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Old 03-10-2008, 04:19 PM   #1
Boston&Maine
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Arrow Restoring Prewar Tinplate Trains: A How-To

I have written this how-to so that members of this site, or those just visiting here, can get some ideas for how they want to restore their O scale or Standard scale prewar tinplate trains...

Before you start this process, be clear of two things... Firstly, not all people will enjoy restoring their trains as it involves a lot of work... Secondly, most of the time restoring an old piece will hurt its value if it is an uncommon piece/variation, so please do not go out and restore your Blue Comet set just because of some scratches
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1. Baking Oven

This is something which (in my opinion) you should build before doing anything to your prewar tinplate, or at least before stripping the paint from it... To get a durable, authentic looking paint finish, you are going to want to bake the primer and enamel onto your train... Since paint puts off toxic fumes when drying, it is a BAD IDEA to bake the tinplate pieces in your kitchen oven... Building your make-shift oven will not cost a lot of money, so do not worry...

• To start, you want to find a good sized cardboard box or build your own out of plywood... Although I used a large shoebox, I would recommend using plywood for two reasons... One is that it will be much sturdier, and the other is that this oven will get hot and the cardboard itself heats up faster... After the box has been selected, you need to line it with aluminum foil... Its reflective properties will help to heat the box faster and cook your tinplate pieces better... To be efficient, make sure that you cover all four sides, the base, and the lid of the box with the foil...

• The next step is to cut two, once inch square holes into the bottom of your box where the two lights will be so that the wiring can be fed out of the oven... This is because having the wires directly exposed to the 150 degree plus heat is not a good idea at all... Once you have made the two holes, it is time to install the electrical components into your oven... Because of the aluminum foil, two 60-watt bulbs will be strong enough to heat the oven... Here is a list of parts I used along with their prices at my local Home Depot: two Leviton plastic ceiling mounts ($1.25 each), two “no name brand” six foot indoor extension cords ($1.24 each), and two Philips 60-watt soft white light bulbs ($0.97 for four)...

• Now you need to wire the light sockets... Start by cutting the adapters off the extension cords leaving a couple inches on them (to be frugal just incase you ever need them in the future )... Once this is done you need to separate the two wires about three or so inches... After the initial snip is made in between them they should easily pull apart... The next step is to strip about an inch of the insulation from the wires doing your best not to cut any of the metal strands... Now take the wire which comes from the wide prong and connect it to the silver screw (neutral) on the underside of the socket... Then attach the wire which comes from the narrow prong and connect it to the brass/gold screw (hot)... Make sure you cover these connections with electrical tape because if they make contact with the aluminum foil they will cause a short... All that is left is to screw in the two 60-watt bulbs and plug them in to make sure that they both work...

• To finish off your new oven you will need to buy some sort of thermostat, and fittingly an oven thermostat works wonders

_Oven with Lights----------------.._Monitor your Trains
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2. Disassembly

Before you can fix up your train you need to take it all apart first... Nothing looks worse than a locomotive or a piece of rolling stock which has been painted as one piece... Getting the item apart without breaking anything though is a hard challenge... Remember, the metal is VERY thin and the tabs can easily break (trust me, I know from experience )...

• A good place to start is with removing the main body from the frame... This is done by finding all of the metal tabs on the underside of the train piece and simply unbending them... In addition, on rolling stock which have brake wheels you will need to “round out” the bottom of the shaft before taking the two pieces apart... You will notice that Lionel crimped the bottom of the brake wheels to keep them from sliding out... Now that everything is ready, carefully wiggle the two pieces apart...

• I like to do the easy things first, so the next step involves removing the couplers and trucks from the base... The latch type couplers are easy to remove, all you do is untwist the metal and slide them out... If you have box type couplers, I believe that they are held on with a lock washer or horseshoe clip and will come out when you remove the trucks... Now the earlier trucks were held on by cotter pins, but later in production Lionel switched to lock washers and horseshoe clips... Regardless of whichever item is holding them on though, once you remove the lock piece the trucks should come right off...

