Cleaning Rust Off of Tools Without Harsh Chemicals




Introduction: Cleaning Rust Off of Tools Without Harsh Chemicals

About: Jack-of-all trades, master of some. I would probably be much more modest if it wasn't for these delusions of granduer that I suffer from.

I was given a large collection of tools (happy dance), that can easily be separated into three distinct groups.

Most of the tools are in good condition.

Some of the tools need a little TLC.

The last group requires a tetanus shot just to get close to them.

In the past would have used a sandblast cabinet to clean up these tools, but since I currently do not have access to one I decided to be adventurous and try something new and different ...

cleaning them up using only common household items.

Step 1: The Start of Something Beautiful

what you will need:

A container big enough to hold what you are cleaning



A little bit of patience

After everything is in the container, fill it up with some white vinegar until everything is fully submerged. Measure as you add the vinegar so you know how much salt to add.

Once everything is sitting in its vinegar bath, it's time to add the salt. While vinegar by itself is a mild acid, the salt increases the acidity in the solution and lets it break down the rust even faster.

1/2 oz of salt per cup (8 fl oz) of vinegar

Let it sit for at least 12 hours, but the longer you leave it in there, the more effect it will have. Usually one to three days will have the rust falling off.

I let these tools soak for 3 days.

Step 2: Neutralize the Acid

I mixed a few heaping spoonfuls of baking powder into a large glass of water, enough to cover the tools.

Let the tools soak in a bath of water and baking soda for 10 minutes to neutralize the acid.

Rinse the tools to remove any baking soda residue.

It is not uncommon for there to be some rust left on the tools, a quick scrub with some scotch brite or steel wool will get those last pesky flecks of rust off your tools.

Step 3: Dry and Condition the Tools

I put the oven on warm (170 F) and spread the tools out on a cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet to maximize drying.

after about 10 minutes the tools were mostly dry.

I quickly applied WD-40 to all of the tools. Using a rag to make sure oil got into all the nooks and crannies. Making sure to work oil into the moving parts like the pliers joints and the collar of the quick release bit.

**edited 5/31/2016** As many of the commenters have pointed out, WD-40 is great at getting rid of water but a separate oil should be applied to tools to properly protect them.

When this project started, the quick release bit was rusted in place and was useless. Now the collar moves back and forth easily and hold bits securely.

The taps are not pictured here because there was still some rust on them (not really shocking) so I set them up for another soak and I plan on going over them with a stiff wire brush to get any remaining rust out of the grooves. Want to see how they came out? check out the next step.

Step 4: Those Hard to Reach Places

The taps were in really bad shape so I put them back into the vinegar salt solution for another soak. After two day the solution was the color of a weak tea.

I scrubbed each tap with a stiff wire brush to loosen any remaining rust.

I rinsed the taps in the vinegar/salt solution before transferring them to the water/baking soda solution to neutralize the acid.

Once the taps were dried I applied a liberal coating of WD-40.

As you can see from the final picture the taps have some pitting as a result of the rust but the threads are intact.

When I get a chance I will test them on some scrap material with a hand driver (because of the condition these were in, I will not be using these in a powered device like my cordless drill or a drill press until I have tested them)



    • Fix It! Contest

      Fix It! Contest
    • Creative Misuse Contest

      Creative Misuse Contest
    • Water Contest

      Water Contest

    357 Discussions

    The idea is great. But in place of vinegar and salt I would use a phosphatizing solution, generally sold in hardware stores (green liquid). That way the tools will have a surface that will not rust anymore and you don't need to apply anything over it. They will get a gray appearance though, but will never rust again. I treated many metal parts this way over the years and the results are nice.

    4 replies

    interesting. I will have to try that next time I restore tools.

    I only paid properly attention to the title now: "without harsh chemicals", the green solution I mention it is a harsh chemical (has nasty fumes), but it works as I said, maybe another instructable with that later. Cheers.

    yeah, i used the green stuff, cant remember the name, but once you rinse it there is nothing left and the surface is clean. i used it to clean the cargo bay on a 3/4t van that i bought. i dont know what they had been hauling in the back but it sure took it toll on the metal. the van belonged to the army and used on an airfield so i kinda wonder if they didnt haul batteries with it. that is the only thing i can think of cause i used to be in helicopter aviation in the army. evidently they didnt put any rubber down to put the whatever they were hauling to prevent it but like i said, it belonged to the army. great van, only 42,000 when i got it and it runs the same way. i put down some of the bed liner stuff after the bed dried good and it has stopped rusting as far as i can see.

    yeah, that is what i got to use....lot more expensive than vinegar and salt.

