Stripping Paint From Model Trains

How to Change the Paint on Locomotive Minis

Antique steam engine and coal car. Model train. Copy space.
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  • 01 of 04

    To Strip or Not to Strip

    Model Train Coming Around Lush Mountain
    Cam Barker / Getty Images

    At some point, every modeler needs to take the paint off of a model. Even with the amazing variety of products available today, sometimes to get the train you want, you have to start with one painted for something else.

    You might be afraid to strip paint from a model because you probably know that not all plastics and paints react the same way to some paint strippers. You might also look unfavorably on using harsh chemicals and the odors they produce.

    Settle your fears. The process of stripping paint is very simple once you find the right combination. And, you do not have to worry about the fumes if you take proper safety precautions.

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  • 02 of 04

    Getting Started

    Stripping solution in tupperware
    You don't always have to use harsh chemicals to remove model paints. Often simple alcohol will do the trick. Ryan C Kunkle

    The first question that always gets asked about stripping paint is which paint stripper to use. There are several options and the good news is that many of them are inexpensive, easy to acquire, and very unlikely to cause any harm to most plastics.

    Isopropyl alcohol, window and "pine" general-purpose cleaners, and brake fluid are all common household products that perform like paint strippers that have been used by model railroaders with success for years. Of course, there are also a variety of actual paint strippers on the market. Most of these have the same active ingredients as those other materials just in greater concentration or without the other additives.

    So how do you know which one is right for your project? Well if you have never paint stripped before, you can start by asking around to see what has worked for others on similar models. Some brands are known to react better to some strippers than others. Here are some other tips to protect your models:

    • Start with the least volatile option: 91 percent or 99 percent isopropyl alcohol is unlikely to do any damage to most of the plastics used in model trains. Window cleaners are a close second. If these simple solutions do not work, you can step it up to something stronger.
    • Observe: You may not notice any changes immediately, but it is good to perform this work when you have a few hours and can check it frequently.
    • Avoid long soaks: For every story of a model "forgotten" in a bath of stripper that has been just fine, there is a horror story of a model that melted or turned brittle. 
    • Test first: Test the stripper on a part of the model that will not be seen just in case. This might be the interior of the shell or the plastic sprue it was attached to.
    • Wash after stripping: After you have stripped the model, wash in warm soapy water to remove any paint stripper residue.

    Safety Precautions

    Always remember when it comes to working with chemicals: safety first. Even if you are using the least-toxic chemicals, the smell of concentrated alcohol or cleaner can be overpowering. It is always best to strip paint in a well-ventilated area. Eye protection is a good idea just to be on the safe side once you start scrubbing. You will want to keep anything else that can be damaged by the stripper, like other models on the workbench, safely away too. 

    Other Materials You Need

    In addition to the stripper, you will need a few basic supplies to get started: 

    • Plastic tub, preferably with a lid
    • Toothbrush
    • Plastic gloves
    • Eye protection
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  • 03 of 04

    Removing the Paint

    Scrubbing paint
    If the stripper is working, the paint should come off with just a light scrub. It is not uncommon for the lettering to separate from the rest of the paint first. Ryan C Kunkle

    If you want to take the lettering off of a model, you can work locally on the letters with a decal setting solution. This is also a good way to test how quickly the paint comes off the model with total immersion.

    Begin by placing the model in a plastic container and submerging it completely in the stripper. The closer in size your container is to the model the better. Most strippers will take at least a few minutes to start working. Have a lid handy that you can place over the container that will help control the odors. Keep an eye on the model. After about 15 minutes, if you have not noticed any change, go ahead and test the results. To test it, don gloves, remove the model from the bath and gently scrub with a toothbrush. If the paint starts coming off, you have found a good match and can keep going until the model is clean. If it has not started to strip yet, or if it is taking a lot of effort to remove the paint, then put the model back in the bath. Try again in another 15 minutes.​

    If the model shows no signs of stripping after an hour in the bath, there is a good chance you are not going to have any luck with this stripper even with a long soak. Try something a little stronger.

    It is not uncommon for the stripper to take off the top layer of paint—usually the lettering—much faster than the other layers. If you have a locomotive with a simple paint scheme, this may be enough.

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  • 04 of 04

    Cleaning Up

    Cleaning a model train
    After stripping the models, a soak and scrub in soapy water is a good way to remove any leftover stripper. Ryan C Kunkle

    Now that the paint is off, you will want to clean up the model. Wash it completely in warm water with just a little soap. This will remove any residual stripper which could prevent a good application of paint or, over time, damage the model.

    It is a good idea to continue to wear protective gloves through this process. Not only are you protecting your hands, but also keeping fingerprints off of the model.

    If you are not ready to paint the model right away, it is a good idea to place it in a clean place where it will not get dusty.

    A good rule of thumb to remember: No two models are the same. Even models from the same manufacturer can sometimes react differently. Experience helps, but the only way to get that is to keep trying. Take your time and you will never have to wait for your favorite paint scheme to be announced again. Take matters into your own hands, strip existing paint, and paint away.