Fake Builders' Plates: Norfolk & Western

In the age of steam, the Norfolk & Western Railway was renowned from the distinctive, innovative steam locomotives that were built at the company's own shops in Roanoke, Virginia. Today, only a few of these locomotives survive, and the builders' plates from those that were scrapped have become a focus of hot competition among collectors.

Such popularity, of course, invites reproductions. There is nothing inherently wrong with reproductions that are permanently marked or at least identifiable as such. For example, quite a few builders' plates have been copied with the use of resin casting techniques (see page), and these are not likely to fool someone with even a little knowledge of the subject. However, more problematic are reproductions that duplicate the look and feel of the original to a fine degree. While someone producing reproductions may do so with innocent intent and full disclosure, the bigger problem occurs in secondary markets such as internet auctions, antique shows, and garage sales. Here unknowing sellers may claim that such plates couldn't possibly be fakes because they look and feel so authentic. Also, new collectors may lack the knowledge to detect subtle details that distinguish the real thing from the copy.

There is one series of reproduction N&W plates that is particularly worth noting because they could potentially be quite convincing to a novice. These were reportedly made decades ago, more or less as a hobbyist project, but it seems that some have shown up in the collectors' market recently. Once source says that the plates were not done to deceive people, and that some were stamped with "REPRO" on the back sides. Also, they were made with significant differences from original N&W Plates, including the use of yellow brass with less-than-optimal quality on the finish, i.e., sharp corners and edges and no "blocks" around the dates and serial numbers [See examples below]. No attempt was made to age them, although, of course, artificial aging techniques could be applied by a secondary seller. It seems that only a small number of sets were produced, but specific production numbers are currently unknown.

Following are known plates in this series:

  • no class designation) Built FEB 1884 No. 4 (engine number 120)
  • (no class designation) Built FEB 1900 No. 154 (engine number 831)
  • Class A Built MAY 1936 No. 266 (engine number 1200)
  • Class A Built 1943 No. 340 (engine number 1218)
  • Class J Built OCT 1941 No. 311 (engine number 600)
  • Class J Built 1950 No. 388 (engine number 611)
  • Class J1 Built OCT 1943 No. 347 (engine number 605)
  • Class K1 Built DEC 1917 No. 223 (engine number 115)
  • Class K3 Built JUNE 1926 No. 235 (engine number 200)
  • Class S1a Built 1953 No. 449 (engine number 244)
  • Class Y2a Built FEBRUARY 1924 No. 231 (engine number 1707)
  • Class Y6 Built NOV 1939 No. 298 (engine number 2142)
  • Class Y6a Built FEB 1942 No. 316 (engine number 2155)
  • Class Y6B BUILT APR 1295 No. 419 (engine number 2200)
  • Class Y6b Built APR 1948 No. 363 (engine number 2171
  • Class Y6B Built APR 1295 No. 419 (engine number 2200)
  • Also produced in this series were cylinder plates.
Below far left: Some of the reproduction plates listed above; Below middle left and middle right: Front and back views of reproduction cylinder plates cast in both brass and aluminum from an Class A locomotive; Below far right: A Class Y6b reproduction plate shown in a wooden mold. Note the "5" in the upper left of the wooden mold, possibly indicating the number made (?).
Below far left: Side-by-side comparisons of a reproduction and real N&W plate; Note lack of pads or borders around the numbers in the reproduction. The brass is also more yellow although this does no show in the photos. Below middle left: Back of same plates. Note the very clean back of the reproduction, whereas the real plate has boiler scale and more corrosion; Below middle right: Close ups of the pads or borders around the dates and numbers on the real thing compared to the reproduction; Below far right: A more prominent example of pads or borders on another authentic plate.

The twelve plates shown in the first row of photos, far left, have been donated to the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia. Link documented N&W steam in the 1950's using innovative night photography techniques and is fondly associated with the railroad. This donation removes some of the plates from circulation, but as mentioned above it is unknown how many are still out there.

Thanks to all who contributed to this page!