Making Tin Can Toys

by Edward Thatcher 1919

Preparing Toys for Painting

It frequently happens that more solder is applied to the joints than is needed to cement the work together or that the solder is left in a rather rough or lumpy state due to the inexperience of the worker. The beginner should be in no wise discouraged if this is so, for there is a certain knack in soldering neatly and this is only acquired by experience and by closely observing the simple rules governing the operation. The beginner should be sure that enough solder is applied to hold the work firmly together. The surplus solder may be scraped away by using a simple scraper shaped like a hoe. An old knife is also "useful for cutting away lumps of solder. An old file or rasp which has very coarse teeth may be used to file away solder. A finely cut file should never be used to file solder as the fine teeth will clog up with solder and the file be rendered useless for any further work.

Scrapers Figure 97

Making a Hoe Scraper

A hoe scraper may be made from a cheap screw driver, such as those obtainable from the 5-and-10 cent stores. The end of the screw driver that is applied to the screw is heated red hot (a dull red). It is then placed quickly between the jaws of a vise so that the jaws grasp it about 1/2 inch from the end and before the steel has time to cool, it is bent over like a hoe, see Fig. 97. Use a flat fine-toothed file to file the cutting edges to about the angle shown in the enlarged drawing of the working end of the hoe scraper. When the tool is filed into shape, heat the end again to a dull red and plunge it quickly in a pail of water several times until it is entirely cold. The tool is then ready for use. The hoe scraper is a very simple tool to use. The cutting edge is simply dragged with slight pressure over the solder to be removed, and will remove a little solder each time it is dragged over it. This tool may be sharpened easily with a smooth file or on a grindstone when it becomes dull. Do not try to remove too much solder at once and do not take away too much solder from the joint as you will weaken it. Simply smooth up the solder so that it will look well when painted over.

Plumbers and Roofers Scrapers

Two very handy scrapers may be purchased from a dealer in tinners' tools. One of them is called a Plumbers' Scraper and is shown in Fig. 97. The other is called a Roofing Scraper and is shown in Fig. 97. Either of these tools will prove very useful for removing solder.

Boiling the Toys in a Lye Bath

When the toys are completely assembled and before they are painted they should be thoroughly boiled up in a lye bath to remove all grease, soldering paste or acid, paper or painted labels, etc. The lye bath is made by adding two heaping tablespoonfuls of lye or washing soda to the gallon of boiling water. Lye or washing soda may be purchased at any grocery store. The lye solution should be mixed up in an old wash boiler or a large can or pail, placed over a hot fire and kept boiling gently during such time as the toys are immersed in the lye bath. Enough lye solution should be made up so that at least half of the article to be cleaned will be covered with it. The toy is left in the bath until that part of it which is covered with the solution is clean. It is then removed from the bath, rinsed, and then that part of the toy that remains to be cleaned is placed in the solution. The whole toy should be thoroughly rinsed with warm water when it is finally removed from the lye bath. Make sure that it is thoroughly dry and also that any water or lye solution that may have gotten inside any partially sealed-up parts of the toy is removed before attempting to paint it.

Take care not to place the hands in the lye solution, hot or cold, as it is very injurious to the skin. Any lye solution accidently spilled on cloth will eat holes in it unless washed out with plenty of water immediately. The work should be handled with wire hooks when lifting it out of the lye bath. A fresh lye bath should be made up occasionally as it loses its cleansing power in proportion to the work boiled up in it. Lye may be added to a bath already made up if this bath has not accumulated too much dirt.

Vent Holes Figure 98

Vent Holes

If a can is used to represent a boiler or is made up into a drum-like structure, such as a wheel, and is not soldered up air tight, it is apt to fill up with the hot lye solution when placed in it. Unless there are two air holes or vents provided in such a boiler or wheel, the lye or water will not all run out when it is removed from the bath, but it will ooze out from time to time perhaps after the toy has been painted for some time. The lye thus liberated will ruin all paint with which it comes in contact. At least two vent holes should be punched or bored in all drum-like structures employed about the toys, one hole at the top to admit air and another hole at the bottom to allow the water or lye solution to escape. These vent holes are particularly necessary in wheels that are made from cans, see Fig. 98.


