Preserve the Beauty of Raw or Rusted Steel & Iron Surfaces

Picture of Preserve the Beauty of Raw or Rusted Steel & Iron Surfaces
I see many ibles made with black pipe here but rarely do they mention any coatings to prevent rusting. I also often build with rusty items where I need to cover the rust so it won't rub of on clothes etc. but don't want to lose the beauty of the patina. An architect once told me he used linseed oil to preserve rusted iron outdoors. I tried it but the damned stuff never fully dries! I could use polyurethane but the oxidation will continue underneath and it will eventually flake off. I've tried "rust stabilizers" but they turn the rust black so it loses it's color. I finally got turned on to a product from an old timer in a paint store I would probably never have found on my own.
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Step 1: Penetrol

Picture of Penetrol
He recommended a product called Penetrol normally used as a paint additive to improve flow and adhesion that also seals and stops rust. It can be used alone as a base coat on bare metal and will fix the rust while preserving the appearance. The finish will be darker than dry rust but similar to rust sprayed with water or oil and can be top coated with a polyurethane for a more durable finish.

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MichaelC9011 days ago

This is an awesome method for working with steel! I stripped the rust off of a few pieces of railroad and left the rust on a few others, then sealed them all with the Penetrol. My only concern is that the pieces never really seem to dry. They're still a bit sticky. Do you think that will go away with the polyurithane? Have you run into the stickiness problem before?

BrianJewett (author)  MichaelC9011 days ago
I have not had that issue with Penetrol. I'd check with the company or with a GOOD local paint store.
NickK712 days ago
Awesome read, what kind of matte cleae can i use that will stick to the penetrol? Would a two part automotive clear be more durable?
BrianJewett (author)  NickK711 days ago
I believe any oil based coating should work with penetrol. I know nothing about 2 part automotive paints. I'm not a paint expert. You should check with a paint supplier.

And thanks for the info on the penetrol!

Through my "unfortunate" experience with my 1937 house -- old oil based paint will chip off of old varnish (leading me to curse whomever painted the beautiful varnished woodwork in the first place!), oil based paint will go over latex, latex will peel off of oil based. There are some good primers on the market now that effectively allow latex over oil, simple paint with primer will not really cut it -- prep and priming are key!!!

Hi Brian,

I just installed some oil blackened iron hardware on a chest and was looking to seal the hardware so that i dont have to wash my hands every time i pick it up. Is the Penetrol still a viable option in your opinion?
BrianJewett (author)  AlexanderG101 month ago
It there's no rust, you don't need it. It's not a hard and durable finish on it's own. If you're hands are getting dirty you should clean the parts with something like paint thinner. The corner braces can be easily coated with polyurethane. I might try waxing the part that have to move.
KristinK22 months ago

Hi Brian,

I have a raw milled steel countertop that I have not yet sealed. From what I've read here, it sounds like the wax paste is recommended for a countertop. I do have some water rings on the surface now - is there a way I might be able to remove these before I wax it? Thanks so much for sharing your advice!

BrianJewett (author)  KristinK22 months ago
BTW, Feel free to post pictures here to show us what you're talking about.
Hi Brian, This is in a retail use, not a kitchen use. the water rings are not rusty (although there is a bit of scale in the one photo, that is not my main concern, i like that better than the water rings), just a discoloration left behind from setting a sweaty cup on the counter. I'm hoping I can eliminate them before protecting the counter. Instead of the wax, should I just use a clear coat? I would like to use a crushable, clear satin product, I think I read that the Minwax products could also be used on metal. Do you have a best recommendation for a product to use to help protect it from future discoloration?

BrianJewett (author)  KristinK21 month ago

Personally, I rather like the look with the rings. They give a casual appearance and lend a sense of history to the material. If there's no rust, you can use a few coats of clear polyurethane to seal the surface. Wax will work too but you should re-wax it periodically. As for cleaning the rings, have you tried windex or solvents?

