model train set on track

Cleaning Trains, a treatise (updated Winter 2024)

e*Train Issue: Dec 2023   |   Posted in:

Lionel station prior to cleaning

By Clem Clement, TCA #HR64-987

(Updated Winter 2024)

Let me start this treatise by saying that there is no ultimate cleaning answer or magic process.  Cleaning trains is a continuing learning activity as paints and surface coverings continue to evolve/age, and cleaning processes and chemicals change. I’m also finding the cleaners are local in production.

Common stuff available here on the East Coast may not be so somewhere else. I’m a tinplater and certainly no expert on plastic.  And scared of modern paints am I.  I don’t work for any of the companies whose products I write about. Nor by not mentioning a product, does that give any negative tint.  The comments herein are my own and do not represent the opinion of TCA.

As we get started, here’s some basic rules:

  1. Never put the cleaning material directly on the piece – put it on a rag/Q-tip, etc. Ever sprayed Oven Off on a plastic train thinking it was WD-40?

I have!

DON’T BELIEVE ME! Test everything for yourself.  Over the 100+ years of painted and litho trains, many types of paints and surface protectorates have been utilized.  The content of some commercial products changeover time as the company improves their products and some products change as they age in their containers. 

2. Study the piece before you start.  – a good friend quickly dumped an Ives repainted cab in a bucket of driveway cleaner and watched as the cleaning agent ate thru the sloppy white repaint and then ate thru the original “John Wanamaker” signature stamp and 1923 factory IVES paint!

Before you start; study, study, study.  Take a look at the piece and see what it had been thru during its life as a toy:

  • Is it a repaint?
  • Is it paint or plastic color or metal dye?
  • Has it been cleaned/repaired before?  Who did it:
          an expert or a wanabe?
  • Is the paint flaking?
  • Is the dirt removable or is the surface stained.
  • Where did it live and where did it retire: i.e., Did it live
           in a house with a bituminous-fired home heater? Lived in New Jersey?
           Retired in a wet basement or in the hot attic? Was it wrapped in
          newspaper?  Did it have a swim at some point?

3. No one product cleans everything – I have come to find that sometimes my favorite hand cleaner attacks some Ives maroon and brown colors.

The next question is why do you want to clean it? It may be the best it can be or so fragile that high tech cleaners of today will only degrade it. I have a few pieces that I think the providence would change if the patina was cleaned.

OK, you decide you want to clean the thing.

  • Start with non-aggressive cleaners and work up in strength. Don’t start with kerosene, auto gas or alcohol.
  • Start with a soft brush and work the loose dust and debris off. Camera stores have brushes with a bulb attached. You can brush a little and then blow the dust off.  
  • Reattach anything that is loose. Trim moving around during cleaning can really chew up the paint on a piece.
  • In my house we haven’t directly thrown away any old tooth brush, ever. From its official job, it goes thru the dishwasher and to its real job of cleaning trains. Lightly, and then more harshly, clean under trim and around the piece.  Be careful as decals and loose paint jump off under the scrubbing of a hard tooth brush.
  • Be ever so careful when using a wooden tooth pick to dig junk out of corners.  A one ounce push force on the tooth pick results in several hundred pounds pressure/square inch on the contact spot!
  • I like the Dremel rotary tool results, so that’s where I go next. Safety glasses, please, then Dremel with a rotary wire brush the bright metal only where needed.  Nickled wheels will shine up some.  Post war sintered Lionel wheels will shed their goo but will take a false luster on the wheel sides.  This is a giveaway to the knowledgeable collector when he is looking over the piece later. Tinned  wheels will shine some but will not gain their original luster.  Handrails, steps, journal boxes, etc. will give up their patina but be cautious.  Lionel prewar bright trim was mostly coated with shellac or something to deter tarnishing.  Dremeling this will shine the parts where the coating is gone, but will scuff the remaining coating. 
  • It may be better to keep the Dremel away and shine these parts with Symichrome or similar bright metal polish. 

Once you have shined brass, it loves to fade, so you have to recoat it or repolish it frequently.  The discerning collector will note you have polished the bright work and take that into account.  Some companies did not coat their brass well and it grows a lovely patina.  Why not leave it?  Also, be careful if you Dremel a number board so as not to rub the paint surrounding it.

  • Speaking of Symichrome, it does a nice job on bright work. Use a Q-tip or rag. It is fairly aggressive so be careful.  Also shine the piece symmetrically. If part of the handrail demands work, do the whole thing.  Then protect the bright work with a wax or Restorzit, etc.

  • I’m hearing success with Goof Off on train wheel tread electro goo.  As the train wheels traverse the track they gather carbon, oil, and dirt.  This goo can pileup significantly.  On a power pickup up it can get so bad as to stop power from flowing into the piece.  The goo seems to harden over the years and become more nonconductive to electricity.

I’m against taking the train apart to clean the bright work.  Just like this old man, I and the trains have only have so many shines  and so much elbow grease left in us so why dissemble and risk tab failure/loss/etc.?

