In Your Opinion Brass or Plastic Models? Do you ever wonder?

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CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
Something that has been bugging me for awhile.
I haven't seen any cheap brass loco's or rolling stock , but I've seen decent plastic or epoxy models for under $200, much below the cost of brass. I've never seen an article on kitbashing, using a brass model. I've seen plastic built up models, I dare say more accurate than brass built by members of this forum. I guess what bugs me is the cost of the brass models when compared to quality models of other materials. After they are painted is there really any difference to a viewer? I ask myself if an injection molded rivet is any less accurate or attractive than a stamped one? So what is it about brass models that make them any better than a quality plastic model and with a price tag of three times as much?

Cheers Willis
 

DanRaitz

Member
Willas,

I my view brass "is not" any better then the top of the line plastic, i.e. Kato, Atlas, P2K, Athearn Genesis. The only reason that brass has gotten so expensive is that the brass importers have focused on the train collecter to the detriment of the model railroader. It used to be that some brass locomotives where imported in the thousands per run, whereas now they are imported in the hundreds or less per run.
Personally I have a few brass units, but I won't be adding to them unless I find a very good deal on an locomotive that is not available or kitbashable in plastic.

Dan
 
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modelbob

Administrator
> After they are painted is there really any difference to a viewer?

Yes, I think there is a difference between metal and plastic. It's subtle, but it's there. It has to do with "index of refraction" which is what makes a black rubber ball reflect light different than a black steel ball. Even painted, the metal just looks harder, because of the way the light hits it. Done right, the brass can be more detailed.

On the other hand, I don't own any Brass locos. The most expensive engine I own is a Broadway Limited GG1. It's diecast metal, which I don't think is brass. It's certainly not as expensive as Brass, as I've seen them on sale for about $120 recently.

They're very nicely detailed, come with DCC and sound systems. I'm very impressed, and have become an instant fan of BLI.

> So what is it about brass models that make them any better than
> a quality plastic model and with a price tag of three times as much?

They tend to be more detailed, though as you mention plastic is getting much better these days. Also, they tend to be produced in more limited runs, so the development costs can't be spread out over as many units.

I'm sure there's a lot of "supply and demand" economics in there too. On the other hand, even used brass consistently sells for pretty high prices, so there must be a lot of folks out there who think it's worth the money.

I've seen lots of brass over the years, and while I came real close to buying a used brass model of our 2-8-2T #17 last fall, I just couldn't bring myself to part with $400...
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
the brass importers have focused on the train collecter to the detriment of the model railroader
Hi Dan, yes that would make sense to me as most modelers could kitbash a respectable plastic model with a quality drive for under $300. That being the case the only brass that would be sold to the MR group, would be to the gotta have it crowd and those who just want to put it in a showcase for looks.

They tend to be more detailed
Hi Bob, Well I have seen some highly detailed brass with signs "Please do not touch" that could have had a bit more detail to make them visibly correct, and I have seen quite a few plastic that were quite correct. Would this be because after paying 6 or 700 bucks for the brass, the owner is hesitant to change anything? Now in the case of the quality plastic loco, the wife of a friend of mine looked on in absolute horror as he took a saw to his brand new $200 loco which he had just purchased :D the end result however was he ended up with a visibly correct model. Even if the detail is better, but not correct for a certain model, is the very little extra worth it?

Cheers Willis
 

kenw

5th Generation Texian
I think the reason there are fewer imported is the fact that high quality plastics have eroded much of the market. Certainly those who run these are a large % of those who are more likely to switch to a reasonable plastic version.

"Back in the day", brass was the ONLY way to get even close without doing it all yourself. So the brass market of yore included not only the collector who never runs them, but also a lot of "normal" model railroaders who just wanted well detailed and quality stuff. The choices were pretty extreme: junk or brass.

Now that much of the "well detailed and quality" market has moved to plastic, there is a much smaller market for brass. Less market = less volume = each unit costs more, add this to the fact that wages in the places producing these have gone up like everywhere else, the price is up.

and Willis said:
"..... Even if the detail is better, but not correct for a certain model, is the very little extra worth it?"

only he can make that decision, no one else can judge it for him. "value" or "worth it" is far too subjective.
 

