Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lessons from York - a Setting for Sets

Dad and I just returned from the TCA Eastern Division Toy Train Show at York, PA. As always, it was an enjoyable time, and once again we waded through buildings full of toy train and toy train-related items (the latter is a pretty loose relationship, as you'll see). And of course the current producers of toy/model trains, such as Lionel, MTH, Atlas, et al. were there as well.

And as with previous visits, there seemed to be a pattern to what we saw -- although I'm not entirely sure of the reason behind it. Each meet we notice an abundance of a particular item (or type of item). We find them in every hall, sometimes several on the same table. But the next meet, they're nowhere around.

The last meet we attended together, the 1957 Lionel Girl's Train -- normally an exceedingly rare piece -- was everywhere. And so was the modern reproductions of that set. This meet, I didn't see any at all.

This time it was complete sets, with all the boxes. And not just the standard sets one usually sees, but really unusual and rare sets. It's usually pretty easy to track down a Lionel General set from 1965 with the original box, and the Lionel/MPC Coke train is always around (Many people snapped it up when offered in 1974 thinking it would be a highly desirable collector's item. It never happened, and current pricing for a mint-in-the-box set is approaching original list price.)
Only purchase this set if you really like Coca-Cola. It is NOT collectable.

The cheap
No, this time we saw a lot of Marx train sets, ranging from the 1940's through the 1960's. Now there are fairly rare because Marx trains were inexpensive, and unlike Lionel trains which might come out once a year for a Christmas display, were played with until the wheels fell off -- when they were thrown away. And when they were brought home, most Marx sets were taken out of their boxes (which were disposed of) and stored in the toy chest.

Remember, though, that value of any collectable is determined by three criteria: condition, scarcity, and desirability. Most of the Marx sets were in good shape for their age, and certainly rare, but many -- especially the most recent ones -- simply aren't that desirable. It was possible to pick up a complete set for as little as $40, which was actually a fair price.

Why were all of these inexpensive sets hitting the market at the same time? I don't know. My guess is that folks were trimming their collections, and sets take up a lot of room. But that's just a guess.

The very old
We also saw some pre-World War II trains sets in their boxes. This made a good deal of sense to me. Most toy collectors tend to collect items from their childhood -- either replacing long lost toys, or finally getting the awesome toys Santa never came through with. The founding members of the Train Collector's Association grew up in the early 1920's, so for a long time trains from that time period were the most desirable. My dad grew up in the lat 1930's so he's most interested in pre-war and early post-war trains. As for me, I  like the trains from the mid 1960's, which is sort of the twilight of toy trains.

The point is, most of the first generation of collectors have either died or closed up housekeeping. Which dumps their collections back into the market. Now my dad's 80 this year, and while he's still living in own house, many of his generation have downsized. Seeing all the early pre-war sets wasn't surprising. But the scarcity of sets from 1935-1945 was. Those should also be coming back into circulation again.

The very odd
The rules for what can be sold at the meet are very strict. All items must be toy train or toy train-related. Sometimes the relationship's clear -- like Plasticville buildings, which virtually every O-gauge layout from the 1950's on seemed to have. And things like figures, toy cars, model trees, etc. also make sense.

But what about this? We saw no less than three Tootsietoy Fleet sets. There were all complete, in near-perfect condition, in their original set boxes. What't the toy train connect? Tootsietoy cars were used extensively in the 1930's on train layouts. Therefore, anything by Tootsietoy is "train-related" -- including battleships and aircraft carriers, I suppose.

The Tootsietoy aircraft carrier. Very difficult to find without at
least one airplane's wings broken off.
Like Marx trains, Tootsietoys were not very expensive in their day. They were meant to be played with, and they were. The concept of keeping a toy in its original packaging to maintain its value was foreign to kids in the 1930's. The Depression ensured their parents didn't have a lot of money -- so if they were lucky enough to get a toy, you bet they were going to play with it!

The Tootsietoy battleship from the Fleet set. Having all the
turrets and masts intact is a rarity.
I must say, the sets were beautiful to look at. The ships are all cast metal, and it's rare to find any of them intact. The masts are often broken off, as are the wings of the airplanes on the carrier. I can't imagine how these three sets survived, but there they were. In different tables in different halls, but there they were. Why were they there?

I'm not sure. Perhaps the breaking up of the first generation's collections brought these to light. It would be consistent with the older train sets we saw (although better explained if there were more sets from the mid-1930's).

But that's part of the attraction. I know when we go back this fall, we won't see any of these sets. But we will see a lot of something else. But what? We won't know what that is until we get there!


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 8 - Let's run some trains!

Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

After affixing the track to the board, there was really only one thing left to do -- run some trains. The three Japanese-made trains I had for this setup ran the spectrum of operability.

From left to right: the Bandai, Cragstan, and Straco train sets.

My childhood Cragstan engine would barely move. Early in its life, we had lost the powerpack (Mom wasn't one to keep our toys continually supplied with batteries),  so the engine was mostly just pushed down the track when I played with it. When I put it on the layout, the locomotive whined a great deal, but hardly moved. I suspect internally there are either stripped or misaligned gears.

In the middle of the performance spectrum was the Bandai set. This locomotive had not been run for quite a while, and even with lubrication, it was somewhat balky in its motion. The longer I ran it, the smoother that motion became, but not by much. Here's its inaugural  run on the layout. As you can see, it still has problems with the slight voltage drop on the straight section.

