Denatured Alcohol vs. Isopropyl Alcohol

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GNMT76

Active Member
I've been using 70% isopropyl alcohol to clean rails, with satisfactory results. I've also read that some use denatured alcohol instead. For those who use - or have used - either one or both of these products, what's been your experience? Has one or the other proven to be more effective keeping your tracks clean and your locos running smoothly? Or, does it matter?

Even though denatured costs more, I'm interested only in each product's effectiveness, not cost benefits. Also, please no comments on other types of track cleaning materials; alcohol only for this thread.

Thanks!
 
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Bruette

Well-Known Member
I use Isopropyl alcohol, the more pure the better. I would use 99% pure but the cost is 10 times higher then I have found for 91% pure.

I would not use Denatured Alcohol because it is ethanol with additives, it can leave an oily residue.

Pure Isopropyl Alcohol will not leave any residue.
 

wombat457

Well-Known Member
Staff member
I have always used 91% Isopropyl Alcohol with paper towel with very good results. The only downside I saw was it did take a little rubbing and I found once I had gone around the track and "cleaned it" I needed to go back around it with a clean cloth/paper towel and alcohol to remove any residue and do the job properly. I would imagine that would be the case with anything though.
 

GNMT76

Active Member
Tony,

I, too, usually have to clean track twice with a cotton cloth (usually an old T-shirt) and 71% isopropyl. It's amazing how much black gunk collects on them even after a month or less since the last cleaning.

I have always used 91% Isopropyl Alcohol with paper towel with very good results. The only downside I saw was it did take a little rubbing and I found once I had gone around the track and "cleaned it" I needed to go back around it with a clean cloth/paper towel and alcohol to remove any residue and do the job properly. I would imagine that would be the case with anything though.
 

wombat457

Well-Known Member
Staff member
Using a cotton T Shirt or similar would be much better than paper towel, I'll have to do that in future. It is amazing just how much "junk" collects on the rails, even over a week, especially if not running trains constantly. I tried to do mine about once a week OR if I noticed any obvious issues.

Now I am building a new layout (N Scale) I intend to buy a darn good track cleaning car and run it before each "session".
 

GNMT76

Active Member
Tony,

I'm having a sale on old T-shirts this week! I agree with your material of choice. Paper towels leave behind tiny shards of the trees they once were.
 

dinwitty

Member
This is why I like those roller cleaners. A local electronics store had 100% Isopropyl, but my last check they didnt have it. Electronics cleaners may leave a lube residue, meant for the early blade tuners, perhaps the latest dont. any of the 50-70-90 etc % Isopropyl has pure water in it, still trying to find a reliable 100% dealer. Maybe a computer store. I tried Best buy/Staples/etc.
My Club track cleaning train comprised of the Ulrich track cleaning car filled with alcohol then 2 roller cleaners behind pushed by 2 diesels. Worked, 2 runs around, on main then sidings, side tracks get hand cleaned.
 

wombat457

Well-Known Member
Staff member
Tony,

I'm having a sale on old T-shirts this week! I agree with your material of choice. Paper towels leave behind tiny shards of the trees they once were.
How much do you want for them :p

This is why I like those roller cleaners. A local electronics store had 100% Isopropyl, but my last check they didnt have it. Electronics cleaners may leave a lube residue, meant for the early blade tuners, perhaps the latest dont. any of the 50-70-90 etc % Isopropyl has pure water in it, still trying to find a reliable 100% dealer. Maybe a computer store. I tried Best buy/Staples/etc.
My Club track cleaning train comprised of the Ulrich track cleaning car filled with alcohol then 2 roller cleaners behind pushed by 2 diesels. Worked, 2 runs around, on main then sidings, side tracks get hand cleaned.
I have a CMX Track Cleaning Car which worked extremely well on my old HO layout. The only downside to it is that it is heavy and needs some power to push it along.
 

