Introduction: Electrolytic Rust Removal Aka Magic

Picture of Electrolytic Rust Removal Aka Magic

This is a relatively simple, safe and cheap way to remove light or heavy rust from any ferrous object. I used this process to restore an old wood plane that I bought for $1 (it looked totally un-usable because of the rust). As opposed to grinding, heavy wire brushing and acid bath processes, this method removes none of the original steel and is not noisy or caustic.

How this works:

Several other sites do a better job of explaining the chemistry of this - but basically you set up a conductive solution and insert some sacrificial anodes. You hang your rusted tool in the solution and attach it to the negative end of the power supply. You attach the positive end to the anode and turn on the power. The current travels through the solution and in the process flakes off the rust - the flaking/softening occurs because of the reaction at the surface of the good steel that pushes the rust off.

See this site
for more info on the chemistry of it all. (now linked to a waybackmachine archive of the site - modern suggestions for this background are welcome).

Step 1: Gather Supplies

Picture of Gather Supplies

You will need:

This project cost me about $40 because I did not have access to a small battery charger. If you have a charger, then most folks with a decent shop full of crap can do it for almost nothing.

- Clean 5 gallon spackle bucket or other plastic container to meet your size needs
- 5 sections of 18” long 1/2” steel rebar ($5 at Home Depot –
buy in longer sections as needed) (DO NOT USE STAINLESS STEEL)
- 5 feet 12 awg (or so) insulated copper wire in two colors
- 5 yellow wire nuts
- several red wire nuts
- 5 feet pliable tie wire (non insulated) SEE UPDATE on Step 2 - the tie wire rusts out after about a year - you may want to use something more substantial or resistant to rusting.
- Box of washing soda NOT baking soda
- Anti-oxidant goo (IE Noalox – This is not necessary
but helps I think.
- Small battery charger or home made power supply ($20-$50 at AutoZone etc) - Its best if the charger
has a 6v option and an internal "trouble" switch that stops charging if something shorts out.
- Variety pack of alligator clips from RadioShack (unless charger comes with decent ones…)
- Outside outlet or extension cord
- GFCI protected outlet (this is a must in my opinion - working around power and water is stupid unless
you have GFCI protection
- 5 gal water
- misc clamps/small boards
- drill with 1/4 bit
- wire cutting and twisting pliars (linemans tools are best
- wire brush (better if on a grinder or dremel tool)
- anti rust spray or light oil

Step 2: Assemble Tank and Anodes

Picture of Assemble Tank and Anodes

NOTE: Do not use stainless steel for the electrodes. As pointed out by a commenter on the intro page (thanks!) "The chrome in the stainless will leach out during the electrolysis and form hexavalent chromium compounds in your electrolyte. These are extremely bad for you." This is true - dont even think about using stainless steel for this project.

Assemble tank and electrodes

1) Space the rebar evenly around the bucket along the sides (running top to bottom). Mark the locations

2) Drill two small holes about 1/2 inch apart 2 down from rim for each rebar

3) Insert a 5" loop of tie wire through the holes around the rebar and out again . Lube the ends of the bar with anti oxidant compound and twist the wire tight and snip off so 1" of the wire is remaining. UPDATE: the tie wire eventually rusts out - mine in less than a year.  Consider using something more resistant to rust - suggestions welcome.  On the other hand, any time you are using electrodes, they are sacrificial - as is the wiring system that contacts the water, etc.

4) Once all rebar is in place, make 4 sections of copper wire with the ends skinned off to connect each rebar wire.

5) Wire nut each rebar to the next with a section of cooper wire (connecting the protruding tire wire (I also used Noalox on these connections). Do not connect the first and last rebar (ie: X---X---X---X---X---)

6) Add 5 tablespoons of washing soda to the bucket and fill within 2 of the rim with clean water (adding extra soda will not help&)

Step 3: Set Up Hanging Clips

Picture of Set Up Hanging Clips

Step 2:

1) Find a board (or any non-conductive object) to lay across the top of the bucket.

2) Attach a short lead of copper wire with an alligator clip attached to the water end. (I just stapled the wire to the board)

3) The clip should hang low enough to just enter the water. ( first photo below shows three clips - i was doing three parts at once..)

