, and as the late Harold V. Loose, then managing editor of Model Craftsman, pointed out, the whole affair was not a little contradictory. As he noted (although not in print), Scale-Craft’s die-cast locomotives, and their use of the same locomotive body casting on more than one wheel arrangement, plus their metal-base track, were closer to most hobbyists’ usual conceptions of tinplate train designing and manufacturing practice than that of scale model production, while Knapp’s brass locomotives represented a material more frequently associated with scale kits than with production tinplate. Furthermore, he regarded Knapp’s 2-8-2 type as a truer scale representation of the prototype than Scale-Craft’s varied 4-4-2, 4-6-0, or the tank locomotive (4-6-4), all using the same body casting.
Hertz has a point on some elements of the early S-C line being tinplate oriented. Another example for sure is the early, die cast Scale-Craft boxcar, it is not as scale detailed as the comparable Nason or Lionel models, and the trucks are tinplate in look.

They are I feel in the end all scale models, collectible but not tinplate, but there is certainly an element of tinplate design to the early models which is a part of the charm of American OO gauge models today.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

1938 Lionel OO set in action

I just did a quick YouTube search and found this video of a Lionel 1938 set in action, on display at Trainfest Milwaukee 2008. It is a short video but it is good go see that OO was on display at the show.

This was the first time I have searched for American OO on YouTube. While there are plenty of British OO videos there it appears that this might be the only American OO video posted. If you know of more let me know, or consider posting your own if you have the video skills.

UPDATE 2010: Another, sharper video below is online of the same layout, with the following text by the builder:
I purchased the train & Track off of the original owner several years ago. I built the layout 2 years ago, and do a little here a little their on the layout. I have been taking this layout to Trainfest in Milwaukee Wisconsin for the past few years. This year I plan on having all of the buildings lit and will try to have a push button on the crossing gates and may add another acc to have a button to push.

UPDATE 2013: And also check out my American OO Today videos. Episode 4 on models available in 1938 would be a good place to start in relation to the videos above, and I hope to post a new series soon.

AND -- the 2013 version of the layout may be seen here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scale-Craft and Lionel sectional track for OO gauge

As leaders in the OO market, Scale-Craft and Lionel both produced lines of sectional track in American OO gauge.

In conjunction with the launch of their OO line in 1937 the first maker to introduce sectional track was Scale-Craft. Their sectional track is two rail on a metal base. It is rarely seen today but those that have it recommend it as Scale-Craft track has often held up over time better than Lionel track. Lionel track is similar but on a Bakelite base and is prone to warp, crack, and become unusable.

I don’t [as of 2008 ... see update at end] own any examples of either brand, but Dick G. has kindly provided these photos of Scale-Craft and Lionel two rail track which illustrate the differences well. The Scale-Craft track line was produced 1937-42 and included:

1154 Straight section, 10"
1159 Curved section, 16 to circle, 26" radius
1199 Straight section with transformer leads

In the 1938 catalog S-C track was priced at .25 for each straight or curve and .40 for the straight with transformer leads. This was at a considerable savings over the OO three rail track listed in the 1938 Lionel catalog; it sold for .40 for each straight or curve and .75 for the curved connection track.

In the photos the Scale-Craft track illustrated is the curve and the straight section with transformer leads. It has steel rails and fiber ties on a steel base. Dick notes “The straight S-C track in the photo is a connection piece. There is an oval hole in the side of the base (at the center) allowing you to run wires through the hole and under the track, and solder them to the clips holding the rails to the base. Regular S-C straight and curved track don't have the connection hole.” He also adds that “there are no markings on S-C track. You have to know what it looks like to identify it.” They also produced turnout kits that were not on a metal base but were intended to mate with their sectional track.

The rail used on S-C and two rail Lionel track is similar, approximately code 125 and solid. The sections between the two brands will however not mate without modification. Lionel three-rail track has in contrast a hollow, tubular rail.

Lionel introduced their line of sectional track in 1938. The initial offerings were three rail, with spring clip connections between sections. In 1939 they changed the connections in the three rail line and added the two rail line of track. Both types were available until 1942.

As the photos from Dick are of the two rail track, I will start with this part of their line. The curve is a very slightly tighter radius than Scale-Craft, making a 48” diameter circle. The Lionel two rail track included a curved connection track (in the photo), a straight section, and a curved section. Turnouts were not marketed but pilot models are said to exist for two rail turnouts.

