Questions & Answers
Buying & Selling
Just about any collector who's been in the hobby awhile has developed an approach to cleaning and restoring lanterns. Frequently collectors come across these things in a state of considerable corrosion (the lanterns, not the collectors) and face the task of judging whether or not good metal exists under coats of paint and/or rust. Railroad lanterns, after all, were used outdoors under industrial conditions that were often brutal, so bumps, dents, and rust are the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, while it seems that most lanterns left the factory in an unpainted condition (usually covered with a solder-like coating referred to as "tin"), some were later painted by their owners, probably as a rust-prevention measure. Most collectors will attest that there are fewer satisfying accomplishments in the hobby than to restore a battered, corroded hulk of metal to its shiny close-to-former condition. A lot of collectors will also relate stories of how a candidate that at first seemed real promising turned out to be full of holes or almost completely rusted through after going through a rust-removal treatment.
There's a lot of controversy about how (and if) to restore lanterns, so the following is offered only as a collection of opinions and experience. The best advice here is to try some of these techniques out and judge for yourself. Note: We frequently add new information to this page as collectors send it to us, so check back.
If to Restore. In some fields or hobbies that involve collecting historical artifacts, any restoration that destroys the original "as found" condition, patina, etc., of the artifact is considered a definite sin. This seems to be less the case with RR lanterns, perhaps because the "as found" condition of many of them is rather grim. A commonly held opinion is that if the lantern is in rather decent shape, it should be cleaned but otherwise left as is. However, if there is considerable rust or old paint, some sort of restoration is desirable. Most collectors will remove any paint found on lanterns, but again there is no complete consensus on this and some definite exceptions. For example, some Dietz model "999" lanterns were painted at the factory with a "japan" medium blue finish. This original factory finish is usually left intact.
Removing old paint & grime. Doug McIntyre has suggested the following directions for cleaning and removing paint from lanterns, based on much experience and experimentation.
"Remember that cleaning can only do so much. Examine lanterns carefully before buying. If a lantern is in lousy condition to begin with, cleaning will, at best, make it a clean lantern in lousy condition. Pitting will normally get more pronounced, and thin areas may end up disintegrating. Please use proper safety precautions (clothing, glasses and ventilation) as this method uses some very harsh chemistry.
Begin by totally disassembling the lantern -- globe retainer out, retainer spring out, font out, burner removed from font, clip-off/twist-off bells detached. Place the pieces of the lantern in a 5 gallon plastic bucket, fill the bucket with water as hot as it comes from the faucet, then slowly and carefully add a can of Red Devil lye. Use straight lye, not drain cleaner with lye . . . 100% lye. Stand back, as this often brings the water to a near-boil. Some people use the same "pot of soup" for numerous lanterns, but it is my firm belief that the great amount of heat generated during this initial dissolving is what does a great deal of the cleaning. Lanterns that are painted, greasy, grimy, you name it, will all bow to this solution. Leave the lamp for a day or two. Then, remove the pieces, rinse them thoroughly with hot water (watch the spray) and then scrub it thoroughly with a Brillo pad (NOT SOS! . . . it just doesn't do nearly as good a job). Also, before scrubbing, get the Brillo pad worked into a lather using hot water (have no idea why this works better, but it does).
[Editor's Note: We have been informed by one collector that lye should not be used with aluminum parts, which he says will turn them into "yogurt". To our knowledge, aluminum was not used in manufacturing RR lanterns, but it was used in other railroad items as step boxes. We have also received a stronger warning as follows: "As a former chemistry professor, I must warn folk about using lye on aluminium, as it is a strongly exothermic (heat producing) reaction. I used to demonstrate this by putting Drano in some aluminium 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." So if your restoration plans include aluminum items, heed this advice. Now back to Doug.]
Once you have carefully scrubbed the lantern, rinse it off thoroughly. You will easily be able to see if it needs another day in "the soup" or if it is ready to continue with the process. If it needs more "soup" time, drop it in the bucket for another day. Once the lantern looks clean, I place it in a 5 gallon bucket that is filled with vinegar. This strong solution neutralizes the lye. Let it soak a day. Do not use any water after this point. Next, I put the lantern in the oven at the lowest setting, with the door slightly ajar, for 3-4 hours (get ready for a stink!). I then place the lantern in a 5 gallon bucket of WD-40, which serves to displace any remaining water/vinegar.
