Restoration

Here are some restoration and preservation tips provided by collectors. See Thanks to all the collectors who contributed information. All the sources that we know of are listed on a separate parts and restoration sources page.

Aluminum:

Some railroadiana items were made of aluminum, including some step boxes, some builders' plates, and various parts. While a lye solution is a favorite method for removing paint, we received the following strong warning against using lye to remove paint on aluminum: "As a former chemistry professor, I must warn folk about using lye on aluminum, as it is a strongly exothermic (heat producing) reaction.  I used to demonstrate this by putting Drano in some aluminum foil, then squirting water on it.  I won't detail the chemical reaction (you're welcome), but in a few minutes it would burst into flame." [Thanks to JH]  

Brass:

BRASSO has worked fine for me in cleaning up brass nautical items.

For big brass jobs I use a strong janitorial supply called KRC-7. It can be ordered from Chemique Chemicals in Moorestown, NJ and is pretty reasonable. It can be diluted for the faint of heart. It's pretty strong phosphoric acid with a few unmentionable elements added. However, it is the only strong product that will not turn bronze a pink or coppery color. It brings out the yellow in the brass. It is suitable for large jobs and works pretty quickly at full or near-full strength. Fine steel wool works after rinsing the acid off. Rubber gloves are a must. Chemique also makes a bizarre little chemical that you can wipe on with a cloth and the brass will not tarnish, even when handled. They're in the phone book and will send order forms upon request.

For non-plated brass & bronze items, I use a DILUTED solution of Muratic Acid, available at Home Depot, Lowe's, Home Quarters, etc. for about $2.00 a quart.

Mix the acid with water (30%/70% respectively). Take a rag, dip it, and rub lightly. The acid will work immediately on the corrosion, and you will immediately get a light, copper colored tarnish.

Take another rag with Brasso or other brass cleaner, and apply it to the bell. You won't have to rub hard, and the copper-colored tarnish easily comes off, leaving a beautiful even patina to the item. Wear gloves and goggles!

I'd do a test patch first. Might get a pink bell. Naval jelly will be better, but the stuff I use is best. Bells don't have much copper in them, so pink metal might not be a problem. However, a bronze whistle or any type of valve brass is usually another deal.

China:

Hydrogen peroxide is a traditional weapon in the conservator's arsenal. It's the favorite bleach for removing stains from paper, and is very good a bleaching items with lead-based pigments (it works great on white lead). It will work on china, but probably very slowly.

Chlorine bleach will work more quickly on china, but most store-bought chlorine bleach preparations contain additives that will soak into the piece if allowed to sit in the bath for a prolonged period of time. Oversoaking a piece will tend to weaken it.

Chloromine-T is a dry-powder chlorine bleach mix that is often used by professional restorers. The product is additive-free, and can be purchased through industrial supply companies. While this is not as powerful as clorox, it won't contaminate the china.

When treating an item, soak in cold solutions only, do not oversoak, and soak the item in cold water when you are finished to rinse away remaining chemicals.

Another way to clean china although not really cost effective is to use over night denture cleaner. An older collector that I know tried this and he said that it worked good.

Lanterns: See Lantern Restoration page.

Locomotive Bells

Polishing a bell may not be as hard as it looks. I've done two recently and offer the following tips. if the bell has paint on it get this off using any commercial grade paint remover. next, apply naval jelly in areas about 6 or 8 square inches at a time. let it set for about 20 mins then wipe off with a damp rag and wash off completely. it will not hurt the brass and will get through most of the heavy corrosion quicker and better than something like Brasso, which is only a polishing agent, not a cleaner. after you've removed all the "green" or heavy dark tarnish (this may take several doses of the naval jelly) go after it with something comparable to NEVR-DULL a cotton wadding polish and cleaner. again, work small, manageable areas at a time. when you finish this step you may only have to give it a final shine with Happich semi-chrome if you can find it or Blue Magic. both are polishing creams and i buy my Blue Magic at a local hot rod shop. they sell it for shining up chrome on cars. I have a Texas & pacific bell in my office that i shined up using these steps and it draws great reviews from even non-railroad types. this is a long process; don't get in a hurry.

I have done two locomotive bells. I have a lathe big enough to handle the bell casting, so I chuck it up and rotate it at a fairly slow speed. If the tarnish etc. is quite bad, I first will use a very fine sandpaper, (no coarser than 320) to clean the bell, holding it against the rotating casting. I personally use a small "flap wheel" on a little angle head grinder. Then, I use a cloth buffing wheel on the grinder, and polishing rouge, starting out with black (coarse grade) compound and then a final polish with red (fine grade)compound. This will give you a beautiful polish on your bell. If you don't have access to a lathe, you could do the same thing on the bench, just use a little care to keep your polish "even".

