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Tinplate Times Profile: Joe Mania

Tinplate Times: Please tell us about yourself, Joe.

Joe Mania: I was born, raised and still live in the great state of New Jersey. I am married to JoAnn. Our lives intermingled, but we never actually “met” until age 17. We have one daughter, Danielle, age 16, who, fortunately, has an interest in old toys and trains. I am employed by the U.S. Postal Service working in many positions for over 26 years.

Tinplate Times: What are some of your other interests besides tinplate toy trains?

Joe Mania: Some other interests of mine include collecting old toys, Arcade equipment (although we’ve whittled the collection down to a single Jukebox and 5 Pinball machines) and vintage Christmas decorations. We also have a few automobiles including a 1964 ½ Mustang, a 1969 Chevelle Malibu and a 1980 Corvette.

Tinplate Times: Tell us about your train club memberships and affiliations.

Joe Mania: I belong to the TCA, TTOS, and LCCA. I have the lowest active number in the Lionel Railroader Club (if that means anything). I joined at age 12 in 1976. I currently serve on the TCA Standards Committee, the Library Committee, as chairman of the Lionel Postwar Parts Subcommittee, the Internet Committee, and co-chair of the Toy Train Restoration Concours d’Elegance (more on that soon).

Tinplate Times: How and when did you get interested in producing reproduction tinplate items for resale?

Joe Mania: In 1992 Jim Cohen offered the tooling and equipment to reproduce the 2-7/8 Inch Gauge line. I called him to discuss it. He said the best thing to do would be to spend the day with him so he could explain everything. So I did. It was overwhelming at first. People just don't understand the complexity. They think the metal goes in one side of a punch press and trains pour out the other. It just isn't that simple. There are castings that need to be machined, metal parts fabricated and formed. Gears need to be cut, motors wound. There's a lot to it. Then you have to solder it all together and paint everything.

Since I had been repairing and restoring trains for quite a while before that I figured I’d give it a shot. Jim nicely suggested that I go home and think about it for a while. He had sold the tooling for the Lionel No. 5, 6 and 7 locomotives about 10 years prior to someone that he knew couldn’t handle the project. But the man insisted on purchasing everything so Jim sold it. The purchaser never produced a single locomotive. Jim didn’t want the 2-7/8 inch tooling to die like that, so he said as far as he was concerned it was sold, and I could take as long as I needed to make a decision one way or the other. A few days later I decided and made plans to pick everything up. Jim also stressed that just because I took the tooling home the relationship wasn’t over. He continued to help me with all the aspects of producing the parts, assembling and finishing. We still collaborate on a few things.

Five years later the fellow who bought the No. 5,6 & 7 tooling contacted me and we struck a deal for that tooling. That’s how I got into Standard Gauge.

Tinplate Times: Do you have a background or training as a machinist?

Joe Mania: I didn’t at the time. I did know that there was a small machine shop on the field of a small municipal airport that I flew out of. I figured I’d see if he could do some of the machining for me. I walked into the shop and saw a few showcases full of different items including trains on display. What a stroke of luck! A machinist that collects trains! Anyway, we started talking. Dick Neumeister, the owner of B&N Tool and Die, and I hit it off right from the start and he became one of my closest friends. He suggested that I learn to do the work myself rather than rely on outside help. Through him I acquired some equipment and he taught me how to use it and how to accurately produce the parts needed. Once he saw that I could do that he began to teach me the art of tool and die work. He stressed that there is quite a difference between a machinist and a toolmaker. The machinist is skilled at making a part with the machines and tools available to him. It’s the toolmaker that makes those machines and tools. After a while I had essentially completed an apprenticeship in tool making. I still need a hand now and then, but I get by somehow. It’s still nice to be able to draw on over 45 years of experience. Dick is now semi retired and I have recently purchased B&N Tool and Die.

Tinplate Times: How and when did you acquire the presses and tooling that you use?

