Restoring Lionel Prewar Trains: A 514
by Bradley Kaplan
Restoring toy trains can be a fun project. As a general rule,
do not restore a toy train thinking you will make a profit on
it; you rarely ever will. A restored train has the value of a
non-restored piece in good condition. Restoring a piece to a rare
color scheme obviously will not make the piece worth anymore money
than the non-rare color scheme. In fact, if you have a piece in
good condition in a rare color scheme and restore it, chances
are it will loose significant value.
If you will not enjoy restoring
a piece, then you are probably better off not tackling
the project. MTH and JLM Trains make excellent reproductions
of Lionel, Ives and American Flyer prewar toy trains.
You can often pick up their pieces well under market
value. I acquired a mint MTH 513 Standard Gauge
Cattle Car on E-bay for $75. To get an original
Lionel 513 in good condition, plus parts and paint,
would end up costing more than $75 (the retail price
on the MTH 513 is about $120).
In this project, we will restore
a Lionel Standard Gauge 514 reefer. It was produced
in 1927 and 1928. After 1928, the number 514 changed
to a box car and the 514 reefer became 514R (the
brass number tags changed from 514 to 514R as well).
Other than the numbers changing and variations in
paint and brass/nickel, the two cars are identical.
The 514 reefer is rarer than the 514R. These restoration
steps apply to virtually all Lionel prewar tin plate
The first step in restoring
your toy train is carefully taking it apart. On
most Lionel freight cars, the roof snaps off. This
would be the first piece you remove. Then you would
remove the trucks. The trucks, depending when manufactured,
may be installed with either a cotter pin or a lock
washer. Carefully un-bend the tabs holding the brass
(or nickel) pieces and the miscellaneous trim (such
as door rails). Bodies of box cars are usually put
together with tabs and welded. Do not attempt to
take the entire body apart. There is no reason.
You will take the body off the black frame. Sometimes,
you may need to use a razor blade to get under tabs.
Usually, a screw driver and a good pair of needle
nose pliers works well.
Look at the trucks. They may not need to be restored. If they
do, carefully bend the truck frame so the wheels and axles will
pop out. If there is a cross bar on the truck, there is no reason
to remove it. Just leave it alone. Even the though the cross bar
is unpainted, no one will ever see it and the easiest thing to
do is just paint it.
Now comes the time to remove
existing paint. There are three ways to accomplish
- Glass Bead blasting (sand
- Boiling the item in laundry
- Using paint stripper.
Glass Bead blasting is the easiest and most fun way to remove
paint. If there is any significant amount of rust on the piece,
it is definitely the best choice. Glass Beads are just a fine
powder that is used in a sand blaster. Use the lowest pressure
possible on the sand blaster machine that will remove the paint/rust.
Even though glass beads are a fine powder, you can damage a train
part with too much pressure. Be careful!
Boiling a train in laundry detergent
is one of the strangest ways to remove paint; tell
the salesman at your local paint store and he will
scratch his head in disbelief. However, this is
one of the most effective ways to remove paint.
It only works on lead paint. If the item has been
repainted already, this method probably will not
work. The detergent must have "anionic" and "nonionic
surfactants" to remove paint.Tide and Fab are both
good choices. You simply need a large pot of water
and a couple cups of detergent. Bring it to a boil,
then put your train parts into it. Within five minutes
to an hour, the paint will come off, sometimes,
like a sheet of paper. Trucks maybe chemically blackened
and this method will not work for them. If you do
not have a sand blaster, you may have to use paint
remover for the trucks even if detergent works fine
for the rest of the train.
Using paint remover is the
last, and least desirable, option. It is a very
messy process. You are dealing with toxic chemicals
so make sure you wear heavy gloves. Plan on doing
a lot of scrubbing with this method.
When the paint is removed regardless of the
method (even if you used the detergent method), wash the pieces
off with soap and water. Keep in mind that, once the piece is
wet, it can rust very easily. The quicker you dry the piece, the
better off you are. The best method is to put the pieces in the
oven you will later use to bake the enamel onto the train. This
will quickly dry the pieces.
