How to Clean Rusted Antique Metal Toy and Keep the Patina

Want to clean your rusty antique toy but keep its vintage charm? Learn how to clean rust off antique metal while preserving the patina for a perfect restoration! 

While a gleaming restoration is tempting, many antique metal toys have a unique patina that tells a story. This article will show you how to gently clean your rusty treasure, removing the rust without harming the character-building patina, for a beautiful and historically respectful restoration. Let’s get started!

remove surface rust and keep the patina

Rusted metal is something that many people don’t want to see. For instance, on kitchen utensils, rust is not attractive but a little rust on antique hardware or vintage toys like this firetruck can be just the right touch to add character to the piece. 

A client recently brought us an antique toy fire truck that had seen better days. After years of being cherished as a favorite toy, years of rust had formed and was starting to take its toll on this heirloom. 

Rust removal is something that we have tackled more than once so we were excited to see what we could do with this piece. The client wanted us to remove the significant rust that made the piece look unloved. The original paint was in good shape and they wanted us to leave just enough patina to showcase their worthwhile investment. We took one look at this piece and knew we were up for the challenge!

We are far more used to restoring wooden objects like an old church pew, but we knew exploring different ways to bring this piece back to life would be fun. We have seen many of these toys at antique stores, garage sales, and auctions. We have almost walked out of the store with a few. We have wanted to try our hand at restoring one of these antique metal items for a long time. 

full view of rusty toy fire truck before restoration

Safety is the first step! We started with some basic protective gear. You will need a good mask, chemical-resistant rubber gloves, and leather work gloves along with a few small items. A small wire brush and some abrasive tools will come in handy for this project.

You will also need a supply of utility rags for wiping. My husband saves his old cotton T-shirts for just this purpose. He will cut them up into large and small pieces.

The large pieces are great to use as shop rags and the smaller pieces he cuts into strips and puts in his gun cleaning kit. They are just the right size to remove residue from small metal items. 

front view of rusted toy fire truck antique toy

Here is a list of items I used to remove rust on this antique child’s toy:

  • respirator mask
  • ​rubber gloves or leather gloves (depending on the products used)
  • small wire brush
  • steel wool pads in various coarsenesses
  • sandpaper and flexible sanding sponge
  • small detail sander
  • shop vac
  • old cloths
  • white vinegar and spray bottle
  • ​furniture paste wax
  • chip brush
  • Chemical Guys metal polish (optional)
front view of antique toy fire truck showing rust

step one remove the rust

After collecting your safety gear and other supplies, find an inconspicuous area to test for the most efficient ways to remove the rust. Try a variety of tools and processes and carefully watch to see how aggressive each tool is.

Make sure to apply pressure in varying degrees to determine the best approach. Work on loose rust first. A piece of sandpaper or a wire brush, used with a circular motion is for me, the easiest way to tackle the large areas where loose rust forms.

back view of antique toy fire truck showing rust

We try to stay away from chemical rust removers on pieces like this. They are great if you are planning a total refinish but they may cause damage to the original finish on a piece like this fire truck.

Power tools can also cause unwanted damage, especially when using harsh abrasives but they are often useful to reach tight areas. On larger pieces, power tools allow you to cover a lot of real estate in a short amount of time! Use caution with the power sander approach!

supplies used to clean rust off antique metal, mouse sander, steel wool, wire brushes

Always start with the most gentle abrasive you have available. Use some elbow grease and experiment to find just the right technique. For stubborn rust stains, try something only slightly more aggressive.  

We like to use steel wool as it is an effective abrasive tool. Steel wool comes in a variety of coarseness, so be careful and remember to start with #0000 and work backward. Avoid #0 and #00 grades as they are intended to remove the finish down to the bare surface. 

lady using mouse sander to clean rust off antique metal toy fire truck

We find that using #0000 steel wool with aluminum or metal polish like Chemical Guys Metal Polish is a great way to restore old metal when trying to leave some patina.