HaggisKennedy

Coal Shoveler
There's really no such thing as a cheap brass model; the production runs just don't amortize the development and manufacturing costs incurred. If you get something relatively inexpensive, there's something wrong with it (older model, stained, etc.). There's a saying: Todays premium price is tomorrow's bargain price.

Having said that, I've bought some relatively older brass steamers that were on consignment at Caboose Hobbies. $295 was the cheapest; the biggest ding was that the brass was stained from the red foam (this is a known issue). I didn't care, I'm repainting it as a runner anyway. As a GN modeller, there isn't much GN steam out there, due to the Belpaire boiler config which is different than the Pennsy Belpaire config.

My most expensive brass steamer is a GN 2-6-8-0 painted in the Glacier scheme. $1350, which was pretty reasonable, actually. I'm waiting for the Soundtraxx Tsunami to be released; then I'm shipping it off to the guy who's doing my installs...

Kennedy
 

sushob

Entrepreneurial Teen
Seeing as I don't own any brass, nor much plastic, my opinion may be a bit missguided, but I'm gonna give it to ya anyway :p . The details in plastic can be just as good as brass (anyone notice the grabs on the Bowser N-8? Talk about precision machining! And then having to redo the mold because people complained about them being too thin...first time I've ever heard of people complaining about things being to exact scale...LoL) Brass models have great detail too, and makes more sense for very specialized items where the market may be small, but something about brass models bugs me. Well, the brass models themselves don't bother me, but the fact that they're almost all made overseas does. And the fact that a lot of companies take pride in having these imported also deeply annoys me ("Proudly produced by so and so of Korea," or "precision crafted in China") . What happened to American pride? Ya know, where people could pronounce the name of the company that made their model train? Or, goodness forbid, they may have even known the guy who made it? Well, anyway, it makes it difficult for those of us who still believe in making things domestically to 'survive' in the model market (or any manufacturing market for that matter...ie Pennsylvania House will now be made in China...there goes another customer...and another deceiving company name...should be China House... :mad: ). Sorry...didn't mean to rant aimlessly...where was I... I think it's kinda sad that people complain about the economy, and then go to Wal-mart and buy the cheapest thing on the shelf, so that what little money they do spend doesn't support our economy, but instead floats across the ocean to some sweatshop...grrr...and to think that the United States Army is having some of their own weapons made overseas...seems pretty scary to me. Wow...I think this is the longest message I've ever typed on the internet...didn't mean to get so off-topic...sorry :eek:
 

sushob

Entrepreneurial Teen
Ok...now that I've had some supper and I seem to be thinking a bit more rationally, let me add a disclaimer :D

I don't have anything against those who buy brass models that are made overseas, or any product made overseas for that matter, because I find myself with made in China merchandise quite frequently. I'm more 'errked' by the companies that are proud of moving manufacturing out of the states. While it may reduce production costs (a lot), reduce retail prices (which are still plenty high) and increase the companies bottom line (which is what it's really about), it takes something away from the end product...not necessarily visible detail, but something just isn't the same as a model (brass, plastic, or paper mache for all it matters) that's made here at home...
 

mushroom2

Non Rivet Counter
The US priced itself out of the brass manufacturing business so long ago that I doubt there is anyplace who could do it at a resonable price.
Heck, I remember when Korea was an unknown and was trying to get into the market. At that time Japan was the country doing brass at affordable prices. Someone decided to try this Korean company and sent them a caboose to do. It was a disaster. Parts were crooked, although the castings weren't all that bad. They even painted it, by dipping it in some orange paint they had available. I could probably find out who did the one I have, I have his thumbprint in the paint :D
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
I don't have anything against those who buy brass models that are made overseas, or any product made overseas for that matter, because I find myself with made in China merchandise quite frequently.
Wow! surprising what a good supper will do for a fellow :D At the heart of the matter is that like everyone else we all want to get the best buy for our dollars. If you had the choice of paying 50 to 75% more for a comparitive model made in the US, would you? It is difficult for business on this continent to compete with the low cost of manufacturing in newly developing countries. One could also wonder who owns the controling interest in these corporations, most likely you will find they do not live in the host country. But in any case, nowdays it seems that even the plastic models are made off shore, so a comparison of the manufacturing costs of brass and plastic models is feasible. As far as the actual manufacturing work goes, stamping and assembling a brass model is a some what more labour intensive than mold injection for a plastic. However the costs of heating the plastic for the injection process can be costly also not to mention the labour put into designing and making the injection mold.