One addition: Work naval jelly with an old toothbrush before washing it off. this helps break up stubborn spots. remember, naval jelly is a mild acid so don't leave it on too long at a time. do two applications if needed.

I washed the thing down and scrubbed it with Revere Ware Copper Cleaner and a "scrubby thing that I snitched out of the kitchen. This worked OK but, not good enough. I ended up going to the hardware store and buying a buffing thing for the drill and some jewelers' rouge. After I gave the bell a shot of paint remover the buffing wheel and rouge seemed to work *MUCH* better. It took the better part of all day to spruce her up. Lastly, I gave it a shot of Happich semi-chrome which brings out the shine real nice and repainted the yoke, clapper, and base with high gloss black paint.

A word of warning - NEVER - NEVER - NEVER repaint the inside of a bell! This is a tip that it is old. It's like cleaning the back of builders plates - NEVER do that either.

[In response to advice given on our Question Board about bell restoration). Thank you for the advice. I am a machinist and did clean up the bell in a lathe. However the muriatic acid was not a good idea. It turns out my bell is bronze and must have lots of copper in it.  I would suggest posting a polisher called Nevr-Dull in the restoration section. It works much better and won't turn a bell pink. It works better than Brasso. The Brasso alone would not remove the pink colour.  I did get the pink out using extra fine steel wool, WD-40 and Brasso at 160 rpm on the lathe for 3.5 hours.  It kept the original machining marks in the bell and gave the bell a good bronze look.  I did not have to machine out the base holes and the pins were machined excentric by the manufacturer and  not oval worn. I learned alot on this project.  The yoke pin holes in the base were worn, but the bell swings very well and I did not see any reason to put in bushings. I am keeping the bell as original as possible. I did however machine a new clapper yoke/bell mount though. The original was quite corroded.  I rubbed the bell down with die-electric slicon to keep the tarnishing at bay and it brought out the bronze look even more. -RS

I read your restoration page regarding the polishing of the locomotive bells. I found a product the really works and is not caustic or hard to use. MAAS Metal Polish. Just thought I would pass this on to you. -JR

Silverware:

For fine stuff like silver plate, Twinkle (brand name) silver or copper cleaner depending on material. This good cleaner will take off the light tarnish that comes from humidity. It will also leave a light tarnish inhibitor.

Revere Ware Instant Copper / Stainless Steel Cleaner. This stuff works like a top on heavy copper or brass stuff. It is *NOT* recommended for light silver stuff as it seems to be fairly abrasive.

"Never - Dull "The Magic Wadding" polish. This is also a *GOOD* cleaner / polish combination. It is good on most metal objects and I have used it on everything from bells to whistles to lanterns to silver plate.

Simichrome Polish: This is in my humble opinion the *BEST* metal polish on the market today. It is *NOT* cheap. But, it does not take a lot to make a piece of silver shine like new money. The shine also seems to last for about a year. A tip on this stuff would be to use small amounts at a time.

I would like to add Hagerty's Silversmiths' Polish as one of my favorites. It is a liquid and is non abrasive. It also contains a "tarnish preventative". I have used it on fine silver plated instruments for over 20 years. It doesn't "cut" as easily as "Simichrome", which is my first choice for really tarnished items. The only drawback to some of these paste and liquids are the residue left in detail work.

There are also a variety of "Silver polishing cloths" which are good for "maintenance". They are soft and non abrasive and will remove light tarnish. Again, safe enough for fine silver plated musical instruments.

I agree with all, except th euse of Simichrome. There is a reason why it works so well and why it takes so little time to clean . . . it is, by all accounts, incredibly abrasive. I am told by those who work with metal that in addition to some very harsh chemistry, it also contains silica/silicate (in the form of finely ground glass) as well as extra fine pumice (the stuff they use in Lava soap) which could rip the hide of an elephant. I have had collectors who have used Simichrome over a period of years see noticeable wear/damage to side marks on silver pieces.

I will add, that a friend who collects railroad flatware, recently purchased a "device" he saw advertised on television. It uses a metallic surface which is placed in a basin along with warm water and detergent (as I recall). This sets up an electronic effect that removes the tarnish. He said it works well, and that he can clean hundreds of pieces of flatware in an evening. Have not seen it first-hand, so can't comment personally.

Also, don't forget the old stand by, Brasso (a bit abrasive, but puts a shine on brass tops like nothing I have ever seen), as well as A-OK Metal Polish which works well on nickel plating. For the benefit of everyone, please do not use the old "vinegar and salt" method to clean brass. It does work, but you might as well take the item and rub it on a concrete sidewalk, it will work as well, and is equally as abrasive. Also, if you own a steel wire brush, throw it away. I have seen many great lanterns and locks ruined by using this technique. A very fine/soft brass brush may be OK in certain circumstances, but not often. Nothing beats non-abrasive cleaners, soft cloths and tons and tons of elbow grease.

