All that glitters is not gold, sometimes it's brass. For many model railroaders, the goal of owning fine scale brass models represents one of the crowning achievements in the hobby yet many don't fully understand their history or all they represent. Whether you currently own brass, plan to in the future or simply want to find out more about the subject we hope you'll find the information contained in this primer helpful.
Mention brass models to any model railroader today and they'll immediately equate them with high prices but believe it or not they did not start out that way. In fact, the first brass models were priced about the same as models made out of any other substrate at the time. Brass models were introduced simply as an alternative to the other materials in use such as plastic or zamac.
So why was brass chosen and not another material? Brass was available, relatively inexpensive, fairly easy to work with and perhaps best of all non-magnetic so it didn't interfere with the electric motors that propel the models. Other metals would slowly interact with the motors and demagnetize them over time causing the models to run poorly or many times not at all. Another great characteristic of brass is that is does not deteriorate. If left unpainted brass will tarnish but this reaction takes place only on the surface and can be cleaned up relatively easily with chemicals or by media blasting. That's why you see even the most heavily tarnished pieces still commanding the high prices they do.
So how and when did this whole phenomenon begin? Almost everything that's ever been written about how brass models got started lists a slightly different year but most experts do agree that it all began shortly after World War II in Japan when American G.I's who were also model railroad enthusiasts began visiting the "Tetsudo Mokeisha" hobby shop. It was there that Japanese craftsmen began displaying and selling their hand made brass models of Japanese prototype locomotives. It was only a matter of time before some of the American G.I.'s asked these craftsmen to produce some North American prototype models and this was the humble beginnings of what we have today.
Japan continued to be the leader in fine scale brass model production up until the late 1970's but times were changing. Japan was itself becoming an economic power and as such labor was becoming very expensive so Korea entered the market. Many of the first Korean made models (circa 1980-1985) had "teething problems". Korean craftsmen were learning the construction processes during this time so generally speaking the models were not of the best quality. Many customers however, were not put off by this because Korea was already pushing the envelope by producing different models that the Japanese craftsmen wouldn't. To control labor costs Japan would use the same molds, assembly jigs and techniques and as you might suspect this resulted in the same models being produced over and over again with only slight variations. Korean craftsmen on the other hand were willing to produce a wider variety of prototypes so even though the quality wasn't a good as Japan, many model railroaders overlooked this issue so they could get the models they wanted. Eventually Korea not only caught up to but many will agree they have eclipsed Japan in terms of both the quality and the variety of brass models they offer.
How Come They Cost So Much?
So lets get into what is traditionally the most often asked question among model railroaders which is "What makes brass models so costly?" First off one must understand that the cost is not because of the material itself, it's the "art". In any given N-Scale brass model you'd be hard pressed to find more than about $10.00 of actual brass and although most of today's models use high quality can motors that is not the reason they cost so much either. It's the engineering and the labor that accounts for most of the cost. Unlike plastic models where it's not unusual to produced 10,000 units in a given production run, a typical brass model run may only consist of only 100 pieces. This makes investing in "hard tooling" impractical. Instead, brass model manufacturers have to rely on "soft tooling" such as that used for lost wax casting and relatively simple jigs for bending metal into the exact same shape every time. Also the assembly and painting process of a brass model is done entirely by hand.
The fabrication of brass model components is very complex and the actual processes used can get quite technical. It is beyond the scope of this primer. You also have to consider that once the fabrication is completed the parts must be soldered together. Soldering is an art in itself and takes many years of experience to be able to do well. Suffice to say that brass model production is an extremely labor intensive process and that's what makes the final product cost what it does.
So is it worth paying for this "art"? Well, since it's inception any form of art has always been subjective. Is it worth paying a $1000.00 for an N-Scale steam engine that consists of only $10.00 of actual brass? Is it worth paying $1,000,000.00 or more for an original Picasso or Renoir that consists of only $10.00 of paint. There is no correct answer to either question. It's an individual choice which each person must make for themselves. Ultimately you not only need the financial means but also the artistic appreciation for what you are buying.
How Do I Get Started?
So let's say you've decided to purchase a brass model, where's a good place to start Well it almost goes without saying but the first thing you should know is to do business only with a reputable dealer who's an authorized agent of the importer you are interested in. While it may be tempting to use secondary market sources such as train shows or online auctions because of the lower cost, we advise staying away from these sources at least until you know what you are doing. We have no problem with secondary market sources, in fact, they are sometimes the only way to purchase certain items but for your first brass purchase it's better to purchase a brand new model from a recent production. This way you know it will run as good as it looks. Remember it wasn't that long ago when brass models were produced primarily for the shelf and not necessarily for running on the layout. It's only in recent years that N-Scale brass models have been being built with high performance drives systems. Models produced as late as the early 2000's still have some major drive line issues. Purchasing a brand new model from a recent production will ensure that your model runs as good as it looks.
This next suggestion may surprise some of you but generally speaking we recommend purchasing brass steam engines instead of diesels. Yes, there are always exceptions to this rule of thumb but consider that prototype steam engines were truly one of a kind machines and the likelihood of them being produced accurately in plastic is very small. Even so-called USRA machines that were born of a common design soon took on unique characteristics as each of the railroads shops modified them to their own specifications. This is exactly why you want to own these in brass because they will produced exactly as they looked during the time period they were intended to represent. While diesels also took on many railroad specific modifications many of these were internal. Also, if you are considering brass for investment then steam engines are a much better choice because once a diesel is produced in plastic, and so many of them are these days, the value of the brass model can drop dramatically. Finally, and perhaps the best argument to purchase plastic diesels is that they usually run in multi-unit operation a lot better than brass models can. Even if you don't mind the cost of four, five or six brass diesels, they may not be able to operate smoothly together because the drive systems are all built by hand and this normally does not result in the same tight tolerances that can be offered by the mass produced drives of the plastic manufacturers.
So what are the best models to own? Well, there really is not straight answer to that question. The most important thing to remember is that you are going to be the owner and you have to buy what you like. If you are buying to collect, many folks prefer to concentrate on the specific road name that they already model. If buying to operate then it's important to stick to the latest releases because they are the ones that will run the best. If buying for investment then you should study the market carefully and see which models have the most potential to increase in value. You'll need to make your own conclusions here, we can offer no advice.
It's been said that brass models are not for everyone and that's sort of the whole beauty of them. If everyone owned a large collection of brass then they wouldn't be a special or as valuable as they are.
The following are close ups of various KEY IMPORTS models. Although all of these models are long sold out/discontinued we encourage you to click on each image and study the amazing level detail and accuracy achieved.