Cleaning Lionel trains: A hobbyist’s advice

It’s that time of year again, when people start thinking about getting their Lionel trains out and setting them up, and sometimes, cleaning Lionel trains to make them presentable is necessary first.

Fortunately, Lionel trains aren’t hard to clean.

cleaning Lionel trains
If you get too aggressive when cleaning Lionel trains, you can damage the lettering. That’s probably what happened to the number that used to be on this locomotive’s cab.

The key is to start gently and work your way up. You can easily damage the paint or lettering on a Lionel train if you use aggressive cleaners. Work slowly and patiently, though, and you can make them look a lot better with no damage whatsoever.

Cleaning Lionel trains with a brush

First, clean off any dust with a soft paintbrush or a makeup brush. You might try spraying it with a bit of compressed air in between brushings as well, if you have some on hand. You’ll be surprised how much dust the brush can remove, and how well it gets into crevices.

Cleaning Lionel trains with water

Never, ever wash a red Lionel car with water. The red paint Lionel used comes off with plain water. Both bright red and oxide red exhibit this quality, so if the car is red, stop at the brush. It’s not worth it.

But if the car is unpainted, or is a color other than red, you can step up to water if the brush leaves caked-on dirt behind that it just can’t get. Start with cleaning with a damp brush, then if necessary, step up to dunking, or running it under a faucet or sprayer. Let it dry thoroughly.

Of course, I don’t recommend you dunk a locomotive or anything with a motor in it. A little water won’t hurt a motor as long as you let it dry thoroughly afterward, but you’ll have to take it apart to know if it’s dry. If you’re going to do that, you might as well take the motor out before you wash the locomotive.

Cleaning Lionel trains with soap

If water still leaves stubborn dirt behind, try a bit of mild soap or detergent like Dawn or Ivory. Proceed with caution, and rinse it thoroughly when you’re done.

Avoid using anything stronger than mild soap or detergent. Alcohol can damage the plastic, and stronger cleaners will frequently damage the paint and lettering. Leaving behind a little dirt looks a lot better than taking off paint and lettering.

Applying a finish

Some people spray their trains with Armor-All or Pledge furniture polish afterward, but I don’t recommend it. I don’t like to do anything that can’t be reversed. Once you spray either of those on it, it’s next to impossible to get it back off. It makes the cars look different, but it doesn’t really make them look new. I’m also not convinced Armor-All doesn’t damage the plastic.

I really recommend just cleaning them up and running them as is. When we chase perfection, sometimes the results end up looking a little too fake. It’s always best to stop just short of that.

Cleaning up wheels and trucks

Your trains will run better if you clean the wheels as well, which requires a different strategy. Also, Lionel Scout trucks tend to develop a white film on them. Here’s how to clean off that white film. And here’s some unconventional advice on cleaning track. I treated my track once, so I don’t have to clean track anymore.

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