White vinegar is also a great cleaning solution and one of the best homemade rust removers. The guys from Black Dog Salvage demonstrate this trick in many of their restoration tutorials. 

lady using a wire brush to clean rust off antique metal toy fire truck

There are a variety of methods and commercial rust removers all claiming to be the best. The key in restoration work is to find the least abrasive or harsh method for rust removal. Keep in mind the type of metal you are working with.

When attacking severe rust, it may not be possible to save the original finish. Our client knew that while most of this old fire truck was in good condition, there were areas where the oxidation process had damaged the original finishes.

bottle of vinegar with a spray bottle sitting next to it.

thanks for being here!

I hope you are enjoying this project! Let me know if you have any questions. Or leave me a comment to tell me about your project and ideas!

thanks, Cindy 😀

lady demonstrating how to clean rust off antique metal toy fire truck with vinegar and scrubbing

step two clean up loose rust

After removing the loose rust, make sure to use your shop vac on the piece and wipe it down to remove any loose debris. You don’t want loose rust lying around that could get into your lungs. Wear a respirator while cleaning up.

If you used any chemical rust removers, read the instructions and dispose of the supplies according to the product you used.

After we were certain we had removed as much of the rust as we were able, the next step was to apply a protective coating that would enhance the faded and recently cleaned areas.

antique metal fire truck sitting on end so moisture can drip off

step three seal the metal

The next day I applied furniture paste wax to the outside surfaces of the fire truck. Miss Mustard Seed Furniture Wax is my go-to wax. It’s super soft and so easy to apply and buff off. Paste wax can be used on metal as well as wood surfaces.

I applied it with a chip brush and then lightly buffed the surfaces with a blue shop towel. I have learned that is an easy way to get fantastic results!

BTW, wax isn’t just for old rusty metal. You can use it on many metal surfaces, metal objects, and even leather. A little wax with a soft cloth or scouring pad can do wonders for many surfaces in your home. 

Side view of toy metal fire truck with wax being applied with chip brush

If you find waxy build-up or you get wax where you didn’t want to, mineral spirits can be an effective cleaning solution. It works great to clean wire brushes after use to apply a wire brush scrub to outdoor sculptures, fixtures, and yard art.

The surfaces on the underside of this truck were going to be difficult to wax so I opted to use Miss Mustard Seed Hemp oil.

You could also use linseed oil. Way back,  farmers wiped down their metal farm implements with linseed oil to prevent rust. It was also good for the wooden handles.  I guess linseed oil was the first chemical treatment to treat a rusted area or spot. 

side view of toy firetruck with wax being buffed off

YouTube video

I recorded a short video showing clips of the Instagram stories I shared while working on this antique metal rust clean-up project. Here was the camera set up in my kitchen! Don’t worry, I didn’t do any sanding in my kitchen!

Scroll down to watch! Hope you enjoy watching!

Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel while you’re there!

view of iphone recording setup of toy fire truck showing how to clean rust off of antique metal toys

fire alarm bell

The bell on the front of the toy fire truck needed some attention. My hubby removed all of the rust but left some marks on it for the sake of character. He used a buffer wheel and buffing compound to gently remove any remaining rust.

Then I applied Miss Mustard Seed Zinc Wax. It helped to bring a beautiful antique silver look to the bell.

The fire truck has just enough sheen to make it look well-worn and aged, don’t you think? I can’t get enough of this gorgeous vintage toy fire truck!

close up of bell on front of antique toy fire truck

preserved patina on old metal

The furniture paste wax will prevent further oxidation while the oils in the wax revitalize the paint and bring out the color with just the right amount of patina to show that this toy is a treasure. 

Did you know that many paste waxes, especially those used in automotive restorations, actually act as rust inhibitors? Paste wax is a wonderful product to use on metal!

antique toy metal fire truck that has been cleaned of rust
close up of antique toy fire truck headlights

Even though this antique child’s toy has a wax protective sealer on it, it will be important to store this beauty in a dry place, not in a basement or shed. A damp environment is the enemy of many old tools, garden tools, metal tools, and iron alloys.

