Model Train Repairs: How To Strip Paint From Pre-Painted Models

This is a guide to model train repairs & stripping the paint safely to remove the paint from pre-painted model locomotives and cars, without damaging them.

By Patrick Lawless

Have you ever found a rare plastic model locomotive or car at a train sale or flea market? Have you seen a kit at a garage sale that would be just right for your model train layout? Or your dealer puts that locomotive you've been drooling over on sale for a great price? Chances are that the model may not be in the paint scheme that you wanted for your railroad. It may be painted Santa Fe, but you're a die-hard New York Central fan. You'd like to re-paint and decal it, but how do you get the old paint off without damaging it? Paint strippers are available from your local hobby store, but like many things you buy at a hobby store, they are brutally expensive compared to what experienced modelers use.

There are several methods of removing paint from plastic shells, but regardless of your choice it's necessary to be careful about it, for two reasons. One, some older plastic shells may not be made out of the same plastic that modern kits are (usually styrene), so chemicals may damage them. It's always best to test a little of the paint stripper on the inside of the shell, and see if it eats into the shell over a period of several hours. Secondly, you're dealing with strong chemicals here, so please take all safety precautions such as wearing rubber gloves and providing good ventilation. In fact, it's better to work outside if possible, but make sure that the shell and its chemicals are well out of reach of children and pets. So let's get started!

My current favorite for removing commercial paint jobs from models is none other than spray-on oven cleaner. That's right! I use a no-name brand of oven cleaner that's extremely cheap, and which works quite well. Any traditional spray on oven cleaner should work. If it has a "caustic" warning label on it (a skeleton hand) then it will remove paint quite nicely. First remove the shell from it's drive system (if it's a locomotive model) and remove any clear plastic parts from the shell, such as windows and headlights. The chemicals may cause them to permanently fog up. Use a base plate or shallow pan of some kind (one that isn't valuable), put the model on it spraying it liberally with oven cleaner. Remember to run a test on the inside of the shell first. Now walk away and leave the shell for several hours. When you come back rinse the shell under warm running water, while at the same time scrubbing it with a stiff bristled toothbrush or other small brush. Don't use anything with metal bristles, or you'll damage the shell.

You should see that a good proportion of the paint has been removed from the shell. Depending on the particular paint that was used on the model, it may be necessary to repeat this process several times to remove all of the paint. Don't be in a rush. If the paint is really tough, it may be necessary to leave it coated overnight. Once it has been cleaned off, thoroughly wash the shell in hot soapy water, to remove all traces of the oven cleaner, before you apply any new paint.

Another chemical that is good for removing paint is ordinary automotive brake fluid. This is a slower method, but requires less work. All you do is put the shell in a dish filled with brake fluid, and leave it for one or two days. Don't forget to perform the compatibility test first! Once it has been sitting for that time period, pull it out (wearing rubber gloves) and scrub it with that stiff brush we talked about. The paint should come off quite easily. One thing though: some brands of brake fluid may not have any paint removing properties at all, so you may need to try several before you find one that works. Luckily, a small can of brake fluid is quite cheap. So there you have it! Two easy and cheap methods of removing paint from those "mis-painted" kits. Now when you go to a model railroad flea market, you can browse those bargain bins with gusto, knowing that you can easily change the paint scheme on any gems you find.

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