When your tools rust, it doesn’t just make them look older. Rust can stop up hinges and gears, blunt blades, and weaken the metal. Knowing how to clean rusty tools the right way can be a huge money-saver.
Rust forms when metals like steel and iron are exposed to oxygen and moisture. The reddish-brown deposits we call rust are known scientifically as iron oxide and are the result of oxidation, a chemical change that’s occurred within the metal. The good news is oxidation is a relatively slow process, and you can often save the metal beneath the rust, salvaging the tool.
You can find commercial rust removers at your local home improvement or auto repair store. These products aren’t expensive, but if you’re looking for a more natural approach, there are several tried and true DIY approaches. Let’s go through the best rust removal strategies step by step. By the end of the article, you’ll know how to clean rusty garden tools, automotive tools, and everything in between.
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How to clean rusty tools: Step-by-step guide
The difficulty of rust removal depends on the size of the tool, the shape of the tool, and the extent of the rust. For lighter cases, you may not need to go through all of the steps before it’s gone. On the other hand, extremely bad rust may take multiple sessions to clear away completely.
What you’ll need:
- Steel wool
- Scouring pad
- Dish soap
- Clean rags
- Rubber gloves
- Commercial rust remover
Clean the rusted tools with warm, soapy water, then thoroughly rinse and dry them. This will remove any grease and dirt on the tool, letting you assess exactly how much rust you’re dealing with.
If the tool is comprised of multiple components, disassemble it as much as you can so you can clean each part individually. For bladed tools, like hedge clippers and scissors, separate the blades if possible to ensure you’re removing rust inside the pivot.
Scrub the rusted areas with steel wool. Steel wool pads with a built-in cleaner can be especially effective. You’ll likely want to wear gloves as you do this to protect your fingers. In some cases, a good scrubbing is all it will take to remove the rust. Even if it doesn’t, though, this initial scrub will start to break the rust away from the metal, making other treatments more effective.
Wipe the tool clean with a damp cloth, dry thoroughly, and assess. In some cases, a few passes with a scratch pad will clear away all the rust spots. If there’s still a lot of rust, continue to the next step.
Cover the affected area with a commercial rust remover. Some rust removers are designed to be applied directly to the tool, while others should be diluted with water before soaking the tools. Carefully read the instructions on the bottle before you start to make sure you’re doing it correctly. Most of these products use oxalic acid, which is highly corrosive, so you should always wear gloves and eye protection when using it. Also, be sure to use it in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling fumes, which can irritate your lungs and make you lightheaded.
Rinse the tool after the length of time specified on your cleaner. Commercial cleaners are highly effective and often work quite quickly. Dry the tool and assess whether it needs more treatment. The good news is, any rust that’s remaining has likely been weakened by the cleaner. It will often flake right off with another pass of scrubbing with steel wool.
If the rust still has not cleared by this point, the electrolysis method (described below) may be your only option.
Is there a way to remove rust from tools without scrubbing?
Most advice you see about rust removal starts by telling you to roll your sleeves up and get to scrubbing. While this is the cheapest approach, nobody wants to spend their weekend with a scrub brush.
There are also some tools where scrubbing just isn’t an option. It can be difficult figuring out how to clean rusty sockets, for example, since too much pressure can bend the metal, and the small size makes it hard to scrub. This is also a problem with tools that have deep crevices and other hard-to-reach areas.
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There are some methods that can reduce or eliminate the need for scrubbing:
Power tools. For most DIY activities, you can spare yourself the manual labor if you’re willing to shell out the extra bucks for a power tool—and removing rust is no exception. An electric drill with a wire wheel brush attachment can provide better abrasive power than any scouring pad. A Dremel tool or buffer could be similarly outfitted to serve as an auto-scrubber.
Citric acid. You can get citric acid in powder form since it’s often used in canning. Fill a bucket with water that’s very hot, then stir the citric acid into the water—about 1/3 cup per gallon of water. Once the powder has completely dissolved, place your rusty tool into the mix, and let it sit for about two hours. In many cases, the rust will wipe right off with a sponge or towel. Citric acid isn’t as corrosive as oxalic acid, but you should still use caution when working with it, especially if you have sensitive skin. Wear goggles to prevent any of the mixes that splash from getting into your eyes. For extracting the tool, you can wear gloves or use tongs to avoid touching the solution.
Electrolysis. This high-tech solution to rust removal can be very handy for removing rust from hard-to-scrub areas. Using electrolysis is actually relatively easy, though you will need to have a clamp-style battery charger to accomplish it.
Find a thin, steel cylinder to use as your anode. It should be large enough to surround the tool. Coffee cans with the bottoms cut out are a great option. You can also use metal ducts if you don’t have a coffee can handy.
