Restoring Tootsietoys and other early diecast vehicles

Restoring Tootsietoys can be a fun and satisfying way to enjoy old toy vehicles. Whether you want your childhood toys to look nice again or just enjoy bringing new life to neglected examples, it can be as easy and as affordable as you want it to be.

I’ll talk specifically about Tootsietoys here, but the principles apply to other vintage diecast cars of the same era like Hubley or Midgetoy.

Restoring them does seem worthwhile. I never thought much of Tootsietoys when I was young. My grandmother had a bucket full of them from when my uncle was a kid. They looked crude and beat up. They are much simpler than the Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars my generation played with, but when they’re clean and have nice paint, they look good too. Less sporty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

To restore or not restore

Restoring Tootsietoys - to restore or not
The car on the left has seen better days. Cars with this much paint loss or more are good restoration candidates. The car on the right is marginal. I am inclined to leave it alone. That said, some people would restore both of them, and some would leave both alone. If the one on the left were a rare car I would leave it alone, but it doesn’t have much value to lose.

Restoration is something you have to take up on a case-by-case basis, at least to some extent.

The thing to remember is that a toy is only original once. If the example you have is in pretty nice shape, you may want to keep it that way. If you have a rare and valuable example, leave it alone. A restored car painted a rare color is worth exactly the same as a restored car painted the common color.

If you routinely see examples like yours selling on Ebay for big money, don’t restore it. Leave it alone. You’ll have to define big money. I think a good minimum threshold is $25.

I can think of another guideline to follow. Looking at the image above, it seems most collectors will leave a prewar car alone, even if it has as much paint loss as the yellow car. Since the postwar cars are so much more common, many people seem to be more aggressive with restoring those.

Repair vs restoration

If a car is missing parts and you replace them, I think of that as a repair, not a restoration. I wouldn’t feel guilty at all about buying new axles or new wheels to replace damaged or missing ones.

Matching paint

Paint colors change all the time, but it’s usually possible to find a reasonably close match for whatever you want. Early diecast vehicles didn’t use especially exotic colors. While the paint is still on it, take the car to the hardware store, hobby shop or craft store and buy something close. Or paint the car how you want. If your favorite car never came in your favorite color, you can change that.

In my particular situation, this can work to my advantage. If I put four identical cars on my train layout, someone will notice those four identical cars really quickly. If they are all different colors, it’s less noticeable.

You may have to look around a bit. Different hardware stores carry different brands, and craft stores may have colors your hardware stores don’t. Hobby shops will almost certainly have colors the others don’t.

Color choices

If you’re not picky about colors, you don’t have to use expensive paint. Discount stores often have basic colors for a dollar or two. They aren’t the best quality paints, but neither was the original. These were dimestore toys, after all.

The originals tended to be light colors, perhaps to show off that this new diecast thing allowed finer detail than earlier methods. Dark colors tend to hide details. You can use that to your advantage if you have a damaged casting that you just can’t get quite right, or if your painting skills need some refinement. Paint it a darker color and the flaws are harder to notice. By the same token, once you get good at this, light colors will help your work show up better.

In the case of the Ford convertible in these photos, I chose to paint one blue. It never came in blue, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before I find nice red or yellow ones for less that $10. If I find another beater, maybe I’ll paint it that light green color that so many Tootsietoy trucks came in.

Removing the axles

A lot of people just mask off the wheels and don’t bother removing them at all when doing a restoration, but you can do a better job if you disassemble the car. It’s also possible for the process of stripping the paint to damage the wheels. Removing them eliminates that possibility.

Many vintage Tootsietoys have so-called “sleeve” axles. These axles come in three parts, with a metal sleeve in the middle and two tack-like parts that go through the wheels and the mounts and into the sleeves.

To remove a sleeve axle, I use two sets of locking pliers such as Vise Grips. Clamp a larger set of pliers onto the sleeve, and clamp a smaller set onto the head. Pull on the head with a twisting motion while holding the car still with the larger set of pliers. It will come off pretty easily.

If the axle is one piece, usually one end has a head like an ordinary nail and the other end is peened or crimped. You’ll have to grind the peened or crimped end with a file or a rotary tool until you remove enough of the crimp to let you pull it through. Then slide it through the car body and the second wheel to remove it.

Touching up the axles and wheels

Most likely the axles are a bit dull at the very least, and probably a bit rusty. Touch up the ends of the axles with some sandpaper, then follow with a bit of metal polish to make them look newer.

To keep them looking new indefinitely, dip the tips in a bit of polyurethane and let them dry while you’re working on the rest of the car.

I’m not a big fan of putting chemicals on old rubber wheels. Products like Armor-All or Pledge furniture polish will make them shiny, but they can also accelerate the deterioration process and they leave a film that will never come off. A safer method is to dust the wheels with a soft paintbrush, then wash them. Use distilled water if you wish.

Restoring Tootsietoys - wheels
I improved these beat-up wheels by gluing a couple of pieces of heat shrink tube into the center.

If the hole in the wheel is worn too large, you can replace it, or you can try tightening it up. I’ve had some success gluing black heat-shrink tubing into the hole. It takes a bit of trial and error to get it to fit, and you may have to shrink some tubing partially. But I’ve been able to bring back some wheels this way. I figure if I can extend the lifetime of some of these original wheels, I might as well. As you can see from the image to the right, the wheels may still look pretty rough, but for cars with closed fenders, they work well enough.

