How to keep your model trains or plastic models clean without damaging the plastic, paint or decals.
While giving some of my old Tri-ang rolling stock a trial run recently I discovered one of the locos hadn’t been put back in its box and had been left out, unboxed. This poor loco (see the photo above) had already suffered in the past and I felt so bad to find that I’d left it exposed to dust, grime and even cobwebs to get to it.
In the past, I’ve bought locos off eBay to find they weren’t as clean as I’d like and have learnt (after a few painful lessons) how to clean them without harming the paintwork or plastic which I used to clean my forlorn model.
Below are my techniques and tips for cleaning but before getting to what to use, it’s worth noting what not to use.
What not to use when cleaning model trains
Some cleaning materials and products can damage or harm the plastic and paintwork on your models, as I’ve learnt to my cost. In particular, avoid using the following.
- WD-40. Please, for the sake of your models, don’t use this. Although safe on many plastics and metals, if can damage the surface of some types.
- Vinegar. Great for chips but as it’s mildly acidic with a pH of 2–3 it can eat into soft plastics and rubber, such as traction tires so I avoid using it.
- Household sponges. Although these seem soft they can often be quite abrasive and can easily snag on handles, name plates and other small parts or scrape or scratch transfers and frail decals.
- Acetone-based nail polish remover. It may seem like a good idea but don’t. It’ll go straight through paint and may even dissolve soft plastics. Don’t use it.
- Dettol. While Dettol is a tried and trusted household cleaner you shouldn’t let it near your plastic models when cleaning. It’s great around the house not just because it’s a disinfectant but also “powers through stains”. And it can power through paintwork too. In fact, I’ve previously recommended it for removing paint from models when you want to repaint them. Leave it out of your model cleaning regime.
How to clear dust from your model trains
The first thing is to use a compressed air source, such as an airbrush or these canned air duster cans, around the model, particularly in difficult-to-reach nooks and crannies. This will dislodge a lot of the more caked-on particles.
If you use an airbrush, remember to keep the pressure low. Increasingly gradually as needed but be careful around any delicate parts.
Now use a large soft brush and lightly apply it across the large surfaces. I use a camera lens cleaning brush but the large brushes from ladies’ make-up sets also work very well, I’m not going to say how I know this 🙂
Cleaning dirt and grime
Sometimes grime can be particularly stubborn and resist efforts with compressed air and brushes alone. In these cases, I start with a soft, damp, paintbrush or cotton bud and dab and brush at the hard-to-shift spots. If this doesn’t work use a solution of water and 1 per cent soap, lightly rubbed over the area with a soft cloth (the cloths used for camera lens cleaning are ideal).
Bringing the shine back to wheels and connecting rods
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.