The next step is to look at
all your parts. Straighten out any pieces of metal
that require it (later, an article will be added
on how to repair damaged metal with Bondo). Find
a good metal polish to clean off your brass and
nickel pieces. They should be able to be shined
to look brand new.
Now is a good time to figure
out what parts you do and do not need. With some
care, most brass pieces can be straightened. You
can find reproductions for virtually any part that
Lionel and other train manufacturers have made;
even brass number boards. Often, replacing the couplers
is a smart option. A good source for parts is George
Tebolt. Your parts dealer may also be an excellent
source for paint. The parts dealer should be able
to provide you with help on any specific questions
you have. After all, it is their business. They
should be able to tell you the appropriate color
paints for any paint schemes you would like.
The next step is to start re-painting
the pieces. The best way to re-paint the pieces
is to bake the enamel. Lionel usually dipped the
piece onto a huge vat of paint and hung it to dry.
As a result, you will see drip marks on original
pieces from the factory. Lionel, and most toy train
companies, never primed their pieces. When restoring,
priming the piece is a good idea. Even if you are
not ready to paint the piece, you should prime it
once the paint is removed to prevent any rusting.
I like to use Rustoleum primer on all my pieces
as this will ensure they never rust. I do know of
a person who does not use primer. He says that Lionel
never used primer and he finds by not using primer
the pieces re-assemble much easier.
To get a good, strong finish,
you may want to bake the enamel on to the train.
This will also make it glossier. The best method
for this is to take a wooden box, wire two light
fixtures into it, place two 60 watt bulbs in to
the fixtures, line the box and its lid with aluminum
foil, and put an oven thermometer into the box.
You want to bake at between 150 to 250 degrees (depending
on the paint). You can control the temperature by
opening the lid to various degrees. Primer paint
usually bakes on fine at higher temperatures. If
you bake your enamel at too high a temperature,
it may bubble. You may want to test a new paint
with a sample piece of metal if you are not sure
how hot to bake it.
Do not use a regular oven.
The oven will smell too much after you bake the
enamel on. Do not use your toaster oven either.
The temperature on a toaster oven is on a thermometer
that will heat up the coils, shut off, then re-start
To apply the paint, either use spray paints
or an air brush. For an air brush, an excellent
source of paint is to go to a car body shop and have them paint
match the original color. There are companies that supply paints
to match Lionel colors (as previously mentioned, your parts dealer
should have excellent color matched paints in cans and spray bottles).
If you go to a hardware store, you will find that their are some
very good, or identical, matches to the paints you need. For example,
most black paint Lionel used was "safety black" and most glossy
black paints are perfect matches. For the 514 body, Rustoleum
Almond is virtually an identical match for the Ivory paint Lionel
Primer paint will usually dry
very fast when baked; usually in under 20 minutes.
Regular enamel drying time in an oven can vary from
ten minutes to three hours. You can always do a
test strip of paint on a piece of metal if you want
to experiment. Usually one coat of primer followed
by two or three coats of enamel should do the trick.
You should either apply coats within an hour of
each other, or wait more than 24 hours between coats.
This is very important rule to follow.
Now that the painting is done,
it is time to put the car back together. You should
really wait a week after your final coat of paint
before you begin assembly. This will give the paint
enough time to harden. This is especially important
when putting the roof back on.
You should, first, lay all your parts out on a table. The 514
reefer has a lot more pieces than most other Lionel cars. This
is due to its doors, their hinges and latches. In the photo of
the parts, the trucks are already reassembled. For this project,
the following reproduction parts were used:
- 2 couplers;
- 1 brass rod (for both brake
- 2 brake wheels;
- 2 brake wheel caps;
- 2 latches (one for each door);
- 2 latch rivets (almost impossible
to reuse the original).
All other parts were able to
be reused. Reproduction brass and nickel identification
tags are available. Usually they are stickers instead
of the proper material, but they look fine.
The first step in re-assembly is putting the couplers onto the
frame. For standard gauge trains (that use latch couplers), each
coupler involves three pieces: The coupler itself, triangle coupler
holder and a pin. The bottom of the pin mounts in the triangle
holder and the top of the pin goes into the frame of the car.
