Collector Color


     Since most refinishing will be to equipment manufactured 35 to 65 years ago, it is important to make a decision based on something other than desire to make it “look new.”

    Provided that it is not rusty or displays other signs of corrosion and the ORIGINAL finish is in good condition, the value of the item could be affected by repainting or restoring. Careful retouching may be in order or perhaps light waxing of the finish with the proper wax.

PREPARATION:  Remove trucks, couplers (when fastened to frame or body), lamp sockets, roof screws, brass-aluminum trim, doors, painted-lithographed body inserts, window sheeting and any other parts that will interfere with cleaning, painting and drying. In case of freight and pre-war locomotives, carefully remove the frame from the body.

NON PAINTED PARTS:  It is productive to inspect all parts at this time. If plated parts are not too rusty, tumbling may restore them to very good appearance. Order replacements for those parts beyond help. Painted, rubber stamped, car inserts, unless badly rusted, can be carefully washed with diluted dishwashing liquid or soap and a cotton swab, thoroughly dried, then painted using a small brush (00 or 000) or a toothpick. Several thin coats over the bare area with drying in between is preferred.

STRIPPING:  (Diecast parts must be processed differently than sheet metal parts.) Most old original paints on sheet metal will dissolve or come off in a hot (200degree) solution of dishwasher cleaning compound. Approximately 2 tablespoons in a 4 to 6 quart pot or can. This cannot be an aluminum container; it must be steel or stainless steel. Patience and a parts cleaning brush are necessary since the paint does not always come off readily. UNDER NO CONDITIONS USE ANY PAINT REMOVER OR STRIPPER UNLESS YOU ARE WEARING A FACE SHIELD OR SPLASH PROOF GOGGLES. If the dishwashing compound does not attack the paint then the piece has been repainted with an unknown type of finish. In this instance, the finish must be stripped in a commercial water-wash stripper of the methylene chloride type obtainable at paint and hardware stores. THE SAME CAUTION-MASK OR GOGGLES APPLY.

ABRASIVE STRIPPING:  Stripping, cleaning or derusting with an air blast abrasive is another method of removing paint. This must be done with extreme care in the hands of one skilled at this work, since over-blasting may result in perforations, unrepairable distortion and/or destroying of details. This also is one method of cleaning crevices in die castings.

  When stripping is complete, wash thoroughly in water and detergent. (Mix 1:1 dish washing detergent and water in a spray bottle. We use several brands including “Simple Green”, “Palmolive”, “Joy”, etc.) Of utmost importance is the removal of all cleaning residue, and a thorough hot water rinse will help in drying.

SURFACE TREATMENT:  Paint, glue and other coatings do not adhere well to neutral or alkaline surfaces, especially metal surfaces. This is the reason for the universal use of phosphoric acid compounds, of which “Metal Prep” is one that is popular with auto-body refinishers. If a surface treatment product is used, and it is recommended, it must be a thin coat and it must be absolutely dry before painting. If the surface treatment coating is thick enough to be seen or has runs it may be cleaned off with thinner. This will not affect the treated surface and all of this is actually a conversion of the surface and all of the coating could be removed without affecting the treatment. NONE OF THE INFORMATION IN THIS SECTION APPLIES TO DIE CASTINGS, OR ZINC, OR ALUMINUM, OR COPPER, OR ALLOYS OF THESE METALS.

PRIMER: (If the object to be painted is to be painted immediately after abrasive cleaning, do not handle the surfaces with bare hands. Cotton washable gloves are best for this purpose.) Spray a primer suitable for model work. Some primers will deposit a coarse coat that is not level without sanding. Spray several thin coats, allowing the coat to dry between successive sprayings. Spray at a distance that is comfortable for you, that does not run, and is not heavy in spots, light in others. Apply only enough material to cover the work evenly, excess primer will not add to the finish unless pits must be covered and sanded. Use 400 or 500 wet or dry, with water for sanding, or 0000 steel wool. When the primer has dried and no longer gives off thinner fumes, the work may be finished dried with heat, described later.