• Now that you have removed the trucks they need to be disassembled... The easiest place to start is with removing the journals (the metal pieces which cover the axle ends)... If you bend their bottom tab so it is facing straight in, the journals will then just pull out... Before the wheels can be removed, check to see which kind of brace is near the top of the truck... Earlier models will not require any attention now, but if the truck has the brace which is held in with clips on the end you will want to unbend both sets of clips now... The next step is bending the truck to remove the axles and brace... Try your best to make that bend on one side only and at the 90 degree angle where the side of the truck meets the top part... Once the piece has been bent enough the axles will come out easily but the brace may take some effort to remove...

• The last part left to take apart is the main body... If you are working with rolling stock, start by removing the roof... It snaps on and off which leads to it being somewhat difficult to take off... What I found to work best for removing it is to start at one end by separating it from the body and then just working your way down the length of the car doing the same... Now all of the brass/copper/nickel trim needs to be removed and this is done by unbending all of the tabs holding those pieces on... If there are any doors, windows, or other miscellaneous parts connected to the body, they will all need to come off too... After everything has been removed from the rolling stock piece you should be left with a bare, rectangular shell... On the other hand, if you are working on a locomotive the body can be further disassembled... By looking at the inside of the shell all of the tabs will be visible and they can be unbent just like before... For example, my Lionel 259E breaks down into six body pieces, the frame, and then the steam chest

Lionel 259E Locomotive---------------.Lionel 817 Caboose--
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3. Paint Removal

Now that everything is in pieces it is time to remove the old paint... There are a few ways that you can choose from, so pick whichever one is easiest for you... Regardless of which method you choose though, it will be helpful to have something like a pin on hand... This can be used to scrape stubborn paint off from around details and in those pesky 90 degree grooves... Just be cautious with the pin though because you can easily score the metal with it...

Boiling in a water/detergent mix – Here is one interesting way to remove paint from the old tinplate pieces... This only works on lead based paint, and you need to use Tide detergent for it to work, or so I once read... For this you will need to add a couple of cups of Tide to the water in a large pot (which you will NEVER use for cooking again) and bring it to a boil... Once it is bubbling, just simply drop your tinplate pieces into the mixture and wait for the chemical reaction to occur... I would have to say that I let the pot boil for about an hour or so before I took my pieces out... When I took them out the paint practically “slid” off of some parts, while others still needed a little bit of persuasion

Paint stripper – This method involves using a chemical paint stripper... If you choose this method simply follow the directions on the back of container it comes in... Most paint removers have you brush or spray on the solution and let the piece sit for at least fifteen minutes so the chemicals can do their job... Once it starts working you should see the paint starting to flake... Then just take a chisel or something of the sort and scrape the paint off... Be careful though if you chose this method as you are working with hazardous chemicals... Wear gloves and work in a WELL VENILATED AREA, preferably outside!!!

Sandpaper/razor blades – Another way to remove paint is via one of these methods... I grouped them together because both are very tedious methods and can take a lot of time... You will defiantly need to use some elbow grease here... To me, sandpaper is good because it will also remove rust along with the paint... Make sure that you choose a very fine paper to help prevent damaging the metal... I personally used 240 grit on my old trains and it seemed to work well... Using a razor blade is pretty self-explanatory... It is just like using a chisel in the paint stripper method, only without the paint stripper weakening the paint first... If you choose either of these methods though, just remember that the metal is very thin and can gouge easily... The last thing that you want to do is sand a hole into the side of your caboose

Now that you have all of the paint removed, look to see if there is any rust... If there is, you will want to take some fine grit sandpaper and remove it (see the sandpaper method description)... There would be no point in restoring an old train piece if you are going to let the rust remain under the new paint...


4. Repainting

Before you start applying the fresh paint it is best to wash the tinplate pieces first... A quick little bath in soap water will do... Obviously water plus oxygen equals rust, so hand dry the pieces as quickly as possible and then throw the parts into your newly made oven... Also, after you take it out of the water you do not want to handle it with your bare hands again until the final coat has dried completely... The oils from your fingers will get on the metal, or primer, or bottom coat, and it could potentially ruin your work... Also, remember that when you are painting harmful toxins can build up in the air around you... Make sure you work in a WELL VENILATED AREA, preferably outside!!!