Step 4: Attach Charger

Picture of Attach Charger

Don’t mess this step up – the polarity is important:

Make sure battery charger is OFF:

1) attach the positive (red +) end of the battery charger to the rebar wire

2) attach the negative (black -) end of the battery charger to the alligator clip over the water

3) I remember this by saying to myself “the rust flows off the tool towards the positive side”



Step 5: Attach Rusted Tool

Picture of Attach Rusted Tool

1) clean a small piece of the tool where you will attach the clip - choose a place where it will also hang securely.

2) Attach alligator clip (which is attached to the negative end of the charger) and and hang the tool completely in the water. Its ok if the clip is in the water – it wont hurt it. Wiggle the clip to make sure you have a good connection.

3) Make sure the tool is attached firmly and is not touching the rebar or any part of the setup that is attached to the positive lead.

4) Areas of the tool that do not have a “line of sight” to the rebar will not be cleaned – if you have a complex part you might need to rotate it or add more rebar electrodes.



Step 6: Power It Up

Picture of Power It Up

1) set the battery charger to a low setting (6v – 1.5 amp works great for me)

2) Turn on the charger.

You should see tiny bubbles start to form all over the tool. As the process progresses, the rust will start to flake off and the water will become muddied with rust and goop and foam depending on how fast the bubbles are forming.





Step 7: Check Tool and Remove and Clean

Picture of Check Tool and Remove and Clean

Depending on the size of the tool, the amount of power used, the amount of rust, and your patience, the process will take from 1 hour to two days. The longer you leave it in the solution, the less work you will have to do to finish the clean up.

The tool will turn black and the rust changes form and flakes off.

If you leave it in long enough, you should be able to wipe the rust off with your finders and find a smooth (but pitted) surface. The nice part about this is that even after only 1/2 hour, the rust is much easier to remove with a wire brush.

NOTE: the tool will not come out of the tank ready to paint. it will still need wire brushing or final polishing with steel wool. the process leaves a gray/black layer of oxidant that you will probably want to remove prior to final rust-proofing or painting.

The photo of the saw below shows three stages: The left side was run for an hour and then brushed. The middle spot was steel brushed for the same amount of time but without the electrolysis (and rust remained) and the right side is the original rust.

Step 8: Samples

Picture of Samples

Here are a few samples:

The chisel was very rusted – normal rust removal would have required much original steel grinding to remove the deep pits that a wire brush would not have touched. Check out the stamp that was revealed after cleaning.

The entire project was started because I bought this sweet plane that was totally rusted. I only paid a few bucks, but knew that a used non-rusted one was worth quite a chunk of change. After the tank proces it took about an hour of going over it with the light wire brush wheel on the dremel to shine it up – but it would have been impossible without the electrolysis first.



Step 9: Final Rust Proofing

Picture of Final Rust Proofing

If you are not going to paint the tool then it will require immediate rust proofing.

I use this spray T-9 stuff that Highland Hardware sells

– but I think there are some less noxious easier to clean up products out there like Camellia oil

Step 10: FAQ

Picture of FAQ


How big/small of an object can I do?

- My browsing around on the web found people doing anything from small parts in a 1/2 gallon tub to a trailer body in a swimming pool using a large welder for the power.

Does the solution "wear out"?

- No - it just gets nasty

How much power should I use?

- As little as possible to still get the job done. I think you will get better results with low power and two days of processing than high power and getting it done in an hour. The larger the object (surface area) the more power required to do it in a given amount of time. My charger is 1.5 amp 6 volt and works great for hand tools. the small stuff takes a few hours. The larger complex plane took a day and a half before i was happy with the amount of removal.

Is this dangerous?

- Only if you don’t have any common sense and don’t use a GFCI protected power source.

- Yes if you do it inside - the bubbles forming are evidently hydrogen which is flammable. Outside it does not cause any problems.

- The low voltage is pretty safe - especially if your charger has an automatic cut off "trouble" switch.

Are there any drawbacks to this system?

- Some people say that depending on the power and time involved, the steel can become brittle due to a temporary change in structure. This is cured by "baking" the tool for a few hours at 350 in the oven or letting it sit around for a few months before any hard use. see the links below for more info. I have not found this to be a problem.