Zinc and aluminum casting or their alloys after being cleaned should be coated with a zinc-bearing primer. This will be a coating that is almost transparent in some brands. Heat drying of these castings is reputed to be dangerous in that stresses are relieved and cracking occurs. At reasonable drying temperatures (150degrees) this appears unlikely especially if the castings are not exposed to radiant heat. This is strictly an owner judgment call.

THE COLOR COAT:  Having gone this far, no colors or finishes other than those prepared for toy trains should be used. Colors may be selected on a basis of preference, but more properly should be a match for the original color scheme. Spray at a distance that is comfortable for you, that does not run and is not heavy in spots, light in others. Try the color on cardboard just before spraying (shirt cardboards are great for this). Spray the interior of bodies first so that over-run does not ruin the finished exterior. Use sweeping strokes as much as possible and far enough away so as not to have buildup on edges. This is a chance to check if the color is correct. If it is not, do not strip the interior and start over; get the right shade and proceed. The bottom should be finished second. The body may then be mounted in the holder fashioned for painting and then the exterior finished. After the finish has dried and no longer gives off fumes, this could take days, the work may be finished dried. When painting roofs, finish the inside first, then the outside. Allow ample time for drying between coats.

RUNS, RETICULATION AND RUBBLE: Runs are caused by spraying too close to the work, holding in one place, respraying before previous coat is dry. Can also be, when using airbrush or spray gun, too much thinner or insufficient air pressure, dirty gun, liquid volume too much for size of work. RETICULATION is caused by dirt, body oils, other oils or creams on the work. Were the cloths used hospital clean? RUBBLE, all kinds of dust and dirt that somehow is imbedded in the finish. This is one of the reasons for not laying on a heavy finish coat, now possibly some careful work with 400 or 500 wet/dry and 0000 steel wool can level these imperfections which you may then give a light finish coat, hopefully dust free.

TIPS AND SLIPS: Almost everything, almost, may be varied slightly without serious consequences. We are telling how we have done it with the intention of encouraging others to save old valuable deteriorating trains.

Do not keep soldered joined parts in cleaners too long. Two hours is usually safe, since cleaners etch solder. Poor joints will eventually fail regardless of cleaner strength.

When parts are stripped, it is a good time to clean up seams on castings, iron out dents and straighten bent areas.

Treat the newly finished treasure to a complete set of screws, throw away the rusrt, scarred hardware when the new hardware is in hand. Refinish trucks, wheels, lamp holders, pickups, couplers, etc. or have the refinished.

Brass hardware and plates can be finished to a fine patina by first carefully stripping in MEK or lacquer thinner, then scrub gently with 0000 or 00000 steel wool. Done properly this will not remove the PAINTED LETTERING on the name and number plate and produce a deep luster on brass trim. Wash, dry, dip in thinner, dry suspend with fine wire, dip and withdraw from your choice of clear lacquer. Thin the lacquer 1:1 for starters, dip several times (3 or more) – drying thoroughly between coats.

Acid-core solder or plumbers soldering paste or other acid fluxes will corrode metal if left on the work after soldering. Always neutralize acid flux with an alkaline cleaner followed by cleaning with water. Remove rosin flux with alcohol. Do not use rosin core solder with acid flux or acid core with rosin flux.


SPRAY PAINTING: Painting with a spray gun allows for a good consistent finish but does require some investment and self training. With a little practice you will have extremely satisfactory results.

For thinning of paint for use with airbrush or sprayer use “NAPHTHA” as a thinner. This solvent will thin & allow the paint to “flow” much better than the “mineral spirits”. An air brush requires much more solvent & subsequently more coats for a complete job. I would only use an airbrush to repair a ‘long scratch’ or something similar on such as an F-3 plastic body. A small sprayer such as the Paasche #62 is highly recommended for painting pre-war cars, loco etc. These items will generally require more paint and use of sprayer will only require modest thinning (1-2 tablespoons) to a 3oz. jar of paint. Coverage is excellent & will require 2 coats at most.

