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"Lead rot is real!" Topic

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3,364 hits since 6 Apr 2013
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steamingdave4706 Apr 2013 4:19 a.m. PST

Just getting over the shock of finding that some of my 15 mm figures have succumbed to the dreaded lead rot. The figures were mainly old series 2 Minifigs, painted and based in the late '70s/ early 80's. The figures were artillery horses and crews.
Reading up on this, it appears I may have committed several cardinal sins, which have caught up with me now.

1. Figures were stored in an airtight Tupperware container. I moved house about 6 months ago and also wrapped them up in plastic foam to prevent damage. (Haha!)
2. I used Humbrol enamel white matt paint as a primer coat and then painted with Plaka. My research suggests that enamel paints contain acids, which can start off the whole process which leads to lead carbonate prodiuction
3. I did not paint the bottom of the bases and then stuck them onto plywood- again, there is a suggestion that plywood release acids.
4. I did the scenic finishing with PVA wood glue. PVA is polyvinyl acetate, so related to acetic acid, which is the main acid involved in the eventual conversion of lead to lead carbonate.

A fifth factor may have been the metal used by Minifigs at the time. The same bases sometimes had Tabletop Games figures on, these are, apparently, completely unaffected by the rot. Oddly, some of the Minifigs are also unaffected. I think this may be down to the fact that I used two part epoxy resin to glue figures to the plywood in some cases and this may have formed a protective coating over the lead. Interestingly, one horse had disintegrated, but it's rider was fine- glued on with epoxy.

Busy removing figures from bases. I will give them a thorough clean up, perhaps rinsing in a weak bicarbonate solution and then fresh water, before painting bases with acrylic gesso and rebasing onto metal bases. Fingers crossed it's only these figures which are affected. I recently rebased all the infantry from this period and they seemed fine, as do the cavalry, so I think the really crucial factor may have been the airtight storage container.

Hope this post helps someone to avoid this disaster happening to them.

MajorB06 Apr 2013 4:28 a.m. PST

2. I used Humbrol enamel white matt paint as a primer coat and then painted with Plaka. My research suggests that enamel paints contain acids, which can start off the whole process which leads to lead carbonate prodiuction

I have used Humbrol enamel as primer for well over 30 years and have never had any figures suffer from lead rot.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 4:40 a.m. PST

I think sometimes the old figs just rot and there is not anything you can do about it. I had unpainted and unmounted 30 year old figs that got the crud …

Militia Pete Supporting Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 4:54 a.m. PST

I had two given to me as a present that shortly rotten. They were mounted on wood with stain.

14Bore06 Apr 2013 5:39 a.m. PST

1/2 of my figures are Minifig 2's, I used Testers on them for the first 5 years at least. I have always used Krazy Glue to glue to bases which I almost always paint first before applying figures. Recently stripped down to bare metal some of my original figures and didn't see anything out of ordinary. But this is a real problem and maybe can chalk it up to luck, storage or some other condition.

steamingdave4706 Apr 2013 5:58 a.m. PST

Margard, most of my figures from this era were primed with Humbrol enamels, but only these few have rotted.
As I think my post made clear, there are lots of factors involved and my money is on the airtight container maintaining high humidity, allowing the acids in the various materials (paints/plywood/glue) to be activated. The fact that I moved from Scotland to the balmy climate of Herefordshire might also have had something to do with it!

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 6:08 a.m. PST

It's all in the alloys used, and the phase of the moon when you primed them.
Back then, I don't think the manufacturers totally understood the alloys needed, and went for price.
If they did understand, why would anyone care 40 years from now? grin

One of the advantages of the panic to drop lead and go to pewter is the virtual disappearance of lead rot. It's hard for lead to rot when it isn't in the figures anymore.

MajorB06 Apr 2013 6:10 a.m. PST

Margard, most of my figures from this era were primed with Humbrol enamels, but only these few have rotted.

Doesn't that prove that priming with Humbrol enamel is therefore not a factor in lead rot?

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 6:11 a.m. PST

PVA is polyvinyl acetate, so related to acetic acid, which is the main acid involved in the eventual conversion of lead to lead carbonate.

Something has to convert the OVA to acetic acid. Being "related" is not enough. PVA is neutral, and the H+ has to come from somewhere, and it will not get it from the PVA. Once you are acidic enough, the acetate just hangs around for the ride.

tberry7403 Inactive Member06 Apr 2013 6:30 a.m. PST

I think sometimes the old figs just rot…

It is called "planned obsolescence". grin

vaughan Inactive Member06 Apr 2013 7:00 a.m. PST

Like any acetate ester it will over time hydrolise back to (PV) alcohol and acetic acid. The general requirements being enough moisture in the air to cause it.

