The Guide to HO Brass Steam Locomotives

This document is a guide to HO brass steam locomotives (of North American prototype). Brass steam locomotives available in the USA are normally manufactured in Japan or Korea and imported into the USA by another company. For example, a locomotive might be manufactured by Samhongsa of Korea and imported into the USA by Key Imports. It is also possible for the same manufacturer to provide products to two different importers. For example, Samhongsa may also be imported by Pacific Fast Mail (PFM). It is also possible for one importer to import from more than one manufacturer. As a result, categorizing brass locomotives can get a bit tricky. What I am going to do here is categorize by importer. If this proves to be too difficult, I'll consider changing it.

Obviously, my list of importers is not complete. If you have information on an importer not currently listed, just let me know.

What Makes a High-Quality Brass Locomotive?

There are a number of things to look for when buying a brass locomotive. These same things will normally impact on the price of the locomotive. Here is what I look for in order of importance:
  1. Detail quality: This is really what you are paying for in a brass locomotive. Instead of molded piping and other appliances, a brass locomotive will have wire used for piping and small brass detail parts soldered on. Really old brass locomotives (made before 1960) may not have the quality of detail of the newer brass locomotives.
  2. Sprung drivers: This is a sign of a higher quality drive mechanism. I also believe that a locomotive with sprung drivers will operate better over slight variations in trackwork.
  3. Closed gearbox drive: Older models sometimes used open gears on the drive axles. Look under the locomotive to see if it has higher quality enclosed gearing or older open gearing. If I buy a brass locomotive with open gearing I would not expect to pay as much as I would for one with closed gearing. I would also probably re-gear it with NWSL gearing.
  4. Quality of paint: Some people prefer unpainted brass. Others prefer "factory paint". Some custom paint jobs can be better than factory paint. Some custom paint jobs will make you want to strip the locomotive and start over. Personally, I like to paint and detail locomotives so this is not a high priority for me.
  5. Original box: Believe it or not, having the original box that a locomotive came in increases its value. This may not be important to everyone. However, for those of us who store their locomotives in boxes, having the original one is desirable.
  6. Can motor: Every non-can motor brass locomotive that I have run still ran acceptably quiet for me. A can motor is not all that important to someone who has the ability to re-motor a locomotive. I often will replace an open-frame motor with a can motor and flywheel because it is something that I like to do. Also a can motor provides the ability to add a flywheel which is just as (of not more) important than the motor.

Where to Buy Brass Locomotives

Brass steam locomotives can be found at your local hobby shop, at model railroad flea markets, in on-line stores, and on eBay. Occasionally, you can find a good deal at a flea market or on eBay but generally you get what you pay for. Unlike many other model railroad items, brass locomotive hold their value very well. Some web sites that I have come across that sell brass locomotives include:
Brass Importers: [ Akane | Balboa | Challenger | Crown Custom Products | Division Point | Gem | Glacier Park | Hallmark | Key | Max Gray | NJ Custom Brass | Nickel Plate Products | Oriental Limited | Overland | Pacific Fast Mail | Precision Scale | Rail Classics | Railworks | Sunset | Tenshodo | Westside ]
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Akane Model Railroad Company, 1958-1964

Akane was an older importer. My impression of the detail of their imports is that they are of fair to good quality. I would rate them somewhere between 3-6 (out of 10). Their older imports had open gearing on the axles. I own a cab-forward where I completely replaced the drive-train and motor. Many of the cab-forwards, yellowstones, and alleghenies that I see selling on eBay were imported by Akane.

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Balboa Scale Models, San Diego, 1964-1974

I don't have any first-hand experience with Balboa models but my impression is that they are of good quality. I would welcome any comments about them.

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Challenger Imports, Ltd., Des Moines, IA, 1990-2005

I have heard that models imported by Challenger are some of the most accurately modeled products you can buy. Judging from the prices I see on Challenger Import models, that statement might be correct. I know that Samhongsa of Korea makes some of their models. I don't know who else does. I don't have any first-hand experience to rate them but I would guess that they would be rated anywhere between 7-10 (out of 10).

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Crown Custom Products

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Division Point

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Gem Models, 1958-1982

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Glacier Park

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Hallmark Models, Dallas TX

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Key Imports, Tiburon, CA, 1975-2008

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Max Gray Perfection Scale Models, Santa Clara, CA, 1962-1965

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NJ Custom Brass, Korea

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Nickel Plate Products

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Oriental Limited

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Overland Models, Inc. Muncie, IN, current

In addition to selling complete brass locomotives, Overland Models also sell a lot of frames with drive trains for other locomotives. So, one would have to assume that they are rather proficient at putting high quality motors and drive systems in their models.

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Pacific Fast Mail, Edmonds, WA, 1954-2007?

For around 30 years Pacific Fast Mail imported brass locomotives made by several manuafacturers in Japan. These manufacturers included Tenshodo, United, and Crown.

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Precision Scale

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Rail Classics

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Railworks

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Sunset Models, Campbell, CA, 1975-today

Sunset models are of higher quality. I would rate them somewhere between 6-8 (out of 10). I own one Sunset/Samhongsa model (a 4-12-2 for which I have never found a layout capable of handling its long wheelbase). It has more piping detail then my Westside/Katsumi models. It also has more detail in the coupler release levers.

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Tenshodo Co. Ltd., Japan, 1949-today

Tenshodo is both a brass manufacturer and an importer. Their models are of higher quality. I would rate them somewhere between 6-8 (out of 10). I used to own a Tenshodo Great Northern class O-8 Mikado. It was well detailed, quiet and a great puller.

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Westside Model Company, Los Altos, CA, 1964-1982

Westside models are generally of good quality. Most Westside imports were made by Katsumi Mokeiten of Japan. I would rate them somewhere between 5-7 (out of 10). I have several Westside/Katsumi models. They have sprung drivers, enclosed gearboxes are consistant in quality. Their exterior detail is good.

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