These guys deserve the credit for teaching me how to do this and provide way more info on this system:

http://www3.telus.net/public/aschoepp/electrolyticrust.html

http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/andyspatch/rust.htm#top

http://antique-engines.com/electrol.asp

Comments

RIDINGRICK (author)2017-09-22

Oxiclean contains wash soda. I saw a demo using it and other than some suds it preformed the same as plane wash soda. Every store in my area has Oxiclean. Hope this helps out

markseymour (author)2017-09-20

Does one have to change the 'sacrificial' rod from time to time ?. I am finding that the process is becoming less effective each time I de-rust a fresh item. The advice here is that the solution does not wear out - so is the rod attached to the positive terminal the issue ?

DamithaN made it! (author)2017-07-07

I took a different approach by using table salt(iodized), drain cleaner dialuted in to 5 liters of water and uses an Aluminium sheet as the anode. Also used a old laptop charger as a makeshift power source (19.5v @ 3.42mA)

AdamE78 (author)2017-04-13

Sodium carbonate is also used for swimming pools, to raise the ph. It is cheaply sold at Home Depot and other pool supply places as Soda ash.

Also, electricity flows from the negative to the positive, not as commonly thought. That is why the negative is connected to the work and positive to the sacrificial anode.

railcarengr made it! (author)2017-03-22

I made this "rust bucket" but welded 1/4-20 x1" bolt @ 90 degrees to the length of the re-bar. These bolts are used to mount the bars in the bucket and something to connect ring terminals to...
Al

Furballs (author)2017-01-09

Would I be able to use a 24 V battery charger from an electric scooter for this?

The charger plugs into a wall outlet with a grounded plug. Then it has a wire at one end with a small round plug that was pushed into a round port on the scooter. It's dead easy to snip off or remove the plug, leaving me bare ended wire for the electrolytic bath.

I don't have the charger handy, I'll have to dig it up, but as but as I recall, the charging plug is at the end of about two feet of reasonably rstandard small appliance or lamp wire. It's usually easy to split that kind of wire into it's two separate wires to attach to two electrodes.

BUT ( always a but ) how do I determine the + and - for these wires? Anybody know how I'd figure out which is which?

The rest of the stuff for this 'ible I already have. I have a number of rusted tools in need of major rehab to be useful again.

xbeerd (author)Furballs2017-03-01

you could also get a cheap volt meter/ multimeter to find the polarity. plus, if you are on this site, reading this, it should probably be something you should have in your tool box anyways :)

The Real Haunce (author)Furballs2017-01-09

Sure you can use scooter P.S. ... a few thing to keep in mind:

Search for the term "Scooter Pin Out" in images, and see if any pics look right.

24 volts is slightly hotter than the 14.6 in the demo... adjust time and expectations accordingly.

if you are not sure about polarity, run a quick test on scrap metal (or even a couple of pennies)

Not likely, but you might damage the charger... The process should work with about any DC supply you want to sacrifice.

Science moment: I believe the chemistry says you must exceed the voltage of the electronegativity of iron which is 1.83volts, so anything 2 volts and should work. High voltages make for some unwanted reactions though..

madmadmal (author)2015-05-30

I just did this recently and here are two issues I ran into and how I solved them:

1. Washing Soda: In Northern California it must be banned or something however it is easy to make. Take Baking Soda and spread it out on a cookie sheet or put it into a bowl. Pop it into a 400 degree oven for 40 or so minutes until you have the juiciest pot roast ever seen. If a pot roast has not appeared then you will have Washing Soda. Store in lightproof container.

2. Battery Charger (IMPORTANT): Automatic battery chargers will NOT work. The electrical flow is not a battery load as it expects and will fault. It will be as if it was broken. I tried two and both behaved the same. Beware of Sears. Online they show a manual charger however it is the SKU of an automatic. This may be another Northern California Space Time issue. Also ordering from Amazon, for all addresses I had it threw an unshippable addresses error. I can buy explosives just fine. I found that eBay has variable power supplies for about the same price as a automobile battery charger and the one I got works great. It is a 0-30V, 0-5A and it costs about $45. There are models with lower voltage/amperage that are in the $20s. Obviously no problem shipping to my address.

