Cleaning Lionel wheels quickly and easily

Last Updated on April 7, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

If you have a Lionel locomotive with dirty wheels, cleaning them can be a challenge. Here are some tips for making the job of cleaning Lionel wheels easier.

This winter I discovered an easy, effective method for cleaning Lionel wheels almost by accident. Since I think you’d probably rather run your trains than clean them, I’ll share this secret with you. First, we’ll talk about the traditional way, then we’ll talk about this different way.

The traditional way of cleaning Lionel wheels

First, if the grime is just oil and dirt, you can clean it with cotton swabs dipped in your favorite cleaner or solvent you have handy. Household window cleaner or rubbing alcohol will work if you don’t have anything better; but you can also use acetone if it’s tougher.

For really tough grime that needs abrasion, use a green Scotch-Brite pad.

If the grime has solidified, it often helps to scrape it away with a small screwdriver, but inspect it first. If it’s rubbery, it’s probably a traction tire, not dirt. You don’t necessarily have to scrape all of it off; once you get some of it broken, the remainder will often come off fairly easily with a pad.

To make quick work of the job, attack an alligator clip to the chassis and another one to the pickup assembly, then attach those to a spare transformer. Holding the locomotive in one hand, apply power, then use your other hand to touch your cotton swab or scouring pad to each wheel as it spins, applying however much pressure it takes. When the wheel is shiny, move on to the next one, continuing until all of the wheels are clean. When the swab or pad get dirty, switch to another swab or another part of the pad.

With the use of electric power, you can clean your wheels up in a few minutes, generally speaking.

An easier way to clean Lionel wheels

The secret to cleaning Lionel wheels easily, and not having to do it nearly as often, is a chemical treatment called No-Ox ID A Special. Linn Westcott, the original editor of Model Railroader, used to use it on his HO scale track. It works equally well on Lionel track and wheels. A one-ounce jar costs around $5 and will probably last decades.

If the wheels on a car or locomotive are really dirty, you probably need to give them a few wipes with a solvent like above. You don’t have to get them clean enough that you’d be willing to eat off them. Just get the major dirt off.

Next, set up a loop of track on the floor. It doesn’t have to be perfectly clean either. Give it a wipe or two with the same thing you clean wheels with on an old rag.

Now put a dab of the No-Ox ID A Special on each rail on a different track section. Hook up a transformer and run the locomotive for a few minutes. While the locomotive is running, get a few cars ready and add them to the consist.

The No-Ox ID A Special consists of a chemical that bonds to metal oxides and makes them conductive and a grease carrier. Running the train distributes it onto the track and wheels. As you run the train, you’ll notice the arcing becomes less frequent.

Treat the track on your main layout, and you’ll find you won’t need to clean your track or your wheels frequently at all anymore, if ever.

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