Priming – As with most paint applications you are going to want to prime the metal first... Any basic primer will do, but I choose Rust-Oleum because it helps prevent rust... One coat of primer is all that is needed for this job... Once you have applied the primer, place the part into your oven... I baked the Rust-Oleum primer for one hour at 150 degrees with no problems... You can probably get away with leaving it in for only half an hour, but I would rather make sure it is 100% dry... After you take it out of the oven, wait at least a day before you start applying paint...

Painting – Now that the priming is done it is time to paint the tinplate piece... Like with the primer, Rust-Oleum paint will get the job done... Make sure that if you buy this type of paint that it is their ENAMEL paint... Testors is another enamel paint that I have used with success on my trains... These companies may not produce an exact match if you are going for that original look though, so you can buy specially formulated paint from Train Enamel... Now they talk about the paint schemes according to the TCA Number List, but I have no idea what that is... They should be able to help though if you send them an e-mail about what you are restoring... Once you have the right paint selected, I would apply it in two light coats, baking them both... As far as the time and temperature for baking the enamel it depends on the company... It is probably best for you to experiment with a test piece of metal... I did not do this and when using Rust-Oleum for the first time the paint bubbled on me (not fun )... Just like with the primer, wait for at lest one day before applying another coat...

Once you have applied the final coat, the longer you let the enamel dry and harden the easier you are making it for yourself... The last thing you want to happen is for the paint to be ruined upon reassembly... It is better to err on the side of caution, so waiting one week before even thinking about putting everything back together is a smart idea...


5. Part Polishing

During that week of waiting for the final coats of paint to cure is a good time to clean up all of the trim... Polishing the pieces will make everything look shiny just as it did when the tinplate train was brand new... This process will also help remove any rust from the wheels, axles, and other such items... I personally have not had too much experience with polishing or using a Dremel rotary tool, but I got the job done (I think my methods work well )... One thing to be aware of when polishing is that little bits of metal can fly off of the rotary attachment at very high speeds... Always wear PROTECTIVE EYEWARE when you are polishing!!!

Brass brushes – In my opinion most of the trim pieces fall into this category... This is because of how small everything is and it is almost impossible to use a felt brush on... The brass brush attachment works well on items like brake wheels, domes, handrails, journals, ladders, stanchions, etcetera...

Felt brushes – When these are used, a polishing compound is needed to get results... The main job of the felt brush attachment is to clean up all of the name and number plates... If a brass brush was used on those trim pieces it would chew up all of the black lettering paint... You can also use the felt and compound combination on the truck braces to get a nice shine...

Steel brushes – All of the “heavy” metal trim pieces should be cleaned up with this attachment... Parts like axles, couplers, truck braces, and wheels fall into this category... The steel brush is very good at removing rust which is normally present on these pieces

One thing to remember with polishing, no matter what method you are using, is that pressure means everything... Applying too little will not yield a result where as applying to much can ruin (burn, scrape) the metal... It is best to use caution when polishing because you do not want to wreck anything...

-Before Polishing---------------------.After Polishing-.
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6. Reassembly

Now that all of the tinplate pieces have been repainted and all of the trim has been polished, it is time to assemble all of the parts back together... The most logical way to go about this is to just reverse the disassembly order... Doing this should also help you remember how everything fits together... The key here is obviously not to scratch the paint as you bend all of the tabs back... It makes sense (to me at least) to use a flathead screwdriver or needle nose pliers with a piece of cloth or rubber over the tip to help protect the paint... Also remember that the tinplate pieces are very fragile, so do not over bend the tabs...

