6 options for removing paint from model trains

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.

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Glue for plastic models and buildings

I saw a question for the millionth time on a forum about what glues to use on plastic models and buildings. So I’ll cover the topic here, where it won’t get purged after 8 months.

Ask the question at a hobby shop, and the answer comes down roughly 50/50 whether to use some type of super glue (cyanoacrylate, often abbreviated CyA or CA), or some type of MEK-based plastic weld, such as Tenax 7R. Every once in a while, someone pipes up about the tube cement I used as a kid. You don’t want to use that stuff. If you’ve ever tried, you know why–it’s messy, dries slowly, and the bond isn’t as strong as it could be. Read on and I’ll give you the advantages and disadvantages of both alternatives, plus some secrets.

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My lawnmower adventures

I’ve had the same lawnmower for the last 4 years or so. Maybe three. I lose count. It’s a piece of junk–worth slightly more, perhaps, than what I paid for it (nothing) but it didn’t work right when I got it, and this mowing season it just fell apart. And besides falling apart–the wheels really were coming off, and I couldn’t find anyplace that sold new ones that fit–it was getting to be impossible to start.

My wife found another one at a yard sale for $25. It didn’t start either, but at least it was in good physical condition and it was only a year old.So this weekend I put my mad mechanic skilz to work. I know from my three years’ experience fixing Lionel and Marx trains that the main thing that keeps those motors from running is crud. That’s a technical term for the junk that builds up inside over the years. This mower hadn’t had years for crud to build up, so I figured I could probably keep it running, even if, as I suspected, the original owners did what you’re not supposed to do and kept gas and oil in it all winter.

I know that can’t kill a two-year-old mower, because I’ve done that with the mower I already had. Twice, even.

The previous owners said it needed a "carburetor flush" and it cost $2. So I went to the hardware store, hoping to find something I could just pour in somewhere and make the thing run again. No such luck. They pointed me to the automotive section, to Gumout Carb & Choke Cleaner. I looked at the ingredients. Yep, every nasty solvent I’ve ever heard of. That’ll clean out anything that might be in there, and I could use the leftovers to build plastic models with. The guy warned me that I’d have to disassemble the carburetor to use it–otherwise I’d dissolve the rubber seals. Fabulous.

I did some reading beforehand, because I’ve never disassembled a carb before. And everything I read said to do three things before messing with the carb: Change the oil, pour out the gas and use new gas, and change the spark plug.

So I did that instead, and used the carb & choke cleaner to clean up the mess I made. The oil was black as coal, and the gasoline, well, I’m not an expert on stale gasoline but I’m pretty sure the stuff was well over 30 days old. Briggs & Stratton says to not use gasoline more than 30 days old in its engines. The spark plug could have been worse, but it had clearly seen better days.

After all that, I gave it a pull, and I could hear the engine trying. I primed it a bit more and pulled again. It started and ran for a few seconds. Eventually I was able to get it to keep running long enough to actually mow the yard with it.

So the lawnmower that my wife paid $25 to get and originally cost $199 new needed a $3 spark plug to get it to run again. Being a $199 Home Depot special, I don’t expect it to have a long life. But hopefully I can keep it running for 3-4 years, by which time I may very well have the house paid off and I’ll be able to afford a Snapper.

Unless one of us sees a Snapper at a yard sale or an estate sale before then… I won’t rule it out.

How to assemble a plastic model kit

Several months ago I bought a plastic model kit for the first time in probably 20 years. This past week I started to put it together.

I’m doing things differently this time.

Wash the parts

Plastic models have mold release on them, which makes it harder for paint and glue to adhere to the parts, making for a weaker model. The first step to building a proud model is washing the parts with dish detergent. Then avoid handling them with your bare hands as much as possible afterward.

Use better glue

The guys at the local hobby shop argue about the best glue to use, but they agree that the Testors stuff that comes in the tube isn’t it. It’s better to use either a plastic welder like Tenax-7R, or one of the many super glues on the market. Tenax welds the plastic together and actually makes one piece from it. The downside is its nasty fumes (wear a ventilator to save your lungs and your liver–really) and its permanence. Super glues work about as fast but make a chemical bond. The upside to super glue is that if you make a mistake, you can put the mistake in the freezer overnight, and then you’ll be able to pry it back apart and glue it again.

The downside to super glue is that it happily glues skin, so get a debonder from your hobby shop to bail you out if you glue your hand to your model or if you glue a couple of body parts together accidentally–putting your hand in the freezer overnight doesn’t work very well.

Both glues result in a stronger bond than the old tube glues we used to use.

Trim the flash

There’s always extra crud on the edges of your plastic pieces, due to the molding process. Trim that away with a hobby knife. Usually just slowly running the blade across the edge is all it takes.


When you glue your pieces together, there are always gaps in them. You can get plastic putties that chemically bond with the plastic and those are the best to use, but even a household putty like Durham’s Water Putty is better than gaps. Ideally you want the putty to be a different color than the plastic so you can see your work better.

Use primer

You should always paint your model, even the parts that are molded in the correct color, for reasons I’ll get to. But before you paint, you should prime the model. Use a good-quality primer like Krylon or Rustoleum Painter’s Touch. They are less expensive than hobby primers and they work extremely well.

Primer does several things. Paint sticks much better to primer than to plastic itself, so if you use primer, you can use thinner coats of paint, and you can also use paints like acrylics that normally won’t stick well to plastic. Second, primer can fill in minor flaws in the plastic, and make flaws that need to be puttied more visible. Third, primer makes the detail much more visible, which helps you paint better.