After a day in the WD-40, I leave the lamp dripping with WD-40, and then begin the serious cleaning by using a small piece of 0000 steel wool that I spray with WD-40. Take your time, and work a small section at a time. Over the years, I have fashioned a number of specialized "pushers" and such that I use to work the steel wool into every nook and cranny. As I work, I use a towel to wipe the lamp down repeatedly, change steel wool often, and continue to spray dirty spots with WD-40. If, after this, it needs a bit more TLC, put it back in the WD-40 bucket for another day or two and repeat the steel wool process.
If you are pleased with the look of the lantern after this, use paper towels to really wipe it down, then go over it all with dry 0000 steel wool to bring up as much of a shine as you want. Lots of patience and elbow grease are the keys at this point. If the lantern, or certain areas of it, are still not as clean as you want, use 0000 steel wool dipped in D&L hand cleaner (it is waterless!) Rub and wipe repeatedly until you achieve the results you want. If the lantern is especially pitted and dirty, I use D&L with pumice in it (a little grit) and work carefully with steel wool and/or a brass hand brush. Wipe thoroughly after cleaning. Assemble the lantern and enjoy. I do not put a wick in after cleaning, as it often acts as a little dehumidifier, and the moisture drips off the end of the wick. You can find yourself with many pots with pinholes in the bottom because of it. I also remove the "wadding" in short globe pots for the same reason. Lanterns should then be kept away from humidity and extremes of heat if possible.
With respect to spraying/coating after cleaning. I only do this if there is a degree of pitting I find objectionable. This often includes the dome cap on Dietz Vesta's and the lids on some Adams & Westlake Reliable's and 250's. I tend to lightly shine these areas with a brass hand brush, and then use Rust-o-leum clear gloss coating. Apply it lightly and build up the finish you want a layer at a time. Try to spray only on days with medium temperature and low humidity for best results. Make sure such lanterns are totally dry before spraying, as any moisture will be captured and will eventually work its way out somehow.
I have tried the following methods and found them disappointing: Sani-Flush can attack rust too vigorously and cause holes, can also leave the lamp with a very odd whitish appearance, like it just came out of a deep-freeze.
Boiling them in Trisodiumphosphate (TSP) very smelly, messy, and does not clean all that well.
Do not ever use wire brushing, heavy grades of steel wool, scraping of any kind, or, unless all hope is gone, any of the "blasting" techniques. I have seen the latter take hundreds of dollars off the value of lanterns. If you do elect to use such methods, do not be angry when others are not interested in them should you decide to sell or trade them." [End of Doug's directions]
Some additional suggestions for cleaning lanterns...
The following was supplied by veteran lantern collector Tom Stranko:
"It depends on the type and amount of rust and the 'look' of the lantern. If it's really fine rust over all the surface evenly I usually find that a LIGHT bead blasting -- see below -- followed up with SOS pads in the sink and oven dry, ending with a spray of clear semi-gloss looks great. I would also do this in a partially rusted lantern with light rust in some areas and no rust in others (caused by painted areas or heavy grease etc.)
When I do *not* do a lot of metal cleaning is in cases where there is really heavy rust and subsequent pitting. I do not at all care for the 'cleaned but really pitted' look -- not that I don't have a few like that. I find that those frames get a shot of medium to coarse steel wool with a solvent like lacquer thinner or WD40. I then evaluate what it looks like and might top coat with a flat spray or just wipe off the WD40 and call it even. I really hate the sand blasted down to bare metal (like an old engine cast iron block!) look that some guys give everything they get. That also applies to the Sani-Flush look which leaves a really flat gray in place of rust.
On the lye method... Lye works OK on a lantern that is nice clean steel or tin plated. I really never liked the dull gray look it gives a rusty lantern but it is cheap and fast. I took to using that semi liquid clear paint remover that comes in the yellow and black can (you see it in all the hardware stores). Put down newspapers to catch the drips & drops. You need some small brass brushes (the size like a big tooth brush) to get the stubborn stuff out. You need a solvent to wash off the residue. I use cheap lacquer thinner in a 5 gallon bucket.