Hope this was helpful.

mkeefe (author)madmadmal2017-02-26

I know I'm replying to pretty old material here, but I just wanted to give your comment a "thumbs up" and thank you for your input. Having read through many different tutorials and watched videos by reputable creators, very few address the fact that some chargers will default to an error message. After seeing what you wrote, I tried a universal power source and got a chemical reaction right away. FWIW, I used baking soda and it works. Thanks!

iouri_k (author)madmadmal2016-03-15

You can use some automatic (smart) chargers, as you said, they might not start because they have a battery/charge detection, but you can kick start them by connecting a 1.5v battery to its leads for 1-2 seconds with some wire. After that charger kicks in and remains on. You can also reconnect without battery later on, I am guessing that solution/metal ions hold a residual charge if it ran for a little while. Just in case someone runs into the same problem.

KwonP1 (author)2016-10-14

I dont know why this instructable says baking soda isnt acceptable. I've removed rust off several parts using baking soda no problems. I used 2 tbsp per gallon of purified water, and repurposed a laptop charger to provide 19 volts dc at 3.42 amps. Electrodes were 0.090" steel sheets placed around the part. Exposed copper in the solution didnt cause problems, and took about 17 hours to complete. The part was covered with orange gunk that washed right off. The part needed immediate oil as the solution completely degreased it.

AlexC526 (author)KwonP12017-02-09

i have no power supply, what if i used my charger laptop. It that work?

nurchi (author)2016-12-28

Interesting tutorial, but are you sure about the polarity? If you put + on the rebar and the - on the work piece, aren't you essentially electroplating the work piece with the rebar? I thought you need to do the opposite...

The Real Haunce (author)nurchi2017-01-09

The short answer- the sacrificial piece always on positive terminal. when electroplating, you use differing metals. When removing rust , mostly you are creating oxides that flake off and smidge of electroplating.

Sciency explanation:

http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/andyspatch/rust.htm

mark62726 made it! (author)2016-10-27

Hi bro, i just did this with a pc psu

Rigth now im testing it with a very rusted piece :D

gaggu81 (author)2016-10-07

Can i use 16 volts ac supply

KwonP1 (author)gaggu812016-10-14

No. It must be dc supply. Ac will pull rust off both rebar and the tool being cleaned

DanielF278 (author)2016-08-22

We do not have washing soda locally, what is the alternate?

DavidB93 (author)DanielF2782016-10-01

spread baking soda (powdery and clumps) onto a cookie sheet inta a faily thin layer and bake it in the oven for about and hour and a half at 400 degrees.....stir/redistribute every half hour. that easy....

basically the heat allows the hydrogen molecule to combine with ambient oxygen and escape as steam (water vapor), its carbonate ion is released and evaporates as well and the soduim double pairs for a stronger pair to the carbonate beside it.

the result is washing soda (grainy like salt)

icemanfrost (author)2015-05-26

I had a old set of cast iron skillets that were all rusted. A simple soak in white vinegar overnight works well. Couldn't tell you about tool steel, I know vinegar and salt can be used to etch steel using a battery charger. (I etch designs in steel knife blades this way.) Point being, I think this a great method for steels. But for cast iron, just soak in vinegar. Great instructible, by the way!!!

Rexanvil76 (author)icemanfrost2016-08-20

I'm going about it both ways I have 3 cast iron pans I found not bad rust but I tried the lye method and it sucked so I have one in vinegar and one electrolysis

seabreeze6062 (author)2016-07-10

Have you tried TC-11 instead of T-9? see test TC-11v.s. T-9, wd-40 , triflow http://www.tc-11.biz/karma/wp-content/uploads/TC-11-versus-WD-40-Tri-Flow-Boeshield-T-9-July-2006-Test-Program1.pdf

lime3D (author)2016-06-27

Washing soda is cheaper and easier than making your own from baking soda, so don't bother.

simontorres (author)2016-05-26

Do you see any problems using copper wire for conductivity instead of steel?, I mean in the solution.

lime3D (author)simontorres2016-06-27

If you have any copper in the solution, some of it will actually deposit itself on the piece you are removing the rust from. The re-bars are sacrificial, and transfer some of the iron to the piece. The same goes for the copper, and will give you a (very minuscule) copper plating on your piece.

