Robey D-224 Restoration Document

From July until the end of December 2019, I had the great fun of restoring a 1958 Lionel Dealer Display layout back to near its original glory.  This is a not so brief explanation of how those six months unfolded.

COMPONANTS

Long before I was in a position to start restoring the layout, I started working on replacing the long list of items required to recreate the layout with total authenticity and functionality.

The D-224 is loaded with great action accessories as well as a long list of parts and pieces.  That met there was a lot of work (and $) finding and repairing all the required.  Virtually all of the components needed to be replaced with excellent original 1958 examples.  Some tricky ones included:

  • 71 Lamp Post—while not even close to the most intricate or action-packed component, the five original lamp posts from the layout, required total re-wiring and a lot of TLC during installation.
  • 128 Animated News Stand—great action but quite loud at the voltage required to run other items on the layout! Hard to find with the newspaper in the hand of the news boy.
  • 195 Radar Tower—delicate and finicky operation. Hard to find without any broken plastic and harder to get to operate smoothly and consistently.
  • 264 Fork Lift Platform—great accessory but also finicky operation. I learned from friends that an application of Pledge to the surface really helps the fork lift move correctly and completely through its cycle.
  • 345 Culvert Unloader—very popular but relatively delicate accessory and one of the more expensive ones to replace. My original one was left on the layout and suffered a fatal injury when the layout was hit by our roller-skating daughter!
  • 365 Dispatching Station—it’s the rarer version without the sound system and microphone. Only made in 1958-59 which made it hard to find in really clean condition.

CLEANING

It has always been my wish that the layout be returned to its former glory with as much of the existing materials and finishes still intact and original as possible.  But the layout was stored for years on edge in basement and garage locations and was beyond dirty to filthy. 

I struggled for some time with how do you safely but effectively clean it without further compromising its mostly undamaged woodwork and surface or what remains of the mountain??

I finally got up enough nerve to try cleaning the cut off 4” section (more on that later) as a test.  I quickly realized that it would clean up very nicely by using a sparse amount of water with a bit of car soap and a soft sponge.  To my relief It didn’t even loose much of its existing grass and the original colors came back to life!

I was then ready to go for the remaining 95% of the layout!  I waited for a warm and dry July afternoon and worked outside on saw horses, carefully progressing across the layout with just enough soapy water followed quickly with a light stream of rinse water.  I stayed away from getting the underside or any of the mountain remnants wet at all. Wiring and water base paint don’t do well getting wet.

The cleaning left the surface of the layout in such good shape that I ultimately decided not to replace any lost grass or otherwise touch up any areas beyond those which absolutely needed it as discussed later.

REATTACHMENT

About 1976 or so, I unceremoniously cut about 4 inches off the right end of the layout!  I was adjusting it to fit into an alcove at the bottom of the stairs in our then new home.  This also required modification of the mountain and track plan.  I know, what was I thinking!!

Luckily, I kept the 4-inch piece. So, my first post cleaning task was to bring the layout lovingly back to one piece!

The plywood platform was not thick enough to allow a totally hidden connection, so I gave in to allowing the addition of an additional support board down the centerline of the cut.  By totally countersinking the screw attachments followed by a lot of sanding and filling, I got the attachment point to virtually disappear to all but the most critical eyes.  The fact that 80% of the cut line is inside the mountain certainly helps hide it!

BENCH WORK

As an architect, you would think I would realize the importance of a solid foundation from the outset, but eagerness to get into the restoration pushed the benchwork way back in my mind.  Besides, the saw horses were doing just fine, right?

So, once I had the layout in the relative confines of its final home and had already pretty much rebuilt the mountain, I lay on my 73-year-old back for nights on end carefully exchanging the saw horses for a dizzying but appropriate Erector Set of sub-structure parts.  The result was that it took way more work and frustration than if the layout had been set on its structure when first brought to its new home!

The benchwork needed to continually support the outer edge of the layout without any damage or visible connections to the existing framework.  It also needed to do so without interfering with delicate wire runs or existing cross braces.

The resultant benchwork with its solid support and free movement via castors, was a great but late step forward.

WIRING

Lionel generally used a hardy thread wrapped wire for their display layouts.  As a result, even after 60 years all but the most abused examples of this wire type were totally fine and without shorts or uninsulated sections!