When spraying use full deliberate passes as close to a right angle as possible, release paint before starting across the work, do not release the nozzle until past the work. Hold the gun at a comfortable distance as long as the coating is good. Do not hold the nozzle or gun so firmly that cramps develop, just hold it securely. Typically you want to hold the gun 10” to 12” from the work but the distance that gives the most satisfactory, even coating is the one to use. Several light coats allowed to dry in between coats will produce the desired results. Trying to apply a full wet coat from the spray gun usually produces runs in the wrong place.


An ideal situation for spraying is to have the use of a spray booth. Lacking a booth, at least a window fan or ventilator to carry the fumes outside is recommended. Be careful that the fumes will not drift into another’s window and that no cars or other objects, that attract specks of paint, are nearby.

Drying may be accomplished in several ways and all begin with air drying. All coating dry from the outside in, trapping solvents under the skin. Given a little time, the solvents will migrate to the surface and evaporate. Finish drying may be done in an electric oven as follows: set the oven to warm or its lowest setting, 150 to 200ºF is the temperature desired, allow the oven to come to temperature and cycle for 15 minutes, turn the oven OFF, place the work to be dried in the oven, close the door and leave it closed for approximately 10 minutes. Do not turn the oven ON with the work inside since the oven elements radiate infra-red and can heat the work to 400ºF and higher, scorching the finish and can melt the solder. Repeat the oven drying cycle two or more times, more if necessary. Reflector or red heat lamps can be used for drying. Be certain they are far enough away from the work so that they do not burn the finish. The surface temperature of small thin objects like trains can be raised to 300 to 400º F with infra-red heat lamps. The ideal drying device is an air circulating process oven, intended to dry finishes. Finishes may be dried more efficiently in this type oven but the baking must follow drying or wrinkling may occur in the corners and other areas of thicker coating. DO NOT USE A GAS OVEN.


The determination of color match of paint is subjective, especially when comparing aged to new pigments. The underlying surface and its condition also affect the finish shade. No primer, primers of different colors and overpainting a previous color will affect final color shade. Paints made from the same formula may not be the same shade from time to time; tolerances in density of color in both natural and manufactured pigments vary, as do condition of formulation, application and atmosphere conditions at time of application. Relative humidity at time of spraying has a significant effect on shade or tint. Toy manufacturers and paint formulators of the first half of the century did not have multi-stimuli colorimeters and it is doubtful if they would have invested in such instruments if available, further they were not obsessed with color matching from batch to batch much less decade to decade. Mention of color is missing from pre-war catalogs except in rare instances and does not appear as a regular specification until the plastic era.

In the “pre-war” years, Lionel used some thirty odd colors, of which five were green, four brown, three blue, three ivory; all sensitive to “fading.” Since the greatest color change occurs in the first three to five years after application, it is unlikely that any of these colors, except black, are available “factory fresh” for us to use as a reference today. The aging that occurs in paints is caused by several agents. First, there is an initial oxidization in the drying process which may take several months; second, are atmospheric contaminants which get into everything not in a sealed impermeable container; third and a guaranteed color fader, are ultra-violet rays that will change colors even in a shaded room; direct sunlight or sunlight is not required. With these things in mind, it should be obvious that deciding which shade is closest to the “original” is difficult. In most cases COLLECTOR COLOR uses the inside color, preferably a roof as a color chip for formulating colors. The pieces used are from original owners or other pieces we have assurance have not been repainted. Shifting the color tint for each sample that we see would make it impossible to ever “get it done.”

Some say the colors are never right. We try to get as close as possible to what we believe the colors were most of the time. After all, a company that can convince its customers that its product is “richly enameled in beautiful colors” when in reality that finish was full of runs and drip-offs and in many sets the cars did not match, did not have as a major worry, the shading of the finish on its products.

Collector Color

Site owned and maintained by: Henning Scale Models, © 2011, All Rights Reserved.