The primary type of track produced by Lionel was their three rail OO track. It is designed around a much tighter radius, making a circle of only 27” in diameter, and has a more toy-like/tinplate look. The three-rail line included:

OO-51 Curved section (1939-42)
OO-52 Straight section (1939-42)
OO-61 Curved section with spring clip connections (1938 only)
OO-62 Straight section with spring clip connections (1938 only)
OO-63 1/2 curved section
OO-64 Curved connection track
OO-65 1/2 straight section
OO-66 5/6 curved section
OO-70 Crossover
OO-72 Switches (sold as pair, L and R)

The Lionel name and part number are on the bottom of each piece. See the UPDATE 2014 at the end of this article for a note on the roots of the three-rail track design.

The very important point to note is that Lionel produced three distinct types of OO track. Besides producing two-rail track they also produced two different types of three-rail OO gauge track with different connectors that are actually incompatible with each other. When they made the change over in 1939 to the new type for the curves and straight sections they changed the catalog number but the part number on the sections remained the same. The other types of track were also changed to the new connector but sold under an unchanged catalog number. Confusing? Yes!

An article that details the three types of Lionel OO track is the aptly titled “The Wacky World of Lionel OO, part 1” by George J. Adamson, published in volume 23, no. 4 (Summer, 1977) of The Train Collectors Quarterly. The types of track are illustrated on page 22. If you are a TCA member this issue may be accessed as a PDF in the “Members Only” area of their website, a wonderful resource. Adamson introduced his story as follows; one I believe lived by many Lionel OO enthusiasts over the years.
Can you imagine someone back in about 1940 who had bought one of the early OO sets and then buys some extra track to make the layout on Christmas Eve …, only to discover that the track won't fit together? Bleep! Bleep!

This writer had a similar experience recently in trying to build an OO layout. My first set had only two straight sections with the circle of track, and after begging for track two sections at a time I was finally able to make a decent loop. After assembling the curves I started to add the straight, and lo and behold! Some of the straight track wouldn’t join. All of the curved track had a spring clip underneath the center rail of each section, and there was one round mating pin on each of the outside rails. Most of the straight track, however, had a thin flat blade on each end of the center rail and each outside rail had a thicker blade with a notch (like a hook) at one end. The end of the track was completely open so that the blades would slip inside. There was no spring flip. Further examination revealed that the blade type track had beveled holes for screws while the spring clip type did not. The blade ends were mounted into the bakelite base, and any chance of mating the two tracks seemed less likely than finding an OO set at its original catalog price of $35. The building of a railroad came to an abrupt halt.
There is much more in the Adamson article. The photos above from Dick Kuehnemund show the different connectors. See this article as well for two interesting 1938 track sections which are likely Lionel engineering samples for sections that were not produced.

To give an overall view of the three rail track I have however linked in these last two photos from the online article “TM's Lionel OO Studio Layout” in Toy Train Review. This article is a must read for anyone interested in Lionel OO, with a number of photos of the three rail track in use. The layout was built for shooting videos on the history of Lionel, which I would highly recommend also. The one I have, on VHS, is Lionel OO & HO in Action. They note in the text that the switches are “very rare” and that an oval of 2-rail track “is almost impossible to find.” As to using this classic track on the layout they noted that “the track was gently fastened down …. [being] careful to leave some play in the track because the bakelite roadbed of Lionel OO can be brittle and crack.”

As to what this track is worth, it is all quite valuable, so much so that some manufacturer out there ought to notice eventually and produce reproduction track. The only Greenberg guide I have handy is from 1995, which lists the Lionel switches as selling for $225 a pair in excellent condition. They are even more valuable today for sure. Besides the switches, Lionel two rail straight track is probably the least common. Any type of Lionel track on a good day and in usable condition may sell for toward $50 a piece on eBay. [UPDATE: A lot of ten pieces of Lionel two rail straight track recently (2/09) sold on eBay for over $1,000! Over $100 a piece! Thanks to Ed Havens for this update.]