Cheers Willis
 

HaggisKennedy

Coal Shoveler
The Japanese stuff was decent because those folks had to make their own during and soon after the War. They developed their industry in that area, but eventually priced themselves out of the market. Enter the Koreans, who could do just as good a job, but at less cost.

The one source I read was that soldiers stationed in Japan saw the quality of their products, and started buying them and shipping them home for their layouts...

Kennedy
 

HaggisKennedy

Coal Shoveler
It is true that the fidelity of plastic models is approaching that of brass. But, brass will always have a spot in the hobby because only brass will do those models that are just about one-offs. Who's going to make an Alco Century 636? Alco only built 36 of the things, nobody is going to do a plastic run of those!

I want a GN Y1a electric, it's a 'one-off'; a Y1 boxcab that went off of a trestle. The frame and mechanicals were still serviceable, so they bought two FT cabs from EMD and fabricated a carbody. Painted it all up in Empire Builder colors. Still, at least one brass manufacturer did a run of these....

Kennedy
 

sushob

Entrepreneurial Teen
CBCNSfan said:
However the costs of heating the plastic for the injection process can be costly also not to mention the labour put into designing and making the injection mold.
Had this whole message typed when I apparently tilted my laptop the wrong way and it threw a fit. Oh well...my fingers need some exercise...I've got a lab report due Monday :rolleyes:

Ahh...injection molding...now there's a subject I can understand! :D Our molding machine is relatively new. And sure it's huge, has 110 tons of clamping force, heats plastic to 400+ degrees and shoots it into a mold at several hundred PSI, but it's actually a bit of a gentle giant. It doesn't take as much electricity as one may think to heat up the plastic...it's not really that much different than an electric stove. Yes it's larger, and therefore requires more energy, but the idea and energy consumption is fairly relative. It's actually a rather quite machine (unless the bored operator starts singing, in which case you are better off turning on a bench grinder, or two :rolleyes: ). It's an extremely sensitive machine...which is many times learned the hard way. The other night my dad and I were making a chute of sorts in an attempt to eliminate an extra conveyer and excessive static that was causing the roof walks we were running to cling to everything, and I closed the mold while it was cold. Since it hadn't expanded as it does when it is heated during production, it moved and extra three or four thousandths, and threw a fit.

The cost of building a mold is something that most people don't understand, and I'm glad you brought that up. Many hours go into design before any metal is ever touched. Researching blue prints, finding photographs, and sometimes even finding and measuring the car itself (made a nice trip to the PA rail museum in Strasburg :D and got the whole family out into the 'yard') adds up. Then many more hours are spent in Auto CAD and BobCAD drawing, scaling, programming, etc. Some of the details have to be burnt into the mold via EDM, which means making an electrode, which means writing a CNC program (which is relayed to the CNC via a decade old computer running Windows 3.1 :D ) and often times creating cutters that are find enough to produce the detail. Even before building the mold you have to have a mold base to put it in, and when you get into doing one-piece bodies, you have to have a mold base capable of handling slides, and it can become an extremely complex project. All the while you have to plan out ejector pins so that they can be built into areas in which they won't affect the detail or leave visible marks, and take into account the shrink rate of the plastic, and gate and vent everything and...well...you get the idea.

It's kind of annoying when some "Joe" walks in off the street with some little gadget they want made in plastic and expects to pay a hundred bucks for a full-fledged mold. It's not hard to see why the cost of a mold can easily reach five figures (or much much more if you don't already have a mold base to work with). After the initial investment, each finished part only has a couple of cents worth of plastic in it, but you have to pay for all of the costs it took to get the mold to that point. It only takes about 15-30 seconds to produce a plastic part, which surprises a lot of people, but it takes months to construct the tooling.