On bead blasting... I have a home-made bead blasting cabinet. It uses a self contained unit that is a mini "pressure" blaster (meaning the air does not just use a venturi action to suck the media out but rather uses the compressed air to force it out of the container into the air stream. The cabinet I have is an old big wooden box with a hinged front and a plastic window. The window is easy to remove and replace because the glass beads frost it up over time. The Eastwood Co. has a nice selection of hobbyist blasting cabinets, but they are expensive. A local auto supply shop could get the hand bead (or sand) blasting gun for you for about $40. I have found that bead blasting (just a LITTLE) does a nice job on removing the last very fine rust dots but nothing is going to change rust into steel. If you were to observe auto or commercial sandblasting you would see immediately that their equipment has way too much power for lanterns; it can eat away all the patent dates in a few seconds. They use sandblasting to drill holes in glass also (works very slick). Sandblasting leaves a very rough, very gray (looks like new cast iron) surface that's great for primer but looks like crap on a lantern (painted switch lamps excluded). [End of Tom's comments]
Another View on Lantern Cleaning...
Still another helpful set of guidelines was kindly provided by Andrew Swoyer...
"I would like to weigh in on several of the topics discussed
in the lantern cleaning section. With almost 38 years of lantern collecting
experience, and some 25 or more in restoration, I can attest to most
of the experiences already shared in this forum. I took lessons from
the "master" of restoration, Dave Thompson [See Note], when
I became interested in restoring lanterns some 25 years ago. Dave used
the lye/Sani-Flush/scrub/dry/paint method on all lanterns he restored,
with outstanding results. Dave's lanterns always commanded a premium
price when sold because everything was straight, repaired, and cleaned
in a way that was appealing to serious collectors. Combining what I
learned from Dave with my own experiences, I have the following to
The "Cool Aid" Method". The following unusual method for removing rust was provided by Jason McMullan: "I find that both citric acid (as found in Kool-Aid packets) and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C tablets) work extremely well as controlled, slow rust removers. The acids have minimal effect on iron, but remove rust rather quickly. As an experiment, put a rusted nail in a jar of 8oz of warm water and 2 packets of Kool-Aid overnight. The only tricky bit is to spray a small amount of phosphoric acid on the cleaned part, wait a minute or so, then wipe off, to create iron phosphate before you paint the metal.This both protects the metal, and provides a clean, molecularly rough surface to bond primer onto. [End of Jason's Comments]
Some additional suggestions for removing rust. A number of chemical solutions for removing rust have been suggested. Most involve some sort of acid that dissolves the rust and leaves a residue that cleans up with soap and water. The commercial rust-removal solutions like naval jelly are usually based on phosphoric acid. A commercial product called "Rusticide", available at some paint stores, is a solution of phosphoric acid that is VERY effective at removing rust quickly. It is so powerful though that someone wishing to remove only some of the rust would have to watch things very closely and limit the time in the solution. Rusticide is expensive but can be kept indefinitely in a 5 gallon painters bucket with a lid to prevent evaporation. Soaking even a very rusty lantern frame or lantern part in this solution overnight is almost always adequate to remove heavy rust coatings. However, be aware that any aggressive rust removal treatment will expose whatever holes that have been caused by corrosion; only the real metal is left and sometimes that ain't much. A badly rusted lantern frame may actually dissolve in a strong solution leaving only a few parts and memories.
More on the "Sani-Flush method". This method has been suggested above, so here are a few additional tips on using it. Dissolve one can slowly in a 5-gallon bucket of water. Dumping the Sani-Flush in all at once will cause the solution to foam out all over the floor. From experience, it appears that any prolonged soaking in a highly acidic solution will tend to "pickle" whatever tin coating is left on the lantern. This leaves a "frozen" look, as others mentioned above, and requires vigorous buffing using fine (#0000) steel wool to remove. To minimize this, soaking in any acid solution should be watched carefully and done only as long as is necessary to remove the rust.