The same cannot be said for the wiring to the lamp posts. The wire Lionel used there, has a plastic insulation which became brittle and broken over time.  More wiring work went into fixing these simple but important components than almost any other accessories.

The connection to the control panel was a real mess and required careful untangling and some minor repair work.  I then wrapped the lines into an umbilical like single mass rather than the original tangle.  Lionel left enough wire slack to allow the control panel to be located at various locations by removing just two carriage bolts.  The new umbilical maintains this flexibility, allowing the control panel to be located either at the right end or near the center of the layout.  It also maintains the important original option of being bolted to the top of the layout for shipping.

CONTROLS

The controls had for the most part been long since removed from the layout, but the wood panel was pretty beat up.  While it required cosmetic work, the wiring was 98% fine!

From the time I received the layout in the early 60’s, it had an on-off switch mounted on the side of the control panel.  While I don’t believe this to be a factory installed feature, it is very useful.  I relocated it to the inside surface of the control panel out of sight but easy to access.

TRACK

Super O track is in my opinion, the best track Lionel ever made. It is very realistic, well engineered, and quite durable.  It was new in 1958 and the D-224 shows it off very well.

Since most of the track had been left on the layout and resembled real rusted rails, it needed replaced.  I learned soon enough that Super O track can look deceivingly good until you get it home!  While the plastic usually is found in good shape, the rails rust easily or have a dull corrosion like patina over time.  I found that the dish washer really helps, but you must take the track out immediately and totally dry it.  Don’t be fooled that the dish washer dry cycle will handle it without any resultant rust marks.  It won’t!

When looking for Super O track, be aware that there were many minor variations over the years, including a duller plastic finish on later runs.  I tried to end up with a consistent ‘newish’ look for all the track.  That proved to be a lot of work!

The best tool for restoring otherwise really nice Super O track which has minor rust or the dull patina, is a Dremel with a small wire brush head.  Running it along all sides of the rails really helps remove the dull finish and any pockets of rust that the dish washer left.  But be ready to go through a lot of wire brush attachments!  For the 85+/- pieces I cleaned for the layout, I went through a dozen wire brush heads!

GRASS

I investigated original Lionel grass for use in patching areas of the layout.  In 1958 Lionel made number 920-3 Green Grass and number 920-4 Yellow Grass from the 920 Scenic Display set as well as the old standby 919 Artificial Grass.  With 60 years of fading, it turned out that an old bag of 919 grass was the best match, but I used it vary sparingly since it still has more color than the existing original did.

In the end, I have no hesitation saying that keeping the original finish at all costs is the way to go.  And like the paint on the mountain, keep it consistent with what Lionel did, not what you think should be done!

PAINT

Matching the original paint colors was very important to me and required a lot of investigation and trial and error.  After talking to a number of you and looking at an endless number of paint chips, I was able to exactly match many of the important colors with readily available new ones.  Some others were matched closely enough to work ok for their application.  My wife’s keen eye for color was critical here!

Finding the original unfaded colors required some looking at areas that had been protected from weathering like this location under a circuit breaker that remained in place throughout all the years of storage.

Carefully blending new paint to old is very important. Here I wanted to maintain the original green bleeding through the pavement color as well as the outline of the original plywood “biscuit” patch, but needed to repaint the corner which was very damaged.  Since the paint is water base, I bled the new into the old with a damp rag before the paint was totally dry.

The more challenging paint work on the mountain is discussed under that heading.

MOUNTAIN

The most exciting and challenging part of the restoration was bringing the totally destroyed mountain back to its original beauty.  The folks at Lionel that did my original mountain were very good and I wanted at all costs to only match their great work, not embellish or diminish it.

The original mountain was felt applied wet over a layer of heavy craft paper, which helped it hold the desired shape.  While a few primary wood supports helped keep its general shape, I suspect wads of paper or other items were temporarily placed inside to hold the felt in the desired shape while it dried.  For Lionel, no other support was required, since the dried felt together with the application of paint, made the mountain very stiff yet somewhat forgiving to the prodding of young (or old) railroaders.

I had the good fortune of retaining about 80% of the original felt which was kept in a sealed bin for many decades.  As a result of this storage, the two major pieces retained their original artistic blending of many paint colors.  Figuring out how the original pieces were originally installed was not as obvious as you might think since most of the outer edges were missing. 

