5 Tips for Collecting Vintage Ambroid Model Train Kits

For the Ambroid Company, model railroading became a survival tactic.

 

After World War Two, model railroading became an entertaining pastime for youngsters and adults alike. For the Ambroid Company, model railroading became a survival tactic.

During the war years, sales of Ambroid’s signature adhesive repair cement had stalled, and they were having trouble “getting their groove back.” Ambroid cement was conceived in 1910 as a repair product for canvas canoes, but by Mid-Century the world had changed. There had been two World Wars and an influenza epidemic. Demographics were shifting across the continent. By 1950, U.S. factories were operating at full capacity, meeting the world’s need for tools, machinery, and consumer goods. Urban populations grew along with the job market. Housing shifted from rural homes to city apartments. No longer were leisurely canoe trips on a lake part of a summer evening’s entertainment, and there was little need for a canoe in an urban lifestyle.

Ambroid cement was conceived in 1910 as a repair product for canvas canoes, but by Mid-Century the world had changed.

Hence Ambroid’s dilemma. Canvas canoes were out of favor; what new market, they wondered, had the potential to use a lot of glue while leaving room for sales growth? The answer was found in the model railroading business. Wooden model train kits were cheap, profitable, and immensely popular. Model trains could be built on a kitchen table and required little in the way of tools: a perfect hobby for urban and suburban dwellers. A kit containing pre-cut parts was easily marketed and distributed. And, of course, a tube of cement could be included in each box.

Although the Ambroid Company is long out of the modeling business, their train kits are an enduring collectible that shows strong demand among collectors. This snowplow kit sold for $10.50 in December 2017.

Soon, Ambroid would become famous for their wooden Craftsman Model Train Kits. Although the Ambroid Company is long out of the modeling business, their train kits are an enduring collectible that shows strong demand among collectors.

An interesting point is that Ambroid never manufactured any of their Craftsman kits. As a division of a large chemical company, they had neither the facilities nor expertise to design model trains, mill the wood, or write the assembly instructions. For those tasks, they contracted the services of the Northeastern Scale Lumber Company. Since 1946, Northeastern has designed and milled lumber to specification for several hobby industries, including model railroads, airplanes, ships, and dollhouses; provided miniature displays for museums and film designers, and scale models for architects.

Early wood kits were affectionately called “boxes of sticks” because that’s just what they were: milled strips of wood. These six kits sold for $40 in September 2017.

Northeastern provided Ambroid with branded kits, and Ambroid handled marketing and distribution. Early wood kits were affectionately called “boxes of sticks” because that’s just what they were: milled strips of wood. Northeastern kits didn’t use modern plastic-injection molding. Instead, their parts were inexpensively mass-produced by stamping and printing basswood, cardboard, and, in some cases, tin. Wooden car sides were pre-grooved, windows cut, and roofs shaped. If the design required it, details such as window frames and vents were added during manufacturing. Usually, metal or plastic carriages and wheels came with a kit, but not couplers. Ambroid kits are predominantly constructed from wood.

Collectors tell me that their biggest concerns about buying vintage train kits online are:

  • Sellers seldom know what they are selling. Many offerings were found at yard sales and they aren’t quite sure what’s supposed to be in a box.
  • A project may have already been started (or, at least, the box opened). Opened boxes lead to missing parts or (worse) missing instructions. I’ve not been able to find a complete catalog of Ambroid offerings, but the website hoseeker.net offers literature and diagrams for popular Ambroid and Northeastern models.
  • According to Alan Bussie in his 2008 article The HO Scale Model Railroading Revolution of the 1940s, “HO classic kits of the late 1940s were designed and made by dozens (if not hundreds) of manufacturers across the country.” Manufacturers used a variety of materials including wood, die-cast pot metal, stamped sheet metal, brass, plastic, and cardboard. Some sides were stamped, pre-painted, and lithographed. Quality and detail varied widely from brand-to-brand. If you want your collection to represent a consistent level of quality, stick to known brands like Northeastern or Ambroid.
  • Model trains come in different sizes (scales) so if you’re building a set, it’s important that all your cars are of the same scale. Don’t confuse “scale” (the size of a car relative to the real thing) with “gauge” (the distance between the tracks). The most popular scales have been O, OO, TT, HO, and S. For a good discussion of model train scales and gauges, see the Model Train Scale and Gauge article on Railroad Model Craftsman. 

Be sure your kit comes with instructions. This kit sold for $19.95 in September 2017.

Ready to buy your first vintage model train kit? Here are a few precautions to take:

  1. Be sure the kit comes with assembly instructions.
  2. Confirm that all the parts are in the box; otherwise, you’ll be hand-making the missing parts. Any uncertainty on that point makes a kit worth less money.
  3. The listing photo should be of the actual item (or box), not a stock photo.
  4. If you’re new to the hobby, choose a theme and stick to it. Envision your layout (Small Town USA, Big City Freight Yard, etc.).
  5. Join a local club. If you can’t find a club locally, join a few online forums. You’ll need advice, and model railroaders are notoriously helpful to newcomers. You’ll find state-by-state listings of clubs at the National Model Railroad Association site.  

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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