• To being the reassembly process, start with the main body... If you are working on a locomotive, take all of the individual pieces and join them back together into one body... Next is the task of putting all of the trim and other miscellaneous items back onto the body... You will want to do this before the roof is placed back on, given that you are working on rolling stock, so that you have the most access to the tabs... When all of the trim has been reattached to the body do your best to snap the roof back on... This is probably the most difficult task in the whole restoration process as the paint can be easily damaged due to the pressure required to get the second lip over the ridge on the body... It is right about now you are probably wishing that you were working on a gondola if you are not already

• After the main body is all in one piece again you can work on the trucks... Start reassembling them by putting all of the journals back on... The next thing to do is to place the brace into the truck... Now is a good time to partially bend the truck back to its normal shape since the axles do not require as much of a gap to be installed as the brace does... After the axles and wheels have been placed into their slots you can finish straightening out the truck as best you can...

• The next thing to do is place the couplers and trucks back onto the frame... Box type couplers will be harder to put back together as some variations have several components which assemble in a certain order... The latch type couplers though just require the same simple twist as it took to get them off... After the couplers are all set you can reattach the trucks... If you have the type which uses a lock washer or horseshoe clip, you should look into buying e-clips to replace them... The e-clips are much easier to get on and off than the other clips which will help you in the future... You will need 3/16 inch e-clips if you choose this option

• Now you can complete the final step, reuniting the main body with the frame... This should be easy as long as you did not move any of the tabs during the course of the restoration... Once you get all of the tabs through their respective slots, simply bend them back to their original positions as best as you can... Lastly, do not forget to crimp the ends of the brake wheels if your rolling stock is equipped with any so that they do not accidentally fall out...
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At this point the restoration process is finished and I hope you are satisfied with your work... In my opinion it is much more fun to fix up an old, rundown piece of history rather than going out and buying a MTH Tinplate Traditions replica... Now every time you run the mint looking tinplate train on your layout you will be proud knowing all that went into making the piece look beautiful again

I would like to leave this thread open to everyone's questions, comments, ideas, and suggestions... If you run into any problems with my process or if you have a better way of doing something, please let me know...

© 2008 – Boston&Maine at ModelTrainForum.com

Last edited by Boston&Maine; 03-23-2008 at 06:28 PM..
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Old 03-10-2008, 08:43 PM   #2
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Great direction man! You could not have explained it better!
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Old 03-13-2008, 07:21 PM   #3
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This is serious effort. Great work B&M. Thanks for sharing this!

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Old 04-01-2008, 09:33 PM   #4
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thanks for all of the info. I had to laugh at the monitor your trains picture, after our discussion about it.
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Old 04-01-2008, 09:41 PM   #5
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thanks for all of the info. I had to laugh at the monitor your trains picture, after our discussion about it.


Luckily for me tin has a much higher melting point then the plastic Lionel used in the postwar era, but I figured I would add it in for good measure
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Old 04-04-2008, 11:58 AM   #6
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tworail; please make this a sticky so that I can link to it.
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Old 04-04-2008, 02:13 PM   #7
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tworail; please make this a sticky so that I can link to it.
Umm, it already is a sticky
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Old 07-02-2008, 09:01 PM   #8
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I have not worked on restoring these trains forever, oh well... Sanding for long periods of time makes the joints in my hands hurt... Maybe I should go out to Home Depot and buy a sand blaster to motivate myself
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Old 07-02-2008, 09:40 PM   #9
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So, You want to use the ole sandblaster trick. I should have seen it coming!

Sanding is never fun. The old boiler shells I have repainted, I did little sanding. I wire brushed the shells of loose paint. I sanded to meld in the edges. I have even used a body putty for scratches on pitted corroded surfaces.That, you have to sand but it is soft stuff. The primer coat brings out the defects and redo those before the final coat. I spray thin, as not to hide the details. Gee, black covers and hides really well in my case.

I am going to strip a 248 engine. It is metal, when I start I'll go with a heat gun.

Ive lost track. Are you sanding striping or sanding painting?
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Old 07-02-2008, 09:50 PM   #10
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Ive lost track. Are you sanding striping or sanding painting?
I am sanding-stripping and forgot that I was going to try paint stripper but did not want to deal with the mess I would probably make... As far as sanding-painting goes, I know I would screw that up so I am going to stay away from it

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