Please help me give these 1950s plastic decorations a glow-up.
November 18, 2023 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Meet Frosty and Santa. These plastic light up decorations belonged to my father and aunt when they were children. My father and aunt are now in their mid 70s, so these are quite old. They were also part of our Christmas decorations when I was a child. And after decades of begging my mother for them, they are now in my greedy and nostalgic hands. I want to fix them up as much as a I can.

They, like me, are looking worn and I want to give them some light touchups. I have already given them a good washing with dish soap and they look much better. My questions:

1) I want to touch up where their coloring has worn away. They are made of hard plastic and the only colors I would touch up are red, white, and black. What paint or coloring medium would be best used on hard plastic?

2) The electrical components still work. They light when plugged in. (And the bulbs have obviously been replaced over the years.) But because they are so old and I do enjoy my house, I should replace them, right? Maybe find a cord/bulb set that would work in a holiday village illuminated house and use that?

Any other tips you might have to give them love are appreciated. The scarring you see appear to be a bunch of burns (wtf, Grandmom?) and I don't think I can get rid of the brown/yellowing there. Gentle use of a Magic Eraser doesn't touch the discoloration there. Thank you!
posted by kimberussell to Grab Bag (11 answers total)
I would not paint them. The new paint will be a different level of transparency from the original and will look like dark opaque glops when the light turns on.

They’re cute and I think the wear and tear adds to their charm! I love items with some age patina.

And yes I would probably replace the interior light with a new LED set if you can find some.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:24 AM on November 18 [15 favorites]

I would also be wary of painting because of the difference in opacity. A little battery LED would work beautifully in them though!
posted by In Your Shell Like at 11:35 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

The wires look fine to me - no cracking. But you should examine their whole lengths. If no cracks in the insulation I would keep using these, without fear, seasonally, for many years. Sure, replace the incandescent with an equivalent LED, if you can find one, to keep the heat lower. Also I'd be using a Q-Tip dipped in rubbing alcohol to try and remove some of those gray smudgy marks.
posted by Rash at 11:51 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

What paint or coloring medium would be best used on hard plastic?

Any kind of acrylic paint made for models should work. I like vallejo acrylic, which you can get at a good hobby shop, one with a plastic model section (not many left these days, sadly) or on-line at Amazon or places like Micro-Mark. As others have said, painting will probably not have the same level of transparency but if you play around with using levels of thinner (you can thin these with water) you might be able to get a good match. You could experiment on the bottom or somewhere that won't be visible to the viewer.

Testors or other enamel paints will also work but may not thin down as well. Acrylics are less toxic and easier to clean.

I tend to be cautious with old electrical stuff so I might replace the lights with a battery LED. They're probably safe enough to use as is but why chance it? A set of LED strip lights that can be cut to length might do the trick. Depending on how transparent the shell is though the individual bulbs might show up. I'm sure you could wrap something around them to lessen that.
posted by bondcliff at 1:06 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]

Nthing the LED replacement for the lights; the LED will not expose the old plastic to heat and preserve the figures better and cordless would be a bonus.

For touch up of surface, consider fingernail polish. You would have a huge selection of subtle different colors to choose from. I would take a transparent piece of plastic like an Avery page clear plastic sheet and paint out a thin layer on the sheet and hold it up to the figure until you are sure you have an exact match. Try projecting light through the transparent sheet to see how much the color matches.

Finger nail polish will include a brush in the cap that you can use to dab teeny tiny bits of paint onto the figures to be sure you like the match in an inconspicuous area of the figure. You will have a consistent color match without having to mix up the color for every application, with very little clean up and fumes. Very thin dabs of paint pounced onto the scuff will leave the surface with no brush marks and have a minimal paint film for transparency. Pay attention to surface gloss; those figures are very glossy, so enamel finger nail finish would be a good similar surface gloss.

For the white bits, try a vinyl eraser rubbed gently, then if that doesn't work, a bit of ammonia/windex, and if that doesn't work, a bit of fingernail polish remover. If you try the liquid cleaners, be aware that it may pull off some of the surface gloss, so try an inconspicuous area and just use a tiny bit on a qtip with one pass in a single direction; don't rub. I'd try the vinyl eraser, rubbing with a soft cotton cloth before breaking out the organics.

I hope this is helpful.
posted by effluvia at 2:52 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]

p.s. I don't think you can do much about the burns to the figure unless you want to sand the surface down. They probably got a bit of candle heat from some other decoration and have physical changes to the surface.
posted by effluvia at 2:55 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

If you want to paint - try Golden fluid acrylics and increase the transparency using matte medium. A 1:10 ratio of paint:medium would be plenty transparent and reduce the paint goop effect. It might even be too transparent, fortunately a second coat is always an option. It is expensive though.
posted by shock muppet at 3:44 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

I'd actually try using a sharpie on the places the paint has worn away - they are quite permanent, translucent colour, and easy to control where the ink goes. The ink may wear away again eventually, but touchups will be easy
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:53 PM on November 18

Another vote for the patina is the charm, and, honestly, the value. I would never part with them, but painting them would probably drastically impact their value.
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:07 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

The wires in many houses have been in active use for the same time that model has sat unused. If they aren't cracked then continue using.
posted by flimflam at 8:29 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

On the white areas, you might have success with gentle use of a microfiber cloth dipped in water. It can be slightly abrasive, so try it underneath first. If you want a method that's more abrasive, go for a melamine sponge, AKA Magic Eraser. Nail polish remover can really mess with plastic, so test diligently if you decide to try it.
posted by wryly at 11:22 AM on November 19

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