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Add an authentic vintage feel to your railroad or display village with a few simple projects. Large Scale Christmas Trains
O Scale AccessoriesOn30 Christmas Trains
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Written by Paul D. Race for and

Many 19th-century toys were made from tinplate, such as this mechanical bank.What is Tinplate? - Long before the age of plastics and stainless steel, sheet steel was used for making containers, toys, and many other objects used in most American and European homes between the mid-1700s and mid-1900s. To slow the steel's corrosion, a layer of molten tin was applied to both sides while the material was still in sheet form. Then stamping plants or tinsmiths would fabricate the "tinplate" into its final form, soldering pieces together when necessary.

One of the largest consumers of tinplate has been the canning industry, although tinplate had hundreds of other uses just a century ago. Many popular tinplate toys of the 1800s, especially banks, are collectible today. When toy trains began to be mass-produced, it is no surprise that tinplate was widely used for them as well.

Initially, many tinplate trains and accessories used three-dimensional stamping to add detail. However, a few factories discovered that lithograpy, a kind of printing that uses etched stone, could add color and detail at the same time, without having to have the rivets physically milled into the stamp. Later, companies like Marx, trying to hold down costs, discovered that you could use the same basic "stamp" (or shape) to manufacture a dozen different items, just by changing the artwork.

This early 1900s Standard Gauge Lionel caboose uses raised detail and window inserts to provide a 3-D look.This 1930s-era O Gauge Marx caboose relies almost entirely on lithography to provide its details.

Companies that made toy buildings to go with toy trains discovered this even earlier - so a number of companies made several buildings from the same "stamp" just by changing the graphics.

Note: Companies like Lionel used tinplate to make their track until fairly recently. So model railroaders call almost any toy trains that were built to run on tinplate track "Tinplate," even if the train's bodies are made of plastic. But we are using the word "tinplate" in its earlier meaning, to describe trains and accessories that are actually made from sheet steel that has been coated with tin, and stamped into shape.

Tinplate Reproductions as a Hobby - for years, folks who admired the old tinplate trains and accessories have been not only collecting, but also making their own, trying to use materials similar to those used by the original manufacturers.

In early 2009, project designer Howard Lamey began dabbling with making his own Click to see Howard's article about 'rolling his own.'tinplate train cars, modeled after the O gauge Marx lithographed cars of the 1930s and '40s. One principle he discovered was that many Marx cars had exactly the same body - they just had different lithography. In fact, some folks were providing "wraps", labels that could be cut and glued to old Marx bodies that were damaged too much to restore.

Howard's experiences reminded me of something I had thought about long ago and done nothing about - the notion of using modern computer graphics to create reproductions of the lithographed-style buildings that accompanied many tinplate railroads over the years.

The American Flyer Hyde Park Station, which I've usually seen with a green roof, so that's what we went with.So I collected as many photographs as I could find of early 1900s-era stations and other structures. I had always liked the American Flyer Hyde Park Station, on which our first joint project was based. While I was creating the graphics for that project, Howard created the Watchman's Shanty project on his own, and we both liked the results so much that we decided that we had to make it a series.

Our "Tribute to Tin" Projects So Far

Our "Tribute to Tinplate™" series pays honor to the tinplate villages and trains that surrounded so many Christmas trees in the early 1900s. Examples include:

  • Click to go to articleBuilding a Vintage "Lithograph" Station Our first official "Tribute to Tinplate" article pays tribute to the lithographed stations of a century ago. The "Lewis Park Station" was inspired by an American Flyer structure designed to go with early O gauge trains. Free downloadable commercial-grade graphics and instructions are available in several scales. Instructions for building this project inexpensively from scrap cardboard are also included, although you could build it from tin if you really wanted to.

  • Click to go to articleBuilding a Vintage Tin-Style Cottage The "vine covered cottage" was a staple of early 20th century tinplate railroads, originally built to go with Standard Gauge trains, such as those made by Ives and Lionel during the "Golden Age of Toy Trains." Our version includes several choices of color and scale, to work with Lionel sets, display villages, and more. We include free downloadable commercial-grade graphics and instructions.

  • Click to go to articleBuilding TinPlate-Syle Store Fronts - Not one, but three buildings! This time, Howard Lamey and I are paying tribute to the West Brothers' tinplate candy boxes that would give you a nice city scene once you'd finished off the candy. Like many tinplate toy manufacturers, the West Brothers frequently saved money by using one plan with multiple sets of graphics to get maximum use out of their pattern expense. We've followed their example with projects inspired by three of their most popular buildings. Use our free downloadable patterns and plans to add a vintage-style business district on your railroad or display village.

  • New for 2010! Click to see tinplate-inspired store fronts with seaside themesBuilding (Tinplate-Style) Seaside Storefronts - The latest addition to a new favorite. Sticking with the West Brothers outline, we have replaced the brick and stone with clapboard painted in the colors and themes that brighten coastal towns on both coasts. Colors are compatible with Howard Lamey's Sandy Shores beach-inspired collection. New, May, 2010! Click to go to Article

  • Building a Vintage Cape Cod House - Round out your community with this variation on the cottage above. An easy, but charming "Tribute To Tinplate" structure that looks great with our other projects but will stand fine on its own as well. Includes free plans, graphics, and instructions. Click on the photo for more information. New, February, 2010!

  • Click to go to article Building the Tin City B