Personal logo chicklewis Supporting Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 7:17 a.m. PST

The only figures of mine ever to exhibit 'lead rot' were a number of '80s GW treasure chests. These 'rotted' right in the original blisters, so must have been due to the alloy and/or casting conditions.

I scrubbed them hard with a toothbrush and detergent, then sprayed them with white primer. This sealed most of them, though a couple rotted out again through my paint.

Jeigheff Inactive Member06 Apr 2013 7:17 a.m. PST

Lead rot claimed some of a buddy's old Ral Partha fantasy figures.

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 8:00 a.m. PST

When I started back in the 70s, I was advised to first paint a figure with Floquil primer, which was an olive colored plastic skin. Top and bottom.
THEN, give it an undercoat of gesso.
I imagine it was understood back then that figures would rot.

MajorB06 Apr 2013 8:07 a.m. PST

When I started back in the 70s, I was advised to first paint a figure with Floquil primer, which was an olive colored plastic skin.

When I started back in the 60s, nobody seemed to know anything about lead rot. The only advice I ever got was to prime the figures before applying colour.

SECURITY MINISTER CRITTER Inactive Member06 Apr 2013 9:05 a.m. PST

I had some Partha Byzantine cavalry and RAFM Indians go bad.

Travellera06 Apr 2013 9:25 a.m. PST

Scary stuff….

happened to me as well but only with miniatures stored in cold/low temperature. Were your stored cold?

steamingdave4706 Apr 2013 11:19 a.m. PST

Margard- my comments re possible role of enamel paint come from this. link

John OFM, I think the point about acetic acid and PVA was covered by Vaughan's explanation. I do think trapped moisture inside the plastic box had a big role.

Travellera- figures stored in centrally heated houses- probably never got below 10celsius, even in the depths of a Scottish winter. Obviously a complex process involved in this disaster.

Big lesson for me is to make sure that ALL of the figure is well primed in a neutral paint. Hopefully the modern alloys are likely to be longer lasting. although, at my age, I'm not too worried about what they will be like in another 30 years!

Brian Smaller Inactive Member06 Apr 2013 11:43 a.m. PST

I have really old figures (from the 70s) in bags, a few of which deteriorated. But most of the other figures in the same bag were fine. I wonder if it had more to do with the alloy used and temperature at the time of casting.

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP06 Apr 2013 12:01 p.m. PST

The plasticiser in the polythene Tupperware may also act as an accelerant. I've never heard of PVA being a potential culprit – AFAIK it is very stable.

Have my doubts about this being only lead rot – that is more likely to affect surfaces and cause pretty slow degredation so that it is often barely noticable except on thin sheets. I suspect faulty alloy, possibly some crud got into the casting metal and, once the surface disintegrated, it fell apart.

MajorB06 Apr 2013 2:56 p.m. PST

Margard- my comments re possible role of enamel paint come from this. link

From that link:
"So what can you do to prevent the ‘rot' setting in? Get painting! Once a model has been sealed properly with an undercoat (don't forget the underside of the base) then no CO² can get to the surface and the chemical process cannot begin."

I wonder if it had more to do with the alloy used and temperature at the time of casting.

I think there may be some truth in that.

spontoon06 Apr 2013 5:38 p.m. PST

Were they all authentic Minifigs? I've had a lot of pirated Minifigs go bad over the years. There are probably more Minifigs pirates out there than the originals!

Yeah, some of the 1980 vintage RAFM/Ral Partha figs were bad for that. They seem to think it was the plastic bags they were packed in.

Heisler06 Apr 2013 7:48 p.m. PST

The most definitive treatise I have found is from a "Curator of Navy Ship Models" at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. You can find the article here: link

In short your storage system was probably the nail in the coffin and the plywood helped the process along. Also note that some paints can also contribute to the issue including; enamel, oil and alkyd paints.

Stavka06 Apr 2013 11:09 p.m. PST

The figures in my collection that seem to have suffered lead rot were all figures cast in the 80's by Rafm. The ones effected were also very "dark" when cast, which I have been told suggests that the casting temperature was pretty high.

I'm sure there is some kind of connection there, as many others have survived quite happily.

gisbygeo06 Apr 2013 11:33 p.m. PST

Tupperware is polythene, which exudes acetic acid. (I think) All I know is that our conservators said to NEVER pack metal objects in plastic containers.

14Bore07 Apr 2013 11:56 a.m. PST

Just looked at my original 1980 Ral Partha fantasy figures and see no sign of any deteriation. They never were based we us to use them as is.

spontoon07 Apr 2013 1:53 p.m. PST

Good thing I use cookie tins to store my figures! Means I ahve to eat a lot of cookies, though!

steamingdave4709 Apr 2013 11:54 a.m. PST

Tupperware now relegated to holding pots of paint. All figures now stored in metal trays. Time will tell!

