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How to Clean Antique Tin Toys

The cardinal rule when cleaning tin toys is to avoid paint loss at all costs. Why? Because a metal toy’s condition on the 1-to-10 scale is determined, first and foremost, by the amount of paint a toy has retained since its manufacture.

Carette Renault, c. 1906, lithographed sheet metal, original condition. Sold by Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH for €12,500. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Carette Renault, c. 1906, lithographed sheet metal, original condition. Sold by Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH for €12,500. Image via LiveAuctioneers

We all want our toys to be in tip-top condition, preferably boxed, but the more rare a toy is, the more leeway a collector might allow with respect to condition when contemplating a purchase. In other words, if you were to come across a toy that you believe to be one of few known examples, you wouldn’t necessarily pass on it because it’s not a 10, an 8, or even a 6. You might be willing to overlook its paint loss, buy it at a reduced price and hope that at some point in the future you’d be able to upgrade to a better example.

There is a point of no return, however. If a tin toy has lost so much paint that the only way to make it presentable is to repaint it, then you’d probably be throwing your money away if you bought it for anything other than replacement parts.

Now for the good news: if a toy is simply dirty, there’s an excellent chance that its condition can be raised by one or even two points simply by giving it a proper cleaning.

There are various schools of thought as to how tin toys should be cleaned. Every collector has his or her own tricks of the trade.

Lehmann Echo with Box, lithographed tin, Germany. Sold by Bertoia Auctions for $9,500. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Lehmann Echo with Box, lithographed tin, Germany. Sold by Bertoia Auctions for $9,500. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Key toy-cleaning kit includes these staples:

  • Automotive paste wax. Rain Dance, is a good choice, but you might decide to choose a different brand that works well for you. Just make sure it has a moist consistency
  • WD-40 spray in a can
  • Armor-All Original Protectant in a spray bottle
  • Soft rags. Cotton diapers are best, if you can find them
  • Cotton swabs, like Q-Tips
  • Rounded toothpicks with pointed ends

There are two basic types of tin toys: 18th/early-19th-century hand-painted types, and lithographed tin toys, which came later.

Whether cleaning an early hand-painted Gunthermann wind-up or a 1950s mass-produced Disney wind-up, you must never attempt to clean a toy without first testing your cleaning product on a small, inconspicuous spot. This is especially important with hand-painted toys, because you can never predict how old paint will react. Many early toys were painted without the use of a primer. In such cases, the paint could come off quite easily. To test a toy’s paint, take a Q-Tip, lightly apply a tiny bit of paste wax to a spot and see if any of the color comes off or the Q-Tip has picked up a faint color stain. If that happens, you will know that the toy cannot be cleaned with commercial products, and you should never do anything except dust it off with a soft cloth, using a very light touch.

If a tin toy passes the initial test, you can feel confident about cleaning it. Here are the important steps to follow:

  1. Lightly wipe off surface dust with a soft cloth.
  2. If the clockwork mechanism is tight or even frozen, set the toy down on some newspapers topped with layered paper towels and spray some WD-40 into the keyhole, using the slim, red straw that comes attached to the product’s container. Don’t worry about over-spraying. WD-40 is a lubricant that frees metal parts that have seized up. It can only benefit your toy’s mechanism. After spraying, let the WD-40 drain over the paper towels. You might want to set the toy on its side to drain. If you’ve had to spray it more than, say, twice, it may have to sit overnight in that position so all of the product can drain out.
  3. Dry the toy all over to thoroughly remove any liquid residue.
  4. Now you’re ready to apply the paste wax in a small, circular motion. Use a light touch to begin with; then you can become more aggressive as you determine the hardiness of the paint. On small or odd-shaped parts, you can use a small dab of wax on a Q-Tip. Try to avoid getting wax on or around the tabs that connect the toy’s parts, as the wax can get stuck in the crevices.
  5. After the wax has dried, get a fresh, soft cloth and wipe off the wax.
  6. Next, spray some Armor-All onto a clean, soft cloth and wipe the toy off. Do not spray the product directly onto the toy; only spray it onto the cloth. Follow this by buffing the toy. It will shine!
  7. You may notice there’s still some visible wax residue in the toy’s crevices or tabs. That’s where the toothpicks come in handy. Cover a toothpick with one layer of soft cloth and carefully work the point of the toothpick into the places where wax remains.

You are now ready to admire your toy and the value your sweat equity has added to it. Discover and bid on antique toys in weekly Jasper52 toy auctions.

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