There are a lot of opinions on cleaning old collectibles, the most prevalent being just don’t do it. Why put in the effort, you know, when Netflix and chillin’ are right over there.
I don’t want to be that guy in the middle seat of a long flight that misinterprets your politeness as an invitation to give you unsolicited life advice, but I’ll be that guy anyway. Put a little effort into spiffying up your old collectibles. They’re cool, they deserve it.
So, what follows is a brief intro to the tools and techniques you could use. It’s not a deep dive because it’s just cleaning old toys, there isn’t a PhD to be earned here. I’ll just offer a few tips that when coupled with a little elbow grease will clean up your vintage toys.
How to Clean Vintage Toys
I’m here to straightforwardly share a few of the simple tools I use to clean my personal collection of old plastic and – surprise! – paper stuff. As added context, I’m a Chris-Claremont enthusiast, Yo Joe!, arcade cabinets are rad, D&D nerd, so what we’ll discuss below are my tools and processes for 80s vintage toys, books, and collectibles, not pricey or classic historical stuff where I’d be sacred to death to mess with it myself. That type of collectible cleaning is better left to a professional.
Let’s get to washing.
Never throw away an old toothbrush. Rinse them well, then toss them in a utility drawer for later, because there are few tools better for cleaning old plastic junk than an old toothbrush.
Most old toys can be shined up after a soak in a bowl of warm, soapy water, followed by a light brushing. Old GI Joes or army men, any bendy figure, TMNT, Masters of the Universe (MOTU), etc. can look great after just a little time with a toothbrush.
Toys are meant to be played with, so it’s understandable that a 30-year-old action figure would collect some schmutz. Fill a large bowl with warm mildly soapy water. I recommend a small bottle of Dawn or similar from Dollar Tree. You don’t need the $19 an ounce eucalyptus infused nonsense you buy from Target.
Let your toys soak for a moment then lightly brush them with the old toothbrush you were planning to toss. That’s it.
Makeup Remover Pads
We are talking about cleaning toys and collectibles that may 30+ years old, so it’s understandable they might accumulate a layer of dust and schmutz that might not be visible like a coffee stain would be, but would nevertheless reduce the shine and sheen of the item.
In short, it’s remarkable the results you get just by rubbing a makeup remover pad over the toy.
Get makeup remover pads like this, because you want pure cotton and nothing with an lotions or additives like the $19 an ounce eucalyptus infused nonsense you buy from Target.
This is particularly good for on card action figures that might have been in storage for a decade. Just gently dusting them might be all you need to do and a makeup remover pad is the best product for that task.
Now, let’s get pro.
A surfactant is a fancy word for a soap. I have a pump bottle like is used in nail salons. I take a makeup remover pad like is used in nail salons…in fact, now that I think of it, you can take your vintage toys and have them cleaned in a nail salon.
Or you can mix up a surfactant in the pump bottle at home like a grown man that owns toys and use two pumps to moisten the makeup pad, but not saturate it. You then go over your old vintage toys, including paper! The linked surfactant is designed for wet-cleaning comic books, so it is mild enough to use on vintage paper collectibles like old Nintendo Power or Heavy Metal magazines, vintage D&D modules, or card backs from your old Joes or Star Wars figures. I just cleaned the boxes on some ole Marvel Legends 10 inch figures.
Again, you don’t want the makeup pad to be dripping wet – two pumps from the bottle – but it works great to use the linked product to clean paper goods. But it is great on plastics as well, particularly items you don’t want to submerge in a bowl of soapy water and scrub with a brush because they might have metal joints, for example.
I just shined up my Ecto-1 that had decades of grime on it. Makeup remover pads can even be great about getting into tiny corners. I simply use fine modeling implements to push against the cotton pad, pressing it into creases. You can use a toothpick or similar to do the same.
The point is the surfactant does a remarkable job! I have the pump bottle and makeup pads on my project bench, where I can conveniently grab them and shine up my old toys and collectibles before I price them to go in my antique booth. It’s remarkable how much better they look after just a few seconds.
I have a second pump bottle of pure distilled water that I’ll sometimes use to rinse after the surfactant, but that isn’t always necessary.
You’ll be surprised at the dirt you’ll see when you examine the makeup pad. Repeat a few times as your first step in cleaning your old toys and collectibles.
White Eraser Toppers
My kids have erasers shaped into My Little Ponies, but to clean comics or other vintage paper goods like magazines, you’ll want something white and of a known consistency so you don’t inadvertently chunk up your books. The tried and true eraser toppers are from Helix and come in a 10-pack.
These are used on the white portions of covers. Using small strokes, you’ll gently go over all the white areas of the comic. Don’t bear down; the goal isn’t to bore a hole through the cover of your comic, magazine, or vintage paperback!
I don’t even put my eraser heads on the top of a pencil, I hold them close to the paper because I want to get in there with precision. You’ll be surprised at how many marks and scuffs these babies will remove from the white area of your comics, giving the whole cover more vibrancy by comparison.
An alternative is the “Staedtler Stick,” as I call them. It’s a similar white eraser with a consistency that’s a little more rubbery. The convenience is being able to click down more eraser as it’s used, but the downside is lesser control in your fingertips, in my opinion.
Focused Point Erasers
Used by 4-year-olds, eraser toppers are more of a blunt instrument. But you need precision to get the white areas in places like between the blacks lines of a UPC code. That’s why my final step for cleaning the white areas is to use a focused eraser point.
The Mono Zero clicks down like a Staedler Stick, but with an eraser that is just a few millimeters wide, it’s great for getting into very small white areas. You can buy refill packs, and you must, because these wear down and soil quickly. The Tombow Mono Zero works great, it’s become one of my preferred tools.
Dry Cleaning Pad
One other product I occasionally use for cleaning vintage collectibles is a dry cleaning bag. Color areas are tricky on old carded action figures or boxes, for example, and provide a large opportunity for mistake. Again, I typically tread lightly on color areas, if for some reason I’m feeling cautious about wet-cleaning with the surfactant. So, the final tool I sometimes use for cleaning is a dry cleaning pad.
Dry cleaning bags look and feel like bean bags because they are filled with finely ground eraser material. I’ll tap and dab color areas sometimes if I see an obvious dirt buildup and the dry cleaning pad can sometimes help a bit. It’s not a miracle worker, but it’s gentle so it won’t typically do any damage.
BONUS: You’ll want to store your makeup removal pads somewhere, so why not go for a Marvel pencil case. This is the one I use, because I’m cool.
Realistically, you’ll want to go with this larger capacity one, especially if you are investing in a dry cleaning pad or eraser toppers as well because you’ll need the space, but it’s not nearly as fun as a Marvel one, so be a winner.
Take it slow. If you want to try the eraser method for dry-cleaning, practice on some dollar comics or beater magazines. Practice with the surfactant on some easier stuff, like plastic playsets. Then move up to paper goods where you want to take care on how wet you get the time and more detailed stuff where you want to use an implement to get the makeup remover pad into crevices. Or just dump your old wrestlers into a tub of sudsy water!
Regardless, happy cleaning!