model train set on track

Homemade Trains and Me, Part 2: WHY WERE HOMEMADE TRAINS BUILT?

e*Train Issue: Sep 2022   |   Posted in: , , ,

By Clem Clement, Past TCA President, TCA #64‐987 Fall e*Train 2022

DOWNTIME/PANDEMIC: I’m guessing that many hobbyists worked on their train layouts, collections, old cars, etc. during the year‐plus down-time. With the internet wide open to find parts, this turned out to be a great way to make the days go by quicker. Nothing to do and a fine workshop in the basement equals let’s build something.  This is a good way to find separation. “ I’ll be in the garage making something for little Johnnie.” I rebuilt 24 homemade pieces, completed 4 train sets and now, I still have 8 engines to go. Oh, me!!

“DEPRESSION“: Even the word “depression” sounds like a downer. I grabbed some of that with no play dates, old cars or trains, and many tasks taking way longer that planned. We only went out for Doctor’s appointments. I could stop by a parts place once in a while and a car place to ask questions. Jacking, working, fixing was on my back to accomplish. A 3‐hour job could last 3 weeks easily.  Hold this, tighten that, fetch this or that tool was left to me or my darling beloved, Sandy. All our kids are outa’ Dodge. Don’t let all this get you down. Work carefully. Busting a bolt in place can stir unwelcomed frustrations and anger. Walk away and vacuum the rug.

WW: WWII World war took away any new trains and toys. Lionel built ship compasses and other instruments. American Flyer built small motors etc. So, to have more trains, someone had to build them from scrap or tin cans, etc. Money was also very tight. Some toy companies converted to wood production. During the Koran war, chromium was controlled which changed production techniques.   Yellow wire “rubber” insulation was made with chromium. Scrap drives took a great deal of available metal products.

NO MONEY: What do I say???

TRAINS NOT LOCALLY AVAILABLE? A piece of tin rain gutter and a vice and rubber hammer and you and Poppy can turn out something. A wooden end of a fruit box and a coping saw and you have a car base. Drive some crocking nails along the edges, run thick twine in‐and‐out between the row of nails, slop on the old paint and you have the beginnings of a gondola. Thread spools cut in half and a pair of curtain roller hangers and the car is ready for the rails. You can always use a gondola because there is always something around that needs a train ride to somewhere.

AVAILABLE SKILLED WORKER:  As I get older, I am even less capable to build/ fix something. But I have more time to try. Nothing like a project for a relative or neighborhood child to fill up person’s mind and shine up the love for a grandchild.

FATHER‐SON PROJECT: In this local area, I know a grandfather who built a live steam engine with his great grandson. The same grandson built a train engine with his grandson. No greater love… Away from a big city is a possible reason for building a train. In my growing‐up town, the owner of a hardware store sold trains at Christmas time. The store was a block from my home so I visited it frequently. Sadly, the owner raised  prices too high for my soda‐bottle find‐and‐turn‐in campaign. The shop a town over sold electronics and trains. Some used stuff.  I got a stationary crane there. We really had to go into Phila to find Mr. Becker’s electronics store and Nicklaus Smith’s store for trains. Mr. Becker was so nice to kids and helpful, whereas, Nickolas Smith glared down at a little kid and scared looker (me) out of the store. (I would study the merchandise he had out on display while I stood in line. Just before it was my turn, I would scoot out of the store. Mother would wait outside. We never bought from him. On the other hand, Mr. Becker sold me a model freight car to build and I did such a bad job of it, I sold it back to Mr. Becker for a dollar off a Lionel car I wanted. Kindness is never forgotten.

I got to go to NYC a few times to see the Rockettes, but not Madison Hardware, (which I had not heard of until much later in life.) I could not afford the model train magazines available in order to read their for‐sale adds. I have 3 antique cars what wanted some attention as well. My 1930 Model A Cabriolet received new oil and some tinkering. She, her name is Smokey, still needs leaf springs lubed and door finger grips attached. During the lock down, my ’30 Cabriolet brought joy and happy waves as she rattled around the neighborhood. It did much to cheer folks up. The job I assigned myself for the duration of the pandemic and before/after is to follow the guidance in the constitution “pursue the pursuit of happiness.” I looked around for volunteering and was told at 83 years old, to stay home and safe; which is what I did.

My 1939 Ford pickup was assembled from 3 others and caused the demise of 893,245,239,865 steel coat hangers in welding tasks. This winter, He (his name is Uncle Raeman) got the foot rest adjusted after 50 hours of research, the springs lubed with the right stuff, choke and throttle rods messed with, horns rebuilt 7 times, and other the tasks. The foot rest took lots of research and emails as there are no specifications for the adjustment (The answer is the gas petal should be comfortable to reach and about 3/8” above the neighboring rest.) My 1940 Mercury four door convertible sedan is a national 1000‐point winner. I tightened the 8 frame‐to‐spring bolts (again no specs.) Replaced the dash light dimmer switch. I’m not finished with the other tasks on that car. This is the car I first bought on the street for $25 in 1956. I sold it in 1956 as my daddy passed. The same exact car came home to me in 2017, fully restored! A thrilling miracle for sure. Where did the time go?

CONCEIVED PIECE NOT COMMERCIALY MADE: Art Wyeman was really good at bashing tin pieces into a freight car. He liked American Flyer prewar O gauge trucks and wheels. A stiff frame was good and he could solder up some fine cars. Many seemed like special designed for special transport duties. He made lots of green steamers to pull them. I was thinking about selling his pieces that I have, but with an engine, I would have a very interesting consist.

SCHOOL PROJECT: Sadly, I hear metal shop is no more!? For me they would always want me to make a tin ash tray. Since the family did not smoke, I got to make a candy dish. Boring! I wanted to build a train car. I own several bridges that appear to be school‐shop built.

STANDARD GAUGE TRAIN BUILDERS: To my knowledge only Jim Waterman is building Standard Gauge trains at this time.  Most are custom trains that have not been built before; or if so, not available. As 3D technology improves, I hope more friends of Standard Gauge jump in. WHY NOT? Why not is best answer yet. Grab ideas floating through the air and go build it. I’ll join ya! ya hear!!

©Clem Clement