OutlanderEarl (author)2016-04-13

My local Walmart does not carry it, I have yet to find a store in our small city that does. I can buy it from our local pool supply company dirt cheap but I have to buy a 50 lb sac. I opted for the "make Baking soda into washing soda" Sodium bicorbonaet to sodium carbonate method. Works fine.

CosmoF1 (author)OutlanderEarl2016-05-01

go to any pool supply store and ask for Soda Ash. Same thing, Sodium Carbonate.

tkefalopoylos (author)2016-02-03

Great article and very well design setup!

Instead of a car charger you could use an old PC Power supply. You can use the 12v rails.They offer plenty of amperage plus OVP and OCP even if they are cheap.

Thats what i will be using anyway!

Cheers!

47415403 (author)2015-06-14

Question: Could i line the inside of the bucket with half inch net wire or aluminum flashing for better electrode coverage?

Zee LU (author)474154032015-11-10

Steel sure but it will "go away" pretty ast.

Blipet (author)Zee LU2016-02-02

Electrolysis and electroplating use the same molecular chemical forces but in directly opposite directions. In electrolysis, the surface molecules of the negative connection metal (the rusted tool or part) emigrate to the positive connection steel. In electrolysis, the rust and gunk 'transplanted' from the negatively-charged rusty tool or part will build up on the positively-charged steel (heavy buildup can be removed with a wire brush). The flow of molecules in electrolysis is from negative to positive, so always mark your electrolysis connections with "+" and "-" signs.

In electroplating, the molecules flow in the opposite direction. If you get your electrolysis connections backwards, you will electroplate a thin layer of new steel on top of the rust on the tool.

kbreu made it! (author)2016-01-23

I could not find washing soda so i made my own. http://www.drkarenslee.com/make-your-own-homemade-washing-soda/ . All you have to do is get baking soda to 400 degrees F. I have tons of old AC adapter chargers for old electronics. I found one that was 6V 1.5A and used that as my power supply. So far its working like a charm.

gdsouza1 (author)2016-01-08

You also forgot to say that you CAN NOT IN ANY WAY USE SALT, instead of baking or washing soda, if you use salt it will create chlorine gas that is really toxic.

oky jim (author)2015-11-11

Someone mentioned that they thought washing soda might not be available anymore in Northerm California. It is available but not widely. Try the raley's, Belair, Nob Hill stores. I get it there. I believe I also saw it in Target under a different name, something like washing crystals. My wife and a friend heard about this method and asked me about it. I had already gathered the things needed to start but hadn't gone any further. I showed them how I planned to do it. They made the necessary woman changes to the process and now we are overrun with shiny tools that we had gathered over the last 30 or 40 years as rust lumps. They cleaned tools with plastic handle covers, plastic handled screwdrivers and myriad other things. You wouldn't believe how those things sell at a garage sale or flea market..... They prefer pieces of old lawn mower blades as anodes although horseshoes work great too.

Budweiser143 (author)2014-12-17

I 1st came across this instructable: https://www.instructables.com/id/Electrolysis-Rust...

And the suggestion box on the side led me to this one. While I dont know if there is a difference in quality in using salt vs baking soda, I liked yours better, being on a larger scale.

Although I wont be doing this project right away since I'm out of work, and get the the material for free, Some things I would different are:

- Instead of using rebar, I would use copper ground rods.

- 1/3 of the way down, and 2/3 of the way down, I would use #8 or #6 solid, bare copper, going from 1 rebar / ground rod to the other, kind of like a cage.

- At the top where you have them all tied together, I would also a use bigger gauge wire.

- Lastly, instead of using a 5 gallong bucket, I would a bucket a little taller (to be able to put long items in it.) I used to have that chlorine tablets came in.

-Optional - if you have 2 12volt car batteries, wire them in series (as seen here)

to give yourself 24volts DC

Just thinking about maximum conductivity, and to have it work faster.

Cant wait to get back to work to get the materials, so I can built and try it out!

Do not use copper rods. The copper will break down and produce some nasty chemicals.