Dalai Lama Inactive Member03 Jan 2015 5:43 a.m. PST

Hello. Looked over a large lot of 25mm Ral Partha figures, Afghans, Egyptian, British, etc., all circa 1870s-1880s. Purchased them in the early 1980s. Many have turned to a dark grey tone. Am thinking of selling them on eBay, but wonder if this is a sign of lead rot. If so, they'll convert into musket balls. All advice appreciated.

Baranovich28 Feb 2015 7:07 a.m. PST

I really think in this case it is due mostly to the older figures and what they were composed of. I do think thought that enamel paints may play some role, but I still think it's mostly the figures themselves.

I had a bunch of Grenadier Advanced D & D minis from when they released all their first classic boxed sets from 1978-1981. Never painted or primed them, just had them in their original retail boxes. Some of those eventually turned a silvery, powdery white and just began to crumble on their own.

I have a vintage box of Halflings from that same classic Grenadier range which I keep on display just as a nostalgic vintage thing. They are not painted, they have been in the same foam tray inside the box since they were packaged over 30 years ago. They are intact but have turned a darker shade of gray and look a bit "powdery".

I based many of the older GW metals, and Dixon metals over the years without painting the bottoms of the bases. I have used bass wood, balsa wood, cardboard, and aluminum sheet cut into small squares, and used PVA for the flock, some of those minis go back to the late 80's early 90's. Never had a problem with those.

Seems that in a very general way, the cutoff point for this problem was when they began to do the pewter composition in metal minis instead of the older lead composition, that started when, like some time in the late 80's maybe??

Tumbleweed Supporting Member of TMP02 May 2015 2:45 p.m. PST

Here is an entry from George R.R. Martin's website. He also collects figures:

"Lead rot is the bane of toy soldiers everywhere, about as welcome in a collection as the Red Death was in Poe's story. You will also hear it called "lead disease" or sometimes just "plague." It is a form of corrosion that eats lead much as rust eats iron, and if left unchecked it can destroy an old toy soldier. It has even been known to eat its way through entire collections.

There have been a number of articles about lead rot in collector's journals over the years, but the definitive one was Bert Caldwell's piece in issue #13 of TOY SOLDIER AND MODEL FIGURE, a very thorough and well researched examination of the subject. I urge you to get a copy if you can find a back issue. There's also a piece by Peter Ruddle in a prior issue of the same magazine, but that one has several mistakes that Caldwell's article corrects.

Quoting Caldewell: "Lead Rot is lead rusting, and its primary cause is moisture in combination with lack of air circulation."

Iron rusts red. Lead rusts white. White or greyish-white powder is a sure sign of lead rot. It often shows up first on an extremity; the tip of a sword, the edge of a cape, a helmet crest, the figure's base. An afflicted figure will also sometimes seem to "sweat." The first time I knew I had a problem was when I noticed that one of my old Timpo knights seemed to have dandruff. The afflicted figures will also feel rough to the touch, even where the paint is still intact.

And lead rot has a distinctive smell as well. It's hard to describe, but once you smell it you won't forget it. These days, if I am buying an old figure and I suspect lead rot, I always give the knight a sniff or two.

Modern metal figures cast in pewter or white metal are immune, so you don't have to worry about your Bob Hornung knights, your Brian Roddens, or your Greenhills. I do worry about my Russian figures sometimes, simply because there are so many makers over there, and god knows what sort of metal some of them are using. So far, however, my fears have been unfounded. None of the Russians in my collection have shown any signs of lead rot (knock wood).

Older figures, made of alloys with a high lead content, are much more prone to lead rot than current production. Timpo knights are definitely vulnerable, as are figures from Johillco, Crescent, Cherilea, and their smaller rivals. Britains figures can be afflicted too, but less so, in my experience. I suspect that Britains used a higher grade of metal, with more tin and zinc in the mix.

Courtenays can also develop lead rot, but it's not a common occurance, thank god. Pings, though… Pings will get lead rot if you look at them crosseyed. Ping was a wonderful miniaturist, but he cast in a very soft lead. Pings and Ping-Courtenays are prime candidates for the plague, and need to be inspected carefully before purchase.

The causes… well, Caldwell nailed the bigs ones. Humidity, to start with. I am fortunate in that I live in New Mexico, a very dry state. A fellow collector of my aquaintance bought a lot of Courtenays from Hawaii a few years ago, but when they arrived they all had terminal lead rot. A couple of the mounted figures pretty much disintegrated in transit. Severe lead rot will do that; it can actually eat a figure until it crumbles. The humid air of Hawaii was likely the culprit.

