Removing Factory Numbers and Reporting Marks

After yesterday’s post about reworking a P2K automobile boxcar, Ralph Anderson posted this question:

 I just bought 2 P2K kits, ATSF 4700 cu. ft. covered hoppers, which I plan to change to cars the BNSF has renumbered and repainted. Any suggestions on how to remove the original lettering without damaging the kits?

This is a timely question, because I just finished removing the word Automobile from my Lehigh Valley automobile boxcar.  There are a few methods that I’ve used, so I’ll go through them from the most time-consuming labour-intensive to the fastest.  These methods are on a continuum from slow and safe to fast and potentially destructive to the paint around the lettering you want to remove.  They each have their place, but I’ve used the slow method most often.

To begin, here’s my basic arsenal of paint removal supplies and tools:


Safe Decanting

Maybe I’ve been beaten down by the Health and Safety crew at work, but I tend to err on the side of caution whenever I’m working with things that can hurt me.  Super Clean and Easy Off are caustic, meaning they’ll melt your skin off.  File that information under “bad things.”  To be safe, I wear rubber gloves like the orange ones shown in the photo.  I think I got these at an industrial/commercial supply store because it’s a cheaper place to shop, but whatever they sell at the grocery store will work fine.  I decant maybe 25mL of whatever product I’m using into a 400mL glass beaker, but a reused jam jar also works fine.  Only decant these products into glass containers.

I wear safety glasses and long sleeves while I’m decanting.  The point of all this is that I don’t want this stuff on my skin, lips, tongue, or in my eyes or nose.  I also do the decanting outside or at my paint booth in order to vent out any stink or gasses that the process produces.  Once the product is safely decanted, I feel that it’s safe work at my work bench or in my paint booth with the fan running.  One last thing about decanting.  Easy off is a spray foam, so I spray some of it into the Pyrex tray, then move it to the beaker.  I feel there’s less chance of getting any splashed onto me that way.

My suggestions aside, all of the products have safety information on the package that can guide you to make your own decisions about handling.  Use good judgement; don’t use these products if you don’t feel you can safely handle them.

Lettering Removal

The simplest and probably safest method to remove digits or words from a model is to simply scrape away in small increments with new scalpel blade.  I do this slowly, and I wash the loose bits of paint away with 99% alcohol.  Sometimes the alcohol softens the paint a bit while I’m working at it.  I also have a number of dental scrapers that I’ve fashioned into scraping tools with a dremel grinding disk.  The scalpel is sharper, but that’s not always a good thing.  If the paint under the lettering has softened too much, the dental tool works better.

If you work quickly enough, you can use one of the cleaners that I’ve shown above.  That’s where the beaker is handy.  Dip the Microbrush into the cleaner and apply very small amounts to the specific lettering you want to remove.  I use the scalpel or scraper to work the lettering off.  Have a cloth dampened with clean water handy, or use another clean Microbrush to wash the cleaning product off of the lettering if things start moving too quickly and too much paint is coming off.  The trick is to remove the lettering without removing the paint underneath.

To remove larger things like heralds and large print, I’ve wet sanded with 1000 or 1200 grit wet sandpaper.  You can get this at an automotive body shop supply store, or any store that sells car paint and tools to body shops.  Wet sanding also works very quickly, so I use small pieces of sandpaper stuck to things like a popsicle stick or the wrong end of a paint brush.

The last method I’ll describe is the most destructive, so use this one as a last resort.  CA debonder will dissolve model paint immediately.  Decant a VERY small amount into a glass container and use the end of a wooden toothpick that has been dampened in the debonder to burnish the lettering.  This can liquify the paint quickly, so instead of removing the paint, you might sometimes end up smearing it.  Use this method only if you’re really confident in what you’re doing.  Maybe experiment on a scrap model first.

Your Method?

Please don’t assume I’m any kind of authority on these techniques.  These methods have worked for me.  I use the scraping method most of the time because I’m usually just removing digits from a car or locomotive number.  It works best if I work slowly, and the smallest amount of weathering hides small scratches.  There must be other ways of doing this, so anyone with a different technique should offer it up!

