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Lionel HellGate Bridge Restoration

I had no idea what a large (and sometimes frustrating) project it was going to be when I bought a complete but very poorly repainted Lionel Hell Gate bridge to restore at the April 2024 TCA York meet.

This particular bridge is the Standard Gauge version, number 300, made by Lionel from 1928 to 1942. It is big at 29 inches long, 11 1/4 inches high and 10 3/4 inches wide. 11.1 pounds

Some "before" pictures:

My plan was to restore it to its original colors of cream (towers), pale green (bridge structure) and orange (track platform).

Follow along to see the restoration process, stumbles and all!

In preparation for this project I bought stripper, paint, etc:

It turns out that only the pale green and cream color paints shown above will be used. The dark brown that I was going to use for the track bed will be replaced with a "rust" colored flat paint, I do not like the orange used on the track bed on the original. The Citri Strip paint stripper was also a failure as I'll note further on in this article.

The process began with disassembly into its major components, which was relatively easy - removal of 10 screws and careful bending of some tabs.

The biggest stumbling block was stripping off the old paint. If you've followed along with my earlier restoration projects you know that I have experience here, and, other than the bridge's size, I did not anticipate any complications in stripping this project of all of its old paint.

I first tried the Citi Strip by brushing it on to a couple test pieces, the tower caps. It did loosen most of the paint on those pieces. but it had to be scrapped off - impossible with the intricacies of the metal bends, holes and shape. It dried and hardened before I could remove it - what a mess. I was also fooled by the name of this product (yes, I should have read the label) because it is caustic and heavy gloves were needed. IMHO, this product would be great on flat surfaces such as one might find on furniture.

I then reverted to my old, tried and true method of soaking in hot water with powdered Tide laundry detergent, the original variety. With my previous projects this floated off most of the paint overnight, but not in this case. The previous owner must have used an epoxy paint of some sort as, even after soaking for 3 days, all the Tide/hot water soaks did was clean the old paint.

I then recalled that many years ago I bought a sandblasting gun and some glass bead media - it was still in its original packaging that was never opened. I had a large box, goggles and a compressor too, so I (stupidly) said to myself "Self, why not try it on the bridge". After just a minute or two I found out "why not?" A couple pints or so of tiny glass beads, the size of sand particles, ricocheted over everything within 25 feet, a mess that took an hour to clean up.

Lesson learned? Don't try to sandblast without a proper cabinet!

I recalled that a number of people have reported having success using brake fluid as a stripper on tinplate. I resisted trying this in the past, again because of its caustic nature. It turned out to be the solution, here melting much of the tough paint in 15 minutes.

I took the parts outside, placed them on a large plastic tarp, and power washed the old paint and brake fluid off. I then gave the parts a bath of water and powdered Tide for a half hour or so to make sure there was no traces of the brake fluid left on the parts. Then a clean water rinse with a hose. It was a very hot day and the parts completely dried, very quickly, in the hot sun.

The parts still needed cleaning with wire brushes, scouring pads, and, in some cases sandpaper. The main bridge structure needed hours of work to get it ready for paint, the surface felt rough to the touch, and it has a lot of hard to reach spaces.

I discovered during this stripping process that this bridge was previously repainted twice - first silver and then the dark grey. creme and dark red colors shown in the before pictures.

A sample (one of the tower caps) of the bare metal after stripping:

I then straightened out any bends found anywhere on the bridge.

Now to the fun part - the painting.

While I love this step as it is the first time real progress is seen, I also hate it as I have to be patient for the paint to dry between coats and while waiting to dry before doing undersides. I expected that a paint job on a project this size would take at least 4 days before reassembly could begin, and it did.

Even though the paint I used said "Paint-Primer", on the cans, I like to put a thin coat of primer on my projects before painting. This makes any issues easier to detect and will result in a better, more uniform, color coat.

I like to let primer dry for at least 24 hours so that it is good and hard, ready for the top coats of paint. The entire can of primer was needed on this project.

Finally, painting is finished (two coats) and dry. All is left is to paint the trim on 4 window frames orange (like on the original) and assemble:

Reassembly began.

The bridge fought me through this last step too. Installing the 8 screws that hold the towers onto the main bridge structure was "Hell". What should have been a simple task took me over an hour. If I had super long rubber arms, getting these screws started would have only taken 3 minutes.

Reassembled and completed - compare the below pics with the "before" pics shared at the beginning of this article:

I have it on display until it becomes part of my Standard Gauge Christmas layout

The trials and tribulations of stripping the original paint, and getting the 8 screws back in, are in the past now. I believe that the final results were worth the effort.

Some quick facts about the prototype:

The Hell Gate bridge links New York City's boroughs of The Bronx and Queens. The center span is 1,017 feet long and its towers, made of concrete covered with Granite, stand 220 feet high.

Construction started in 1912 and the first trains crossed over it in 1917.

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