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Tinplate - A way to go

An Introduction to Tinplate Trains


Toy trains that are entirely made of sheet metal are referred to as "tinplate".  These are some of the earliest toy trains dating back to the turn of the previous century.  They grew in popularity over a number of years through the 1920’s and 1930’s. They come in a number of gauges, but are principally found in O gauge and Standard Gauge (similar to G size trains), though some are found in S gauge.  These are typically toy trains, as opposed to model trains, because they were not made to true scale. Early tinplate trains were operated by wind-up mechanisms or batteries. By the end of the 1920’s electric powered trains became the norm. 


Lionel, American Flyer, Marx and Ives are the most well-known tinplate manufacturers and made most of their tinplate trains before World War II. Lionel initiated the term “prewar” to describe these trains, because after the United States entered World War II, Lionel and other toy companies stopped making trains to produce military equipment until the end of World War II in 1945. After the war, Toy train manufacturers resumed making trains again, but most did not make tinplate-looking trains anymore. This is commonly referred to as the Postwar Era, when trains were made from diecast metal and plastics and scale trains became more common.

 Above is a Comet O-gauge set that was made by American Flyer (A.C. Gilbert) in 1935.  Cars have pin connections.  

I get these classic tinplate trains in the shop from time to time, and they do not seem to stay in stock long.  Some of these date back to the 1920’s and 1930's and still run! 


Often the sets, I get are not running.  Since I do quite a bit of repair work, I can often manage to get non-working sets running again.  I tend to focus on the ones that are in good external condition.  I have been able to get many of these 90+ year-old trains running,  though it takes a bit of patience and elbow grease.  I am always thrilled when one of these can be brought back to life. I am impressed with how well they run and how good they look after being cleaned up.  The metalwork and finishes on these trains are what have attracted collectors of all ages.  Some rare models can get to be quite costly, but it many are surprisingly affordable and retain the beauty of design that was the standard  80-90 years ago.

Above is a Lionel 254 tinplate set produced from 1924-1932.  These employ latch couplers.


Tinplate construction continued in the Postwar Era, but was slowly replaced by less costly and easier to detail cast metals and plastics.  American Flyer made tinplate rail cars through the late 1940’s when they transitioned to diecast metal and plastic.  By the 1960's, there was very little tinplate being produced.

Early tinplate trains employ a variety of coupling systems, from tab and slot, to latch couplers, links and pins.  So, if you want to run them together, make sure you get the right connections.  Sometimes the coupler on one end of a car may be replaced to enable cars with different couplers to be run together.

Above is an American Flyer 716 operating hopper car from the late 1940’s with link couplers

A few manufacturers make tinplate and reproduction tinplate trains today such as   JLM Trains, who still makes standard gauge trains and MTH, who until recently, made reproduction Lionel tinplate and had their own line called Tinplate Traditions.  You can find more comprehensive listings of current and historic tinplate manufacturers on Train Collectors Association sites.


There are many tinplate accessories made from sheet metal that were produced well into the 1950’s.  Marx, Lionel, American Flyer and others made these as colorful and fun additions to operating train sets. Painted sets can be stripped to bare metal and repainted if the finish is in poor condition, however the lithographed ones cannot be so easily restored if the finish is damaged.

Above is a Marx Talking Glendale Station from the 1950’s.  The sound comes from a record that is operated by a hand crank.

Values of trains can vary widely depending on collectability, rarity, condition and other specifics.  But, you do not have to spend a fortune to get a really beautiful classic train. I hope you will check out tinplate trains. I thoroughly enjoy the endless variety of model railroading and toy train collecting and hope you will too.  Find what makes you happy and (depending on your taste) you may be surprised at how reasonably priced these can be.

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