7 thoughts on “Removing Factory Numbers and Reporting Marks

  1. Great post Hunter. I’ve used all these tricks on various models over time. Isopropyl alcohol is my normal starting point for removal of pad-printed surface lettering, and if that doesn’t do the trick I move on to more drastic measures. Even better, if you can get it, is lab-grade ethyl alcohol (yes the drinking kind – treated so you don’t drink it). When I had a supply of this, I found it faster for lettering removal over isopropyl. A fresh scalpel blade is my usual method of simple numeral removal for quick freight car re-numbering jobs. And Easy Off is great for older Front Range and McKean cars to strip off all paint, turns it into a runny soup in under 10 minutes, and yes it’s safe on plastics.

    About your cautiousness, that’s a healthy stance to these products. I tend to negate the dangers of household cleaners, so when recommending them in the future I’ll be sure to include your safeguards. By the way, caustics (or acids) don’t ‘eat’ skin per say, they burn it. I’ll tell you how I know that next time we meet.

    • I forgot about your ethyl alcohol method. Do you have some extra? I need to strip a few models.

      I have more luck with removal of lettering than with stripping of entire cars. I never get the paint out of the nooks and crannies. Chris V has photos of models where he’s stripped off every last bit of paint. I need to know how what he’s doing differently.


      • I’m not sure I did anything special. I just poured it in a pyrex glass container and put the models in. The stuff I picked up at Shopper’s Drug Mart was just their house brand “rubbing alcohol compound” which the label indicated was 95% Ethanol (same as ethyl alcohol).

        A lot of the Walthers hoppers I put in there started to have the paint come off the flat surfaces with absolutely no effort in less than 5 minutes, but it takes a bit of scrubbing and scraping to clear out the little corners.

        Some other cars that were older Walthers KITS the alchohol only seemed to have minimal effect even after vigourous scrubbing. Obviously they made a major change in painting at some point between kit and RTR.

        • Chris, I tried to strip a factory painted CP action red P2K SW9 shell (surplus from my SW1200RS project) with 99% alcohol from the drug store. It did nothing. I dried it out and tried Pine Sol, also to no avail. Then I used Super Clean and the paint finally lifted, but it wouldn’t come out of the corners and around smaller details like louvres. In hindsight, I probably could have taken the shell out of the Super Clean after the multimark and lettering came off, then primed and repainted it.

          I’ll admit, I had more luck stripping a pair of Walthers coil cars.


  2. I use MicroSol, the one with the red lettering on the label to remove pad printed lettering. Its made to soften up paint to melt decals onto the surface of your model. I apply a puddle with a brush, but use a piece of wood to burnish the unwanted digits or logos away. You can remove just a bit or the whole thing depending on what you burnish away. I continue to dip the strip wood in the Sol to wet the surface. The softer wood won’t damage plastic detail or scratch the model. As you work at one side of the model, keep the other side wet with more applications of Sol. Then the second side will go much faster, having allowed the chemicals time to work. Let me know how it goes. Oh and its fairly gentle, so you won’t need all the bio-protective safety equipment.

  3. I’ve stripped about a dozen P2K locomotives with 99% isopropyl alcohol (and in a pinch the 70% rubbing alcohol) and almost always have positive results. It can be trickier to get it all out of areas like grills, but not entirely impossible. The paint is a bit more stubborn on older run stuff and may require multiple soakings. If you’re doing it in an open tray or container, after a certain amount of time (a few hours) the alcohol may loose its bite and be less effective, but soaking a P2K shell in some fresh from the bottle 99% would see the paint coming off easily after 3-4 hours.

    For lettering it varies. I like to apply some orange container GoJo soap (the cherry smelling stuff has little effect) over the lettering of P2K’s to renumber, let it sit and keep it wet, and gently rub it with the tip of a toothpick. Eventually the lettering sort of breaks up, and can be removed with minimal damage to the paint underneath. The older P2K units have lettering that is very stubborn (even when stripping the whole thing, the lettering may remain), but later run units the lettering comes off easily with Gojo, like a CP action red GP7 and BC Hydro SW9 I renumbered.

    And it varies with brands. I’ve removed lettering from an Atlas CN GP40-2W with Microsol and a toothpick with minimal paint damage. My personal best would be a Bachmann Spectrum H16-44, where I removed the CP numbers on the sides of the cab with hand sanitizer (contains alcohol) and a toothpick very easily in roughly 5 minutes per side with no paint damage. Sit, wait for it to soak into the lettering, rub off with toothpick. I even took a video of doing it to one side.

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