Stripping the paint

Aircraft paint stripper is the fastest chemical to use to remove the paint. In many cases it will bubble the paint off in a matter of minutes. If you can wait a few hours, you can use yellow oven cleaner or soak it in purple cleaner.

If you have a blasting cabinet, sand or bead blasting makes quick work of the paint and also does a nice job of returning the metal to like-new condition.

If you use a chemical stripper, wash the car thoroughly and let it dry completely. You can use a heat gun to speed that up. Use a combination of tools, like old toothbrushes, toothpicks, a fine nail, or anything else you can think of to remove any lingering bits of paint.

Address imperfections

Once you remove the paint, you can sand away any corrosion that remains, as well as any flaws from the casting process. Yes, sometimes these got flaws from the factory. Start with 100-grit sandpaper, then follow it with 400-grit sandpaper to smooth out any marks you made.

For really stubborn problems, you can use a rotary tool with a wire brush. Please wear eye protection when using the wire brush. Your hobby isn’t worth an injury.

If you find body damage, this is the time to address it. Use body putty or JB-Kwik to fill in any holes you find. You can even replace missing parts with it. Back it up with a piece of tape, then glob on some of the new material, let it harden, and then shape it to fit with files, sandpaper, and whatever other tools you’re comfortable working with. If a car has meaning to you, you can fix it. You may decide putting hours of effort into a car worth a few dollars isn’t worth it. Or you may decide it’s relaxing and enjoyable to turn $1 junkers into nice cars. It’s your hobby. I have more tips on repairing diecast toys if you need them.

Paint

Restoring tootsietoys - painted car
This Tootsietoy 1949 Ford convertible never came in blue. With new paint, you can pick up details the rough paint caused your eye to ignore. Sanding it with 400-grit paper and spraying on another light coat will address the imperfections in the finish.

You do want to paint pretty soon after you strip the paint and address any problems. Otherwise it gets dusty and the dust affects the paint job. In the image to the left, you can see where a few specks of dust got onto the car sometime before or during the paint process.

Many people don’t use primer, since the original toys didn’t. But you can get nicer results if you do. If you apply some primer, you may spot imperfections you missed the first time around. Then you can sand or putty as necessary, and add another coat. If you find yourself doing a lot of these fixes, use two different colors of primer so you can see how far down you’ve sanded.

For brighter colors, I recommend using white primer.

Prime the car, let it dry according to the instructions, then paint over the primer with the color you want. Use several thin coats instead of one thick coat. This helps you avoid runs and covering up detail. Early diecast vehicles didn’t have a lot of detail, but they look nicer if you let the detail show.

Try taking a picture of the car and looking at it on your computer and zoom in. You’ll find imperfections that you might miss looking at it directly. You can sand out imperfections with fine sandpaper after the paint dries, then spray on another coat.

Painting details

Restoring Tootsietoys - painting details
This isn’t an accurate restoration by any stretch, as cars this size and era usually didn’t have additional painted details. But it looks nicer with them, doesn’t it? The panel truck in the background is another one I repainted.

Most Tootsietoys had silver-painted headlights, bumpers and grills. It’s easiest to just paint these with a brush and a bottle of Testors steel enamel. I like the Testors because it’s subdued like the original.

Some of them had two-tone paint jobs, particularly where the roof was a different color from the rest of the body. To imitate the original, mask it off with cheap masking tape and don’t press the tape down all that hard. Two-tone factory paint jobs usually did bleed. A lot.

Replace the wheels and axles

After you’ve let the car dry at least 24 hours (a week is better), it’s time to put the wheels and axles back on.

Sleeve axles

You can make a jig to make this job much easier. Place the car down on a piece of scrap wood and mark the position of the holes with a pencil. Drill two holes in those positions just large enough to hold the tacks and just deep enough to hold them upright. Place the tacks in the holes, then place the car body over the holes. Place the first wheel, then place the sleeve. Use your large pair of locking pliers to push the sleeve down as far as you can onto the tack. Then repeat the process for the wheel on the other axle.

Then position the second wheel and the second tack on one of the axles. You may be able to press the tack in by hand or you may not. If you can’t, take another small block of wood. Place the block of wood against the tack, then tap it with a hammer. You shouldn’t have much trouble tapping the tack in. Repeat for the other axle.

Flip the car over, and if there’s still slack remaining in the axle, just tap the tacks with the block of wood and the hammer. Don’t position the axles over the holes. Just use the wood block as a kind of anvil. A gentle anvil that won’t tear up your new paint job.

One-piece axles

What about one-piece axles? You probably won’t be able to re-crimp them with household tools, so here’s a workaround. You’ll need some 24-gauge craft wire, or some wire you salvage from a twist-tie.

Wrap some of the wire around the axle to make something that looks like a spring. Then bend out one circle and cut it off with a pair of small diagonal cutters. Put the axle through the wheels and through the body, then push the circle of wire onto the end. Tighten it with a pair of needle-nose pliers and secure it with a drop of super glue.

If the wheels are loose and slide on the axles, you can use those same wire rings to hold them in place. You probably won’t need glue.

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