How to maintain Lionel trains

Lionel trains have a reputation for high quality, but like any machine, you have to take care of them. Here’s how to maintain Lionel trains to ensure they last another generation or two.

Even if you run your trains a lot, your trains should only need maintenance every few years. For about $30-$35 worth of materials, you can ensure your Lionel trains have a long, productive life.

How to lubricate Lionel trains

how to maintain Lionel trains
The most important thing to remember when you maintain Lionel trains is to grease gears and oil bearings, axles and linkages.

The most important thing to do to maintain Lionel trains is to lubricate them, so the parts don’t wear out. We have better lubricants today than we had in the 1950s, so modern lubricants are more effective and last longer. I specifically recommend Labelle 106 grease and Labelle 107 oil, as their viscosity is intended for larger trains, they are synthetic so they don’t gum up over time, and they contain additives to keep the surface slippery even if the oil evaporates. I’ve tried other lubricants and keep coming back to Labelle.

The trick to remember is that you grease gears and oil axles and bearings. If you see old, dirty, gummy grease and oil, the easiest way to remove it is to use a paint brush dipped in mineral spirits. Then apply one drop of oil to any point where an axle rotates inside a bearing. Be stingy with the oil. Excess oil flings off onto your track, where it causes conductivity issues. One drop goes a long way, especially with modern oil.

You can be a bit more generous with grease since part of its job is to cling to the surface, but the general rule with grease is that if you can see it after you apply it and turn the wheels a bit, you applied too much. Modern grease goes a pretty long way too.

There are some people who will promote WD-40 as a cure for various Lionel maladies. While WD-40 has uses, its best use is when storing track. It’s best to keep it away from the trains themselves.

Cleaning wheels and rollers

Over time, the wheels and rollers on Lionel engines get dirty, and since the wheels and rollers are part of the electrical path, this can impede them. You can clean the surface with alcohol, contact cleaner, or mineral spirits applied to a cotton swab. I find contact cleaner and mineral spirits tend to remove more dirt than alcohol does.

After I clean the wheels and pickup rollers, I have a trick to keep them clean longer. Put the train back on your track, and then apply a pinhead-sized glop of No-Ox ID A Special to each rail. No-Ox ID A Special is a conductivity enhancer that significantly reduces arcing–the sparks you see as the train runs across the track. Arcing causes dirt to build up and also creates pits in your wheel and track, making giving the dirt a better surface to cling to, and it creates a vicious cycle. The No-Ox helps break that cycle. The carrier is a grease, so after you give your locomotive a run, you may want to wait 24 hours, then clean the wheels one last time to remove the grease. But be sure to wait 24 hours for the chemical reaction to finish.

Several prominent model railroaders in the 1960s advocated this trick, but this secret got lost over the decades. Linn Westcott, the editor of Model Railroader, was one proponent and he said he never had to clean his track or his wheels. I bought some three years ago and it’s probably the best $10 I’ve spent on train maintenance.

Cleaning the bodies is a separate topic but something I recommend. If the train runs well, it might as well look good too.

Oiling the commutator

This last piece is controversial. But some hobbyists apply one drop of oil to the commutator to reduce wear on the commutator and brushes and quiet the motor. Of course, the commutator is supposed to conduct electricity and the conventional wisdom is that any trace of oil on it will interfere with conductivity. But a minute quantity of oil, in my experience, does tend to be beneficial. The motor runs quieter and has more power.

I apply one drop of Rail-Zip to the commutator, the copper part of the motor. Just a drop. More than that causes problems rather than solving them.

In theory, oiling the commutator helps in the near term, but in the long term, by holding the dust in suspension it could cause the motor to lose significant power once the commutator gets clogged. Cleaning the commutator will clear that. This process takes years, so I haven’t run into it yet. If you prefer not to oil your commutator, that’s understandable. But if you only apply one drop and then leave it alone until you clean the motor again, I find it’s beneficial overall.

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