5 Quick Steps for Preserving Holiday Toy Trains

By Denise May Levenick Premium

Have a treasured holiday train set that you want to display this year? A reader wrote in to ask about her 1950s-era Stream Line Electric Train, made by Louis Marx & Co. and complete with tracks, transformer, cars and instructions. Is her train—and others like it that you might have—safe to use? How should they be cared for?

Here are a few quick tips for displaying your favorite toy train and preserving it for Christmases to come:

1. Check for damage.

Before using your vintage train for the first time, carefully inspect the track, cars and controller for any damage or rust. Check any rubber or plastic used for the electric components for wear or cracking. The electric controller may still work, but do have the wiring checked and updated at a local lamp or appliance repair center, especially if the case is cracked or the wiring is frayed or damaged.

2. Choose a safe place for setup.

Due to the train’s age and sentimental value, you may want to find a special spot to display it. Setting it up around a tabletop Christmas tree, rather than on the floor underneath a full-height tree, will provide more protection from bumping and handling than the floor.

3. Gently clean each piece.

Wipe the track rails to remove dust, oils and grime. Clean the locomotive’s wheels of accumulated oils and dirt before running. If the train cars and locomotive need cleaning, brush loose dirt from surfaces using a soft artist’s brush, followed by gently wiping with a soft cloth dampened with distilled water. Air dry thoroughly before storing. You’ll also want to wipe the metal after handling to remove any oily residue left from your hands.

4. Prep the train for storage.

Metal train cars and track are susceptible to corrosion, and so you’ll need to take care to wipe the train down before you store it as well. Before you pack up the train for storage, experts at Classic Toy Trains Magazine suggest wiping down metal parts using a cloth soaked with a light lubricant oil such as 3-in-One or sewing machine oil to help inhibit rust. (When you unpack the set to use it again later, clean the track rails with a soft cloth to take off the oil and restore traction—newer locomotives may have rubber traction tires that will combine with the oil into a sticky sludge.)

Like many vintage toys, your train set includes a variety of materials, each requiring special care. For example, the cardboard box, paper instructions, and circuit breaker box are likely made from high-acid paper and cardboard. You may see brown spots (foxing), stains, mildew or mold on the paper. Scan and print the instruction sheet for reference, and preserve the original in a plastic sheet protector or acid-free folder. Be sure to add a desiccant to the box to absorb moisture. You can’t do much about the acidic nature of the boxes, except to store them in a temperature-controlled environment. This is best for metal trains as well.

5. Pick a dark, mild place to store. 

Handle the paper and boxes as little as possible, and keep the entire box in an interior closet inside your home. Avoid storing the train set in an attic, basement or garage where the box can become damp and mildewed, and the train’s metal parts begin to rust.