Restoring a Lionel No. 385W (c.1934)

| March 2, 2014

Been a while since we had an article, so here it goes.

Friends brought me this Lionel No.385W standard gauge tender for repair.  As you can see, the “zinc pest” had attacked this one.  As we all know, the crumbling casting is due to impurities in the mold or metal when the piece was originally cast, and is unfortunately common in die-cast items from this period.



Once disassembled, the remaining parts were in good order:  no rust damage, and the whistle casting was still in good shape.


Here are the replacement parts I purchased:  a new tender body casting from MTH, nickel wire for the handrails, and a pair of “The Lionel Railway Lines” metal plates.


All of the remaining original nickel parts (wheels, axles, journal boxes, coupler, ladder, screws) were tumble polished to restore their luster, using Tide detergent and stainless steel cones and hot water.  The truck frames were re-blackened using gun bluing (available at Walmart).

To prep for paint, I bead-blasted the frame and new tender body down to bare metal using ultra-fine glass beads with compressed air in a small blasting cabinet (about $100 from Harbor Freight Tools).  After that I applied a coat of self-etching gray primer, and leveled it out with a 400-grit wet sanding.  For the color coats, I used Charles Wood’s 385 Gunmetal Gray paint in spray bomb cans, again gently wet sanding with 400-grit paper between coats.  I followed the directions, lightly baked the color coats in an oven, but still found it took a long time to cure.  If I use Mr. Wood’s paints in the future, I’ll allow a full month for curing.  There are other restoration paint products available now, and I’d like to experiment with the alternatives for color match, drying time and durability.  Once the color coats cured, I added a coat of semi-gloss clear for durability.

During reassembly, I discovered the bearing plate on the whistle was cracked in half.  The split went right across the two brush mounts.  You can’t buy a replacement part for this.  I watched on eBay several months looking or an intact original, but couldn’t find one.  Looking for this part really held-up reassembly.  In the end, I used JB Weld epoxy to rejoin the split halves and secure the brush mounts.  In the future, if I come across this problem again I’ll consider making one from scratch out of fiber board.

Another reassembly issue was the alignment of the mounting screw holes between the original tender frame and the replacement MTH tender body casting.  They don’t line up.  The MTH casting’s screw holes are slightly inboard from the original tender frame’s holes.  Because in this case the family wanted to preserve as many original parts as possible of Grandfather’s train (and against my recommendation to purchase a matching replacement frame from MTH), I had to drill the original frame holes out into ovals to accommodate the MTH tender body.  To hide the larger holes, I added washers to the mounting screws.


More fit and finish issues arose trying to apply the new “The Lionel Railway Lines” plates.  The originals were held on by metal tabs inserted into slots in the tender body – the standard method.  Unfortunately, they were too bent up to be reused, and missing their tabs.  The new ones are self-adhesive, but a bit too large to fit the indentations on the MTH tender body.  I wound-up using contact cement to secure them in place.  While cleaning off excess cement with acetone, I accidentally swiped some of the lettering off one of the new plates – my one big boo-boo on this project.  The family wanted the tender back, so I’ve delivered it as-is, letting them know I can easily replace that part again:  we’ll see what they choose to do (I’d certainly replace it).


Here’s the better side of the end result.  It’s not perfect, and I pointed out all the imperfections to the family, but they are pleased with it.  I haven’t seen the 385E locomotive this mates with, but I assume from the tender’s original condition that it has some play wear.  I’m still watching eBay for a matching original 385W to offer the family, but they’re scarce in good shape.




Now for some lessons learned during this project:

  • Order replacement parts first, and check for fit & finish well before reassembly – don’t assume they’re accurate reproductions in every detail.
  • If you’re using Charles Wood’s paints, allow plenty of time for the paint to cure.  Once fully cured, the finish seems durable.
  • I need a paint booth – looking forward to gaining one once I move to Pennsylvania.  Handling over-spray from spray bomb cans is a chore.  Here in South Carolina, between the weather and pollen season there’s a limited window of suitable days to do it.


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Category: Articles, Repair and restoration

About the Author ()

Chris ("Cubbie") inherited a love of trains from his father. He grew up in the Chicago area — frequently riding the C&NW, CTA El and Amtrack — but spent summers in DL&W, D&H and Erie country (Northeastern PA). Chris collects, restores and runs Prewar toy trains on a 16' x 7-1/2' garage layout that is perpetually unfinished.

Comments (1)

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  1. Friscosteam says:

    Good Story on the restoration Cubbie. Thank you for sharing.