Cut two lengths of wire. Connect one to the anode and the other to the rusty tool. Make sure you have contact with the metal on the tool. You may need to clean a small area to do this.
Fill a plastic bucket or container with enough water to fully submerge the tool, then pour in one tablespoon of baking soda for every gallon of water. Put the anode in the vat, then suspend the tool in the liquid. The anode should be around the tool, but not touching it.
With the battery charger still off or unplugged, connect the positive clamp to the anode’s lead and the negative clamp to the tool’s lead. Make sure the connections are made well clear of the electrolyte solution.
Turn on the charger. In a few minutes, you should see bubbles around the tool. Leave it be for 15-20 hours.
Turn off the charger and remove the clamps. Carefully remove the tool, then rinse and dry it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: What home remedy removes rust from tools?
Ans: If you want to know “how to remove rust from tools DIY-style”, there are a lot of options you can go with. One of the most popular is lemon juice and salt. The acid in the lemon juice combined with the alkaline nature of salt, breaking through the rust. Just pour the salt and lemon juice mixture onto the rust and let it sit about 2 hours before starting to scrub. This is also an excellent option for getting rust stains out of clothing or upholstery.
Lime juice or grapefruit juice can also be a substitute if you don’t have lemon juice. Just avoid sugary citrus fruits, like oranges, and pre-made sugary juices (pure fruit juice is the best choice). There are other kitchen-based remedies that can work, as well, that we’ll get into further down the FAQ.
Keep in mind that natural treatments can be as effective as commercial rust removers, but are typically much slower. You may have to do multiple rounds of treatment followed by scrubbing to remove what commercial rust removers could clean in a few hours. For light to moderate rust, however, they can be a good natural alternative.
Q: Is WD-40 a rust remover?
Ans: Among the myriad of helpful uses of WD-40 are both removing and preventing rust. Spray the entire rusted area with WD-40 and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. The cleaning solution will dissolve the rust down to the bare metal, loosening it to the point a light scrubbing should remove all traces. WD-40 has the added benefit of providing a layer of protection against rust, as well, so you can use it to treat the tools you just cleaned and keep that rust from coming back.
Q: Does Coke clean rusty tools?
Ans: You might be surprised to learn that yes, it does. The key compound is the phosphoric acid contained in many sodas. This interacts with the iron oxide contained in rust, weakening it and dissolving it away. The carbonation also helps by providing agitation.
If you’re wondering “how to clean rusty tools with Coke”, it’s similar to other DIY methods. Just fill a container with Coke, drop the rusted items in, and allow to soak for 24 hours. For larger items, you can saturate cloths or sponges with Coke and let them set on the rust.
Now while Coke can remove rust, it’s not the most effective DIY option. First of all, it works much more slowly than other cleaners. Secondly, Coke contains other compounds that aren’t good for many surfaces, like colorings and sugar. Make sure to thoroughly rinse any tools you clean with Coke to avoid sticky deposits, and don’t use this method on anything porous—you’ll just replace the rust spot with a much larger soda stain.
Q: Does Sprite remove rust?
Ans: Any carbonated beverage will help remove rust to some extent. Sprite doesn’t contain phosphoric acid, however, so it won’t remove rust as well as Coke.
Q: How long do you soak rusty tools in vinegar?
Ans: Similar to lemon juice, vinegar is highly acidic and is a natural rust-removing agent. If you’re using just vinegar, you will need quite a bit of soaking time—overnight is best if you can manage it. This is the ideal solution for knives, screwdrivers, or other smaller tools. Put the rusty tools in a bowl and cover them with vinegar. In the morning, take them out and scrub.
If the rusty object is too large to fit in a bowl, you can still use the vinegar method, although it’s a bit trickier. Soak a rag in vinegar and wrap it securely around the area that’s rusted. Check on the rag and re-soak it as necessary every few hours until the rust scrubs away.
Q: Can baking soda remove rust?
Ans: It can. This method is similar to the vinegar option above. Make a paste with baking soda and water, then apply it to the rusty tool and allow it to sit for a couple of hours. After that, scrub with a toothbrush or wire bristle brush, then rinse and dry.
Removing rust from tools can be a time-intensive (and labor-intensive) process. While the methods above are effective, the easiest way to deal with rust is to prevent it from forming in the first place. Keep the space where you store your tools as dry as possible. If you normally leave your tools out, consider getting a tool chest to provide an extra layer of protection.
Along with improving the storage space, oiling your tools can help prevent rust. The oil serves as a protective layer, and is also hydrophobic, preventing airborne moisture from sticking to your tools.
Luckily, a few spots of rust doesn’t have to mean the end for your tools. Use the methods above the next time you find oxidation, and they’ll be back in working order in no time.