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Steam Locomotives In Z Scale

| December 10, 2011 | 14 Comments More

A look at Z scale steamThe Christmas season is always a popular time in model railroading. Whether you had the classic oval of track and steam locomotive under the tree, or if that image is just a nostalgic look back on what you wished you had… model trains and Christmas really do go together.

Around this time of year, I’ll get emails from new users asking about steam locomotives in Z scale. Currently we don’t have a huge selection of steam in Z scale but we do have more options that just a year or two ago. In addition, we also have new steamers on the way.

I recently received this email from Mike Hyland, a Ztrains.com reader, and thought I’d do a very brief State of Steam article in response. First, here’s Mike’s email:

Good evening from Prince George B.C. Canada

I have been looking for a supplier of Z scale trains here to no avail. A local hobby shop says STAY AWAY! Not proven or popular. This makes me want these even more.

I am interested in steam locomotives. I build and fly electric park flyer airplanes but these small trains have me excited. Any information, or where I may find these? I want to build a Z scale system on a coffee table and be able to pass it down to my grandchildren someday. In addition, are parts available?

Cheers, Mike

Sadly, we do hear of this sort of misinformation from hobby shops too often, that Z scale isn’t proven or popular. As far as being proven, Z scale has been around since 1972 so if time is any indicator, Z of course is a proven and viable scale to work in. On the popularity of Z scale, it may be true that Z scale has the smallest user base of the popular model train scales but this audience is growing and as important, more new manufacturers are regularly joining Z scale.

Now on to the question of steam in Z scale. For years, we had Marklin steam locomotives… actually for years we had Marklin locomotives period. There have been other manufacturers such as Railex, FR, Z-Modellbau and AZL in brass producing some amazing Z locomotives. These locomotives while very impressive are often a bit out of the price range of many. I’d like to look at what we have today, right now in Z scale steam locomotives, at what we in Z scale consider to be a good value.

We’ll begin with the original, Marklin. Since the beginning of Z scale back in 1972, Marklin has produced a wide variety of steamers in Z. Most of these models are of European design with a Mikado and Pacific added to appeal to the North American market. Several years back Marklin had some financial difficulties that had the effect of less Z scale models being produced, among other things. Here for example is a popular Z scale dealer and their current steam offerings: Marklin New Steam Locomotives. Another way to build a steam locomotive collection is to buy used from eBay or an independent store such as Ztrack Resale.

Marklin steam locomotives

A couple of observations on Marklin steam locomotives. On many of the used models, you can run into a condition known as HOS or hardened oil syndrome. Early on, Marklin used lubricating oil that had the tendency to congeal and harden up over time. You can often find good deals on HOS locos but realize that they’ll need a bit of care to return to good running condition. Not a monumental task, but a task nonetheless.

Marklin locomotives come with 3 pole motors in their earlier models and 5 pole motors in the later models. These motors can run smoothly but are prone to stuttering or cogging at slower speeds. Most folks who run these motors are familiar with tapping their layout, just a bit, to get a locomotive running from a dead stop. Not terrible but not ideal either. I don’t want to put anyone off buying Marklin steam locomotives, I have several that I run often and reliably. For maximum performance, a little tweaking here and there may be required. Nothing wrong with going under the hood from time to time :)

The newer generation of steam locos in Z scale use sealed can motors located in the tender. Can motors in Z scale generally run smoother than a standard 3 or 5 pole motor and this results in improved slow speed performance. Also on the newer steam locomotives you have track power being picked up from the locomotive as well as from the tender. With a rigid frame steam locomotive, the more power pick up the better!

Tenshodo steam locomotives

The downside to these newer steam locomotives is selection. Currently there is one company producing affordable steam in Z scale, this is Tenshodo. Though they do produce two different wheel configurations, a 4-8-4 Mikado-style and a 4-6-4 Hudson-style, these locos are based on Japanese locomotive prototypes. Given how well these locos perform and their reasonable price, many in Z scale are willing to accept the Japanese inspired shell and pull US freight and passenger cars with these Tenshodos.