Rico

BN Modeller
I've always used the full strength alcohol myself but found I'm cleaning often. I've also used cleaners like Railzip and noticed that I have to clean the railheads less frequently.
I have friends that have sworn by Whall Clipper Oil for years, I never quite got that until now.
The following is from Joe Fugate (MRH):

Polar solvents (less ideal for cleaning electronic contacts):
* Isopropyl alcohol
* Ethyl alcohol
* MEK
* Acetone
* Ammonia
* Water
Semi-polar solvent (better than polar solvents)
* Ethyl acetate
Non-polar solvents (best for cleaning electronic contacts)
* Kerosene
* Turpentine
* Mineral spirits
* Toulene
I had heard from the La Mesa club folks that they have stopped using ISO alcohol to clean track because the track gets dirty faster. Apparently, the polar solvents leave a residue that encourages micro-arching, which is what creates the metal oxides on the track and wheels we call "black gunk".
It appears non-polar solvents inhibit micro-arcing. I find it interesting that the clipper oil discussion that started a few decades ago as a way to inhibit black gunk buildup is a NON-POLAR substance. Mineral spirits, for example, is similar to clipper oil and is non-polar. Mineral spirits makes a great track and wheel cleaner. (By the way, Neverstall is non-polar as well.)
Wow, you learn something every day. I knew anecdotally that some substances worked better than others for track cleaning -- now I have a true scientific explanation as to why!
 
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wombat457

Well-Known Member
Staff member
Rico,

That is very good information and thank you for posting it. I have always used alcohol but will have to re think that as a result of your post.
 

Selector

Well-Known Member
I may be repeating myself, hope not, but I have two comments. An excellent and experienced modeler whom I admire for his expertise and skill is Doc Wayne over on the MR forums and who runs his own in co-operation with some friends, called Big Blue (The Gauge), has spoken about his experience using lacquer thinner to clean his rails. That compound, a real compound and not something like paint thinner or varsol, has toluene, xylene, and other nasty things that, combined, do a superb job in Lifting organic matter from rails. It leaves almost no discernible residue that he feels makes it less than very darned good for the use to which he puts it. I have yet to try it, but I suspect I will.

Secondly, on a whim I decided to liberally coat the rails on my second layout, a couple of weeks before I was to tear it down (thinking I had nothing to lose...) with Dextron III Mercon auto-transmission fluid. I had been convinced long since to lube my steamers' outer works and axles with it, which has worked very well with no mechanical failures or marred paint. Dextron III Mercon is plastics and paint safe BTW, and was recommended specifically by a chemical engineer on MR forums. Also, it won't affect traction tires by destroying them over time. Anyhoo, I coated my rails on my main loop and began to run trains. My main had 3.5% grades, fairly stiff even by model train standards. I could detect no slipping and no stalling due to apparent electrical issues. This was the case for the next couple of weeks.

Actually, one other point. I have used 600 grit paper, alcohol, WD-40, and other things trying to make my track nice 'n shiny and for it to stay that way. No matter how often I do these things, on any second day I can wipe the rails with a clean dry white bed sheet remnant and have it come away with grey streaks. The only people who broadly claim that it doesn't do that for them are those who purport to have undertaken the process called 'gleaming'.

Why is that last point important? Because I don't think it's a problem, and I don't think it is anything more than a bit of oxides from burnt dust settling every second on your rails and carbon from arcing between the metal tires that have pickup wipers on them and the energized rails. You could wipe your rails until the cows come hope, turning the cloth to a new side every time, and it will still come up with the grey streaks.

Okay, my final point: I think the guys who have settled on quality metal tires and who run their trains fairly often are onto something. They almost universally claim that their dirty track, or electrical problems, go away when most rails and all joiners are soldered and fed, and when they run trains with almost all metal tires several times each week. Something to think about.
 

GNMT76

Active Member
Rico,

Good info to know from the "wonderful world of chemistry." And I learned that "polar" doesn't just mean bears and the opposite ends of Earth! I just bought denatured alcohol and will be trying it out in lieu of isopropyl in the coming weeks and months.

