model train set on track

Homemade Trains and Me

e*Train Issue: Jun 2016   |   Posted in:

By Clem Clement                                                  Summer 2016

In my later years I have become fascinated with homemade trains, particularly standard gauge.  They speak to me. I listen to their stories and feel their love. Crazy you say? Sure. Perhaps you see slopped paint, wrinkled tin, flaking cardboard and a mess. I see love; the love of someone who built the piece and the love of those who received it; the care of those who played with it; the ingenuity, creativity, and skill of the builder; the memories of  those who held on to it through the years; and perhaps the sadness of letting go of those who have passed on.

I can think of many reasons for building a train piece. A set has a broken car with no way of replacing it. The cast body of a Lionel or IVES tender explodes due to age and an improper mix of metals. You need a replacement but you can’t part with what is left of original piece.  Money is short, a suitable replacement can’t be found or you just want to build something unique to your life.  Building just for fun is a powerful reason. Whatever your reason, the handyman and dreamer in you gets busy.

A great quandary of mine, as I look at these wondrous pieces, is what came first: the junk parts that a visionary saw as a new gondola, engine or water tower or conversely, the train owner/builder in need of a certain car, who then chased after the parts? We may never know the true story but only have the joy of imagining the story to go with the train piece. The grandfather of a fellow I know said one day “Grandson, do you want to go out to the barn and build a steam engine out of some junk I have?”  He still has it and it runs fine.

Part of my fun is figuring out where the parts came from that were used to construct these pieces. A tennis ball tube clearly can become a tank car. A soup or pineapple can is destined to morph into a water tower. But who woulda thunk that macaroni makes loco trim and fittings, pin heads make rivet heads, dowels make axles, and toy car tires make brake wheels? It gets tougher when they used Kiwi shoe shine can tops for water tower tops or pearl stick pins for headlight bulbs.

Wheels were a challenge for many creations, so in many cases old trucks from a busted train were selected to build/rebuild a found piece from the trash can.  What did I use as a boy? For a base I used the end of an orange crate. Remember those good pine ends? Remove the cheap nails and there you go. The Piggly Wiggly Super Market was my supplier. I would raid the trash pile behind the store and race home. Wash the squished grapes or orange mush off the boards, dry them and remove the nails. Ah hah! Slats for sides and thick ends for bases magically appeared. Straighten the soft nails and we are ready. Twine used woven between the nails makes a gondola; cut thread spools on dowels and you have flanged wheels or the common wooden cheese box when painted and wheeled, was a strong standard gauge gondola.

For me, even paint had to be found. I lived in Brigantine, NJ,  during the war I would run the beach looking for cans and bottles of ½ empty paint that washed up on the shore. A quart jar washed in one day and I was thrilled. I had my trash-can find of a Lionel ‘29 day coach that needed repaint and that was the ticket. (The paint had been so shaken up by the ocean that although I saved the jar for 20 years, the paint never separated or hardened in the jar.)

When a homemade piece finds it way to me, I clean it and fix anything that is damaged from the way it was built.  Loose and hanging trim gets fixed, dents and wrinkles removed if the paint can stand the work. I try to remove rust, unless it adds to the provenance. I don’t repaint. The more patina the better! I use a lapidary tumbler on parts like the wheels which, if original, were usually plated.  In many circumstances the wheels and trucks were from a toy train manufacturer and were removed by someone before I got it, for use on an original piece.

The pieces I made and those of others that I have added to my collection range from EGR  (early rain gutter sheet metal) to truly high quality workmanship. However produced, it was a thing of beauty to its owner. Can you imagine the excitement of setting something you or perhaps your Dad/Granddaddy built on the track and running it the first time. What stories! Sadly most were lost with time. Why wasn’t it kept in loving memory of times past and gifts given? I’m the original optimist. I do not see these trains as things people are getting rid of  but rather gifts of love and joy they are passing on to another. 

Whatever gauge, manufacturer, of type of train you collect remember it started in someone’s imagination and lived in their hearts. I hope our little ones are already hard at work building the trains of the future as they play and grow. Take time to share in their joy, encourage their dreams and help them to continue to make history so our future as hobbyists never fades.

Tanker body above left is made of cast iron pipe: rather heavy probably hard to make it around turns.