TM's HO Studio Layout

by Joseph Stachler

In past articles on the TM studio layouts, we've looked at out Prewar O gauge display, Super-O, and OO layouts. Each were built for A Century of Lionel Trains, the official commemorative video of Lionel's 100th Anniversary. As mentioned in the previous articles, the reasons for the various layouts was to accurately represent the various facets of Lionel's production, including HO.

We felt very strongly about including HO in the video. Lionel HO was hardly ever seen in operation. A lot of Lionel collectors were vaguely familiar with HO, having only seen the products in boxes at a train show, or pictures in an old catalog. So we really wanted to show these trains.

The only problem was we didn't have any.

Up until about ten years ago, Lionel HO was largely ignored by model railroaders. HO operators looked down on the whimsical toy-look, and Lionel collectors were too busy trying to acquire many O gauge items. So finding someone with an operating HO layout was not going to be easy.


This image shows half the layout, including the yard area. A mixture of Lionel Postwar and Modern era HO can be seen. Note the black gondola with red canisters in the lower right corner. This is a 1995 Athearn car which accidentally put the circle-L logo on the side as they did in 1958 on items produced for Lionel.

The 0282 Gantry Crane is a tough accessory to find. It is manually operated by cranks that are often missing. Note the Rivarossi stock car on the right, made for Lionel's first year of HO production.
Years ago, at a local train show, I met a gentleman who dealt exclusively with Lionel HO. His name was Carl Ratliff. He had Lionel HO items for sale that I had never seen before. I talked to him about the possibility of doing a layout video story on him with Lionel HO. He replied that he didn't have a layout, but that one was under construction. So I took his business card and filed it as a potential future video production.

Years later, when the Century project came to us, I remembered Carl as a potential HO source. Meeting him again at the same train show, I asked if his layout was done yet. It wasn't. This was a dilemma. We wanted to include HO in the video, but it didn't look like we would be able to.

The solution was obvious: we would build a 4-by-8' layout ourselves, and take it to Carl's house and shoot his trains running on it.

By this time, eBay was established. I purchased track, a rotary beacon and a few other things on-line. Track was not as easy to find as I had expected because no one makes brass track anymore. It's all nickel-silver. Finally, I found vintage Lionel HO track. At the studio, we had an extra 4-by-8 table with a homosote sheet on it. Even though we didn't need the homosote for sound-deadening purposes, it works great for simple landscaping techniques. If you've been reading these layout articles, and you don't know what homosote is, it is a soft sturdy board made of paper. It is a half-inch thick. It is commonly used to make bulletin boards where thumb tacks easily go in and out without damaging the fiber. Model railroaders use it for sound-deadening. They can be found at most hardware stores in 4-by-8' sheets.

Like the O gauge layouts, I wanted to make the HO one look like an official Lionel display. Lionel HO products were basically toy trains. I did not feel that I had to create the beautifully detailed scale layouts that HO modelers make. I followed the same basic plan for the look of this layout that I used on the Super-O layout. I painted the homosote a medium green base coat, and sprinkled on green flocking for the ground-cover. I really liked the look of O gauge track mounted on cork roadbed, so I did the same thing with the HO track. The track was fastened down by tiny nails which were only long enough to bite into the homosote.


Lionel made Military & Space items based on similar items they produced in O gauge.

The Santa Fe warbonnet was made famous in model railroading by Lionel as an O gauge model of the F3. This Alco FA2 is pulling a B-unit with a horn. The B-unit diecast trucks were susceptible to disintigration due to impure alloy. Luckily, this unit's trucks are fine, and the horn sounds just like the O gauge horns. The gold bullion car in the background is a scarce item.
The track plan was basic but designed for maximizing video shots. Certain aspects of it were developed to incorporate Lionel HO items, such as the graduated trestle set. I used these to create an over-and-under figure-8 pattern. Inside one of the loops, I created a small yard using several straight sections. Although the yard does not connect to either of the main lines, on video, it is a very effective shot to have several freight cars scattered around. There is an outside loop that runs around the perimeter of the layout.

Lionel did not make a lot of accessories for their HO line. Postwar buildings were provided by Bachmann's Plasticville line. These were relatively easy to find, since they are still made today. Lionel HO trees were supplied by Life-Like, which again, are still made today. I added simple creative touches to some buildings by putting lights inside them.

Operating accessories I acquired included the 0118 Engine House with Whistle, 0140 Banjo Signal, and 0145 Gateman. Other accessories, like the 0197 Radar Tower, would be hooked-up at Carl's because we didn't have one. 