The coupler is held in place by the pin. The triangle coupler
holder has tabs that are bent down on the frame of the car. The
best way I have found to bend these tabs down is to put a piece
of paper on top of them. Push the paper down so the tabs break
through the paper and are exposed. Then just take a hammer and
bang the tabs down. On the 514 reefer, it is not important that
this comes out perfect since the tabs will be hidden inside the
body. On other cars, it may be more important since the tabs may
The next step is to put the
brass pieces onto the doors. The hinge rivet (which
will always be a reproduction) can either be riveted
in or glued in. The latch holder will be installed
exactly how it was before the restoration process
began. You have to careful re-bend the tabs back
to their original position.
The next process is to put the
trucks back onto the frame. They go on exactly as
they were removed.
Now, if you were unable to salvage
your original brakewheels, you will have to put
your new set together. There are two options for
reproductions: Option 1) Buy the breakwheel and
brass rod already attached (this is the easier option
and it looks close to the original but is not an
identical match); Option 2) buy a brass rod, brakewheel
and brakewheel cap and put them together. I always
go with Option 2. The brass rod for the brakewheel
needs a 90 degree bend on it. The 90 degree bend
then lays perfectly on the brakewheel and then the
brakewheel cap goes over it. The brake wheel cap's
tabs must be bent down to hold it together. The
only tricky part about this is the 90 degree bend
in the brass. If the inside of your bend is not
as tight as required it will not fit on the brake
wheel properly. If you bend it to the proper tolerance,
the brass rod will break.
To avoid the brass rod from
breaking, you will have to first bend the metal
on what will look like a 90 degree angle. Then heat
it with a stove or propane torch until the metal
is glowing red. Holding it in pliers or a vice,
use a hammer and bang the top of the bend (the photo
does not pick up the flames from the stove, but
you can see the tip of the rod glowing red).
The next process on the 514
reefer will be to put the hinges on to the body.
It is best to install the top half of all four door
hinges first. The top half of the hinge, due to
the body design, is more difficult to install than
the bottom half.
Therefore, we are installing
the top half first because the second piece of the
hinge has to be installed with the door. The hinges
must be tightly attached to ensure proper operation.
This is best done with two people; one holding the
hinge in place, while the other pushes it down with
a screw driver or similar device.
The next step is to install
all the brass or nickel pieces such as the number
tags,ladders, the stanchions to hold the brake wheels
on (but not the brake wheels), and the ventilated
reefer sign. Bend the brass pieces just enough to
hold them into place. This makes it easier and less
likely to damage if the piece needs to be restored
again in the future. Make sure to put all the pieces
on in the right direction. It may help to have a
picture of the piece in front of you before reassembly
begins. Also, be very careful not to scratch your
The next step is my least favorite:
Reattaching the roof. If you did not let the paint
dry at least a week (as previously mentioned), stop
now. As you know from its removal, the roof is a
pressure fit. If the paint is not fully hardened,
it can start to peel off when you put the roof on.
You will have to carefully force the roof in place.
This step is done before putting the body on the
frame because putting the body onto the frame is
a lot easier then putting the roof onto the body
and you may have to slightly bend the body with
your fingers as you are attaching the roof.
Now, you are ready to install
the body onto the frame. If the body tabs do not
fit perfectly into the frame, put a screw driver
behind them and stretch them into place (since the
metal is slightly flexible).
The last step is to put the
brake wheels into place. I just drop them in. I
do not bother crimping the ends.
Here is the finished product.
The NYC Ventilated Refrigerator tags are MTH reproductions
that came with the piece when it was purchased [the
correct tags say "Lionel Ventilated Refrigeration].
The only reproduction tags that are currently available
with the Lionel name are stickers so I elected to
keep the MTH version.
Here is the 514 with a 512 and a 517 that are restored in a similar
UPDATE SINCE THE ARTICLE WAS
I got the tags that say "Lionel
Ventilated Refrigeration" at from a parts person.
These are originals that the parts person salvaged
from a scrap piece.