Joe Mania: My first lathe was purchased soon after I bought the 2-7/8 inch tooling. A few years later I purchased my first punch press (before that I would go to Jim Cohen’s and use one of his if needed). Since I had access to all the machinery at B&N Tool and Die, I didn’t need much heavy stuff here. I got by with the lathe, drill press, one punch press, sheet metal shear, a couple brakes, slip roll, a couple arbor presses, some grinders, tumblers, soldering equipment and paint equipment. That was the bare minimum needed for production. Currently I have everything needed to produce the tooling also.

Making Day Coach Sides

Tinplate Times: Is your shop in your home?

Joe Mania: Yes, it is split between the basement and another building, The Barn. The basement has room for some small lathes, and some sheet metal equipment, plus all assembly tools. The Barn has the larger equipment, four milling machines, two larger lathes, five punch presses, a screw machine, etc.

Tinplate Times: What are the special challenges of mass producing tinplate reproductions in a small shop?

Joe Mania: There is no such thing as “mass production” on these early pieces. They are basically hand built, each and every one. They took the original manufacturers a long time to build and they take me a long time. There is no tab construction. Some of the bodies are over 50 parts, each hand formed and each hand soldered together. Just the bodies on some 2-7/8 inch pieces take hours just to assemble. It’s little wonder the entire line was abandoned so quickly. Standard Gauge is a little better because it eliminates a lot of the castings which require a tremendous amount of finishing. Plus the motors are somewhat simpler to produce. Yet the bodies are largely hand formed and soldered. True “mass production” didn’t hit Lionel until around 1923. My basis for that statement is that cast iron and wood is virtually eliminated from the line, tab and slot construction is used much more widely, and soldered construction, although still used in some areas, is all but eliminated.

Making No. 3 Trolley Sides

Tinplate Times: Would you like to be able to operate JLM Reproductions full time? Would it be viable economically?

Joe Mania: I would love to pursue this as a full time venture and as of January 1, 2009 it will be. Economically viable? I guess we’ll see. I have a lot of things I’d like to produce, but have not had the time. Now I hope to. We’re a bit diversified, so maybe it’ll work out. Besides the reproductions, I still do repairs on all types and ages of toy trains and accessories. I also do full restorations on prewar items. I offer a full machine shop service. For those that didn’t know, we recently acquired all the tooling and equipment from Jerry Butler to produce Restoration Rubber Stamps. We offer a lot, ya just gotta hope the hobby stays around!

Tinplate Times: How do you select which items to reproduce?

Joe Mania: Typically, you shoot for the rare and unusual. The 2-7/8 inch line is the perfect example. Many people have never even seen a piece in person. Those who have seen an item or two have probably never seen it run. It has a certain charm, bouncing on its sprung wheels, and a certain sound too. The wheel flange coming down on the square edge of the rail makes a scraping sound sometimes. It sounds like it needs oil, but it’s the wheel contacting the track. You wouldn’t know that unless you heard one run. Other than that, they’re incredibly quiet. Not bad for technology that predates the Model T and also predates electricity in many places.

When it came to the Carlisle & Finch repros, it all started with a parts request. I was asked to make a gear. It was no problem. Then it went on to “if you can make that, can you make this?” Pretty soon I was making almost everything in a locomotive. So I made the rest of the tooling. The C&F guys seem happy because now they have access to parts that were previously unavailable. They offer up suggestions and if it looks like it’s something I can do, I look into it.

Currently (although we have not yet produced some of the following) we have the tooling and equipment to produce:

Lionel 2-7/8 inch gauge:

All cataloged cars, bridge, track, crossing, switches. Elevated pillars, bumper and simulated batteries.

