Do Lionel trains have lead paint? Lionel LLC says to the best of their knowledge, no. But Lionel LLC didn’t make those vintage trains. Some Lionel trains do, indeed have lead paint in them. Here’s what to do about that.
One has to assume that any Lionel train made prior to 1978, and certainly prior to 1970, would have been painted with lead paint. Not every paint Lionel used necessarily had lead in it. This means you must take precautions when running vintage Lionel trains. Namely, wash your hands afterward, and ensure children who participate in the session wash theirs.
How not to overreact to lead paint
People are very good at overreacting to lead paint. It tends to come in two extremes. One is the stance that all kids born in the 1970s or earlier played with lead-painted toys when we were kids and we turned out fine, so why not put lead paint on our pancakes and save some calories?
The other is the stance that looking at a picture of something painted with lead paint is dangerous, let alone being in the same room with it.
Lead paint is a problem. Our personal experience with lead paint doesn’t mean everyone else’s experience was the same. A kid in my grade school died of lead poisoning in the early 1980s. His story was the cautionary tale that we needed to wash our hands before we eat, because Josh didn’t.
Taking proper safety precautions
My dad was one of those doctors saying lead was a dangerous substance, though useful. But acknowledging the danger put him in a predicament in a part of the country where lead mining was the major industry. But while dad told people that lead is bad for you, he let me play with his lead-paint-bearing Lionel trains in the basement. Why? He taught me how to wash my hands. We deal with dangerous substances every day. Boiling water is one. We take precautions so we don’t get hurt.
So, don’t let your kids play with original, pre-1970 Lionel trains unsupervised. Make sure they wash their hands when they’re done. Don’t clean the trains with the kitchen towels or kitchen utensils and then use them in food preparation.
If you’re going to run a Lionel train under your Christmas tree, wash your hands after each session. Or consider using a plastic one, or a restored one that’s been repainted with modern paints.
Vintage toys and lead paint
Toymakers knew about the dangers of lead before 1978, and it appears many toymakers did the right thing and voluntarily started phasing out its use long before then. But not all. Lead paint was durable, and didn’t require a primer. The semi-flat black paint that Lionel used on its toy steam locomotives contained lead.
Presumably other colors Lionel used did as well. If you don’t want to assume it all contains lead, and don’t want to test it all, look at the colors. Many colors of the past are difficult to produce today, because lead was part of the color formulation. If you have a train car in a color that you don’t see in the spray paint aisle of your local hardware store, it might very well be lead-based.
Abating lead-based paint on Lionel trains
I wouldn’t paint pristine Lionel trains, but the days of worn-out Lionel trains being prized collectibles are over. Faced with a steam locomotive with chipped paint, I would remove the motor and spray the number on the side with a flat clearcoat. I would then mask off the number, and spray any bare spots with a good primer and let it dry. I would then spray the whole thing with a semi-flat black spray paint from an auto parts store (most auto parts stores carry a couple of different brands of semi-flat black that matches the sheen of Lionel’s paint very closely) and let it dry. Then I would replace the motor. The engine will look better, and then you don’t have to worry about the lead.