Because this video would also include modern era, I had to pick up some building kits offered with the Lionel HO line from 1974 to 1977. These included the sanding tower, engine house, and passenger station. The station alone took seven hours to build.

As for trains, the most famous Lionel HO trains from the modern era include the Southern Pacific GS-4 and the items made for Canadian markets. Canadian items are easily identifiable by their packaging. Boxes have red and yellow diagonal stripes on them.

I like the modern era HO pieces as well as the Postwar items. In my own collection of Lionel HO, I am more attracted to items that are based on O gauge products. There are not as many of these from the modern era. The gold Chessie System geep is an example. 


A flatcar with airplane, an auto-loader, and a maintenance car with searchlight pass a railroad crossing protected by a 0140 Banjo Signal and 0145 Gateman.

This ornate station was one of the many building kit designs Lionel purchased from Pola, a German company.

Lionel HO control units, along the top is the 0104 Dual Transformer, 0102 Power Unit, and 0101 Transformer.
Along the bottom is the 0147 Whistle Controller, 0390 Control Switch, a controller for an automatic switch, and two 0181 controllers for use with the 0102.
The How-to booklet is on-hand just in case I don't know what I'm doing.
HO trains run on DC power, but the accessories are designed to run on AC. I used a small 1043 transformer for the accessory line because it has a variable control. HO transformers for the most part have fixed AC power outputs, which I am not comfortable using. I prefer to adjust power output. Certain items, like the rotary beacon and banjo signal, have a "sweet-spot" power-wise for optimum operation. For the trains, we used a 0104 dual-control transformer built by Lionel in the 1960s. As you can see in the picture at left, the housing cases for the 0104 and 0102 transformers are the same basic part as Lionel's SW and TW transformers. The 0181 cab controllers are fairly difficult to find. All they do is vary the voltage from the 0102 unit to the track.

So the layout was completed and ready to be moved to the Detroit area for the shoot. It barely fit in the TM van. I had scheduled a shoot at Lionel and Carl was minutes away in the Detroit suburbs. Due to conflicting schedules, we were not able to get together until around 7:00 pm on Sunday night. Luckily, Carl's house has double front doors so we could carry the layout inside. We set it up on his living room floor. Nearby, he had already laid out all of the trains we were going to shoot. While I set up the lights and camera, Carl set up the trains. He brought out some very rare pieces, including the 0845-1 Seaboard outer-brace boxcar. Until the shoot, I had not seen Lionel HO in operation before. To test the layout in the studio, I picked up a cheap locomotive model at a hobby shop. 


This drawbridge was offered by Bachmann. It is remarkably similar to the O-27 gauge 2317 bridge Lionel offered in the mid-1970s.

The Southern Pacific Daylight GS-4 is pretty collectible. The detailing is great and it is scale, making it a better model than their O gauge versions.
We've shot a lot of layout videos at a lot of different houses, but this was the first time we brought the layout with us. We spent hours shooting various HO items from the Postwar and modern eras. I came away with about 90-minutes of footage taken. One minor set-back occurred when the old track gummed-up from age and some of the lubricated pieces placed on it. We had to take a time-out to clean the track. Occasionally, an item wouldn't run very well, but most of them ran beautifully. In the end, the Century videos include about ten minutes of Lionel HO trains. A year later, we produced Lionel OO & HO in Action, which included many shots from that night.

Upon seeing the videos, even the most knowledgeable Lionel collectors are amazed at what Lionel produced in HO. When you think about it, some of the items are amazing accomplishments by the engineers. The operating milk car is a good example. The action is basically the same, but the mechanism is completely different and for the most part works even better than the O gauge versions.

Now that video productions are completed for the HO trains, we really don't have a use for the layout. But I am very reluctant to ever dismantle it. It provides for us the only opportunity to run Lionel HO.


This is a Gilbert American Flyer Oil Drum Loader. Lionel never made HO accessories with this much action.

The piece-de-resistance: an HO scale version of the Lionel saw mill. This was built for use in our video on Lionel OO and HO by Dan Bigda, who used to design products at Lionel. Upon receiving it I added the letters to the window and logo to the door, and cut the slot in the roof for the wood planks. To create the illusion that it is operating, I inserted close-ups of the O gauge version operating.

Sadly, Carl passed away last month. He was a great guy and a great friend. I remember how happy he was that HO made it to the Century video and that the Lionel OO/HO video was produced. He taught me a lot about this neglected aspect of Lionel collecting. He was always very generous with his knowledge and generous with his sale prices. His love of Lionel HO was infectious as I ended up buying quite a few pieces from him. At the local train show, he was always the first person I went to say hello to, and the last person I went to say goodbye to. I will miss him.