The tin toys should be painted with a good grade of enamel paint. Enamel paints have varnish mixed with them and dry hard and glossy and form a very durable and attractive finish for the toys. There are several popular brands of these enamel paints on the market and almost any of them will give good results if properly applied. Several colors should be purchased to start with, black, white, cherry red, chrome yellow, Prussian or royal blue. With this assortment of colors, it is possible to get a variety of shades by mixing. A can of vermilion and a can of khaki-colored enamel paint, as well as small cans of gold and silver and bronze paint, will prove very handy additions to the above collection of colors. The vermilion, gold and silver paints are used to paint certain details of the toys that need to be emphasized. Be sure to keep all the cans of paint tightly covered when not in use, so that the paint will not dry up and become thick and gummy from contact with the air.

Several paint brushes should be purchased at the paint dealers, the largest brush should be of soft hair about 1/2 inch wide, and the smallest brush a tiny pointed one for detail and line work. Always keep these brushes covered with turpentine after using them or wash them out immediately after by scrubbing them on a cake of soap with plenty of warm water. Cut several small cans down to tray size and use them for mixing the paint. Always stir up a can of paint before using it. Use a small stick for stirring and keep at it until the paint is thoroughly mixed. Enamel paints may be thinned with turpentine and a bottle of this should be kept on hand. Do not use your paint too thick. It should be of such a consistency as to drip slowly from the brush before the brush is wiped against the side of the can to remove the surplus paint upon commencing the work.

Be sure to mix up enough paint to cover the entire surface to be painted if using mixed colors, as it is very difficult to mix a second batch of the same shade of color. Think how you are going to apply your paint before starting. Try to plan your painting so that you will not have to work over a painted surface a second time until that surface is thoroughly dry. The paint should be applied smoothly with a brush. Just enough paint should be held in the brush so that it flows onto the tin without streaks of the tin showing through the paint.

Generally speaking, you should start at the top of a piece of work and paint down. Each fresh brush stroke should overlap the one above it and mop up any surplus paint of the former brush strokes. Paint the intricate parts first and then the plain surfaces. For instance, when painting the airplane weathervane, use a small brush and paint the struts first, then paint around the bases and tops of the struts on the surface of the planes. Change the small brush for a larger one and flow more paint over the surface of the planes, gathering up the paint around the ends of the struts as you paint along. When painting a large model, such as an army truck, and not being quite sure of the quantity of paint needed, mix up enough paint to paint all the parts of the model that show the most and leave such parts as the bottom of the frame and the inside of the body until last. If you have to mix up more paint for these last parts it will not matter if it is not exactly the same shade.

If you have not had very much experience in mixing and combining colors, it is generally better to use the different tints just as they come from the cans, without trying to mix them. Do not use too many colors on one toy, but try to get a pleasing effect with two or three colors that look well together. For instance, a truck may be painted an olive green or khaki color over its entire surface, excepting the front of the radiator which should be painted with silver paint. When the first coat of paint is thoroughly dry, lines of black may be painted about the body and various edges emphasized with black. The hubs of the wheels, the lamps, the rim of the steering wheel, and the filler cap on the radiator may all be painted black with good effect. The part of the wheels which is supposed to represent the tires should be painted a dark gray. (Gray may be made by mixing black and white together.)

Study the large trucks seen about the streets for inspiration. These large trucks are nearly always very simply and attractively painted. Real locomotives are painted black at present, but a small toy locomotive looks much better if the wheels are painted red (vermilion). A red band may be painted about the top of the smokestack and the tin strips framing the cab windows should be painted red, as may the number of the engine, etc. The whistle should be painted with gold paint and also the inside of the headlight, and broad lines may be painted about the boiler with gold to represent the straps seen about locomotive boilers. Paint the tires of the engine wheels with silver paint. The driving rods may be painted either black or silver.

A toy locomotive thus painted will prove far more attractive to a child than if it is painted a plain black like a real locomotive. Generally speaking, the toys should be painted one dominating color of an attractive tint and relieved or brightened with lines and certain details painted with a bright or contrasting color. Always allow one coat of paint to dry thoroughly before painting on it again. Tin toys may be baked in an oven when they are freshly painted. The baking dries the enamel paint very quickly and tends to make the paint dry very hard and smooth. The baking oven of a coal or gas range will do very well for the baking, but be very sure that the oven is not too hot, as a hot oven will cause the solder to melt and the toys to fall apart. It is better to leave the oven door opened slightly when baking the painted toys over a slow fire. It is not necessary to bake the toys after painting as they may be simply left to dry in the air. Always paint slowly and carefully. Toys that are attractively painted to match good construction are much more satisfactory than a well-made toy poorly painted.

The End!