I use a Lapidary tumble for my tin plate wheels.  It really cheers a piece up to have the wheels shine like they did originally.  I wrote the article in the TCA Quarterly on tumble use some years ago.  The late Larry Battley (TCA #60-507) and I worked on a test where we successfully shined some 10 series trucks with 1/8” rust pits.  It took 100 hours of polishing and looks super.  Blackened or sintered wheels will tumble, but they then need to be re-blackened.  Removable couplers and trim will clean up well.  Be careful to not wear the plating off or use too heavy a matrix. (Probably a subject for another article.)  I don’t drill rivets or dissemble tabs just to tumble the part.  If it is fixed firmly to the car, leave it unless you are in a full resto job.

There is some interesting activity going on in home replating.  For example, Eastwood sells kits for electroplating.

Basic car cleaning is next.  Be unaggressive!

The first time I watched a German friend clean a 1914 Marklin Gauge 1 mail car, I was stunned. He used soap and water and a scrub brush. I was sure he ruined it, but the dirt came off and the car dried beautifully. Turns out Marklin was the best at painting trains way back when.  Their paint really sticks on the metal and is quite durable (With some exceptions due to unsavory storing or rough use.)  However know what you are doing if you use water.  Use a soft brush, warm water, very mild hand soap and immediate drying. Then let the piece sit on a register if not too hot or outside if not too sunny/hot.  It must dry thoroughly to include under the seams and in the nooks and crannies.  

The dangers of this process:

  • Some Lionel paints will turn white with any contact with water. 
  • The Lionel color Mojave watermarks easily.  Actually, I understand it is tiny flakes of paint turning up and showing underneath.  This dullness can be rubbed out, but there goes your paint thickness and paint on rivets and decals.   
  • Some post war colors go immediately down the drain.  
  • Several of the colors in the lettering/numbering on heat stamps are a dye and when water hits them they washout.  
  • Many collectors will tell you to stay away from water cleaning.  I say use the technique, just know what pieces can stand water.

A fun question to ask is what’s on the piece.  

Surely as a kid, you gave your peanut butter and jelly sandwich a ride sometime.  Brussels sprouts probably rode as well.  Some of these trains were played with by children, so no telling what they had on their hands.  I’ve seen some heavy jelly collections in a gondola.  Watch out for candle wax. It looks easy to pick off with your finger nail, but it hit the car hot and may have cooked the paint underneath.  Work it off slowly with hand cleaner.  Prewar Christmas tree snow is horrible.  I had a Lionel 214R that was lovely but the top had been hit by the fake snow.  Nothing removed it as the spray ate into the paint surface.

Here’s the prime stuff I use (or I’ve heard about):

  • Lanolin hand cleaner without abrasives or perfume.  The more it smells like sheep, the better it is. Always check and test first.  Put it on a rag/Q-tip not directly on the piece.  Rub on and off at one time.  If a ridge of cleaner is left remaining, it might discolor the paint.  It happened to me only once but who knows.  
  • The GOJO cleaner from Pep Boys seems to pull dirt thru decals.  I can’t imagine how but I’ve seen it do it.  Use Q-tips for the tight places.  Wipe the piece off frequently.
  • I’m hearing that window cleaner without ammonia works well to clean Flyer plastic.  Test carefully.
  • For litho jobs, I use hand cleaner lightly. Then add machine oil or linseed oil to the piece.  Some litho has a white substrate that you can rub into.  Consider marking pens to touch up if you can find the right colors.

Now the contentious step– to wax/shine/oil or not.  

I have a friend that uses Wahl’s chipper oil on his tinplate including the track.  Looks beautiful and lasts a couple years.  His is not a dusty environment.  Some use DuPont #7 to both to shine and protect. It is a good product for your car, but not trains-too aggressive for me and if not completely wiped away, dries and leaves a white powder in the cracks.  The best polish/wax for trains is Polific.  It is made in Germany and very slow to cut paint (low pumice content.) It is hard to find.

I’m not a fan of Bravo. It was a tough floor wax that will leave a shine on anything.  I saw a collection once that had Bravo on everything.  Shiny orange suede trucks are something to see.  As far as I know, Bravo won’t come off.

Arguments for and against oiling the paint rage on.  Oil gives a false shine and hides blemishes, but catches dust and may lift decals and window gelatins.  Anyway, who knows what is in auto oils nowadays?  The additives may munch your surface while the oil is protecting it.  There was a famous auction in Vermont one time where every piece had been drenched with light oil that actually dripped from the pieces during the auction. I bid 2 quarts!

Oh yes, if you mess up and spray a piece with tough stuff like auto brake cleaner, just set it on its wheels and go for coffee. That stuff is fast.  If you leave it alone, it may evaporate with not too much damage. I was in a big rush on a post war plastic loco and squirted brake cleaner on the motor and the body after picking up the wrong spray can.  The plastic started to wrinkle and the paint to soften and run.  Two days of drying helped some and then some WD-40 helped a little but never fully recovered.  We’ve talked about WD-40.  Good stuff, but be cautious.  It will leave a film after it dries.  It also smells for a period. (At one of the outside gatherings at York, after one hour in the sun on the first morning you could smell the fresh cleaners and paints burning off their vapors in the sun!).  

