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Planning Ahead: Managing Your Collection

Planning Ahead: Managing Your Collection

By George Riley/photos by the author

Regardless of what facet of the model railroading hobby you find yourself engaged, over time you will amass a collection of model railroad items. Every one of those items will possess some intrinsic value you attached to it. Years of accumulation can amount to a tidy sum both in time spent enjoying your hobby, as well as money invested in the pastime.

One of the most frequently asked questions received from families of hobbyists who have departed is how to dispose of their loved one’s collection? As with most questions there is no simple or easy answer that we can pass on to these families. This provided pause for thought, since all of us in the hobby are collectors after one fashion or the other. This fact alone allowed me to put some thought into the matter drawn from both my involvement in the hobby and life experiences dealing with this matter. This has led to a series of articles planned for inclusion in the pages of HO Collector dealing with this complex issue.

As in all life matters, planning ahead makes a big difference to any outcome. Too often our heirs have no concept of our collections. While we are happily accumulating all the various bits and pieces involved in the pursuit of the hobby it makes sense to take a few moments to document our holdings. In the past, I have often marveled at those organized shoppers a train shows that show up with complete lists of all of their model railroad possessions that they check as they navigate the aisles searching for some obscure treasure. This not only allows them to not rebuy those items that they already have, but also to zero in on finding those pieces that will flesh out their collections by providing what is basically an inverse shopping list. Any collector will tell you that it is the thrill of the hunt is the most satisfying aspect of collecting. Therefore the best way to start planning ahead is the get organized.

Planning Ahead

This is a screen-shot illustrating what you can assemble using MicroSoft’s Excel program. A spreadsheet done on your computer provides many benefits, beyond simply documenting and cataloging your trains. You can easily update and revise entries and add new items with ease. If you are tech savvy or know someone to assist, you can port this type of file over to a smart device and have it available with you during swap meets for instant access to your collection data.

The advent of household computers and spreadsheets has made this task so much easier than the laborious hand entries with pencil and paper of the past. Laying out a sheet for our use with Excel by Microsoft allows even the least computer gifted of us to successfully set up all the data needed to log and track our collection. I have devised a simple sheet broken into various topics. Each of these allows an accurate assessment of each item of a collection.


I recommend listing an item in one of six categories. These are: Locomotives, Passenger Cars, Freight Cars, Structures, Tools, and Miscellaneous. This last group covers vehicles, figures, unused scenery materials and is a general catchall for any item not covered in the previous categories.


Since many of us have items in different scales, list the information in this column. A good example is that even in HO scale, there is standard gauge, HOn3, HOn30, and more which makes a difference in your documentation.


List the manufacturer if known. This will make further research more straightforward. Though many models include markings on them to denote what company made them, this is not always the case. Also, those unfamiliar with model trains may not recognize or know where to look for markings to determine a model’s manufacturer.

A couple of misleading model markings examples include both vintage brass and inexpensive “train set” offerings. You might spot “United” on a brass model. United did build the model, but it might be better known or considered to be a Pacific Fast Mail release. At the other end of the model spectrum, you might see “RSO” on the bottom of plastic fuel tank for an AHM or other maker’s locomotive. The Yugoslavian factory that produced a nearly endless supply of model trains beginning in the 1960s, often did not put easily recognized names on products. The “RSO” label is a frequently seen example that spurs confusion and debate.

Item Number

Enter the item number if available; often this number will change with different runs of the same or a similar product. This is a challenging piece of information, but one that is very important. Some models that saw production over the course of many years, also feature variations and refinements in design. Consider an early 1960s TYCO Santa Fe GP20 versus what the company offered by the late 1980s for this same road name and diesel model. Old product catalogs, as well as the HO-Scale Trains Resource can be very beneficial in determining not only what you have, but when it was made and what version it might be of a particular model.


Describe the item and any modifications made to it. For example: “40-foot PS-1 boxcar Norfolk & Western, plus Kadee couplers and metal wheels.” If brass, is the item painted or unpainted?

Price Paid

What did you pay for the item at time of purchase? While this may not affect the resell price either positively or negatively, it will help should you carry insurance on your collection.

Acquisition Date

Roughly what was the date that the item was acquired? Since items are frequently run over a number of years, this will help determine in which manufacturing run the item if purchased new was built.


An important factor for many regarding a model relates to whether it was obtained new or purchased used. This may or may not impact value, depending on condition.


If originally sold as a kit, has the item been built? Depending on how well the item was assembled, this can negatively affect pricing since many want the item in original condition in the box.


This section is a true test of character. I break up this section into the following conditions: New in Box – in original packaging with all parts in place and operable; Excellent – may have been repackaged, operable with original or custom finish properly applied and all parts properly attached with none broken; Good – operates, may have a few replaceable pieces missing and finish acceptable; Fair – requires mechanical overhaul or refinishing, some parts are missing; Poor – these items are ones acquired due to rarity or for parts. These usually are not in operating condition and frequently have crumbling die-cast metal or plastic parts. Because of this their value will be low. These grades are only a personal guideline since other evaluators may use a different set of criterion.

Appraised Value

This column is for third party professional appraisal should this item be accepted for donation to 501C-3 non-profit club, society or museum.

Planning Ahead

When photographing a model, make sure to include shots of any promotional materials included. This type of special or unique packaging is frequently used on initial production runs and often greatly enhances the importance and value of a sample. This Roundhouse early boxcab diesel locomotive (above) joined that company’s line in the 1970s.

Photo Log

This is particularly valuable, when accessing built up and custom built models since beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. Also, photos for more valuable items are important documentation for insurance purposes.


Use this section to document any noteworthy features of the item cataloged. This entry can become lengthy, so attempt to be precise and get down important facts in the fewest possible words without missing any noteworthy particulars.

To demonstrate each of the sections, six random items have been entered on the sample spread sheet illustration. Since some of the information has been obscured or has faded and is other wise unavailable the slot has been left blank. However, this can be filled in later as more information comes to light. As adding entries becomes second nature a fully fleshed out overview of one’s collection will be the end result. This will help ensure proper management and dispensation of it in the future.

HOC 2018-03This article appeared in the 3rd Quarter 2018 edition of HO Collector. Additional installments will appear in future editions.

This article was posted on: October 23, 2018