How to clean your tin toys - simple practical tips

Image of How to clean your tin toys - simple practical tips

Do you own an old metal or antique tin toy or would like to add vintage tin toys to your home or personal collection? If so then you may be wondering about how to best maintain or restore your once gleaming acquisitions. Not sure? Well, let us give you some experienced practical tips to ensure you get the best from your antique metal toy collection. Let's get started.

How to clean your vintage tin toys to sell or display 

So you have acquired an old tin toy, whether that be a hand-painted one or a lithographically printed one. You may be wanting to sell it, or display it for your own collection. But it is filthy. So how do you clean it without causing damage? Let’s see if we can help. These items are covered in this guide:

  • Important basics about cleaning tin toys
  • What to avoid when cleaning vintage tin toys 
  • What you will need to have ready for the cleaning process
  • Tips, Tricks and Techniques for cleaning your tin antique toys
Caring for your old tin toy? 

The value of a tin toy is in its paint! If you have a toy without all original paintwork it is of little value. Similarly, a toy that has been touched up by an amateur restorer is diminished in value. Your task in cleaning your item is to do so in ways that remove dirt gently without removing any of the precious paintwork. Colours fade so this is an important step in restoring your acquisition to its former glory.

Please resist the temptation to touch up the paint (or rather any missing paint spots)!

What to avoid when cleaning metal toys? 

Being anything other than gentle with your toy can be disastrous. Try to steer clear of these:

  • Complete immersion in water. This may lead to rust issues or for later toys, any applied decals floating off!
  • Air drying. Try not to 'leave your toy to drain’. If you need to get it at all wet then it needs to be dried immediately to prevent or reduce the risk of rust and the lifting of paintwork. A hairdryer on a LOW setting can help dry out moisture.
  • Harsh chemicals. Always test what you are cleaning in an inconspicuous area of the toy. Remember that quite often the toy was made before the cleaners that you are using were invented. Modern cleaning substances may not work well with old paint!
  • Use soft tools. Scouring pads and stiff sponges can scratch and damage the paintwork.
  • Be gentle in what you do and use a light touch - vigorous rubbing can damage the paintwork. Allow yourself sufficient time to do the cleaning and enjoy the process.
What you will need in the cleaning process 

A list of items that will be useful to have around:

  • Soft paintbrush
  • soft sponge
  • Dishwasher liquid
  • WD40
  • Lint-free drying cloths
  • Q Tips
  • Linseed oil
  • Toothpicks
  • Hairdryer
  • Clean hand towels
  • White Vinegar
  • #0000 gauge wire wool.
  • Mineral oil

Our tips, tricks and techniques for restoring old metal toys

General Cleaning

Firstly brush off the toy using a soft paintbrush. This allows you to sweep away dust and also to flick out any caught particles. Make sure not to rub with a dry cloth as this can embed the dust into the paintwork.

Next, fill a bowl with soapy water. Scoop up the suds on a soft sponge or cloth and very carefully dab the item. This will allow a certain amount of moisture onto the paintwork without it becoming so wet that any decals present begin to slide off. The moisture and suds will quickly dissolve any grease or dirt deposits. For more tricky areas use a Q Tip or even a toothpick to dislodge dirt.

Once finished, dry your toy immediately using lint-free or hand towels. Do not leave to drain. To drive out any final moisture you can use a hairdryer (on a LOW setting).

If your toy is a wind-up/mechanical item you can free the mechanism with a judiciously applied squirt of WD40 or similar lubricant. This will do your toy no harm so don’t worry. Once applied, stand the toy on newspaper so any excess lubricant drains away.

How to remove rust from old tin toys 

For smaller pockets of rust, first try a little handy WD40 on a cloth to soften the rust. Be careful but then simply wipe away and use light pressure. Always test on an inconspicuous area first, and try to avoid overlapping onto the paintwork. Start with a light touch and work from there depending on the degree of cleanup required. This should remove the rust.

For more stubborn areas of rust dip a small amount of #0000 gauge wire wool in white vinegar and gently rub the rust. You do not need to wash off the vinegar afterwards as it will evaporate but will also neutralise the rusted area.

For larger metal toys, such as a sit-in model car with unpainted areas underneath, more persuasive methods will be needed involving wire brushes and power tools.

How to finish and protect your vintage toy 

For smaller toys and to make the colours pop again, we use a very thinly applied coat of Linseed oil. And we do mean thin folks! Take a lint-free cloth and apply the oil very sparingly. When dry, buff the surface with a soft cloth.

For larger items, such as the car mentioned above, a light coat of beeswax will work. Again buff when dry and try to avoid any clumps forming!

Final Thoughts

We know from experience that a good cleaning method will be invaluable in restoring the look of old metal toys, be they rusty or simply dull from lack of attention over years. Hopefully, the tips and methods above will help you remove dirt and grime, clean up rust and generally bring parts of the toy and its overall appearance back to a good condition. Accomplish that and you're sure to be rewarded with a beautiful and appealing decoration and talking point for visitors.

1 comment

  • John

    I bought an old Lionel tinplate building for $20 and I wanted to find some recommended ideas for cleaning it up. Your website provided precisely what I was looking for, thank you for sharing your knowledge!

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