It’s not uncommon to find model trains with unwanted paint on them, or original paint that’s damaged beyond the point of being able to rehabilitate it. Fortunately, the price is usually low on these trains, and there are numerous household chemicals that can strip the paint off these trains and give them a fresh start.
These tricks also work with other toys and plastic models, but while some of these methods seem to be unknown in the train community, some of them are very well known among collectors who restore vintage plastic model kits. This is an example where knowledge across disciplines can be very valuable, so I hope the car and airplane modelers won’t mind me sharing their secrets.
I can vouch that I’ve tried all of these methods at least once. I enjoy buying and rehabilitating old, neglected electric trains made by the likes of American Flyer, Lionel, and Marx, and I’ve also stripped and repainted numerous diecast Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars for my train layout. The same methods will also work on smaller scale model trains, with some potential caveats that I will explain.
Yes, there are products sold especially for the task of stripping paint. You can find them in any paint store, and they generally work very well. The downsides with them are the cost, which is generally higher than for most of the other options here, and the risk of harming plastic. If you’re removing paint from metal, nothing works faster than the aircraft paint removers sold in auto parts stores. It will remove most paints in a matter of minutes. Just spray it on, come back in about 15 minutes and the paint will be bubbled off.
An option that’s been popular for decades now is brake fluid. Not brake cleaner–brake fluid. Just soak the model overnight in a container full of the fluid, and in the morning, the paint will be gone. There is some controversy over the use of brake fluid with plastics. Some hobbyists insist brake fluid is plastic safe, while others insist it usually works but occasionally melts the car. Regardless, it certainly is a cheap option for removing paint from metal items. If you use it on plastic, be sure to keep a close eye on it.
The downside is it’s not biodegradable. There are better, safer, and cheaper options.
Another cheap option that works reasonably well is generic pine cleaner. Skip the name-brand stuff, go to Dollar Tree and get the bottle that costs one dollar. For stripping paint, the name brand stuff doesn’t work as well as the generics anymore. This option isn’t guaranteed to be safe on plastic either, although I can vouch that I’ve personally removed paint from modern (post-1970) plastics with it with no ill effects. Soak the item overnight and the paint will lift off. While this is the cheapest (or perhaps second-cheapest) option here, I’ve found it’s much more effective on home-applied paints than it is against factory-applied paint.
An exceptionally effective method that is safe on plastics is oven cleaner, such as Easy Off. Place the model into a container or plastic bag, spray enough to cover the model and leave a pool of it, and let it soak at least 8 hours, then repeat if necessary. This method works well and is extremely popular, but there’s a less expensive method that’s every bit as safe and effective…
The same active ingredient in oven cleaners is also present in Purple Power and Superclean, but they come in non-aerosol containers that make it much easier to pour out the quantity you need, and the cost per ounce tends to be much less, especially if you buy a gallon or more of it. With either of these cleaners, just pour a quantity of it into a container, put your model in it, let it soak for a few hours or perhaps overnight if the paint is really stubborn, then soak another one if you have one. Purple cleaners are probably the most cost-effective, known-safe way to remove paint from plastic models.
Boiling water and detergent
If the model you want to strip is made of metal, there’s one very cheap, simple way to remove paint from it. Boil it in a mixture of water with a few scoops of Tide in it. Use an old pot that you’ll never again use for food preparation–mark it with a permanent marker so nobody will forget–or use an old slow cooker if you have one that you’ll never again use for food preparation. Paint is toxic, and older paints contain lead, so I can’t overemphasize the need to dedicate these items to paint removal, rather than food. This method works extremely well on very old paints; its effectiveness will vary on modern paints. Plastic is likely to warp when you heat it, so this method isn’t recommended for plastic, but it can be very cheap and effective on metal.