Lack of circulation is the other cause Caldwell mentions, and he's right there as well. When I started collecting in 1996, I commissioned my favorite woodworker to make me a custom display cabinet. It had wooden shelves, a mirrored back, and a plate glass door… and it was airtight, to keep the figures from getting dusty. I filled it with my favorite knights… and to my horror, several months later, I noticed that a number of them had bad cases of dandruff. The cabinet was TOO airtight. My efforts to protect my knights from getting dusty had given them lead rot. That cabinet now holds only plastic figures.

"Let them breathe." That's the lesson. That's the best way to prevent lead rot. Courtenays, Pings, Timpos, all the older lead figures should be displayed on open shelves… or in cabinets that allow the air to circulate around them. A fan or ventilation system would be great, but you don't need to go that far. One of my big display centers is an old entertainment unit that used to hold my TV, VCR, turntable, and the like. I put glass doors on the front of all the compartments, but I left the back wide open. The unit is against the wall, but there's a gap of an inch or so because of the floor molding, so air comes in through the back, and I've had no lead rot in that cabinet. Let them breathe.

You will also hear that oak shelving is a cause of lead rot. Supposedly the tannins in the oak promote the plague. I don't know about that one, myself. I have figures displayed on oak shelves, pine, cherrywood, glass, what have you, and have never noticed any difference where lead rot is concerned. My infamous airtight wall cabinet was glass and pine.

Some older collectors will also insist that lead rot is contagious, that any afflicted figures need to be removed and kept away from the rest of your collection, or else the contagion will spread through your hosts like the Black Death spread through Europe. That's an old wive's tale (an old toy soldier guy's tale?). If you remove an afflicted figure but keep the rest of his companions stored in the same conditions, they will come down with lead rot too. Quarantine won't help, if the figures aren't allowed to breathe.

As for a cure… all the king's horse and all the king's men can't put Humpty together again. The damage caused by lead rot is irreversible. You can scrape away the afflicted area and repaint if you're skilled at restoration, or send it someone like Bob Hornung who is… but you will still have a restored figure, not a mint one.

However, lead rot need not be fatal, if you catch it early enough. There is a preventative, which Caldwell talks about in his article. The "elixir" is a mixture of 50 percent pure gum spirits of turpentine (NOT terps substitute, Caldwell warns) and 50 percent highly refined medicinal mineral oil. You need some soft cotton swabs for application. Brush off the afflicted figures, scrape away the rotted areas or the dandruff, apply the solution, gently wipe off excess, and let the figure air dry for seven days. Badly afflicted figures should actually be immersed in a tub of the solution. The same for hollowcasts, where the lead rot sometimes begins inside the figure, unseen.

I've used Caldwell's solution. It works. I treated all the afflicted figures from my custom cabinet, and the exilir stopped the lead rot dead. A few years later, I bought some nice Ping-Courtenays from Le Petit Soldier Ship in New Orleans, (where they had been displayed in a closed cabinet), despite the telltale smell and signs of lead rot. I brought 'em home, dosed 'em, and they were fine. I check from time to time, and so far there has been no reoccurance of the lead rot (knock wood) in the figures I treated in 1997 and 1998. The elixir also has a nice side affect: the oil gets absorbed into the figures and gives them a sheen, restoring some gloss to figures that lost it decades ago.

Miniaturists who do their own conversions and painting should make certain that the casting is primed before painting, and sealed afterward. Some painters will not bother to prime or seal the underside of a base, or may leave a sword unpainted to preserve its "natural" metal color. That's an invitation to lead rot. Primer and sealer help protect the figure. Of course, the rot isn't a problem with kits and castings from current makers like Andrea, Pegaso, and the like, since they cast in pewter and white metal… but when converting old Knights Castle figures and hollowcast Knights of Agincourts, it is something to remember.

Oh, and old "home cast" figures are even more spectacularly inclined to lead rot than Pings. In fact, I picked up a really cheap bag of old semiflat homecasts early in my collecting days, almost pure lead, unpainted, and I put one of them in each of my cabinets, for the same reason coal miners used to carry canaries down into the mines. They are my early warning system. If lead rot is in the air, the homecast will get it first and worst. (The one I have in that airtight custom cabinet of mine is so rotted that it looks as though it is covered with a white-grey fungus).

That's the lowdown on the rot. May you never need to face it."

The Beast Rampant06 May 2015 10:33 a.m. PST

The notion of having the cast-on base-bottom painted before mounting it on a plywood base is alarming. All my minis have their bases filed a bit before mounting, to ensure a good bond.

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