I've always used the full strength alcohol myself but found I'm cleaning often. I've also used cleaners like Railzip and noticed that I have to clean the railheads less frequently.
I have friends that have sworn by Whall Clipper Oil for years, I never quite got that until now.
The following is from Joe Fugate (MRH):

Polar solvents (less ideal for cleaning electronic contacts):
* Isopropyl alcohol
* Ethyl alcohol
* MEK
* Acetone
* Ammonia
* Water
Semi-polar solvent (better than polar solvents)
* Ethyl acetate
Non-polar solvents (best for cleaning electronic contacts)
* Kerosene
* Turpentine
* Mineral spirits
* Toulene
I had heard from the La Mesa club folks that they have stopped using ISO alcohol to clean track because the track gets dirty faster. Apparently, the polar solvents leave a residue that encourages micro-arching, which is what creates the metal oxides on the track and wheels we call "black gunk".
It appears non-polar solvents inhibit micro-arcing. I find it interesting that the clipper oil discussion that started a few decades ago as a way to inhibit black gunk buildup is a NON-POLAR substance. Mineral spirits, for example, is similar to clipper oil and is non-polar. Mineral spirits makes a great track and wheel cleaner. (By the way, Neverstall is non-polar as well.)
Wow, you learn something every day. I knew anecdotally that some substances worked better than others for track cleaning -- now I have a true scientific explanation as to why!
 

Greg@mnrr

Section Hand
How would Absolute Vodka work for track cleaning?

Just kidding, but in the future after reading the posts, I plan on using only Isopropyl Alcohol for track cleaning.

Greg
 

Iron Horseman

Well-Known Member
That is very good information and thank you for posting it. I have always used alcohol but will have to re think that as a result of your post.
There is also the axiom of multiple "methods" for a given specific situation.

That is on some layouts I have had success by cleaning them with alcohol to get off the gunk, and then applying the electrically conductive "lubricant" to eliminate the arcing problem.

I also agree with Selector in that just because a rag wipes up a little dark stuff off the rail does not necessarily mean it is bad. That very light coat of dark stuff might be the ticket to making that final electrical connection between rail and wheel without further pitting of the rail.
 

wombat457

Well-Known Member
Staff member
Tony,

The more you pay, the better you'll feel! :)
Your referring to my CMX car I assume. Trust me, it has nothing to do with making me feel good - it worked and worked very well. Well worth the money in my opinion. So much so, I am buying the N Scale version for my new layout ;)
 
I think one of the strongest arguments for using isopropyl alcohol is those 100-pack pads of pre-soaked wipes you get at CVS for $1.99. I also have a Santa Fe eSPee™ Roundhouse boxcar Masonite-pad cleaning car (about $30). I spray the Masonite pad with my CVS alcohol sprayer-bottle and just let it roll with my other boxcars. This, and a quick run along the track with a graphite carpenter's pencil, is my entire track-cleaning/conductivity-enhancing regimen.



As Selector mentions, running trains with all-metal wheelsets pretty frequently also seems to really keep things running smoothly. Interesting comment about Mercon III ATF, since I have three Ford cars that use it (I've always suspected that's what RailZip really is). Perhaps I should try dunking a second eSPee™ cleaning car in some of that.

Also good to know that mineral spirits is a non-polar solvent, since I happen to have a can of that already. Now that I know that it's a non-polar solvent (and alcohol isn't), I think I'll invest in a Woodland Scenics' RailTracker™ stick and try dipping it in some mineral spirits, perhaps replacing my alcohol-pad method altogether. Rico's excerpt of Joe Fugate's list and Selector's suggestions have been very informative—my thanks to you both!
 
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Y3a

Stuck in the 1930's
I used a weighted 'box' and a gondola with a cut out slightly bigger so the box could move up & down. I put pieces on cork roadbed on the bottom of the box. I put mag wheel weights in the 'box'. I have a pair of weighted Athearn Trainmasters to pull the track cleaning car. No chemicals. Worked fine, and I could clean up the mainline, both tracks in about 1/2 hour. I usually ran it around 5-6 times. The yard and sidings were cleaned with a Bright Boy.
 




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