On the horizon is the AZL (American Z Line) Mikado. This will be a true North American steamer and is expected to be released early in 2012.

As far as spare or replacement parts go, this is still a bit iffy in Z scale but like most things in the free market, consumer demand can produce results. Marklin spare parts have become a bit more difficult to get in the past few years since their financial reworking. Hopefully we’ll begin to see parts from Marklin and Tenshodo on their existing lines and AZL with their upcoming Mikado.

To sum up, while we don’t have the steam locomotive selection available in the other scales, we are seeing growth. In Z scale patience is a virtue and it looks like our steam patience is being rewarded with these new locomotives!

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Category: Introduction To Z Scale

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  • Mike Hyland

    Thank you John so very much for your information. I will be studying these sites and doing much more research on Z trains. I have a lot to learn and by the looks of things there is a lot of interest in Z. I am truly excited about the future of Z and looking forward to keeping in touch with you and other Z enthusiasts. I am open to comments and tips as well as obtaining magazines etc. on Z trains.

    Prince George B.C. Canada

    • John


      I’m glad we could be of service to you today. There’s a good amount to be learned in Z, especially if you move towards things like DCC, very exciting stuff! As I always suggest with new Z scalers, start small and get a feel for the equipment and most important… enjoy the process!


  • Joe


    Right now, as John made reference to, “going under the hood” is a must if you run steam by Marklin. Don’t be daunted, they are very robust and you will learn so much by just doing it. Proper cleaning and lubrication is a must!

    Even the old MTL moguls are using Marklin mechanisms. I must add, the use of Gaugemasters and a good speed controller like the Jorger or Snail Speed Controller is a must to get those locomotives to run slow and steady.

    I do not own any Tenshodo steam because I just don’t like the look of steam that is not NA. Everything I have heard is positive though. I will say if I had not had a pay freeze I’d own one just to tinker. However, with times tight, I will wait for AZL.

    Sum of the whole. Z steam, when running well, is a sight to behold. However, it takes work and some research for sure. Quite frankly if not for the MT moguls, I might not have even entered Z scale and I would have stayed in N completely (heck they have just about everything now).

    I think when AZL gets that Mikado out, it will be a watershed mark like the Kato Mikado was in N scale. Why we do not have NA steam with Kato style tender pickups is a mystery to me. Model RR in Z needs steam. More importantly good running steam.

  • Scott


    I just read about steam engines and hardened oil syndrome on your site. I have a Z layout, nearly finished about 6 years ago, and then had to stop. I am now finishing it.

    I have an 81418 Mini-Club that has never been run, still in the box and another electric from a freight starter kit that has only been run a few minutes, years ago. Seems I should clean and re-oil these before using. Are these devices prone to HOS?


    • John

      Hi Scott,

      The Marklin 81418 is probably one of my favorite Marklin locos, a beautiful model. Although the model is an electric with pantographs, the heart of this model is a steam loco mechanism and steamers can be a bit finicky. Worth the effort, but they are typically a little more work.

      Having sat for several years I would err on the side of safety and clean it before running, I’d assume that there is a bit of HOS happening here. If you want to test it just a bit, you can put the locos on the track and apply a little power, just for a moment. If it runs, great. If it lurches a bit, then runs… not too bad. If it doesn’t move at all… it’s likely going to need a good cleaning to get the hardened oil out of there.

      Really many, if not most, Marklin locos are prone to HOS and it’s just a good idea to get them cleaned regularly by yourself or an outside shop. Once they’re taken apart and all traces of the old Marklin oil are removed, they can be lubed up with a good oil, such as Labelle #108. The Labelle oil is synthetic, not petroleum based and therefore less likely to dry out and become sticky over time.

      Of course since your layout hasn’t been used in years, don’t forget to clean the tracks thoroughly before testing any trains.

      John Cubbin

  • Ernest Chudzik

    I really like the Tenshodo steam locomotives. I have both the 4-8-4 and the new 4-6-4. They run super smooth but don’t have much pulling power out of the box, the wheels start slipping. I like to apply a thin coat of BullFrog Snot traction tire maker to the large loco drive wheels. This takes a steady hand and a bit of patience. I dilute the BullFrog Snot a bit with water first so it goes on smooth and not so thick. I use a camel hair #1 paint brush using the manufactures application technique to apply it.

