Remove paint from plastic

It’s easier to remove paint from plastic than it may seem. The trick is knowing the right chemical to use. The method to apply it will vary, depending on whether the item is too big to soak.

This method works for toys and virtually anything else made of plastic. I learned the trick from a hobbyist who restores vintage plastic models. It works on every type of paint I’ve tried: oil and water-based? Check. Enamel, acrylic, and latex? Check. Both brush-on and spray paint? Check.

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6 options for removing paint from model trains

It’s not uncommon to find model trains with unwanted paint on them, or original paint that’s damaged beyond the point of being able to rehabilitate it. Fortunately, the price is usually low on these trains, and there are numerous household chemicals that can strip the paint off these trains and give them a fresh start.

These tricks also work with other toys and plastic models, but while some of these methods seem to be unknown in the train community, some of them are very well known among collectors who restore vintage plastic model kits. This is an example where knowledge across disciplines can be very valuable, so I hope the car and airplane modelers won’t mind me sharing their secrets.

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Glue for plastic models and buildings

I saw a question for the millionth time on a forum about what glues to use on plastic models and buildings. So I’ll cover the topic here, where it won’t get purged after 8 months.

Ask the question at a hobby shop, and the answer comes down roughly 50/50 whether to use some type of super glue (cyanoacrylate, often abbreviated CyA or CA), or some type of MEK-based plastic weld, such as Tenax 7R. Every once in a while, someone pipes up about the tube cement I used as a kid. You don’t want to use that stuff. If you’ve ever tried, you know why–it’s messy, dries slowly, and the bond isn’t as strong as it could be. Read on and I’ll give you the advantages and disadvantages of both alternatives, plus some secrets.

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My lawnmower adventures

I’ve had the same lawnmower for the last 4 years or so. Maybe three. I lose count. It’s a piece of junk–worth slightly more, perhaps, than what I paid for it (nothing) but it didn’t work right when I got it, and this mowing season it just fell apart. And besides falling apart–the wheels really were coming off, and I couldn’t find anyplace that sold new ones that fit–it was getting to be impossible to start.

My wife found another one at a yard sale for $25. It didn’t start either, but at least it was in good physical condition and it was only a year old.

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Removing paint from old plastic models and toys

So, someone got the bright idea that my Dad’s Lionel 6017 caboose needed a gold roof and painted it. Great, huh?

Believe it or not, it’s possible to remove paint from plastic and metal toys and models, using household items, easily and inexpensively. Whether you’re wanting to restore an old Lionel train to what it’s supposed to look like or wanting to strip chipped paint off a Matchbox car to prepare it for repainting, it’s easy to do.All you need is an old toothbrush, a pair of rubber gloves, a bottle of pine cleaner, and a plastic container–ideally one large enough to hold the item but with very little room left over.

Pine Sol isn’t as good for this as the cheapy knock-offs. The formula seems to have changed in recent years, making it more gentle than it used to be. Place the item in the container, pour in some of the cleaner, and let it sit.

In the case of Dad’s caboose, I should just pour in enough to immerse the roof since that’s all that’s painted. The cleaner will also gladly take off the white lettering that came from the factory, and I want to leave that alone. If the entire item is painted, cover the whole thing.

Within a few minutes the paint will start to bubble. Let it sit overnight, then put on the gloves, pull out the item and start scrubbing. Most of the paint will peel right off. If you have any stubborn spots, immerse it again and let it sit a while longer. Change the bath if it’s too stubborn.

You’ll be amazed at how easily it works.

If you intend to repaint, remember to primer first. Apply two thin coats. Just hold the can a few inches from the item and spray a fine mist. It doesn’t have to cover completely. Let it dry, then apply another fine mist. Ideally, the primer should be as similar to the top coat as possible, but it’s not necessary.

To apply the final coat, again, spray a fine mist. Shake the can liberally beforehand to mix in all of the pigment. Three or four thin coats look much better than one thick coat. If you’re going to apply decals, use a glossy finish. If you want a flat finish, you can apply a flat lacquer finish after applying decals. Take your time, and you’ll have an item to be proud of.

As for Dad’s Lionel 6017, no paint for it once the paint removal is complete. It’s staying red plastic with simple white lettering, just as the guys in New York intended 50 years ago.

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.