The following comment is from Ken Andrews: I've cleaned hundreds of lanterns using lye, Sani-Flush and Naval Jelly. A couple of contributors have complained about Sani-Flush leaving a gray coating. If you brush or wipe on a very light coating of Naval Jelly and then wipe it off the gray disappears. You can then spray it with clear preservative or wipe it with WD-40. One word of caution. Don't leave cast iron locks, globe retainer springs, Casey lid latches and some bale handles in Sani-Flush for more than an hour. It will eventually dissolve them. [End of Ken's comments]
Gray Coating. Here's a comment by a former Chemistry professor with regard to the "gray coating that occurs after soaking a lantern with a "tin" coating in various chemicals: "As for items that are tin plated, a reaction between phosphoric acid (naval jelly) creates tin phosphate(s), and between sodium or potassium hydroxide (Saniflush, etc.) creates tin oxide(s). All of these compounds are insoluble in water, leaving a white coating, even after repeated washings. The rinsing does remove the "cleaning" chemicals, preventing further reaction, so is advisable. One way to remove the phosphates or oxides is through further chemical reactions that produce soluble tin compounds such as tin choride. Unfortunately, most would put quite a bit of the metal in solution as well since the oxides of tin are very stable, more so than the bare metal in alkali or acidic solutions. Ammonium chloride may work. I'd be interested in hearing the results if someone tries it. Ammonium chloride is also known as sal ammoniac, by the way, and is often sold in soldering supply houses. The other way [to remove this coating] is through thorough scrubbing with steel wool or emery cloth, which has the advantage of polishing the surface. I should think that under normal circumstances and precautions there would be no health risks associated with either the phosphates or oxides. A futher caution; tin fumes are quite toxic, so using anything producing high heat, such as a torch, should be avoided."
"Oven Cleaner Method": Another collector sent this suggestion: "I use oven cleaner and a toothbrush to clean some of mine. If you don't want to polish afterwards, lightly rub some light oil on them to remove gray left by cleaner. I have used non abrasive metal polish and 0000 steel wool to produce a nice silver color on my NYC lantern. Just a suggestion."
"Tide" Method: RS sent the following: "I
have used something to clean the other lanterns that
Caution regarding the above methods... After seeing this page, a reader emailed the following, "... a word of caution: Red Devil lye, Sani-flush, and oven cleaner all use the same basic active ingredient: sodium hydroxide or "caustic soda". This is a very strong base that will not only ruin aluminum but lead-based solder as well. Some lanterns are soldered together. So maybe some of the new citrus based (non lye) strippers would cause less problem."
Cleaning Brass. Some railroad lanterns are plated with brass, and a few are solid brass. Tom Stranko sent us the following advice from Dave Thorpe, a collector of brass mining artifacts, with permission to post it here:
"I've been fooling around with some different techniques for cleaning brass lamps. First, let me say, that the best scenario is that you will not have to clean the lamp at all, and that it will have a nice tan patina. Still, there are some lamps that have a blotchy, grimy surface. I clean these lamps. A new method I've used will do job without taking down any of the brass surface, and without producing a "polished" look. The lamp will have an even color of brass when done.
Here is what I do. Using a stiff toothbrush, clean the lamp with Scrub-Free or Lime-Away. This will take down dark thick spots of oxidation and leave a matte surface that is reddish in some places, especially near solder joints. Pay special attention to raised stamp marks as the interior of "O's" and "A's", etc. tend to trap dirt. This first step with be your only chance to deal with stamp mark dirt. Next apply, with a stiff toothbrush, a Glass Stove-top cleaner (it is a white paste). These are available in grocery stores. Spend a good five minutes scrubbing this in with the toothbrush. The surface with still be matte, and there will still be some splotchiness and redness, but less. Next use the same cleaner, but rub it in with a 100% cotton rag, like a an old T-shirt. Do not use a wash cloth. You'll need to rub this in pretty hard, but it will take off all the red areas and do a great job cleaning the rest. Wash the lamp with soapy water now (Dawn dish detergent). There will still be a matte surface, but it will be more even in consistency, and will have just the slightest shine..."egg shell" would be the term for a painter. Finally, use McGuiar's No. 7 polish. This is the mildest of all car polishes and will not leave swirl marks on painted surfaces, let alone damage or reduce brass. Rub this in with a fresh cotton rag for about five minutes. With a new clean rag wipe off all the excess, at the same time bringing out just the slightest shine. Soap and water then dry." [End of Dave's advice] - Dave Thorpe, http://www.eurekamagazine.net/
Some additional advice: One collector suggests a soft wire brush attached to a bench grinder which he finds to be faster than the use of #0000 steel wool. Another has had good success on non-tinned surfaces with a Dremel motor tool and wire brush attachment after the brush has been "broken in" a little. The high speed of the motor tool tends to promote burnishing and minimize marking. However, using such a tool on surfaces where there is any tin left will leave abrasion or scratch marks. Any motor tool or grinder should be used only with safety glasses and protective clothing since the revolutions of the attachment can actually "spit" tiny pieces of wire.