And the Scale-Craft track? It almost never shows up on eBay but is also desirable for operators and rare. As to why it is desirable I will let Dick G. have the final word:
I think the S-C track is superior to Lionel 2-rail track because it doesn't warp like the Bakelite base on the Lionel track. When you assemble and disassemble S-C track multiple times, the rails tend to slide a little on the base. If you don't tap them back in place, you will get gaps in the rails above the rail joiners on the ends. This is the only problem I've had with S-C track.
UPDATE 2012: Within a year or two I did pick up some examples of Lionel and Scale-Craft track. As I say in the article where I note that I purchased some Lionel track finally,
It really does not “feel” pre-war. I can kind of imagine how someone would have felt back then to hold it in your hands for the first time, this is pretty amazing stuff. I did a quick survey with a couple of my favorite junior high students to guess how old this track was. They guessed that it dated to the 1960s-70s. Lionel had quite a product going with the pre-war OO line; no wonder collectors drive a market for our defunct but most interesting scale.
UPDATE 2014: A reader noticed something that I don't think has ever been noted in articles/writings on Lionel OO--that their three-rail track seems to have been copied and scaled up from the 1935 Trix Twin HO/OO track line. See this article for more on the comparison of these products.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Bit of Scenic Progress

Over the weekend I made some progress on scenery.

This section has long been in progress; the middle of this scene was originally a 2’ x 4’ module, my initial OO layout, which was according to the date on the bottom of the layout started in August of 1978. The scenery was built up using pretty conventional techniques, plaster, latex paint, white glue mixed with alcohol, ground foam, etc. As slow as I have been on scenery it is always interesting how quickly it can be brought to this state when I finally get in action. The area is not done yet but this is certainly looking much better than before! The buildings lack signage, Corno Feed Products and Atom Pop, and my daughter was quick to point out that I need to put cows in the cattle pens. The vehicles are mostly the over scale models that were/are sold by AHM as HO. Click on the photo for a larger view.

The next and final segment is to the left of the area in the photo, the depot and edge of town area. For this I am pretty much set as to buildings and design and really hope to see this area also brought to a fairly finished look in the next month. Will see where progress takes me.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blow-Smoke, a newsletter from Scale-Craft, part 1

Elliott Donnelley is certainly one of the fathers of American OO gauge. In 1936 he took over the O gauge line American Model Engineers, Inc., and in 1937 Scale-Craft introduced their OO gauge line, which was imitated the next year by Lionel. In that period the company was known officially as Scale-Models, Inc.; the street address was 1516 S. Wabash Ave, Chicago, Ill.

In those early days of the hobby the marketing and selling of model trains must have been a major challenge, especially for a maker like Scale-Craft hoping to go into a new scale in a big way. Besides great catalogs and print advertisements in publications such as Model Craftsman and Model Railroader, Donnelley decided that a newsletter would be of help to their marketing efforts.

Nine issues of the Blow-Smoke newsletter were produced between 1938 and 1941. I [Updated] own  the full run of Blow-Smoke, this being the cover of the first issue.

Volume I, number 1 was published in May of 1938. This issue (as are most other issues) is four pages long and features elements of their O and OO gauge lines along with helpful articles. The OO gauge equipment featured are the tank car, hopper, and their OO switch kits (these were produced to match their line of OO sectional track on a metal base--see this article for more information on the track); on the O gauge side of things they featured the gondola, stock car, and two rail trucks. Articles included the topics of laying OO track (with fiber ties), applying decals in O and OO gauges, and wiring locomotives for two rail operation. But the most interesting item is the opening editorial from Donnelley himself. He began,
With this issue, Scale-Craft “Blow-Smoke” is born. I intend to use these columns in each issue to say what I wish in an informal manner. Every organ of this kind ought to have a purpose all its own and our purpose is to inform you what is new; to throw fresh light on what is old; and to help you in building and expanding your model system by giving you various construction hints not usually available nor fully described on instruction sheets. We will try to include in each issue a description of an attractive addition to your model system which you can make yourself and which is not found in available kits.
Marketing was his major concern. Scale-Craft was at the time experimenting with different sales policies, which included a price reduction after the publication of their 1937 catalog and a change to direct sales. I will let Donnelley elaborate.
Since the change in our policy, there have been a great many rumors floating into our office. Most of them boil down to the belief that we are in distressed financial condition. This is emphatically not the case. Our financial condition has never been better and it is steadily improving. Our bills our paid and our inventory is well up. Our plant is fully equipped and we are incurring no new expenses that we are not prepared to meet.

