How to clean and dress up a vintage or antique tin lithographed toy.
You have found that unique toy in your grandma’s attic, or at a flea market or even garage sale. The toy appeals to you because you had one as a child, you fondly remember the toy from your childhood, you like the looks of the toy, or you want to use it as an investment. Now how do you clean this toy up safely to preserve its beauty for all to see.
First thing you must decide is how much cleaning you want to do, or you feel the toy needs. If buying it for yourself, it will only matter what you personally like. However if you are buying as an investment, it would be better to do some research and find out what a collector looks for in your type of toy. Some collector’s prefer the toy to have all its own original patina (which is the aging dirt, grime or discoloration). Other collectors simply want to do any cleanup themselves. Either way a rule of thumb is leave the toy alone if it is for resale value, you may hurt the value more if you try to clean it up.
If the toy is going to go for your own pleasure then decide how much you want it to shine or clean up. Sometimes it is better to just wipe down the toy with a soft cloth or soft cloth and mild soap. ALWAYS use a Q-Tip with whatever soap you are using and clean the toy as a test in a spot where it cannot be seen very readily. Older tin toys can be very fickle, and can easily be damaged while cleaning.
Case in point, many years ago when I first started collecting and selling, I bought some small tin Japan cigar racer toys. In my eagerness, I decided to clean them up to make the colors come out better. Using only a damp towel, I began rubbing on the front of one of the cars and lo and behold presto, the entire front lithographed color wiped off on my towel. Now I had a neat looking but colorless front on a cigar racer worth about only one quarter the original resale value. I never again cleaned a toy in an obvious place. I first test the toy so I know that I will not hurt the finish.
I generally only clean toys with water, or sometimes I may use some W-D 40 on a Q-tip but once again I test FIRST!
Along the same line of thought, most of the time a toy may appear to be dirty, dull, or simply dark, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the pre 1960s toys were not lithographed in bright colors, the color will appear to be duller, or darker than present day toys. This is due simply to the lack of knowledge at the time on how to make a brighter color. Sometimes the duller color mixed better with the paint used to color and bind to the tin plated metal surfaces.
I always suggest to new collectors, and dealers to leave the cleaning to professionals. It is easier to damage a toy trying to help it, than just leaving it alone. If you want it cleaned go to someone who knows how and ask questions. Most collectors love to expouse their own work habits and materials they use to clean their products.
One other note, do not be fooled into buying over the counter cleaners even if they say they are safe for lithographed toys. If you do not know what you are doing either leave it alone, or ask for help.