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Simple Ways To Keep Your Trains Clean

Updated on July 24, 2012

How do you keep your trains clean?

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The question of how to keep your trains clean has some very simple answers. Some folks may consider a thick layer of dust on their locomotives and rolling stock to be a cheap and easy way to weather models. In some ways, frankly, it is. But is it not good for your trains to be dusty. Dust and dirt can foul couplers, make wheels squeak, and gum up motors resulting in operating issues. Keeping everything clean is simple and inexpensive. Using a few common household cleaning tools and a little bit of elbow grease for the tough spots, you'll have a sparkling railroad and trouble free operation.

WD-40 made this pre-war beauty shine
WD-40 made this pre-war beauty shine | Source
Using a duster, or canned air, or a mini vac will help with detailed models.
Using a duster, or canned air, or a mini vac will help with detailed models. | Source

Dust Now, Dust Often

The easiest way to keep your trains clean is to dust them. Just as we would dust things in our house, we must dust the things on the railroad. You are seldom running all of your trains at once. The idle locomotives and rolling stock collect dust, just like your end tables. I like to use a Swiffer Duster to clean my fleet at least twice each month. On my layout, I have two main loops of track. I assemble the longest trains I can reliably run on each loop, with as many locomotives as each one will handle, and take up position on one of the straight runs with my Swiffer in hand. As the trains pass, I hold the duster first over head to clean the roofs, then vertically, on each side, to clean the sides of the cars and locos. After a few passes for each train, I'll stop running and dust details like running boards, locomotive steps, and platforms. You don't have to use any pressure on the duster to achieve good results. The way these cleaners are designed, the dirt and dust gets picked up easily with a light touch. You can also get good results using an old fashioned feather duster or synthetic duster. A word of caution, whatever the tool, watch out for fine detail parts. You don't want to accidentally break something while you are cleaning it.

For hard to reach spots on cars and locos, or for pieces that have a lot of risky fine detail, I use canned air to blow them off. You can also use air from a small compressor, as with an air brush. I shy away from using any cleaning agents on plastic shells and elaborate paint schemes. Chemicals and alcohol can damage plastic bodies and remove or fade paint, especially lettering.

Splish, Splash

If you have a car or locomotive that is especially dirty, you can gently scrub them with warm water, dish soap and a soft tooth brush. Be sure to remove the shells from the frames, especially with locos or any car that has lighting or electrically activated motion. You do not want to get your electronics wet or any of the wiring wet. I do not recommend that you use this method with passenger cars. First, removing the shell from your average Lionel or MTH passenger car can be tricky and if done incorrectly, can result in damage to the car. It is a method that I have used with great success on post-war equipment. You will also want to be cautious around anything with applied decals. Water slide decals will reactivate and come loose, and paper based decals can be ruined by water. Carefully examine your equipment before deciding to give it a bath.

If you have a candidate for the tub, and you have properly prepared it for a wash down, gather up a soft bristle tooth brush, some dish soap (I like Ivory Liquid) and a source of fresh warm water for rinsing. Rinse the body off first, then, using the tooth brush, gently scrub the body to remove the grime. Rinse it thoroughly, then set it aside to air dry at least 24 hours before reassembling. You will want to make sure that you do little to no brushing over lettering. Heat stamped lettering is susceptible to washing off with little effort. Again, be ware of decals and intricate paint schemes. If it looks like something is fading while you are washing, stop scrubbing and rinse right away.

Spit and Polish

There are still some locomotive and car bodies being made out of metal, though not many. You will typically find die cast steam locomotives in the larger scales. If you have an exceptionally dirty piece of die cast, there is nothing like a little bit of WD-40 to bring the shine back and take the dirt away. Don't use this for regular cleaning, and be sure not to get any on wheels or axles as it will hinder electrical connectivity. Also, a little bit of WD-40 goes a long way. I like to break out a dedicated WD-40 tooth brush, spray some on, and gently scrub the die cast. Watch out for plastic parts and windows, this is a petroleum based product and it will eat the plastic components. I get the most use out of this method on pre-war locomotives and enameled rolling stock.

As you can see, it does not take much to keep your railroad running smoothly and looking spiffy. When you dust your trains, remember to clean buildings and other scenery elements. Also, if you have trains on a shelf, now is a good time to dust them as well. One other thing that I do on cleaning day is wipe down the track. If you have a cleaning car, run it while you dust. I use the old fashioned method of a rag on a stick. A little bit of elbow grease and regular cleanings go a long way to making your train layout and train room shine.


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