Another collector reports successful use of crushed walnut shells in a sandblaster. He cautions to make sure that all the sand is removed from the cabinet first. The fine nature of the walnut shells removes paint and light rust without damage to soft metal parts. including brass. One source for the walnut shell material is: Truman's Inc., Skat Blast Inc.,7075 Route 446, PO Box 649, Canfield, OH 44406, phone: 1-800-321-9260; local calls: 330-533-3384 Pounding out dents. Dents are common in lanterns, particularly on the smoke dome. These can be "pounded out" with a 1 inch wooden dowel which has been rounded on the end. Use a light mallet or hammer to pound from within and don't get carried away. Cracks can develop in the metal if too much force is used.
"Molasses Method". A different and
potentially useful method for removing rust (because of the lack
of harsh chemicals) is the "molasses method." A recipe
for this is presented on
Removing paint with brake fluid. The following was suggested by a member of the rrdiana.nshore railroadiana collectors list: "For plastic and metal items you can use the cheapest brand of brake fluid. Just paint it on and let it sit for a few hours. It's much cheaper than commercial paint stripper for metal, and I've used it on plastic models since I was a kid. Strips off the paint and never hurts the plastic."
The "Clenzoil" Method. 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 above, then dipping the item into a bucket of this solution.
Switching Parts. This is somewhat controversial topic. Most collectors consider it reasonable and even desirable to switch minor parts like founts, bails, and burners to end up with a lantern that has the authentic parts for the model and period. For example, it is common to find tall globe lanterns with burners that came from a short globe lantern. In such instances, many collectors will try to find a burner more suitable to a tall lantern. In fact there is testimony from old-time railroaders that they would often switch parts from different models of lanterns just to get something that worked well on the job.
However, the controversy occurs around the practice of switching lantern lids and bells (on bellbottoms) to create a nicer (and usually more valuable) example. Lantern lids and bells were particularly prone to rust and corrosion owing to their angle of exposure and therefore are often the most damaged part of an otherwise nice lantern frame. Some collectors and dealers have been known to take a lid off a not-so-nice frame and substitute it for a rusty lid on an otherwise nice frame. The problem here is the potential of creating a model that never actually existed in practice, in other words, a fake. An unwitting collector might mistake such a fake as a rare lantern and pay accordingly for it.
On the other hand, an argument can be made for responsible parts substitution on lanterns. For example, someone restoring an old car would reasonably substitute a good fender off a "junker" for a rusted-out fender on the car being restored, assuming the models matched. Why not do the same with lanterns? This controversy won't be resolved here, but following are some suggested guidelines that most collectors would probably agree with:
Now for those that consider any kind of parts-swapping a sin, the following was sent to us by a veteran collector with all names omitted:
"Your comments reminded me of a story that [name] used to tell. Back about 1917 or 1918, he worked on the Pennsy out of Columbus, O. In fact he was on the old CS&H line. Pennsy has a big shop in Columbus, and as [name] told it, they had a lantern reclamation shop as part of the operation. According to [name], the guy who worked there was responsible to make serviceable lanterns out of damaged units. And he didn't know a Dietz from an A&W. So there were lids swapped, guard wires replaced, etc. [Name] used to draw back and comment that "the last thing this guy did was dip the lantern in a vat of molten tin before setting it on the shelf ready to return to service".
Note. A web visitor emailed to say that Dave Thompson of Lancaster, Ohio died following heart surgery on May 29, 2003.
Thanks to all who provided advice and information! Comments or suggestions? See Contact Us page..