Purchasing used LEGOs from eBay, a garage sale, or other sources is a great way to expand your collection without hurting your wallet. However, toys get touched by everything from sticky kid fingers to pets, and LEGOs are toys. Even worse for nonsmokers, bricks from a smoker’s home can positively reek. This article will help you to clean your LEGOs.
The two cleaning agents I recommend are a solution of vinegar and water and also hot soapy water made with dishwashing liquid (I use Dawn PLUS Oder Eraser).
WARNING: Cleaning your LEGOs with anything does have some drawbacks. First off, any stickers are likely to be ruined unless you are extremely careful and do not soak them in the cleaning solution. Second, there are LEGO parts that you should not immerse in a liquid, such as light-up bricks. Use your common sense about this. If you are concerned about how your cleaning agent will affect a part, then test one item before dumping the whole lot into the bucket. Third, vinegar can cause rubber parts to dry out and crack.
The hardest thing to get out of LEGOs is the smell of cigarette smoke, so I am going to focus on removing the smell of smoke from LEGOs. The same procedure will also clean spilled soda, dog slobber, or worse. Something you should remember about LEGOs is that they are made from ABS plastic, and plastic absorbs odors (different types of plastic more than others). Bricks that stink heavily of smoke are going to take some work.
The first thing you need is a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and warm water. Most grocery stores carry white vinegar in gallon containers for around $2.50. I do not recommend any other vinegar besides white, because they might stain the bricks. Try soaking a white LEGO in apple vinegar if you want to see what I mean. Anyway, make the solution of water and vinegar in a bucket or other handy container. Do not pick something plastic that you use for food storage, because it is likely to absorb some of the nicotine smell, which is not going to make anything taste better.
Now you need a way to dunk the LEGOs in and out of your cleaning solution without losing any of them. Using a small strainer works well for this task. Remember that a plastic strainer will absorb some of the smell, and metal strainers could cause damage to the much softer plastic bricks. Another consideration is how small is the smallest LEGO that you are cleaning. The very smallest parts tend to be the handle part of a lever, minifig hands, or some of the minifig utensils (especially screwdrivers). My suggestion is to use something plastic, with very small holes. Making your own strainer from a cheap food storage container or LEGO bin by drilling holes into it is a great idea. You can also use a cloth mesh bag, just make sure than no small parts will slip through the mesh.
Be careful with that drill!
With this first wash, dunk your LEGOs multiple times into the vinegar and water. Make sure that you let them soak in it for a while to let the vinegar do its work. Pretty soon your cleaning solution will smell like a foul brew. When it does, it’s time to dump it out and make a new bucket of vinegar and water. Repeat. I find that three separate washes usually does a good job of getting rid of the cigarette odor in LEGOs.
The amount of contamination will dictate how much time this takes. I have left LEGOs that smelled like they came from the home of Gorgo the Smog Monster in a bucket of vinegar and water overnight to get them clean. Those were so bad my nose started running after I smelled them, but you get the idea.
For your last wash, make a mixture of hot water (not so hot that you cannot put your hand in it) and dishwashing liquid. Dunk the bricks as before, replace the soapy water with nothing besides water, and rinse them off. Let your used, but newly cleaned bricks dry, and check to make sure that the smell is gone.
Dry your LEGOs by dumping them onto a towel, carefully rolling them back and forth to work the water out, and then spreading them out so they can dry. You can hurry things along by placing them in the sun or using a hair dryer, but do not to go overboard unless you really want to make a minifig that looks like the Incredible Melting Man.
I have used this procedure to clean thousands of LEGOs of many different colors, and have never noticed any problem with fading or color changes. Again, I do not recommend it for LEGO parts that are not entirely made of ABS plastic or parts which have stickers or designs imprinted on the surface.