What are Lionel Trains Made Of? A look into the Materials Used on Lionel Trains Through the Years
Lionel Trains are a popular toy for both children and adults. They have been around since 1900 and are still popular today. Lionel is one of the dominant brands for the O scale model train. But what are Lionel Trains made of? What are the different types of Lionel Trains? These are questions that will be answered in this article.
Generally speaking, Lionel trains are made with diecast metals which are composed of aluminum, zinc, and magnesium. Furthermore, some of their accessories are made using plastics. However, old Lionel train models are made with steel, brass, or copper.
This post will discuss the materials used on Lionel trains. We will also look at the different materials they’ve used throughout their history.
Are Lionel trains made of metal?
Lionel trains are made of metal, particularly aluminum, magnesium, and zinc. These metals are combined to form a metal alloy called Zamak, which is used in the diecasting process to produce the train models. However, old Lionel trains that are made using old casting techniques are made out of iron.
Lionel trains have been around since 1906, when they first introduced their model trains. However, selling model trains wasn’t their original goal.
When Lionel made their first model train called “The Electric Express,” it was meant to display for their store where they sell appliances such as fans.
However, many customers started coming to their store to ask if they were selling their train displays. That’s where they had the idea to sell model trains.
Old Lionel trains aren’t up to scale like what they are today. In fact, they only produced their famous O scale trains in 1915.
At that time, the diecasting technique was not the standard, and they used other casting techniques to produce their models.
That’s why old Lionel trains are made out of steel and iron. This produced solid and robust model trains, which many people loved.
However, steel and iron come with a massive cost since iron is expensive. Furthermore, iron and steel are prone to rust.
Rusting has been a problem since preserving models is a challenge. In fact, old Lionel models that don’t have rust are not sold for thousands of dollars.
For example, the 1937 Lionel 277W Gauge Train, a model made with iron that is well preserved, was sold in an auction for $2,970.
The cool thing is despite that the model isn’t perfectly preserved since there is still some rust on the train’s surface, it was still sold for thousands of dollars.
However, the rusting issue is something that Lionel and many other model train manufacturers tried to solve. That’s why they started using other metals.
Lionel experimented using other metals on their models, such as copper and brass.
That’s why some rare models use this metal.
However, they found a way to produce cheap models that don’t rust thanks to technology.
That’s when Lionel started using diecasting, which uses metal alloys to produce their models. The metal alloy is called Zamak, which is a combination of aluminum, zinc, and magnesium.
Old diecast models might also contain lead. However, stricter regulations in the 1980s limited the lead levels on these models.
That’s why modern diecast metals don’t or only have trace levels of lead left in their models, which isn’t big enough to cause toxicity.
However, the point here is that modern Lionel trains use the diecasting technique to produce their models. They use molten metal alloys and shape them on a mold.
DIecasting is a process of pouring molten zamak into a mold which they call the “die.” The method of pouring these metals on the mold is called casting. Hence, it is called diecasting.
Another reason for switching to diecasting is its environmental friendliness. 90% of the aluminum used in the diecasting process is recycled aluminum. Since they use recycled aluminum, this also reduced the cost of manufacturing.
The resulting product is not only cheaper but also free from rust.
While old diecast metals don’t rust, they are prone to lead rots. This is because lead can deteriorate due to oxidation.
However, modern diecast metals don’t have this problem because they don’t have as much lead as old diecast metals.
But that is not all. Lionel trains didn’t use 100% metal throughout their history. Instead, there was a time when they used other materials such as paper and plastics, which we will discuss in the next section.
Recommended read: I made a post talking about the entire diecasting process. In that post, I thoroughly discussed the process and its types. If you are interested, feel free to check this post: How are diecast models made? The 9 steps of diecasting.
When did Lionel start making plastic trains?
Lionel started making plastic trains in 1948. However, it was not until 1973 that they fully embraced using plastics on their models. This happened when Model Products Corporation (MPC) cut the production cost of Lionel trains.
Even if Lionel is known as the producer of high-quality model trains, they also used plastics on their models to cut the cost.
In fact, modern Lionel trains can have some parts made with plastic.
Plastics offered a cheaper and easier way to produce complex shapes. This is important since Lionel is pressured at that time to make money.
Lionel’s peak was in the 1950s when the O scale trains were the most popular scale. However, the switch from the O to HO scale severely affected Lionel’s sales.
Currently, Lionel is still famous for its O scale trains which make up 95% of its total income. The HO scale takes up to 70% of the entire modern train models, followed by the N scale, which takes 20%.
The remaining 10% comes from other scales such as O, S, Z, and other scales.
As you can see, the market share of Lionel to modern train modelers is not as much as in the 1950s.
Lionel started declining in the 1960s, and they needed to drive the cost down to earn more revenue.
That’s where they were bought by General Mills and incorporated their business with Model Products Corporation or MPC.
Modelers call this the MPC era when they started to add plastic parts to keep the cost down. However, as you can probably imagine, modelers didn’t like the change since their models aren’t as durable as the old models.
However, Lionel needed to use plastics to save their company since it is not as big as it was. That’s why Lionel is still using plastic models up to this date.
But it doesn’t end there. Lionel didn’t only use metals and plastics on their models. There was a time when they used paper to make their trains.
As you already know, Lionel has been around for more than a century. This means they were in business during World War 2.
During the war, metals were all dedicated to the military. That’s why this period was when Lionel halted its production of model trains.
However, as a business, Lionel still needs to make some income, and some people would want new train models.
That’s where Lionel introduced the paper model train called the “Wartime Freight Train.” This is the only paper train model Lionel ever produced.
When the war ended, they continued producing metal models, and that’s where we are right now.
What’s next? If you want more stories about Lionel, I made a post talking about their manufacturing plants through history. There, I spoke about their humble beginnings in their factory in the USA until their switch to Vietnam in 2021. If you’re interested, you may find it here: Where are Lionel Trains made?