Last Updated on June 3, 2019 by Dave Farquhar
It isn’t terribly rare to find old tin lithographed toys or trains that have been overpainted. Boys will be boys, after all, and have you ever met a boy that didn’t love paint?
When it comes to restoring these toys, there are no guarantees. Removing the paint without damaging the lithography beneath is tricky, at best. And, of course, there’s a pretty good chance that whatever lies beneath that paint is scratched up or otherwise damaged. Generally speaking, it’s the well-worn toys that get painted, not mint-condition ones.
But if you’re feeling brave and at least a little bit lucky, you can remove the paint, see what’s under it, and maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be salvageable.
The good news, despite Joshua Lionel Cowen’s claims to the contrary in his marketing, is that lithography–especially Marx lithography–is stronger and more durable than paint. And home-applied paint–whether it’s spraypaint or brush-applied–tends to be weaker than factory-applied paint. So it’s possible to remove the paint while causing little visible damage to the lithography beneath.
There are a lot of commercial paint removers available, but I don’t recommend using those for this treatment. I have paint removers that will remove pretty much any paint in six minutes or less. The trouble with those is that they’ll most likely remove the lithography too. For this, you want something that works slowly, and you’re going to slow it down even further.
I recommend either brake fluid–an old favorite among train restorers–or a heavy-duty purple degreaser like Purple Power or Super Clean. All three are available at your nearest auto parts store. I prefer the purple degreasers as they’re water soluble, much less toxic, and don’t require any special disposal methods, but old traditions die hard. The active ingredient is the same as oven cleaner, and using oven cleaner to remove paint is an old trick, but it’s cheaper and more convenient for this use.
Wear rubber gloves when working with these degreasers, as they’ll severely dry your hands.
Dab a little bit of the cleaner on a rag and wipe it over the paint you want removed. Repeat, for a total of 3-7 times, then stop. Rinse the item with some cool, clean water, and let it sit. Let the paint harden overnight, and try again tomorrow. Working over the course of several days, you should be able to remove most of the paint.
At some point, the lithography beneath will become visible through the paint. You’ll have to use your best judgment about how aggressive to be with the tiny bit of paint that remains. At some point, when there’s very little paint remaining, you’ll be better off using a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to remove the tiny layer that’s left. It will be slower, but safer.
With some patience and luck, you can turn an overpainted old toy into an operator-grade piece. And sometimes what you find won’t be worth saving. But even in that case, at least you tried.
If you want to remove the paint entirely so you can do a full-blown restoration, the same tricks apply. You can also remove paint with abrasive methods. But for small scale projects, chemicals are cheap and effective.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.