How to Change the Numbers on Model Trains

  • 01 of 05

    Changing Numbers

    change number materials
    Chances are good you already have almost everything you need to change numbers in your toolbox. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Road numbers are railroads' way of tracking their equipment. Every locomotive and car owned by a company carries a unique number.

    Many manufacturers now offer models in multiple numbers. But what if you want more than they offer? Or maybe you want to model a specific car or locomotive. Or maybe you just want your cars to have different numbers than everyone else at your train club.

    Changing the numbers on your models is actually very easy. Starting with a decorated model is often easier than painting an undecorated model.

    First, gather the tools and materials you'll need:

    1. Decal setting solution or rubbing alcohol
    2. Pencil with a clean eraser
    3. Hobby knife
    4. Decals or Dry Transfers
    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    Apply Decal Setting Solution

    soaking number
    Apply a decal setting solution like Walthers Solvaset to soften the number. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Most models are decorated at the factory with a pad printing process. Lettering is applied over the base coat in successive layers. Each color is a separate stamping. This tried and true method works well for the relatively simple paint schemes found on many trains.

    Just as the paint is applied one layer at a time, it can also be removed layer by layer. All you need is a little care and a light solvent. Like stripping the paint from an entire car, you want to use the lightest chemical possible. 

    Often ordinary rubbing alcohol will do the trick. You can also use decal setting solution. This is usually used when applying decals so it is not designed to attack model paints. This thin liquid softens the decal film to allow a tight bond on irregular surfaces like wood grain, rivets or side posts. Here we are going to use it to soften the printed lettering on the car.

    Lay the model on its side and apply a drop of solution to the printing you want to remove. Allow the solution to sit for a minute or so. Every car seems to react differently, and different manufacturer's setting solutions also seem to have different reaction times, so test frequently.

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  • 03 of 05

    Removing the Numbers

    Gently erase the original number. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Now comes the fun part. Use a clean pencil eraser to rub off the old number. After the solution has set for a little, begin rubbing gently on the numbers you want to remove.

    Although every model is different, it should not take much force to remove the number. Continue rubbing, gradually increasing pressure until you begin to see results. If you rub too hard, you may remove the paint below the number as well.

    Once the numbers begin to rub off, continue with an even pressure until they are completely gone. You may need to blot off some of the dirty solutions and re-apply as you go.

    It may be tempting to only change one or two digits. This will work if you can match the size, font, and thickness of the original numbers exactly. It is often easiest to simply replace the entire number.

    You can also use this technique to replicate faded or peeling paint by only removing a portion of the lettering.

    When finished, wipe the surface clean with a tissue.

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  • 04 of 05

    Clean Model

    number removed
    The number has been removed and the car is ready for a new decal. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Here we see the model after all of the number has been removed. Prior to adding new letters, wipe off any remaining residue as well as dirt or fingerprints with a soft cloth and water.

    It is now ready for a new number. These can be applied with decals or dry transfers.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Finishing the Change

    completed number decal
    After careful alignment, the road number decals are complete. Notice that the decal film is still very visible in this shot. This is in part due to the fresh finish and camera flash and angle. A gloss and flat finish coat will help hide this. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    You're almost done! With all of the decals in position, you can now finish the car.

    These final steps are not absolutely necessary, but will greatly increase the life of your decal job. The decal itself is very fragile and can be easily scratched or torn even after it has set on the car side.

    To protect the decal, apply an even finish coat to the entire car. If you haven't already, mask any windows or other areas you don't want to be sprayed. Begin with a gloss coat. By sandwiching the decal between two glossy coats, the decal film around the lettering will be much less visible. You can apply this finish out of a spray can or with an airbrush. An airbrush will generally produce better results with less of a "speckled" appearance.

    If you want a car that looks fresh from the paint booth, you can end here. Most trains have a more weathered appearance, however. The first step to achieving this is to get rid of that glossy shine. Once the gloss coat is dry, apply a coat of clear flat finish to the model.

    Why not just apply the flat finish? A flat finish directly over the decals will enhance the appearance of the decal film.

    Most paints and weathering chalks will adhere better to a flat finish. Spray the model with a can or airbrush. Once dry, you can proceed with the weathering of your unique model.