Thanks for the tip. I was trying to think of maximum electrical conductivity. Also, I was looking for an alternative since I believe someone questioned using rebar since it itself rusts. What would you think about using galvanized ground rods? http://m.homedepot.com/p/ERITECH-5-8-in-x-8-ft-Galvanized-Ground-Rod-815880UPC/202195736/

I have read that you should NEVER use copper, stainless steel, or galvanized in this process due to the mess that copper makes and the noxious substances that come off of the stianless and galvanized.

CurtisS1 (author)travis.hambach2015-04-22

From my scant bit of research, I've also seen warnings that using copper and/or galvanized steel anodes will result in copper and zinc being electroplated to the item you're attempting to remove rust from.

Zee LU (author)CurtisS12015-11-10

Read this

http://www.metaldetectingworld.com/electrolysis_rust_removal.shtml

jackscrap (author)Budweiser1432015-06-20

if your still wondering, I've heard it is a bad idea to use galvanized metals, the zink spilts off and does stuff, I don't think zink on it's own is dangerous, however depending on what you use as a electrolite, instructable author uses washing soda, it may form chemical bonds and produce something toxic.

Zee LU (author)Budweiser1432015-11-10

I you use copper as it contaminates your piece. What you are doing is "electroplating" the piece but it will not be pretty. Using salt will release chlorine gas. Act accordingly. Chlorine is highly reactive, deadly and heavier than air. Plus salt water is corrosive to iron. (See: sunken ships)

You must remember there is all sorts o complex things happening in that bucket. or instance using stainless steel will produce hexavalent chromium.

"HEXAVALENT CHROMIUM is a highly controlled environmental pollutant!... To avoid both environmental and
personal health damage, stainless steel anodes ..."
This is a very informative read:

http://www.metaldetectingworld.com/electrolysis_rust_removal.shtml

PapaSmurf01 (author)2015-07-13

A few weeks ago I used my battery charger to remove rust from an old rusty block plane. I used a 5 gal bucket, 1 table spoon of Arm & Hammer washing soda per each gallon of water and one 18 inch piece of rebar as a sacrificial piece. The end result was great. I have several old hand saws that havn't been used in several years and are very rusty. I bought 5 pieces of rebar and stripped down some 12-2 housing wire that I had on hand and constructed the same apparatus shown in this blog. I connected the positive to the 5 rebars and the negative to the hand saw, but for some reason it will not work. The charger has 3 indicator lights, one which comes on when charging, one which shows that charging is complete and one which comes on when the battery will nor take a charge. For some reason there is not charging process taking place. The "Check Battery" indicator light is the only thing that comes on. What am I doing wrong?

ac-dc (author)PapaSmurf012015-11-08

Your charger is too *smart* for this purpose. It is checking whether there is battery voltage present and perhaps rising so it won't work for this application. You need a dumb charger that just produces current then shuts off to trickle if at all around 14.something volts.

Note that you don't really need a "battery charger". A standard DC power supply is all that is called for. For example a notebook power supply should work, though depending on the electrolyte type and amount used, the power supply you choose may need to have a particular current production capability.

amcgrew (author)PapaSmurf012015-07-16

First you need to verify that your charger will still work to charge a battery (verify that it is not broken ). If it appears to work normally on a regular battery charge, your water may be too pure to cause an ion exchange between the metal bits. You can try adding more arm and hammer to the bucket or try to add some regular table salt ( keeping in mind that Table Salt will give off a small amount of Chlorine gas so work outside with the bucket for safety). For removing rust the best type of battery charger to use is the cheapest NON Computerized chargers with an output of an amp or so. (by the way do not use battery chargers for any other electrolosis than rust removal - most other metal exchanges require more amperage than modern chargers can provide )

RickF13 (author)2015-10-31

Will this rust removal hurt carbide blades? Will it breakdown the carbide tip adhesion to steel blades?

tecter100 (author)2015-10-17

Waht if you pulsed the current, better or lesser results?

Aaugust14 (author)2015-10-14

Would this work for drill bits or would soaking in molasses be a better option? I made a bit of a mistake and soaked mine in iron out and now all the bits are black i thought it would take the rust off but nope they are all black and gross, now what?

pitiolague (author)2015-05-17

What exactly is washing soda, i'm from Argentina and I think that doesn't exist here, so, if you give the components, i'll make it