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Oiling and Cleaning a Model Steam Locomotive



Proper lubrication can keep a locomotive running for a long time.

©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Real steam locomotives require almost constant care and attention. Railroad built extensive engine facilities for such work.

Our models need regular care too. But fortunately, the steps required are much less intensive, expensive and filthy.

To care for your models, it helps to have a few basic tools and supplies on hand:

  • A cradle to hold the model upside down while you work.
  • Small screwdrivers
  • A selection of oils and grease.
  • Rubbing alcohol or another general cleaner.
  • Paper towels


The most common source of problems with any locomotive is poor electrical contact. And most often, this is caused by dirty track and wheels. Begin any servicing by cleaning the wheels of your model. This can be done on a test track on the workbench or right on the layout.

You may also want to consider installing wheel cleaners in strategic locations around your layout to make this process easier and less frequent.

Many steam locomotives have electrical pick-ups on the tender wheels as well, so these too should be cleaned. A drop of electrical cleaner on the axles or contacts will also improve performance. Even if wheels are picking up electricity, cleaning will help prevent tracking problems from excess crud.

You'll also want to check around gearboxes, drive shafts and the running gear (the rods on the sides of the locomotive wheels) and remove any fibers or crud. Dirt can be easily pulled into gears and trapped by the grease or wound around shafts.

Often this cleaning can be done without any disassembly of the locomotive or gear boxes. If you must take the engine apart, do so carefully. Place all of the components in a safe place and make any notes you'll need to get it all back together.


Like all mechanical devices, model trains run best if properly lubricated. This prevents friction from binding or wearing parts and improves performance and lengthens the lifespan of your model. Excessive oiling, or using the wrong materials can be just as much a problem as too little however.

There are a wide assortment of lubricants available at most hobby shops for your trains. Check the owner's manual that comes with your locomotive or set to see what the manufacturer recommends. Here are some general guidlines:

  • Use a heavier grease on gears. Make sure the grease is plastic compatable if any of the gears are plastic. This usually comes in a plastic tube in a paste-like consistency. Simply place a small drop of the paste on one of the gears. Apply power to the wheels and let the motor do the work. Do not use graphite.
  • Use a light oil on axles and running gear. This should flow freely. A needle-point applicator works best to get just the right amount into the small places. Use it one side rods anywhere moving parts meet.
  • Powdered graphite can be used in coupler boxes to improve swing and centering.

Most stores will sell maintenance kits that have all of these in one set. You can also buy them individually.

With all of these, the cardinal rule is that a less is more. Over lubrication can cause slipping, dirt build up and just a general mess around the layout that is hard to clean and hampens electrical conductivity.

Locomotives should be cleaned and oiled whenever necessary. How often depends on how much you run them. Regular operation is actually one of the best things for a locomotive as it keeps the lubrication dispersed and fluid.

Regular inspection is key. If you use mock paperwork to mimic railroad operations, including a maintenance schedule is easy. This can go a long way to keeping all of your equipment at its best.

Lubrication may only need to be done every few months or years, but you can't over-clean! Take a few moments to check your models regularly and you'll have years of reliable operations.

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