The best-running set was the Straco Express, the toy train I had bought on a whim -- and the one which started this entire project. As you can see, it ran very smoothly. I soon learned, though, not to let the train go too fast. It didn't take much for those featherweight cars to fly off the track!

Although this is the end of this project, it's not necessarily the end of the series. I'd like to find some Japanese tin cars and buildings to add to the layout -- things that are in keeping with the look and the era of the Straco Express.

Total cost for the project:

Pegboard: $4.95
Flathead Screws: $0.40
Moulding: $2.49
SilClear: borrowed from a friend
Paint: left over from another project
Wood Screws: $3.60
Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90

Total Cost: $19.33


Review: Wuorinen's Chamber Music - engaging and fresh

Wuorinen: Scherzo - String Quartet No. 1 - Viola Variations - Piano Quintet No. 2
Peter Serkin, piano; Lois Martin, viola; Brentano String Quartet

This new release from Naxos presents an interesting picture of Charles Wuorinen’s chamber music output. It starts with his first string quartet from 1971, which serves as a point of reference. The rest of the disc features works written within the past few years, simultaneously showing just how much Wuorinen’s style has matured, while his musical language remained fairly consistent.

Wuorinen’s First String Quartet is very much a work of its time. Although one could characterize the music as atonal, it sounded to me like there were pitch centers (but not triads) that Wuorinen would go away from then return to. The quartet has a stop-and-start feel to it -- long, drawn-out notes followed by frantic bursts of activity. But there’s a logic to those tempo shifts. It’s as if the quartet is breathing in and out, moving ahead in a series of ripples.

The other major work on the album is his Second Piano Quintet from 2008. Some might call it a 12-tone composition, but even on first hearing it seemed to me there was something more going on. It’s the kind of structure I expect to find in more tonal works. The end result was I thoroughly enjoyed the composition. It was fresh, innovative, yet not so far removed from convention that the listener has no point of reference.

Also included on the release are two shorter works, Wuorninen’s Scherzo for piano, and the Viola Variations. Stylistically, both lean more toward the string quartet than the piano quintet, but still engaging works, nevertheless.

The musicians on this release, the Bretano String Quartet, pianist Peter Serkin and violist Lois Martin, all play with authority and conviction. They’ve internalized this music and present it with expressiveness and warmth.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 7 - Laying down track

I said these screws were tiny!
Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

Figuring out how to secure the track to the board took some thought. I needed a method that would both hold the track tightly to the board, and do so in a non-destructive fashion. This was important, as later on I (or someone else) could remove the track from the board and have intact track sections, thereby not lessening whatever collector or historical value they may have.

The solution turned out to be very tiny screws. For both the Straco Express locomotive and the Bandai diesel, the gear mechanisms hang fairly low, so I needed a screw head that both had a lip to it, yet was small enough to clear the trucks (wheel and wheel bracket assembly) of the engines.

I did a simple test with a spare piece of track and some of the screws. Looking at the track straight on, I could see that the engines cleared the screws easily. And so I was in business.

 Note the placement of the scews between sections. This
helps keep the joints tight. The middle screw of each
section (far right) prevents lateral motion.
Since each screw only holds down one side of the tie its next to, I placed each one carefully. Every section of track is secured by three screws. The two outer screws are set to the inside of their respective ties (relative to the center of the track section), preventing the track from shifting back and forth. Because the screw for the adjoining section is also set on its tie's inside, the sections are securely held together.

A third screw on the middle tie of the section helps hold the track flat. For the most part, (save where pegboard holes made it impossible), I put the outer screws close to the inside rail, and the middle screw near the outside rail. This helped prevent the track from sliding from side to side. I also alternated which side of the tie I placed the middle screw on, to further limit any potential motion.

The end result was what I had hoped it would be. I don't think the track had ever been that level before, and the trains didn't bob up and down when I did some test runs.

Just a few things to finish up, and then I'll be ready for the post we've all been waiting for: running the trains!


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: This Fairy Tale has a happy ending

Suk: Fairy Tale / Fantasy in G Minor / Fantastic Scherzo
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

This new release features three orchestral works by Czech composer Josef Suk, son-in-law to Antonin Dvorak. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra turn in solid performances of these works, and produce a disc that rewards repeated listening.

Suk’s Fantasy in G minor for violin and orchestra, Op. 24 starts the program. Michael Ludwig shines as the soloist, bringing just a hint of Slavic expression (for want of a better term) to the music. Although Suk didn’t use Czech folk music in his compositions, this performance leaves no doubt as to his nationality.

The centerpiece of the release is Suk’s Fairy Tale, Op. 16. Although influenced by Richard Strauss, Suk took a different path. His orchestration is just as brilliant and exotic as Strauss, but without the latter’s brashness and aggressiveness. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic hit the right tone just about all the way through the work. The soft passages are tenderly beautiful, the dramatic ones authoritative without being bombastic. In this recording one can understand why the Fairy Tale is one of Suk’s most popular works.

The final work on the album, the Fantastick scherzo, Op. 25, trips lightly along. Falletta keeps the music moving along, while lingering over the introspective sections long enough for the listener to savor them.

Particularly striking is how well-recorded this release is. Suk’s music is as much about orchestral coloration as it is about structure. The Buffalo Philharmonic has a warm, inviting sound that really adds to the performance of these works.

Recommended for the performances, and a real bargain for the price.