I actually made a Power Point presentation about this process for school last year. I built a mold for an HO scale coal load (the Bowser H-43 to be exact). It didn't cost me much since I did the labor and had access to the machinary, but it was also a fairly simple mold (except for achieving the curves in the load...and then programing the CNC to machine them...). They look pretty good once I glue real coal to them. I had hoped to produce a series of these, but I don't have the time to manufacture large numbers. Speaking of time, I think I just spent a half an hour writing this... :rolleyes: ...guess I better go do something constructive now :D
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
It doesn't take as much electricity as one may think to heat up the plastic...it's not really that much different than an electric stove.
Ah! you are familier with the injection process. I'm afraid my experience with such presses was mostly maintaining quality control monitoring devices on the brutes. The presses made inserts for truck wheel rims, must have been for tube type truck tires. The molding compound was hard rubber and the heat source was steam. They were huge, I'll bet the hydraulic injection ram was 8 to 10 ft long. Can't remember the name clearly I believe it was Gallion. They were far from gentle, very noisy and very cantankerous :D I know when a defect in a mold was discovered it was an expensive repair job time and labour wise.
Cheers Willis
 

sushob

Entrepreneurial Teen
Here's our molding machine:


We've recently done a couple runs with a rubber-type compound, but ours were small grips for on power converters (to use North American appliances in European countries). We can only make small to medium parts, as this machine has a limit as to how much plastic can be melted and kept molten to be used per shot. A lot of HO car and engine bodies have come out of this machine, as well as lots of detail parts...window 'glass,' roof walks, brake parts, etc. I'm not quite as familiar with the larger molding machines, but I have been around a few at other machine shops. I'd love to see the machines that they use to make door panels for cars and the injection-molded lawn chairs...talk about some big presses! :D I'd also like to see some rotary molders, but that's a whole 'nuther subject.
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
but that's a whole 'nuther subject
yep! we're geting a bit off topic here, but it was nice to see the photo, even the little ones are big :D
Anyway do you think the cost of the brass today is justified that is to say Brass manufacturing costs plus various dealership markups when compared to the price of quality plastic models?

Cheers Willis
 

sushob

Entrepreneurial Teen
Well, of course it depends on the quality of the particular model, but I do think brass is a bit overpriced. I know that the brass manufacturers, especially when selling directly to the customer and bypassing the "middle man dealers," are making a ridiculous amount of money on their products. Although tooling and labor costs are spread out over a smaller number of finished pieces, the costs of overseas manufacturing is still significantly less than comparable American costs would be, and they sell the pieces for nearly as much as U.S. made brass (correct me if I'm wrong, for again I don't know much about brass). So basically, the companies that import models make more money than U.S. companies, and the (very few) U.S. based companies have a harder time selling their slightly more expensive product. Bottom line; import companies could sell their products for a lot less, and still make plenty of money, but when their only compitition is a couple higher priced U.S. made models, they'll charge as much as the U.S. models anyway. It's corporate America (or Korea, or China...); it's all about the money. :rolleyes:

Feel free to disagree...I know that you guys have more knowledge in this area than I do...I'm just stating my somewhat strongly opinionated view :D
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
Although tooling and labor costs are spread out over a smaller number of finished pieces
Exactly, now if the prices were lowered significantly it could be safe to assume that it would result in more sales therefore more manufacturing spreading the costs over a larger number of finished pieces. Mr. Irv. Athearn knew this long ago I wonder what happened in the meantime.
Cheers Willis
 

modelbob

Administrator
> if the prices were lowered significantly it could be safe to
> assume that it would result in more sales

In some cases yes, but not in others. Many of the brass manufacturer specialize in unique and lesser known protototypes. For example, I'm a real fan of geared logging locomotives, and while Bachmann has done well with them lately, I don't think they'd sell as well as other more traditional locomotives.
 




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