A model train set can have either plastic or metal wheels. Understanding model train wheel-set construction is important when considering which type of wheels is best for you.
A train wheel consists of a flange and a tread. The flange is the inside part of the wheel and is deeper (or longer) than the other. The tread is the flat portion that actually rides on the rail. (Real trains have the same type flange and tread manufacture.) Some wheels are mounted on an adjustable axle, which allows for some rotation of the wheels. In actuality, this two-part design of the wheel and axle is called the wheel-set. Some trains have plastic wheel-sets and some have metal wheel-sets, while still others use a combination of plastic and metal to create the wheel-set.
Plastic wheel-sets pick up an electrical charge because they are nonconductive, creating a static charge, much like static electricity in a house. This static electricity causes the wheel-sets to Since the plastic wheel-sets do not conduct electricity, there is the potential for less shorting out during your model trains operation.
Plastic wheels may become pitted due to wear and tear, causing eventual replacement of the wheels. Plastic wheels are typically quieter than metal wheels, so your train set can operate with little external sound. Usually plastic wheels can be easily cleaned by wiping them with a facial tissue.
Oiling plastic wheels is tricky in that too much oil causes the train to drag and demands more cleaning. Too little oil prevents the wheels from rolling smoothly.
The black plastic metal wheel sets may provide a more authentic look, as real train wheels are usually black.
Metal wheel-sets weigh a bit more than a plastic wheel-set, which can provide added stability to the model train set on its track, especially around curves and on grades. This means the train could sit more steadily on the track. Metal wheels could increase the train’s pulling capacity due to the added weight.
Metal wheel-sets provide a more realistic sounding clickety-clack that you would hear on a real train.
Metal wheel-sets provide a smoother operation, according to some National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) enthusiasts. A model train with metal wheels generally keeps the track cleaner and doesn’t require cleaning as often as plastic wheel-sets.
The silver color on metal wheel-sets provides a brightness that can help make your train set look new, even if it’s many years old.
If you are unsure of your preference between plastic and metal, you should experiment with both. Keep a log of noise, cleaning frequency, and derailments; all of these items can help you determine the best choice of wheel-sets for your individual train set. You may find that some train cars perform better with plastic wheel-sets and others with metal wheel-sets. The main goal is your overall enjoyment and ease of caring for your train set.