I clean motors with Radio Shack black and white TV Tuner.  It’s expensive but it will chase out petrified oils.  The older Radio Shack stuff was better and much cheaper, but it was harmful to the environment.

If the motor is hopelessly rusted, try an ultrasonic cleaner.  No plastic or paint.  We saw a Flyer loco dropped in ultrasonic solution and buzzed.  Instant melt down!

Caution. I don’t know much about modern paint and for that matter, high tech cleaners.  Test thoroughly before cleaning a China-made Williams piece with Simple Green, for instance.

Hair dryers are good for removing plastic tape from trains and from boxes.  Be careful with the heat.  Some of the tough cleaners of the past are gone.  For instance, Oakite, old MMO formulas, and others.  They might have been good for their purposes, but hard on the environment and human health.

To remove newspaper stuck in train paint takes time.  This one is a slow job.  Apply thin oil to the paper and let it soak in for several days.  The paper will turn opaque. Then rub the paper with your thumb using medium pressure.  Layers of paper will roll off.  You can drag your thumb nail across the paper to scrape more off, but not too much at each time.  Re-oil and do it again.  The paint underneath the paper is damaged, so go slow.  The last one I did took a month but 90% of the paper came off. When finished, protect the damaged paint.

I have 706 pet theories about train paints and their present condition.  You get two of them here.  

  • I believe the air surrounding the train might have changed the color of the piece.  I have a Lionel 514R refrig that is light tan on the outside and white on the inside.  There are many samples of this paint that have been found on the 514R and the 515 Tank that have a light tan hue.

Were all white to begin with?  Could it have been bad paint mix, dirty equipment, intentional, etc.?  I think the atmosphere the car lived may have helped the color change.  If the air around has a higher sulfur content (from coal burning heaters,) then sulfur oxidants were present.  These molecules are ugly and leave their mark on bright metal.  Since my sample is white on the inside and tan on the outside, did the sulfur, or whatever was in the air, change the color?  I have 6 of these cars with the color changed and all have the tan in the same shade around the car, so sunlight on one side is ruled out.  

  • Another theory, based on the several sets with grime really imbedded in the paint is that those trains retired in a basement with coal dust.  No more theories today.

I’m not a fan of waxing the trains.  Some waxes change color over the years and some harden so I stay away from them.  I’m lucky in that my trains live in a climate-controlled room and don’t have to ward off moisture, heat, etc.  I am near Washington, DC, however so maybe I’d better protect them from the politico blow.  Maybe someone would like to contribute info on good wax products?

Guardsman Furniture polish comes in a gray plastic squeeze-me bottle and is reported to be great for shining plastic and metal cars.

Another thought- if you have a particularly dirty piece, try this: Clean it as mentioned herein and then wipe with Wahls or another light machine oil.  Let it sit for a month or so and clean it again.  I have pieces that I cleaned this way once a month for 6 months and still got dirt to come off.

Hair dryers are good for white plastic “Mold”.  Remember the best cleaning secret of all: When your significant other is out of the house, set you dirty train hat/cap in the top drawer of the dish washer.  Prop the brim/lip with clean dishes, and let ‘er rip.  Dry outside. Some how I’ve never heard of a companion, who approved of such a process, so don’t get caught!

There is a lot of material here.  I hope it helps and sparks discussions.  Please tender your comments.

Please realize that neither I nor TCA represent any of the products mentioned herein.  The opinions are mine and shared for the hobbyist’s consideration and info only.  Please don’t send my words to some manufacturer who I may have not properly lauded.  Their help is most welcome, however.  Test everything carefully and remember that safety is paramount.  Keep hazardous materials away from children and in safe storage.

There are many questions that need further research and other fine products that need a review.  If you have comments or more information or ideas, please contribute to E*Train for an updated story. 

Here are some of the questions I have not treated:

  • How to remove spot mold on post war plastic diesel tops?
  • Use of tooth paste in cleaning?
  • Use of an air compressor in cleaning trains
  • Can ATF be used safely as a cleaning agent?
  • KD offers a track cleaning compound.  Good Stuff? 
  • Soaking dirty train trucks in WD-40.
  • Removing various types of adhesive tapes from boxes/trains
  • McQuires offers a new brand of liquid to remove swirls from paint finish.  Does this work on trains?
  • Do silicon cleaners create silicates which have sharp edges and can damage paints/humans?
  • Use of Cox model airplane engine fuel as a cleaner?
  • Is there a simple way to remove the black goo from train wheels?  So far most folks “shave” the goo off with an Exacto knife and end up with a very black thumb from the goo.
  • How to remove old dried linseed oil?
  • What are train plastic bodies made up of: Styrene, acetate, tenite, etc.  What are their reactions to cleaning methods?
  • Which plastics can stand ultrasonic cleaning?
  • Are there no-nos in cleaning trains?  Such as the use of auto gas or diesel fuels as cleaners.
  • Safe use of lighter fluid?
  • How to clean litho jobs?
  • What cleans rubber tires on modern locos?
  • How to clean trains of the current productions containing modern paints and materials.

Tell us a story about your most successful, or unsuccessful, cleaning of a train!