This antique toy was fun to work on. We love restoring and preserving historical pieces like this. The toy fire truck is a pedal car and brings memories of warm spring days, riding down the sidewalk, catching the eye of all the kids in the neighborhood. Did this toy inspire a child to become a firefighter? I bet that it did!

side view of antique metal toy fire truck with patina
close up of wheel on antique fire truck

The best part of all is that our client loved it! She said she would use it during the Christmas holiday to hold a small Christmas tree!

Can’t you imagine seeing it displaying a tree during the holidays? How cute does that sound!

above view of restored antique toy metal firetruck

Recreate and Decorate Facebook Group

Join our Facebook group for more inspiration! We are a group of thrift, antique makeover friends who like to share our projects. We would love for you to join us!

above view of restored antique metal toy firetruck

preserving the past

See how easy it is to clean rust off antique metal like this toy fire truck? A couple of hours, simple supplies, and an audiobook are all you need to breathe new life into this sweet vintage toy.

Did you enjoy this tutorial? I know I sure did! Working with metal toys is so much fun

Let me know if you have any questions about this project or any others you see here on the blog. I would love to help you out the best I can!

above view of restored antique toy metal firetruck

Thanks for joining our journey!

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Until next time….

graphic showing before and after of restored toy firetruck

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  1. Patti Donopha says:

    Cindy – I really enjoyed watching and reading how you restored this vintage child’s fire truck! I love your face gear when removing the rust, very professional! Actually, the ‘new’ firetruck was done so professionally and it looks awesome!

    1. Cynthia Gayle says:

      Isn’t it the cutest?? So glad you enjoyed my face gear! It’s a necessity when sanding especially rusty items! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. That little fire truck looks great! I always learn so much from your tutorials, Cindy. Thanks for turning me on to the mouse sander. Very handy. And, I didn’t realize you can put wax on metal!

    1. Cynthia Gayle says:

      Wax on metal is the best!! It really creates a unique finish on metal. Thanks for stopping by my friend!

  3. Hi Cindy! Beautiful restoration on the fire truck! I’m contemplating restoring a Hitchners oyster cracker can. It is metal with lettering in the middle of the can which is a 4′ round can. What process would you recommend to remove the rust while retaining the lettering? Also is there any way to enhance faded letters! Thanks!

    1. That oyster cracker can sounds amazing! I chatted with my hubby about your questions and we decided it was best to answer via email. He will be sending you his thoughts and ideas about restoring the can to your email. Thanks for reading the post!

  4. Such a well written tutorial Cindy. I enjoyed this.

    1. Cindy Rust says:

      Well thank you Mr. Marvin for that kind comment🥰

  5. Gene Golden says:

    I have a question I am hoping you might be able to help me with. I have a very old, engraved pewter (I think) spoon my son found in the surf in Catalina Island, it looks like it might have come off an old shipwreck as by my eye it looks to be from the 1600 or 1700’s. I would be happy to send a photo if it would help. But my question is, what can I do to bring out the old patina without damaging it.

    1. Cindy Rust says:

      Hi Gene,
      I would try wet-sanding without any chemicals. If you visit any popular auto supply store (Autozone, Advance Auto, NAPA, etc.) they sell it in the touch-up paint section. I would start with 1200 grit and work up to 3000-5000 grit. Simply cut a small piece of the paper and dip it in water before sanding. Keep dipping it as you sand. I know it’s called sandpaper but these fine grits are used to polish more than scuff. (They are great for buffing out foggy headlights too!) You should develop a “slurry” as you sand. wipe with a clean micro-fiber cloth and keep going until you achieve the finish you desire.

      Hope this helps,
      Steve (The other half of reinventeddelaware)