Our reasons for changing our policy are these:

We found few dealers who were in a position to merchandise model railroad equipment properly. Not many were willing to stock our complete lines and give them the attention needed to keep them moving. This gave rise to complaints from many of our customers whom we directed to certain dealers. They found the dealers unhelpful—mere order takers, in fact. A still more important reason was the fact that selling through dealers necessitated too high a level of prices. We could not reduce them, as we have now done, while we were selling to dealers at approximately one-half list price. Lastly, we were unable to get enough wholesale volume to make it profitable, and, naturally, no business can last without a profit. …

No doubt many of you will wonder at the listing, herein and in our national advertising, of our three new display rooms and outlets. After several weeks of operating a strictly mail order business under our new policy, we decided to establish these display rooms in various parts of the country for the convenience of our customers. At present they are located in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They will not be operated as dealer-outlets in the strict sense of the term, but under a new plan. If the plan proves successful, other displays will be established in other cities.
To expand briefly on the OO related news mentioned earlier in this article, S-C highlighted the tank cars and hopper cars (both available either for $2.85 as kits or $4.95 assembled) and also this switch kit. The kit was designed to make track that would match their track line, with the metal base, but it was not metal but to be built up on a plywood base. They must have sold a few of these as it was a huge need for anyone trying to build a layout. Also in this issue is an article on laying OO track, using their fibre tie strip, a plywood base, bird gravel, etc. "We have compared our method with others, and believe you will find it the easiest way to obtain the best results." An example of their switch kit in box may be seen here.

Be watching for more soon from the Blow-Smoke newsletter; it is a fascinating window into the history of Scale-Craft and the marketing of American OO gauge. [Article updated 2012]

Continue to part 2 of series.

Friday, December 12, 2008

More notes on the Nason “EAZY-BILT” cars

In several recent posts I have focused on the early but fairly common Nason “Easy-Built” cars, models that I have continued to look at.

To begin I should confirm the spelling. Nason in their own catalogs spelled the words that describe this type of kit several ways. In the 1936 catalog they are EASY-BUILT (all caps), and in the 1938 summer edition, 1939, and 1940 catalogs they are the catchier EAZY-BILT (always all caps).

I am still looking to sort out the history of the freight cars better but to expand on my previous posts, at this point in time I believe that these were also produced by Page but their version has a solid block of wood for a body. Among cars in my collection I have several versions of this car as produced by Nason. I am not sure of the chronology but this pair of photos, top and bottom views show most of what needs to be noted between them.

Looking at the roofs we can see that these cars were built and presumably sold several ways. Most notably the car in the middle is wider. The car on the left is a boxcar and the rest are reefers. All of them are hollow body and all of the reefers use the printed base for the reefer hatch. All but one uses a cast hatch instead of the printed hatch--the printed page that included the hatches is also in the photo for comparison.

Looking at the car bottoms we see cast and also wooden frames and a variety of other details. Three have a big brake cylinder that looks closer to O gauge and may not be an original Nason part. Also note the Nason trucks on the one car, with their bronze side frames. These trucks actually are quite good on the layout, especially with new wheel sets. These particular trucks are two rail with a square, Bakelite bolster. A bronze bolster and a different Bakelite bolster (U shaped, similar to the one with the passenger kit) are also seen on Nason freight trucks. Click on the photo for a larger view, or check this post for more information.

On the passenger cars, since the earlier post on metal side heavyweights I have obtained an un-built kit of the Nason PRR coach that answers several questions I had. First, the ends, seen in this first photo of the big parts of the car, which I had originally taken to be die cast, are actually sand cast aluminum. The sides are very nice brass stampings. This is much better than the cardboard sides of comparable heavyweights by J-C, Famoco, Graceline, and Transportation Models in one major respect for us today; these cars can be stripped and rebuilt.

Moving on to the final photo, it shows the small parts in the kit. The vestibule and steps are die cast, and other parts are sand cast bronze and turned brass. Note the two rail trucks and bronze couplers.

It would take effort to build up one of these but they would build up into a handsome car and be worth the effort. This particular kit I will likely never build (keeping it in "the archive") but I have another car in parts that this kit will help me toward accurately rebuilding/restoring at some future point.