Lionel standard gauge:

5, 51, 6, 7 and our own “Super 7” Steam Locomotives
42, 53, 1910, 1911, 1911 Special, 1912 and 1912 Special Electric Locomotives

All 10 Series Freight Cars

All Trolley cars including Open Summer cars

Early Day Coaches

Hudson & Manhattan Tube Train

Carlisle & Finch:

Paper Label #4 Locomotive

All Paper Label Freight Cars

Early passenger cars

Early Trolley Cars

Mining Loco and Coal Cars

Brass Bridge

Trolley Poles

Probably a few more things I’ve forgotten about, but that’ll keep me busy for a little while!

Tinplate Times: Have your tinplate reproductions appeared in train books?

Joe Mania: The reproductions that I offer have been shown in several books including "Greenberg’s Guide to Standard Gauge & 2-7/8 Inch Gauge," Peter Riddle's book "Americas Standard Gauge Electric Trains" and David Doyle’s book "Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1900-1942."

Tinplate Times: What was your first train set, Joe?

Joe Mania: My first train set was my father's Lionel Scout set. He got it in 1949 and I still have it on a shelf in my train room. It's pretty special to me and I have a certain fondness for Scout sets, even though most collectors dismiss them as junk. Had it not been for an inexpensive set like that, I may have never become involved in this hobby. Not long after I took it out of storage we found a small shop in a neighboring town that carried Lionel trains and did repairs. Once I saw the layout at The Hazlet Train Stop, I became hooked. It must have been apparent to the owner because after a few months of hanging around, I was offered a job repairing trains. So at age ten I was already learning how to repair and restore toy trains.

Tinplate Times: Do you have an operating layout currently?

Joe Mania: We currently have several year round layouts ranging from 4' x4' to 16' x 32'.

The smallest is prewar 0 gauge and it built in a very period style. It has simple painted roads and grass areas. All the trains and accessories are era correct. The Super 0 layout is L shaped, 27 feet long and 10 wide at its widest. Everything on it is typical of a home layout of the mid to late 1950s. It's almost exclusively Lionel and Plasticville. Dozens of plastic dime store cars and sawdust grass.

The largest is what I call my biggest reproduction project, a full size, absolutely authentic replica of the 1949 Lionel Showroom Layout. I’ve had a layout up year round since I was 9 and continue to do so today.

Tinplate Times: What are your favorite trains to collect?

Joe Mania: As far was what trains I like to collect, it’s pretty varied. At first it was Postwar Lionel, but it has slowly shifted to early Prewar offerings from any manufacturer. As I got involved in the reproduction of some of these pieces, I gained a better appreciation of the makers and what obstacles they may have encountered. Although some of the examples of early electric trains are crude by today’s standards, the production of parts and the subsequent assembly of those parts is more art than mechanics.

Although I could go on for pages just on the idiosyncrasies of cast iron, just suffice it to say that even though it was considered the plastic of its day, cast iron is a rather difficult medium to work with. Many factors come in to play and the resulting parts are far from identical. This means each part in an assembly has to be fitted to the next one and so on. Time consuming and tedious work, but the results have a certain charm. Even the simple bodies could require hours of soldering of separate parts together. My wife JoAnn is into just about anything lithographed. So her interests run the gamut from early American Flyer and IVES to late Prewar Lionel all the way up to 1960s Marx.

Tinplate Times: What trains do you enjoy operating the most?

Joe Mania: To be honest as to what trains I like to operate, I would have to go with the Postwar Lionel on the Showroom Layout. As far as toy train production goes, I feel that the period from just after World War II until 1950 was the pinnacle of the art for all the major manufacturers. After that, I can honestly say that I could stare for hours at a Lionel 2-7/8 inch gauge piece go in circles. Probably more due to the fact that it was the state of the art at its time, its simplicity of design and its crude charm. They have a certain unembarrassed manor. The oversize motors are usually visible; the paint is far from neat in most cases. Lettering varies from very neatly applied to crooked and uneven. In the case of Lionel 2-7/8 Inch Gauge, the sprung axles make the cars bounce, with Carlisle and Finch, the wheels are simply nailed to the wooden frames, which makes them wobble. Completely unacceptable for trains manufactured today, but no one would change anything to take that toy like demeanor away from a vintage piece.