BrianJewett (author)  KristinK22 months ago
I don't have any experience with the paste wax on a high wear surface like a countertop but I wouldn't use it for that myself. If you do it should probably be relaxed periodically. (2-4 times a year?) I also don't think you should trust it with hot pans etc. I've been using the bathroom counters I featured here for 4 years now. I did have a careless house guest that left items sitting in wet soapy water on the guest bath counter top for a week and that penetrated the surface and started some rust. In our bathroom however, where we're more careful, the surface has performed flawlessly so far. Soap is deadly for almost all coatings, even the baked epoxy coatings used to refinish tubs and sinks.

Once you have rust rings started on raw steel you'll never remove the evidence without sanding the original surface off. You can remove the rust with naval jelly, but you'd still see pitting or scaring where the rust was. The rust remover might also change the original surface. You might consider leaving or even enhancing the rings and considering them as "history" or patina that makes the material more interesting or even tells a story or records an event.
Nooblet2 months ago

I used steel
wool to clean rusted steel and the Penetrol... I wiped it on with a cotton
cloth. I love the look how it is. I'm going to use it as a desktop – so it will
need to be more durable. This is my third try on getting the finish I want.
When I used polyurethane it came out too dark and shiny. Tried matte
polyurethane and it was streaky and cloudy. Has anyone tried a wax?

BrianJewett (author)  Nooblet2 months ago

You can use the wax on bare metal if it's clean & smooth but if it's pitted, you won't be able to buff the wax smooth in the low spots and you'll have the white residue showing. I don't think wax would be good over the penetrol. If you like the look with the penetrol, adding polyurethane top coats won't darken the surface any further. I'd use the spray on a nice flat surface like this. The brush on always leaves some visible brush marks.Try a flat or a satin on the back to see how you like the finish then put down at least 3 coats, more if you have the time and patience. Desks get a fair amount of abuse.

JMZ0074 months ago

it looks like Penetrol is exactly what I need to lock in some rusted metal I want to use in a project. The only problem is, I can't buy it in California. I can't get anyone to ship it to me either. I can get the non-oil-based replacement, Flotrol. However, I don't know if this will work the same. Does it? Is there anything else I can use in California that will produce similar results?

BrianJewett (author)  JMZ0073 months ago
Thanks, I have learned the hard way to always read between the lines and to pay attention also to what is NOT said. It's easy to read what I want to hear if I'm not careful.

The Flotrol is made by the same company 'Flood' and is the same product in that as Penetrol is for oil-based, Flotrol is for latex-based paint. BUT if you're just using it as a clear top coat (not over any paint) I bet it would work the same. Here is a link to the product description, but of course what BrianJewett(author)'s Instructable is about is how to use it 'off-label'. I'm going to try the Flotrol too, because it is a lot cheaper than its cousin ;-) I hope this helped a little.


BrianJewett (author)  bettina-sisr3 months ago
Do you know if Flotrol is a rust inhibitor like Penetrol? The primary function of Penetrol is really to be a leveling agent in paint, making it "flow" better to remove brush marks. If you want to use it like I do in this ible, it needs to be more than a leveling agent, it needs to penetrate and stop the rust.
I am far from being an expert :-) but from what more I have read from my prior post, it is to be considered the 'same' as Penetrol when it come to extended the life of paint only. It does not seem to be a rust inhibitor, so other than using as an additive to latex paint (& water based paints) I don't think it would work the same as Penetrol. The site says it makes latex and other water based paints behave like oil paints. I guess this is an experiment in the making...thanks for keepin' me on my toes!

bettina-sisr: Thanks for the response. Please let me know how Flotrol works if you try it. I'll do the same.

BrianJewett (author)  JMZ0074 months ago

I don't know anything about Flotrol. You should check with the manufacturer or at least with a good paint guy where you buy it if one exists.

ebehan1 year ago
Thanks!! Can't wait to use this on this piece to keep it looking like I found it!
13, 11:02 AM.jpg

Holy-Moly I LOVE that! As a metal worker I gotta say hats-off to whoever made this, and to you, ebehab for giving it some well deserved attention!