The following was sent to us in Summer, 2009": Something you may want to add to your list is a polish called Prism Polish. It was formerly known as Mr. Douglas' metal polish. I bought some at a firefighter expo several years ago to polish our 1930 American LaFrance engine and parts (nozzles, copper fire extinguishers, etc) and it does a PHENOMONAL job. It is also great on aluminum or steel diamond plate, lantern globes, steam whistles (it will even take the green patina off with a little elbow grease. It does not already have to be polished). In fact, we polished one half of a diamond plate footboard with PRISM and the other half with EXREME ( also a GREAT product). The PRISM tolerated the weather, water and things better and longer than EXTREME. I like it because it will also remove cyl. oil and soot that may be on number plates, headlight lenses and number boards, bells, whistles, gauge glasses, etc. Their website is: http://www.mppros.com/prismpolish.html. A word of caution though. It WILL take lacquer off of any surface and might even remove plating (nickle, brass or chrome) if you are not careful." - Mark P.

More Restoration and Preservation Tips

China

Use 30-100 volume hydrogen peroxide (obtainable from hairdressing suppliers). This is non abrasive and non corrosive - abrasive should be used as a last resort.
Softscrub is less abrasive than Comet but not much. Use on gold rim ware with extreme caution - it will erode.

Paper

To remove mold from hardback book covers, use a little straight bleach on a rag. Use a small amount and don't let the bleach sit on the the cover for any length of time.

Brass Items

For non-plated brass or bronze items, use a diluted solution of Muriatic acid, available at many hardware stores. Mix the acid with water in a 30% to 70% ratio, take a rag, dip it, and rub the item lightly. Wear gloves and goggles. [Thanks to Matt Baumgartner] . There is also a brass-cleaning method developed by Dave Thorpe and described on our lantern restoration page (look toward the bottom of the page).

Silver Items

Polishing silver items: In a non-aluminum pan, add a piece of aluminum foil, water and baking soda. Bring the water to a boil and place the item in the water. You only need to boil for a minute or so. The water foams as it removes the tarnish. If the water stops foaming and there is still tarnish, add more baking soda or a fresh water/soda combo. [Thanks to Jim Stover]

Glass

Peroxide also cleans glass, but never use lye on glass - it will etch it.

Rusty Steel & Paint Removal

  • For rust cleaning off plated steel lanterns the most basic cleaner is the powdered toilet cleaner (blue and whiite can) which is Sodium hydrogen sulphate (acts as sulphuric acid). Its in your supermarket near the bleaches. Will pit on extended immersion. After treatment , the item can be dried in an oven after washing (with distilled water to prevent spots) and then spray with a clearcote varnish. The treatement will also take heavy corrosion off brass but don't leave in too long as it will etch the zinc out over time and leave a copper hue to the item.
  • There are two ways of looking at rust: Removal - water soluble usually an acid an acid Sulphuric, Phosphoic gel (naval jelly) or hydrofluric acid (way nasty - etches glass). Some of the commercial rust cleaners, often sold to remove rust stains from cotton, are fluoride (KHF2 a white powder) and are dangerous as they create non healing sores.
  • Loosen it up-these are blends of organic solvents (like WD40) and penetrate locked nuts frozen gears. They do not remove rust.
  • The best paint stripper I have ever used is sold in the NAPA stores as "Chemical Paint Remover", it does have methylene chloride, but other things. It will grow quickly grow a skin keeping the methylene chloride from evaporating quickly. I use Spic and Span powder to wash it away, it's great on aluminum. If it can remove automotive paint, it should remove anything organic. Spray On sells a paint and gasket remover that is also good. It's tough on any Silicone Rubber and RTV material. This stuff should be used where there is no wind, it does burn. -SL
  • I have found that using baking soda (dry in microwave) used in a small air blast gun (paasche air eraser) works on most corroded metal etc. Rinse with water. - HTH
  • A product called Clenzoil “Field & Range" -- see http://www.clenzoil.com -- can be used in the last phase of cleaning metal items such as lanterns. The process involves cleaning/derusting items as suggested on our website -- see Lantern Restoration -- then dipping the item into a bucket of this solution. The process can be repeated until the desired result is achieved. 

Also see Lantern Restoration information on a separate page.

Footnotes

(1) Most importantly, use this information at your own risk. A product or service listing here does not constitute an endorsement or guarantee in any way.

(2) Some of the products here can be hazardous. Use with precautions and at your own risk.

(3) Suggestions are welcomed but please note that we reserve the right to decide what may be listed.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Rob Hoffer, Dave Waite, Matt Baumgartner, Tom Coughlin, David Stover and everyone else who has provided information, especially to the members of the railnet.nshore.org list whose email suggestions have been brazenly stolen for this page.