    RESULT: I have had these little Z scale steamers pulling 20 freight cars with the BullFrog Snot applied. I use it on all my Z scale locomotives. I don’t like any Marklin Z scale trains at all because the big Z couplers look to fake.


    My hat’s off to Marklin. There would be no Z without Marklin! I purchased a Marklin class 216 from Ztrack Resale cleaned and lubed, which is a must, and it ran like new. It’s the old 8875 with 3 pole motor in wood grain box was very affordable… the price of a Marklin freight car. Like I said my hats off to Marklin Z. They’re beautiful little gems, couplers and all, they stand tall!


  • Walter McMillan

    John, Where can I obtain “Bullfrog Snot” traction liquid?

    Walter in Ottawa ,Canada

    • John

      Hi Walter,

      You can buy direct from Bullfrog Snot, you can either click on their ad or use this link:



  • http://princestreet.wordpress.com Chris Mears


    I’m just starting to collect Z after twenty years of working in N. I’m really excited about this and am getting ready to start building my first layout.

    In searching through listings of used locomotives I’ve often seen “HOS” in the description and never knew what it meant. Thanks for the description. You mentioned it’s simple to fix this and I’m willing to give it a go. I’ll have to search around now and see what the recommended fix is.

    By the way, I remember the frames of my older N scale Minitrix engines would start to corrode after time. I wonder if this is a similar problem with Marklin’s metal models?

    Chris Mears
    Prince Edward Island, Canada

    • http://www.raildig.com John Cubbin

      Hi Chris,

      I’d like to welcome you to Z scale! Though not much smaller from a pure percentage point of view, Z scale does take a little getting used to if you’re coming from N scale.

      With HOS, hardened oil syndrome, there’s the best fix and that it to strip the Marklin loco down, if possible give it a good soak in an inexpensive ultrasonic jewellery cleaner (or just a soak in general is effective) make sure it’s dead-clean, then reassemble and re-oil using something like Labelle 108 oil.

      This is also a great way to give yourself your own “Introduction To Z Scale” class!

      You could go through the loco and do spot-cleanings here and there, but I prefer the big-clean as it will set you up for years of good running.

      I have some pretty old Marklin locos here and have no corrosion issues, HOS… yes, but not true corrosion. I live on Long Island very near the water and it’s pretty humid here so I’d think if these were prone to corrosion, they would have affected my locos.

      Again welcome to Z scale and if you have any questions, I can either answer them for you or point you in a good direction to get the answers!


  • David

    I have a Marklin 8907A set which hadn’t been run for years. This year it ran but only for a few minutes before the hardened oil apparently caused damage to the 5th tiny gear driven by the motor’s ring gear. The ring gear looks good but the drive wheel’s gear has been damaged. Any way for me to repair this tiny steam locomotive Thanks in advance!

    • http://www.raildig.com John Cubbin

      Hi David,

      As the motor in that 0-6-0 8800 Marklin is basically press-fit to the chassis, you don’t have the option of a simple motor replacement.

      Also Marklin parts have become more difficult to come by in recent years. I’d suggest sending it out to a couple down in Florida who are well known and respected for doing Z scale repairs:

      Glenn and Sandy Stiska
      Largo, FL

      Without driving yourself mad, this is probably your best repair option.


      • David Bipes

        THANK you, John! I’ll phone them and see if they can help out. I visited Hub Hobby in Richfield and they suggested contacting Märklin, Inc., Warranty Repair, 16988 W. Victor Road, P.O. Box 510559, New Berlin, WI 53151, (262) 784-8854 but I think I’m going to check with your people first.

        Thanks again!

        p.s. While taking apart and reassembling I “sprung” the tiny coupler spring 3 times including once onto the hardwood floor. By divine guidance we were able to find it each time but I’m not anxious to do that again:)

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