Tinplate Times: What train from your collection is your top favorite?

Joe Mania: I would be hard pressed to single out a piece from my collection as the single one that I would have to keep. It would either be my Lionel 2-7/8 Inch B&O #5 (my first 2 7/8 Inch piece) or my fathers Scout set (for the reasons stated before).

Tinplate Times: What train that you don't own would you most like to acquire?

Joe Mania: It’s hard for me to pin down a certain train or set that I would like to have most. I’m satisfied with what I have now but am always looking to add to my collection. My interest seems to go on cycles. I sometimes see something that just for some reason appeals to me. That’s what I really want at the moment. Looking at it from a manufacturer’s point of view, everything is desirable in its own right. Marx is sometimes regarded as cheap junk. Nothing is further from the truth. They were filling a price point and what they offered at that point was of phenomenal quality. Lionel was always the high end. Take a look at a State Set or Blue Comet. Most people have no idea what kind of tooling it takes to create the parts needed to produce something of that magnitude. For example, the bell used on the Lionel #7 or #1912 locomotives requires 8 separate tools to produce. Yes, it’s a seemingly simple part, but the process behind it is incredibly complex.

Tinplate Times: So, are you still adding to your collection?

Joe Mania: I’m always adding to my collection whether it’s a small accessory, a single car, a complete set or more. We try and hit all the local shows as well as York. Granted the local shows are smaller and fewer the last bunch of years, but they’re still enjoyable.

Tinplate Times: How do you feel about on line trading?

Joe Mania: The Internet and eBay have certainly had a huge effect on collecting. It seems to have leveled the playing field a bit and opened up the opportunity to purchase certain items to those without access to meets. Unfortunately, it has also opened up the opportunity to defraud. This has little to do with the venues; it has to do with the participants. I’ve both bought and sold on eBay, and I can honestly say I’ve done okay. Maybe I’m overly cautious and let some things go that I may have won because something just didn’t feel right, but that’s me. I would still rather look at an item, touch it, talk to the seller etc. That’s the real fun. I’m lucky to have been involved way before the Internet days. I’ve met some incredible people along the way. Some of my friends I’ve known for most of my life are a result of these toys. Maybe I’m getting old or nostalgic, but the Internet dealings can be a bit impersonal. Not bad, just not the same as it used to be. Currently a group of us attend some shows together. We all meet in the morning at one of our homes, pile into one car, talk and laugh on the way up, walk around and talk to friends we only see at meets, meet up and pile into the car again. Almost always stop for breakfast or lunch and talk about or purchases or experiences of the day on the way home. It's just not the same as buying something online.

Tinplate Times: What is the real appeal of tinplate to you?

Joe Mania: To me the most appealing aspect of toy trains is just that they’re toys. I always try and explain that to new visitors. There’s a difference between “toy” trains and “model” trains. I keep using the word “charm” but that’s exactly the quality that toy trains exhibit. Be it the use of materials, the out of proportion sizes, completely unrealistic manners or whimsical quality, they appeal to some in a certain way. Hard to explain, but if you’ve read this far, you understand.

Tinplate Times: Looking toward the future, what do you see down the road for tinplate collecting?

Joe Mania: I think that there will still be an interest in old things, whether they are toy trains or whatever, far into the future. As far as my business goes, restorations are on the rise. People are fixing up what was once regarded as a parts donor. Maybe it’s the fact that reproduction parts are more readily available now or that most of the good stuff is in collections. Happily, it's people younger than you would expect doing this. Very few are around who remember these toys as a child. Many are discovering these toys and are immediately drawn to their appeal. I have many customers that use vintage toys and trains as decorations in their homes. They are not collectors per se, but just enjoy them just as someone would a Tiffany lamp or Stickley furniture.

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