How to Strip Paint from a Model Locomotive

How to Strip Paint from a Model Locomotive

Let’s say you’ve got an older locomotive that you want to repaint to make it look nicer, or maybe you want to put a custom paint job on it for your freelance model railroad. How do you go about getting rid of the old paint? Follow these steps as I show you how to strip paint from a model locomotive.

Tools and Shells

Rather than just write about it and post links to random photos or videos, I thought it was high time to show the steps personally. I’ll be using two old locomotive shells for the project. One is from an AHM Atlantic Coast Line F-unit my dad purchased sometime in the mid-1970s. At some point, the locomotive was dropped or otherwise fell to the ground and became badly damaged. I’m using it simply because there is no other use for the broken shell than as a demonstration.

The other shell is relatively intact, only missing the horns that were mounted on top of the long hood, just behind the cab, and the brake wheel that was on the right side of the nose. It is a Bachmann Santa Fe U36B I purchased in the early 1980s, and this shell could be utilized again if I can find a frame for it. After the paint is stripped, I may repaint it in the scheme of my fictional shortline Badlands and Missouri Valley Eastern, but that’s a project for another day!

Shells

The first thing to do is to prep the shells. For the ACL F-unit, nothing needs to be done. The horns were removed long ago and placed in a parts box and there are no other parts to remove. It’s ready to go. For the U36B shell I want to remove the handrails from all around the shell. This has to be done carefully to keep from breaking them. On this old Bachmann, it’s simply cheap plastic and breaks easily if you aren’t careful. You can use a hobby knife or your thumbnail to gently pry them loose. I want to strip the red paint from the handrails, so they’ll go in with the two shells.

Handrails removed

To remove the paint, I’m going to use 91% isopropyl alcohol. Some modelers use paint thinner, some use brake fluid, but most seem to use alcohol based on my research. For me, I’m using alcohol because of the number of positive things about its properties. Still, you’ll need to be careful because if you leave the shells in the alcohol too long, they can start to melt or warp. That said, depending on the manufacturer, time period the model was made in, and the type of factory paint used, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple days for it to work. We won’t know until we get there.

Put your shell or shells (I wouldn’t recommend more than two small or one large shell at a time) into a sealable container. I’m using inexpensive food storage containers. Place any small parts you wish to strip in also and then pour in your alcohol (or stripping agent of choice). You want to use enough to completely cover the shells, so they are fully submerged. It took two one-quart bottles for this project.

Shells covered in alcohol

Next, seal the container so no one accidently spills it (or so your very curious cat, should you have one like mine, doesn’t try to get into it) and set it aside. Just leave it for a couple hours before your first check.

When I checked after two hours, the paint was ready to come off. Taking an old toothbrush, I scrubbed the shells to get off all the excess paint. On the AHM F-unit, that purple paint just sluffed right off leaving a very clean gray shell. It really is too bad the shell is so badly damaged that I can’t use it for anything else.

After 2 hourspaint coming off

Make sure to wear gloves while doing this! I forgot mine initially, and it doesn’t take long for the isopropyl alcohol to be absorbed through the skin. Don’t do what I did! Wear gloves!

The Bachmann U36B was more stubborn. I was surprised to find that the silver was not paint but was the color of the plastic itself. The handrails and the cab were different colored plastic, with the handrails being white and the cab being gray. The big “Santa Fe” on the sides of the long hood left a ghost imprint on the silver plastic. It simply would not go away. I hope that it will be covered well by whatever paint I use when I do paint it. Once they were done, I gave both shells and parts a wash in warm water. This removes the alcohol and also gets rid of some of the last of the paint.

stubborn paint on the U36B

Something I forgot to do was take the cab off of the U36B. The cab of a model locomotive usually just pops off with gentle tug and squeeze, so as I continued to scrub the hood I popped the cab off and put it back in the solution to soak a bit more.

All told, from prep and gathering of everything I need to letting the shells dry was about 3 ½ or 4 hours. This is a pretty quick little project, and for the 2 hours the shells were soaking I was doing something else (writing much of this blog, for instance!).

Cleaned and stripped U-boat Cleaned and stripped F-unit

What You Need:

  1. A model or models to strip paint from
  2. 91% isopropyl alcohol (or the stripping agent of your choice)
  3. A hobby knife
  4. An old toothbrush
  5. A container to put everything in
  6. Rubber or latex gloves

Following these steps you should be able to do the same thing with one of your model locomotives. The question of how to strip paint from a model locomotive should now be an easy one to answer!

Be Sociable, Share!
The following two tabs change content below.

Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

Latest posts by Robert Thomson (see all)

About The Author

Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.