Restoring lithographed train cars

Last Updated on January 27, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

If you have vintage tin lithographed train cars made by American Flyer, Bing, Dorfan, Ives, Lionel, Marx, or another make I’m forgetting and some of them are worse for wear, there are a few things you can do to improve their appearance.

Keep in mind these won’t make them new, and they won’t fool anyone. One reason collectors like lithography is because they can easily recognize a touchup. But you can make beat-up cars look better, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

The easy part is to disassemble the car and repaint what you can. Straighten the tabs holding it together slowly, gently and carefully, just enough to be able to lift the part out.

Painted parts need to be stripped, any rust treated, and repainted. I generally use satin paints; gloss paints tend to be a little too shiny most of the time.

The next question is what to do with the lithographed parts. Way back when, flat metal sheets were printed with ink way back when and then cut out and formed into the shape of a train car.

The first thing to do is just clean it. Often that alone does wonders. As long as the car still has some shine, wash the body in the kitchen sink with a bit of Dawn detergent. If the shine is gone, there’s probably not much of a protective clearcoat on it and the water or detergent may remove the ink. Wash an inconspicuous part of the piece first.

If there’s rust, treat the rust. Soak it in rust remover at room temperature and usually the rust comes off in 30 minutes or less.

Let everything dry, then take care of the scratches and scrapes that have taken off the ink. Just touch it up with a Sharpie. For lines, I put a couple of pieces of painter’s tape along the line, then draw across. Sharpies now come in a lot more colors than basic red and black. Sometimes the color you really want may only come in a variety pack, but you’ll be surprised at some of the matches that are available today.

For colors where there isn’t a good match with markers, use something close, then immediately blend it in by rubbing it with a cotton swab or your finger until it fades in a bit. If you’re feeling really brave, you can darken colors by trying to mix in the color’s opposite. The major opposites are red/green, orange/blue, and purple/yellow.

For white, the best you can do is use a white paint marker. It won’t match exactly and it will sit a bit higher than ink would, but it looks better than bare metal.

If you really can’t get a decent match with a marker, you can try paint. You may be able to get a closer match with a craft acrylic, or if there’s a spot on the car that’s the size of a quarter or larger and uninterrupted, a hardware or paint store can probably mix up a match for you. A pint should cost two or three dollars.

For scratches in the clearcoat that didn’t break the ink but are still noticeable, you can try to fill them in with Pledge Floor Care Finish (what used to be called Future Floor Finish–not the furniture polish). Pledge Floor Care Finish is a clear acrylic. Work a bit of it into the scratches with a super-small paint brush and it will try to fill them in. It will be a bit of work and it probably won’t be perfect, but it will improve things.

If the whole part is a bit dull, you can brush some Pledge Floor Care over the whole thing with a fine-bristled paint brush. It will do a nice job of restoring the shine to an old part.

Unpainted metal parts that are supposed to be shiny frequently aren’t. You can clean and polish those with Nevr Dull. Pull out a bit of wadding and rub it over the metal parts to remove dirt and shine it up. If the plating is worn off, the Nevr Dull is limited in what it can do, but it will make it look nicer. If you do succeed in getting bright metal bright again, coat it with a bit of the Pledge Floor Care, as long as it’s not a wheel.

Let everything dry a while–the painted metal parts probably need a solid week–and then reassemble. The refinished car won’t be perfect but will look much better.

Don’t do this to try to pass a car off as higher grade than it started. Mark the car on the underside as having been restored (date it if you want to be super cool). But you can at least make junker cars look better for your own use.

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