Model trains are like cars. They feature moving mechanical components (gears etc) that need lubricating to operate smoothly. Gears, for example, need to turn but you don’t want them sticking or locking together. This is what lubricants prevent, reducing friction which reduces their lifespan.
> Updated: Links to UK supplier for Labelle products with free postage now added. Click here.
What’s the difference between oil, grease and lubricant
Oil and grease are both lubricants and closely related.
Oil is a liquid while grease is usually an oil that has been thickened with additives to prevent it running off surfaces so quickly but when compressed — between the cogs of gears for example — it still protects them and reduces the friction just like oil.
Given their thicker composition greases stay in place longer and are typically used on internal surfaces that are hard to reach and which can’t be oiled regularly or on external gears where the oil will run off and may cause other problems, in the case of model railways making the rails slippery for example.
Alongside these two types of lubricant are non-liquid forms.
These have the benefits of fluid lubricants but are used in environments where the introduction of particles, carried as liquid oils flow around, would interfere with the operation. They are commonly used in railway points for example.
What oil and lubricants NOT to use
But you can’t just use any oil or grease.
The gears and cogs of N, OO and HO scale model trains are obviously much smaller than those in cars and other mechanical devices found in homes so normal oils won’t work and can even be harmful to the delicate plastics and paintwork of rolling stock.
They may eat through and dissolve many materials used in buildings and scenery around your layout, so if you spill some it can be bad news.
For these reasons never use cooking oil, WD40 or 3-in-1, even though some YouTuber’s suggest using it.
So what is the best oil and grease to use for model trains?
Instead, use dedicated oils and greases for small components.
My personal recommendation for the best lubrication to use on gears Labelle products labelled as plastic safe, in particular, Labelle #108 oil.
If you can’t get these, check the lubricant is plastic compatible and a light oil. Old style sewing machine oil and fishing reel oils are recommended by many old-school modellers. Alternatively, Gaugemaster’s oil is recommended. I’ve also had success using Woodland Scenics lubricant.
How to apply oil and grease to trains
Aside from using the wrong type of oil for servicing locomotives, another common mistake is to swamp the gears, motors, axles and rods.
Do this and it’ll run into places you don’t want it, including the motor itself and onto the rails so the train wheels just slip and slide.
The Labelle oils recommended above come with needlepoint dispenser, just place this on the points to be oiled and squeeze a tiny drop out. Alternatively, dip a needle or straightened paper clip into the oil or grease and apply it.
I place it on the cogs, worm gears and coupling rods where they attach to the wheels. It can also useful to place a tiny amount in the holes where axles fit into the wheels on rolling stock.
Then run the motor on a rolling road for a few minutes and apply again. If you don’t have a rolling road, run it on some test track for a few minutes. Failing that, please it on some tissue paper to catch any oil that needs to run off and which will otherwise fall onto the rails and then onto your track to run.
In closing, don’t use 3-in-1, WD40 or cooking oils.
Instead, use a dedicated model train lubricant such as Gaugemaster’s lubrication fluid or Labelle oil and greases and your engines and rolling stock will run smoother, longer and more reliably.
Affiliate notice: Some links on this page will take you to carefully selected businesses, including Hornby, B&Q, Rapid Online, Amazon, eBay, Scale Model Scenery and Element Games, through which you can buy products mentioned. These links are made under their affiliate schemes which means that although the price to you doesn't change I get a small commission on the orders you place. Please see the disclaimer for more details.
> 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.