The Appeal of Old School HO Scale Brass Trains

Maybe I’m just old school, but I prefer brass locomotives in my HO scale train collection.

One day, I might just make it my mission to convince all of you out there who pass on brass to reconsider 😊

A top grumble that some in the model railroading community often mention is that the older HO gauge brass locomotives are noisy.

Now this can be true, but there are always solutions. A few upgrades can transform your old steamer from noisily bumbling along the track to a stealthy runner gliding smoothly down the track.

A full overview of all the means by which you can upgrade HO gauge brass locomotives is outside the scope of a single article; here, I aim to provide a brief overview & a few helpful tips.

Vintage Brass Trains Are Full of Surprises

If you already have old brass locomotives in your collection, you know that they can be full of surprises. In particular, brass steam locomotives from the 1970s and previous eras typically had open frame motors, which many considered inefficient, power-hungry beasts.

Over the years, I’ve actually found that the majority of the many brass trains I’ve owned run very smooth. To me, the main drawback is that the open frame motors that draw too much amperage and aren’t compatible with modern DCC decoders because of that high amperage draw.

Another issue many cite is the low-quality gearboxes that were commonly used back then: steel components & excessive space between gears (amongst other factors) led to inefficient, loud operation. Not to mention open gearboxes weren’t just noisy – the lubricant can get all over your track.

HO Scale Brass Trains Upgrade: Top Areas

Here are the most common areas of upgrades – depending on your goals & budget, you may choose to focus on one or several areas:

  • New CAN motor
  • Updated gearbox
  • DCC and/or sound installation

As I mentioned, a comprehensive breakdown of what upgrades you can perform (and how to do them) is well outside the scope of this simple article…but below I’ve highlighted a few helpful tips.

Simple Tips for Upgrading Your HO Gauge Locomotive

If reducing noise is your goal, rather than replacing both motor and gearbox at once, do the motor first. This can sometimes lower noise on its own, without having to also install a new gearbox. Once you have it installed, see where you’re at sound-wise before tackling the gearbox.

If you do find it necessary to replace the gearbox, NWSL is a great source. For small locomotives, look for 0.3 mod; for medium to large, consider the 0.4 mod. HO scale gear ratios are usually 28:1 and 36:1. (NOTE: I took this from Mark’s PDF, but it seems NWSL has many available “mod” sizes & gear ratios)

Make it easier to replace the gearbox with the NWSL puller. I sand the bottom of the gearbox before installation because it can help get rid of too much play in the axles.

Position the worm shaft bearings tightly within the gearbox. In some installs, you might find it necessary to gently taper one of the gearbox halves.

If couplings are a problem, universal joints are often a chosen method to join motor and gearbox together in a non-rigid fashion. This technique can result in quieter operation, but you will need a torque arm.

Last, but not least: use common sense. For example, if your budget is limited and you’re thinking about re-motoring your locomotive, don’t overlook other areas that might be the source of your issue:

  • Dirty or worn track
  • Lack of proper maintenance
  • Inadequate power supplies
  • Gearbox troubles

You’d be surprised how a little maintenance goes a long way in enhancing the operation of any locomotive – brass, plastic, hybrid, steam or diesel…

Where to Find Parts for Your HO Scale Brass Trains

NWSL is awesome because when it comes to upgrading old brass locomotives, they have a great range of tools and components to make the job as easy as possible. Most model railroad hobbyists have long considered them to be the go-to resource for CAN motors and gearboxes.

You used to be able to source CAN motors from Mashima, Proto Power West PPW A-Line, etc., but over time, availability became scarce.

For DCC & sound upgrades, SoundTraxx, Digitrax, NCE, and Train Control Systems are all good resources.

If you’ve read this far, and you’re new to the world of rebuilding brass HO scale locomotives, you’re probably wondering what advantage brass has over conventional plastic.

Advantages of Brass HO Scale Trains

  • Strong, highly detailed; handcrafted; featured railroad-specific details
  • Great way to source a steam locomotive that is more obscure – not mainstream
  • Some say older brass trains can be more forgiving and straightforward to work with, but that’s a matter of opinion, of course
  • Many model railroad hobbyists actually enjoy tinkering with their brass models

Today, new brass locomotives in HO gauge can have a thousand parts … and the price tag can also run into the thousands depending on the model you want.

If you’re not into tinkering with an old school brass steamer, rest assured there is an endless variety of plastic models to fill your collection. And if you’ve never worked on one before, give it a try – you might end up enjoying it.

See what NWSL Northwest Short Line upgrade parts and tools we have available here.