PiperL4 months ago

Not to be a complete idiot but can you give me a brand name for the polyurethane top coat? I'd be using them on rusty old concrete nails and railroad spikes. Thanks! And I LOVE your towel rack!! ♥

BrianJewett (author)  PiperL4 months ago
Any oil based polyurethane should be compatible with the Penetrol.
Jc Crow4 months ago
so in theory would this work as well to preserve light surface rust/patina on a car?
BrianJewett (author)  Jc Crow4 months ago
Sure, if you're going to keep it inside. ;-) As I've said in other replies, I have no experience with this combination outside but I have had just polyurethane only last a year or two outdoors. Cars are an especially tough application. I'd check with an auto body & paint person for advice on a car. Rust you can see on the outside usually means the underside is already gone.
stewart lee4 months ago

hi. i'm wondering if i can apply acrylic spray paint on top of a coat of penetrol? it will be a stenciled image on steel. thanks!

BrianJewett (author)  stewart lee4 months ago

I'm not sure but I think the rule of thumb is that you can apply water based over oil based paints but not the other way around. Anyone in the paint department should be able to tell you.

lizzyrex4 months ago

I apologize for reposting. The image didn't attach and it doesn't look like the comment showed up. I am wanting to seal these metal olive baskets so that when you touch them, you don't get rust on your fingers. I do not want the color of the basket or the rust to change. Will your method described above work for these? Thanks!

BrianJewett (author)  lizzyrex4 months ago


lizzyrex4 months ago
pitbullmama6 months ago

I looking on ideas for making a steel counter top I seen it on T.V. once but don't know how to treat it or the thickness of the steel I should use. Any ideas.

BrianJewett (author)  pitbullmama5 months ago
I used 10 guage (.135 or 1/8 inch) hot rolled mild steel for these counters. They are plenty strong for ANY home use. I'm sure you could use 12 ga as well (.105"?) I wouldn't recommend this finish for a kitchen counter though. The steel is tough enough but the finish probably wouldn't last. You could wax it if it wasn't rusted but you'd have to re wax it periodically to keep it from rusting. That's why stainless steel is popular for kitchens. It needs no finish.
LucyBW6 months ago

Wow - I love that streaky rust finish!

I am also trying to preserve/seal a rust finish but for a fire pit. So I need something that won’t result in toxic fumes if it is heated by fire. I read the fineprint for Penetrol and concluded it is not the right product for this application.

I am not expecting to find a sealant which will hold up over time and weathering
and fire. Its ok if the sealant breaks down when it is in direct contact with
fire but I’m not ok with toxic fumes.

Can you recommend anything???


BrianJewett (author)  LucyBW6 months ago
Actually, for a fire pit, I recommend nothing. If you want to keep the look of the rust, I don't think there's any clear finish I know of that will stand up to fire. My suggestion is to just let it rust. If it's fairly heavy metal, it will still last for years outside. The rust itself will build up a scale that slows down further corrosion.

Ah, that makes a lot of sense.

I was hoping to find something inexpensive that could result in a satin finish and clean to touch compared to straight rust. But everything I'm finding is either toxic and/or flammable, or requires hi-temperature curing (like hi-temp engine paint and clear coat), and I can't imagine hi-temperature curing preserving the rust look.

On the other hand the rust scale is not so dirty as the initial powdery rust. So I'm liking your suggestion to just let it rust...

Thanks for your feedback

Matt Weed made it!6 months ago

Used this on a frame for a ski lift chair. Works Great! After two years of high altitude sun and harsh winters it looks the same as the day it came out of my shop. Used one coat of Penetrol as the base, then did three coats of oil based polyurethane from home depot. All brush applied rather sloppily. Metal is clean mild steel.


Thats a really cool chair Matt. Do you remember what brand/specific product of brush on polyurethane you used?

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