400 Trains…and Counting

Spring showed up early here in the Northeast.  The daffodils barely got a chance to rest this winter; half-asleep, they are up but not quite ready to bloom.  The song birds in our backyard no longer loiter by the feeder for a free meal as they did when the mercury dipped below freezing; now they zip by, feathers on fire with their nesting to-do lists.

Spring is a time of renewal; it gives us the chance to look forward with a backward glance.  I’m thinking about all I’ve done this past year, letting go of the past, of my grief, and leaving things behind that are no longer useful to me.  One of those things is my career in human resources.  But that’s for another blog.  Another is the over 400 online auctions that sent my Dad’s trains to new homes.  A year later, I’m still at it with no end in sight.  I thought it was a good time to reflect on the experience and describe to you what it’s like to undertake a project like this.

Selling online is labor intensive.  It takes a LOT of time, effort, research and accuracy, especially if you don’t know much about what you are selling and your customers know a lot more than you.  To list a single item, for example a Pennsylvania locomotive and tender, I have to answer the following questions:

What is it?

Even if Dad labeled a box with information about the item inside, I still must verify that it is what he said it is. Sometimes he was wrong. Yesterday I hunted around for information on a Bowser 4-6-2 Pacific locomotive but the photos and diagrams didn’t match the item in the box—after about an hour of searching, I discovered that it wasn’t a Bowser; it was made by Varney. After a year of handling these heavy die cast locomotives, I have learned that they are made by Bowser, Varney, Mantua or John English. Knowing this reduces my searching time considerably, but in the beginning it would have taken me a day to figure it out. Besides, if I had mistakenly listed it as “Bowser,” I would have instantly received messages from knowledgeable and helpful modelers informing me of my ignorance.

What’s missing?

Once I know with moderate confidence what it is, I then determine what—if anything—is missing.  Are all the parts and details present, and if so, are they “correct” for a PRR 4-6-2 Pacific locomotive? My favorite place to search for this information is hoseeker.net, a wonderful site with a huge library of literature about vintage model trains in HO scale.  There you’ll find diagrams, photos, assembly instructions, and catalogs.

My homemade test track. I added the bumper upon discovering that without it, a train flew right off the table and onto the floor.

Does it run?

Most of my Dad’s trains have been stored in boxes…for decades. He started collecting in the 1940s. When I put them on my short test track for a spin I was shocked to find that most of them actually ran, and quite often, the lights worked. When I first started testing Dad’s locomotives, I didn’t realize that the tender needed to be attached to the locomotive in order to run on the track because the tender serves as the ground for the current. I tested about 20 engines before it dawned on me that there was a reason for that metal hook on the back of the locomotive.

Uh-oh. It doesn’t run.  Now what?

The word multi-meter became part of my vocabulary early last year.  The two probes of the multi-meter applied to opposite sides of the locomotive wheels will tell me if the motor is good; if it is, I make no attempts to figure out why the engine won’t move.  I leave that to the buyer.  If the motor is bad, I will sell it that way, although I must state this explicitly in the listing.

What’s the condition of the item?

Are there scratches?  Chips in the paint?  Tarnish on the brass?  Where?  How much?  Are the wheels worn?  Does the item look used or relatively new?  A magnifying glass is an essential tool for such examination, especially because I can’t see that level of detail anymore.

Photo box and tripod. The item inside is a spice rack, which I use to photograph multiple items together

What does it look like?

Here’s where the photography comes in.  I created a light box out of a cardboard moving box and covered it with tissue paper to diffuse the light from the large work lamps I purchased at Home Depot.  A good camera with an SD card and a tripod, and I’m ready.  For a locomotive and tender, I need to take between 8-12 shots, showing the item from all angles so that buyers can get a close up look of what they are bidding on.  Often they ask questions about it during the bidding process, which I must answer promptly.

Now that I have all the information required for the listing, I launch the eBay site and set to work.  I create a title for the listing that will target buyers looking for certain items.  Brand name, railroad name, equipment type (locomotive, passenger car, bridge, etc.), Class or Model type, age, condition…like this:


I load the photos, and crop each one to fit. Then I draft the text for the listing, describing in detail everything right and wrong with the item, drawing from all my prior research and testing. A few more clicks and poof, the Pennsy Pacific is up and running (well, it’s true in this case).

VARNEY PACIFIC  Note that the Pilot aka “Cow Catcher” needs to be attached.

From research to testing, photographing to listing, the entire process takes between 1 to 3 hours, depending upon the complexity of the item and my ignorance about it. And that’s before anyone wins the auction. (There’s probably an algorithm for this.)

I’m out of breath just writing this.   I list about 20 items a week, so that’s anywhere between 20 to 60 hours of labor.  And I haven’t even discussed packing and shipping.  That’s for next time.  Whew!  I think I’ll head outside and watch the daffodils bloom.

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