After much trial and error, I was able the find a point where they joined each other (circle and line in the photo) which also made sense when placing them over the existing framework and skeletal remains.

On a parallel track I was working to replace portions of the mountain that were totally missing, some eaten by critters!  With the help of friends and CTT I learned a lot about what could end up looking like it was done in 1958 and conversely, what would probably look like I did it last year.  After too much thought and hesitation, I jumped in by attempting some small repairs.  I realized quickly that using Lionel’s method of reinforced felt would not provide the small points of support I would need to interface all my new work with the original felt pieces.

As a result, I decided to use a wire mesh as an easily formable but sturdy structure for all of the new portions and under much of the reinstalled portions of the mountain. 

As I worked my way through the missing or damaged areas, I placed plaster cloth over the wire frame to close the area and give it a hard, paintable surface.

This was followed by a coat of gray paint which approximates the color of the original Lionel felt.

As I worked, I refined the connection and support points and more accurately shaped the wire by temporarily installing the original felt parts in their approximate final location.

The final framework of wire and plaster cloth covers all of the perimeter of the original felt pieces and bridges all connection points.

Each piece of the original felt was then sprayed with just enough water mist on the complete underside to make it relatively pliable.  The pieces were then applied to the framework, carefully formed, and weighted or stapled in place while they dried.

Once it had all dried, I filled any remaining gaps with lightweight plaster, followed by gray undercoat paint.

The more artistic work of trying to match Lionel’s wonderful paint work on the mountain caused some sleepless nights.  But in the end, it was not daunting and was much fun!

Lionel used casein paint.  Casein is a milk-based, water soluble ancient artists paint that is great to work with, maintains its color pretty much forever, and dries to a matt finish and a hard-shell-like surface thus helping to maintain the mountain shape.  It is still readily available in endless colors.  I started collecting colors in tooth paste size tubes, which I mixed and matched to approximate the colors on the original felt.  I concentrated on coming close to a match of the colors near the areas needing new paint.  I quickly found that the paste like paint mixed easily with a foam applicator into whatever hue I liked and more importantly, it didn’t need to be a perfect match to the existing!  It just needed to be a convincing similar color, shade, and brightness which complimented the surrounding original colors.  If it didn’t look right, I just did it again without even waiting for it to dry.

Even though I’m no artist, I found that I needed to hold back to keep from overworking the new areas to be a bit more natural than the original.  Lionel folks had to mass produce these in minimal time but I’m retired!

FINAL TOUCHES

A main goal of mine was to maintain as much of the original finish as possible.  Only areas which absolutely required it were repainted or otherwise refreshed.

As you would imagine, all of the original lichen was already gone or washed away during cleaning.  I actually had a good bit of the original lichen which was preserved in the bin with the mountain parts, but it was way too dry and brittle to reuse.  It did provide a great reference for selection of the new lichen, which proved to be easy to find.

Lionel had installed almost all the lichen by stapling it in place.  While I used a hot glue gun instead, it was easy to locate where the new lichen should go, just cover up the old rusty staples! 

Many photos of other great restored D-224 layouts from CTT publications also proved to be an important resource.

LESSONS LEARNED

The D-224 is a great layout!  Well made, highly durable, and a lot of fun to restore and run.  If you ever have the opportunity to restore an old Lionel dealer display, go for it!  You can do it!

  1. Worry a lot less about hurting it or making an uncorrectable error
  2. Do the benchwork first!
  3. Store your old train stuff away from any moisture or little varmints!
  4. Faithful restoration means back to what it once was, not what you think it should be!
  5. With some intelligent research, the advice of good friends, and trial and error, the seemingly impossible can be made whole again!

CREDITS

Most of the ideas that actually worked in the restoration and much of the seemingly intelligent points made in this description were graciously offered by one these fine folks to whom I give much thanks!!

 

Friends from the Train Collectors Association:

George W. Starz

Mark Tolby

Friends through Classic Toy Trains magazine:

Roger Carp

Rick Lyons

Just good friends:

Val Robey (my wife)

Jerry & Sunshine Mahle

Braden Campbell

 

Bryant H. Robey

412-585-9760

[email protected]

TCA 74-7180

LCCA  36301