Sometimes a vintage toy electric train has paint that’s too good to restore, but looks too bad to leave as-is. The question, then, is how to revive the paint. While some people use oil, there are commercial products intended for the task that will do a better job.
Paint will absorb oil to some extent, but it can affect the sheen and any oil that doesn’t soak in will attract dust over time, causing other problems. It’s better to use products intended for reviving automotive paint, which will also work on trains and has fewer undesirable side effects.
A word of caution
Let’s start with a word of caution. When it comes to old trains, especially Lionel trains, there is no such thing as universal advice. The red paint on postwar Lionel freight cars, for example, is notoriously fragile, to the point where it will wash off in plain water. Always test any new methods on a junker first. Then when you go to fix your intended train, test it in an inconspicuous area, such as the underside, before going all-in on the visible surface.
Start with a good cleaning
It’s always best to start by cleaning the train. At the very least, brush away all the dirt you can with a soft paintbrush. All of these products will remove dirt, but you’ll save time, effort and cost by removing as much dirt as you can with a paintbrush first.
The cure for dull paint: Meguiar’s No. 7
If the paint is in reasonable condition, without a lot of oxidation and ground-in dirt, you can use Meguiar’s Show Car Glaze, also known as Meguiar’s No. 7, to revive the paint. Unlike most other Meguiar’s polishes, it doesn’t contain any abrasives. It does two things: It dissolves dirt on the surface, reverses oxidation to a limited extent, and restores something resembling the paint’s original shine. I guess that’s three things.
One thing I like about the Meguiar’s No. 7 is it doesn’t overdo it. When I apply it to an engine that was semi-flat black when it started out, it’s still semi-flat black as soon as the Meguiar’s dries. The finish still feels slightly oily for a time, but it doesn’t turn semi-flat black into gloss.
Use and application
To use it on a train, shake the bottle well, then apply a bit on a microfiber cloth. Wipe a thin layer onto a small area, then wipe off as much of it as you can before proceeding to another area. It’s much better to use too little than too much. The bottle says it doesn’t dry white, which is true. But if you use too much of it, it dries an unpleasant shade of yellow. You know, one of those shades of yellow that was popular in the ’70s. It doesn’t look any better streaked across your train than it did on a refrigerator or a Plymouth Duster.
Keep the microfiber cloth away from areas with a lot of recessed detail, like the front of a steam locomotive. For those areas, apply a tiny bit to a cotton swab. Swab the area, leave as thin of a layer as you can, then follow up again with a clean swab. Once the stuff dries in a recessed area, it’s really hard to get it back out. I use a wooden toothpick when it happens to me. But as long as you go easy on the quantities, it’s not bad. And if you do get yellow streaks, it’s self-cleaning. Apply a bit more to the cloth and follow up again, wiping away as much of it as possible.
The Meguiar’s treatment admittedly takes longer than slathering on a bunch of oil with a 4-inch paintbrush. But the train will still look good two years later, and we’re still talking about a 10-minute job as opposed to a 2-minute job.
The cure for oxidation and ground-in dirt: Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound
If the paint has oxidized to the point of discoloring, or it has ground-in dirt that you can’t remove by other means, you need a more aggressive cleaner. A good choice for most cases is Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound, which is less likely to scratch than the more aggressive Meguiar’s products.
You use it in much the same way as Meguiar’s No. 7. Apply a bit to a microfiber cloth and then rub a small area. Rub in the compound, then wipe off any excess that remains. The microabrasives actually remove a tiny amount of the paint, taking any oxidation and ground-in dirt with it. Be very careful on raised areas like rivets, since it’s possible to polish the remaining paint right off those. If you’re at all unsure, it’s probably best to avoid those kinds of areas with Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound, and come back and hit those with Meguiar’s No. 7 afterward.
After spending a few minutes with one or both of these products, a car with bad paint often looks too good to restore. It still looks old, but now it’s clean and old instead of dingy and old. That’s a good thing. A revived but unrestored original is always worth more than a repaint, and they aren’t making the originals anymore. Even if you bought it in a box of assorted junk, in the right hands, a piece of that junk can approach its former glory, and it can take on a value higher than you paid for the whole box. There’s nothing wrong with that.
What about lithographed trains?
I’ve used both products on lithographed trains as well. Meguiar’s No. 7 definitely leaves an oily-feeling residue on the surface, but it’s less likely to effect lithographed trains with a satin finish, such as Marx 3/16 cars. I have used it to make dirty 3/16 cars look presentable. Sometimes I’ll buy a car intending to part it out and I’ll try the Meguiar’s No. 7 on it, then decide it looks too good at that point to part out.
Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound works well on lithographed cars with a glossy finish. It removes scratches from the clearcoat and ground-in dirt much like it would help the clearcoat on an automobile.
There is definitely a point with lithographed cars where nothing is going to bring them back, but once you clean it, and perhaps repaint the base and install clean wheels and couplers, a beat-up lithographed car can look surprisingly good.