Spray on a very thin coat. It doesn’t have to cover completely.


Models should be painted for two reasons. The real thing is painted, so your model will look more realistic if it’s painted. Bare plastic looks more like a cheap toy. Second, decals don’t adhere well at all to bare plastic, because they are designed to adhere to paint.

The best paints to use is also a matter of religious debate. I like to use acrylics for the parts I have to brush paint, because acrylics have no fumes and clean up with water. They’re cheap and easy to work with. I can get craft acrylic paints for 60 cents a bottle if I shop around, and the bottles are big enough that they last forever. They’re cheaper than Testors enamels normally sold for models, and I don’t think they dry out in the bottle as quickly.

For the ultimate acrylic, visit a hobby shop that caters to wargamers and pick up some Vallejo paints. They’re thinner than the craft acrylics, so they’re less likely to obscure detail when detail counts. They also tend to be self-leveling, helping to conceal your brush strokes.

I prefer to spray rather than brush whenever I can, because then I don’t cover up as much detail, and I don’t get brush strokes. I can spray a light coat followed by a second light coat and get nice, even coverage. You can get sprays intended for plastic models at a hobby shop, but if you can find a suitable color from Krylon or another hardware store brand, you can use it.

An airbrush is nice, if you can afford its cost and can afford to invest the time required to learn how to use it and keep it clean.

So, should you paint before or after assembling the model? I find it easier to paint what I can before, and scrape the paint off the surfaces that need to be glued.

What if you really mess up the paint? There are ways to safely remove paint from plastic so you can start over.


When you need to paint an assembled model and you need to keep the paint away from parts of it, use masking tape. Don’t use the cheap beige stuff. Get some good blue or yellow painter’s tape, which is less likely to lift the paint that’s under it.

To keep paint from bleeding under the tape, you can either brush along the edge of the tape with the color that the tape is covering, or brush with some clear acrylic medium (look for it in the artist’s paint section of stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby) or, believe it or not, Future Floor Polish. This seals the edge, and if any of it bleeds under, it won’t be visible.


Dad and I could never get decals to stick right. What we didn’t know was that decals are nothing more than a clear lacquer sprayed on paper with something printed on it. They are supposed to bond permanently with paint underneath them.

So the first secret of applying decals is just to paint the surface beneath them. Decals stick better to glossy paint than flat, so if you don’t paint with glossy paint, apply a bit of acrylic gloss medium or Future Floor Polish (which is actually a clear gloss acrylic, not a wax), let that dry, and then apply the decal to that.

I have some additional waterslide decal tips and tricks if you’re interested in them.


When you’re done, spray a clearcoat over the whole paint job. This gives a consistent and more realistic finish. A gloss coat is fine if you want your model to look factory new. But for a more typical real-world look, use a clearcoat with a dull finish. Testors Dullcote is the standard.

Before you experiment with Krylon or another hardware store clearcoat, take some scrap plastic, paint it with the same paints you used to paint the model, and then spray the clearcoat over it. Not all clearcoats are compatible with all paints. I once tried Dutch Boy clearcoat on a plastic model and it caused the paint to bubble, ruining it.

Following these tips won’t make award-winning models, but it will make your models look a lot nicer.

Removing paint from old plastic models and toys

So, someone got the bright idea that my Dad’s Lionel 6017 caboose needed a gold roof and painted it. Great, huh?

Believe it or not, it’s possible to remove paint from plastic and metal toys and models, using household items, easily and inexpensively. Whether you’re wanting to restore an old Lionel train to what it’s supposed to look like or wanting to strip chipped paint off a Matchbox car to prepare it for repainting, it’s easy to do.All you need is an old toothbrush, a pair of rubber gloves, a bottle of pine cleaner, and a plastic container–ideally one large enough to hold the item but with very little room left over.

Pine Sol isn’t as good for this as the cheapy knock-offs. The formula seems to have changed in recent years, making it more gentle than it used to be. Place the item in the container, pour in some of the cleaner, and let it sit.

In the case of Dad’s caboose, I should just pour in enough to immerse the roof since that’s all that’s painted. The cleaner will also gladly take off the white lettering that came from the factory, and I want to leave that alone. If the entire item is painted, cover the whole thing.

Within a few minutes the paint will start to bubble. Let it sit overnight, then put on the gloves, pull out the item and start scrubbing. Most of the paint will peel right off. If you have any stubborn spots, immerse it again and let it sit a while longer. Change the bath if it’s too stubborn.

You’ll be amazed at how easily it works.

If you intend to repaint, remember to primer first. Apply two thin coats. Just hold the can a few inches from the item and spray a fine mist. It doesn’t have to cover completely. Let it dry, then apply another fine mist. Ideally, the primer should be as similar to the top coat as possible, but it’s not necessary.

To apply the final coat, again, spray a fine mist. Shake the can liberally beforehand to mix in all of the pigment. Three or four thin coats look much better than one thick coat. If you’re going to apply decals, use a glossy finish. If you want a flat finish, you can apply a flat lacquer finish after applying decals. Take your time, and you’ll have an item to be proud of.

As for Dad’s Lionel 6017, no paint for it once the paint removal is complete. It’s staying red plastic with simple white lettering, just as the guys in New York intended 50 years ago.

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.