    WD 40 doesn't work for very long. I used Johnson paste wax and then spread it out to get all of the nooks and crannies with a soft brush. I use an old nail brush for flat surfaces and toothbrush for things like pliers and garden shears and the brushes still have wax in them so I can just hit a tool with the brush and stick it in the toolbox. My half used tin of 20 year old paste wax will probably last the rest of my life. Even with this weather, which is so wet that things I didn't even think COULD rust or tarnish are looking pretty rough. Never thought I'd look back on the drought that preceded all of this wetness with such fondness...

    14 replies

    I had persistent rust/tarnish coming back on this one cresent wrench, I think it was the first model as it was old (just kidding from the 60's) I tried wax, but use w/gloves and wipping off after being used in wet conditions I think took it off, I had to degrease/dewax it well and then spray with a clear spraypaint, except where the jaws are, which wears off first use, but also wears off the rust, works great, break the adjuster screew loose before paint dries. I've tried it on others and switced to matte clear but they both work the same. On a similar note, a buddy purchased a powder coating kit from HF. That is the way to go! again,moving sections need to be broken free and he would brush the powder away from inside of socket before cooking, so as to not change the size.

    you gotta love harbor freight .. all the tools you never knew you needed :)

    lol yep... disposable tools. when they wear out or break or rust or just dissapear, you just go and buy some more. lol

    well, you can say all you want about those HF tools that they sell but i have had some for 20 years and i think i only broke one 9/16 combo. i usually buy craftsman sockets and combo's but i havent bought open/box in 20 years. i do break sockets but they always replace them even if they have been used on butterfly or ratchet impacts. i damn sure wont buy snap on or matco. they are a ripoff. no way is a set of combo worth $200. lose one and it will cost you $50 to replace one.

    True, for some of their tools. But I've used their F clamps for many years without problems. Same for the mutli-tasking saw kit.

    while Zacker is generally correct in his assessment of the tool quality you get at harbor freight, every once in a while you will find a gem (like your clamp) that is a quality tool for a great price. Even a blind squirrel will find a nut every now and then :)

    How about a more expensive way but nicer and they won't rust for a long while unless you really beat them up... Duracoat! lol the last time I was spraying a Glock slide I had some left in the spray gun so instead of wasting it I sprayed a pair of pliers that the rubber coating on the handles came off of... they are holding up great. I mean, I dont use them everyday but its been two seasons now and no chips or rust yet!

    over $40 for a 4 oz container .. yeah ... way more expensive. If you have leftovers like you did .. it is a great idea .. waste not, want not. I don't know if I would opt for duracoating my tools if I didn't already have it on hand.

    on crescent wrenches, where the adjustable screw is, there is a screw that holds that piece in. remove that screw, & the adjustable part comes out easily, & the jaw also removes easily.

    Spray like you said, or fully coat with any lubricating oil, let the spray paint dry or wipe off the excess oil, put it all back together, & you're ready to go!

    Taking a crescent wrench apart is very easy once you know how. :-)

    I think the problem there is the conception that WD-40 is a lubricant. It is definitely not a lubricant. I appears at first to be one but will only work for a short time. Its original purpose was to displace moisture -, principally in the distributors of army jeeps in WWII. A good spray lube is one called Break Free which is a CLP. I like to use motor oil thinned with diesel fuel of transmission fluid. I put a bit in a shallow pan and soak the tools in it. Then pour the leftover into a container for future use.

    WD-40 was a water dispersant (WD), yes, but did not make it's debut on store shelves until 1958. The company started in 1953. It was their 40th attempt at the formula.

    NOT a lubricant - I vaguely recall reading something about that...which explains why the door lock and hinges keep getting all cranky...thanks!

    actually, using wd40 on door hinges is even worse, than just leaving them, as it washes out all grease that may have been in there before.