Collectible Brass Model Trains: A Quick Primer

What you’ll read today:

  • Nothing compares to brass trains
  • Early beginnings: the Postwar Era
  • Why brass for model trains?
  • Common importers of brass trains
  • Well-known manufacturers of brass
  • The future of brass model trains

For the collector of brass model trains, nothing quite compares to the instant you lift the cover off the old box to uncover the locomotive that waits inside…maybe you can relate.

Have you ever considered the incredible workmanship that went into making that brass train – the countless hours an artisan spent painstakingly handcrafting every fine detail?

Valued for their accurate, intricate detailing and precision crafting, brass model trains have a long history on the model railroading scene here in the United States.

Despite the many advancements in die-cast and plastic models since the late 1990s, brass model locos are still considered to provide outstanding detail, especially when you’re modeling steam locomotives.

The History of Brass Model Trains Begins in the Postwar Era

How did HO scale brass locomotives become popular? For the answer, we must travel back in time to the Postwar Era.

World War II had ended. American servicemen stationed overseas in Japan happened to notice that local artisans were making high quality brass model trains.

It wasn’t long before the GIs interacted with the locals, sharing photos of steam locomotives from back home in the US for the talented craftsmen to model.

The Japanese artisans began making small-run and one-of-a-kind brass trains, mostly in HO scale. Over time, companies began to import the models to the US. One of the most well-known importers of brass trains was Pacific Fast Mail, but there were also MANY others (see list below).

Why Brass for Model Trains?

Brass is a metal alloy consisting of copper and zinc. The proportions of the copper and zinc (often 66% and 34%, respectively) can be varied to create different colortones.

Because brass is more pliable than bronze or zinc (its flow characteristics make it a good material to cast, form and machine), it is ideal for use in manufacturing brass trains. Plus, the non-magnetic nature of brass meant it worked with the motors.

In the early days, a lot of the components were handcrafted too – you can imagine the incredible amount of work involved with making even one model. Especially then, people appreciated how accurate the brass models were and purchased them to run on their layouts.

Did you know? It wasn’t until customer demand for greater realism that brass trains started to feature factory paint. The earliest brass model trains were not factory painted. Nickel plating was often used on grills, wheels, etc., but otherwise the models were left in all their native brass glory.

Common Brass Trains Importers

Importers do not make brass trains – as the name implies, they only import brass models, typically from overseas manufacturers based in Japan or Korea.

Many collectors aren’t as focused on the importer and manufacturer – rather, they seek out models based on the road or the train company name they’re fond of. For instance, a collector might favor the NYC RR if they grew up in New York.

Though this list isn’t exhaustive, it should give you a quick rundown of some of the most well-known importers of brass model trains.

These importers are considered no longer active:

  • Classic Construction Models
  • Suydam & Company
  • EFC-Loko
  • Ferro Swiss
  • KTM
  • Max Gray
  • NJ International, Custom Brass
  • Pacific Fast Mail
  • Railway Classics
  • Shoreham Shops
  • Tenshodo
  • Von Stetina Artworks
  • W&R Enterprises
  • Weinert
  • WestSide Model Company

Though this list is subject to change, these are more current importers still active:

  • Glacier Park Models
  • Key Model Imports
  • Micro Metakit
  • North Bank Line
  • Overland Models Inc.
  • Precision Scale Models, Inc
  • Sunset Models, 3rd Rail
  • The Coach Yard
  • Union Terminal Imports

Well-Known Brass Train Manufacturers

Initially and for decades thereafter, Japan reigned in the brass model train industry. By the mid-1970s era, the industry began to see manufacturing shift to South Korea, now the dominant producer of modern-day brass trains.

In the early years of this transition to Korean manufacturing (around 1974-1980), quality suffered and the models were not considered to be on par with their predecessors.

A quick list of brass train makers:

  • Ajin Precision
  • Bavaria
  • Boo-Rim Precision
  • Fujiyama
  • Fulgurex
  • Lemaco
  • Nakamura
  • Tenshodo
  • Toby
  • United

The Brass Model Train Industry: Where Does it Go From Here?

From the earliest price tags of $50 to $100, brass model trains skyrocketed in price over the years – sometimes netting many thousands of dollars. Like anything, their prices have fluctuated widely over the years.
Why do people choose brass model trains? The reasons vary:

  • For display purposes only and/or to add to a model train collection
  • To model a locomotive not otherwise available in plastic or die-cast
  • Because they appreciate the fine detail and “hand-made” nature

Many things have changed in the years since brass trains first established their legacy in the model railroad world.

Still, brass trains continue to offer hobbyists and collectors access to models not otherwise available, with their hallmark fine detailing that, some say, remains unmatched.

Our article wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the whispers (and sometimes shouts) on model railroad forums questioning if “Brass is dead.”

The truth is, people ask that same question about just about anything. Brass trains may not be for everyone, but for those to whom they hold a special place, brass will steam on forever.


Nightwatch Trains specializes in collectible vintage HO scale trains, with an emphasis on brass trains. See what quality HO scale brass we have in stock and ready to ship.