Cleaning Old Users - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Cleaning Old Users

 In Shop Blog, Tools, Woodworking Blogs, Woodworking Hand Tools

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One of the occupational hazards of my job isn’t working with tools, it’s writing about them. Here’s an example: I’ve been working on an article for our June 2011 issue about a relatively pricey tool. In the article I suggest that because the tool is common and durable that you can pick up an old tool for less than half the price of a new one. Being a responsible journalist, I decided to see if that was true or if I was just making it up. I checked a few sources of old hand tools and eventually made my way to eBay, realizing I was entering a danger zone. There was a decent example of a brand I wasn’t familiar with, and another example of a brand I really like, but in an odd size. To make a long story short, my curiosity led to some successful bidding and I now have six of something I only had four of when I started. That’s not necessarily bad, but one of my new old tools looked grimy and neglected.

On my way to lunch, I stopped at the local auto parts store to see if they had any new magical stuff for the cleaning task. The rule wasn’t really rusty, but it was dirty and corroded. I wanted to get the gunk off, but didn’t want to damage the markings or scratch up the surface. For really rusty stuff, I generally soak a tool in 3-in-1 Oil (my grandfather’s technique) or Liquid Wrench (my father’s method) then scrub with a Scotch-Brite pad. Either of those work for removing the actual rust, but they don’t do much to clean. I was hoping for something a bit less oily, messy and abrasive.

In the alchemy aisle, I came across a product new to me with a catchy name. I’m as big a sucker for catchy names as I am for bargains in old tools so I paid $6 for a can of “Never Dull Wadding Polish.” Inside the can is some cotton wadding saturated with some sort of oily stuff (a trade secret according to the MSDS). The instructions say to rip out a hunk of the wadding and rub until the pad comes clean, then wipe dry with a dry rag. It works pretty well, but it takes some time and elbow grease. I ran out of patience before I got a pristine surface, but in a few minutes I could easily read the numbers, and that’s the result I was after. I did however, apply a trick of my own to improve the surface.

It’s another product with a clever name, Bar Keepers Friend. It’s a mild abrasive that contains oxalic acid. One of the problems with rust and corrosion is that it eats into the metal surface. If a piece of metal gets really rusty it can form a crust above the surface (that can be scraped off with a utility knife blade). The ugly part that you want to remove is lower than the good part you want to keep. If you attack the ugliness with something aggressive you do more harm to the good parts on your way to cleaning up the dirty parts. If you sand, you risk removing too much of the original surface, or inflicting new damage by scratching it up. If you launch chemical warfare, the things that remove the rust can discolor the good metal you have.

I put a few shakes of Bar Keepers Friend on a damp rag, rub it all over the surface and walk away for 10 or 15 minutes. That forms a paste that gets down into the low spots, and while I’m gone the chemicals work on the rusty spots, lightening the ugly brown color. I wipe off the paste with a clean rag, then follow that with a second round of rubbing with fresh Never Dull wadding, then one more wipe with a clean, dry rag to remove the oily residue. I suspect that if I kept working at it I could achieve a nicer surface, but that’s not what I’m after. I made a big improvement in a short time, and numbers and marks that were hard to see and read are now visible. It turned out so well that I should probably get online and bid on a few more.

— Robert W. Lang

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Showing 14 comments
  • lental

    For years, I have used Boshield’s Rust-Free and been pretty happy with it but it’s pretty expensive at 70+ cents an ounce and it does require a little elbow grease. Recently a friend told me he uses a paste made of concentrated lemon or lime juice (citric acid) and baking powder. He says it takes off rust with a minimum of effort.

    Each spring (and that’s now for us in Florida) I have to clean up tools that have rusted over the winter in my unheated garage workshop. I’ve got planer and jointer tables, saw blades (power and hand), steel rules, etc., and Rust-Free has worked well. But, I’d really like something I can put on and wipe off without a lot of work with sandpaper, Skotchbrite or steel wool. Based on the previous comments on citric acid, I’m gonna give both recipes a try within a week. Thanks for the tips!

  • kalimba13

    Recently my boss got a can of “Flitz” metal polish. I’m a building worker in NYC. We polish a lot of metal on a daily basis. Never Dull is great stuff but it requires a lot of elbow grease. Everybody on the staff who has used “Flitz” was amazed. The weathered-on crud just melts away. I’m told it’s on the expensive side (we don’t have to pay for the stuff, just use it) but if you have to deal with intense metal cleaning, you should have this stuff around.

  • hereswhatidid

    I wonder if you could restore the etched, numbered areas as well using this technique of melting black crayons back in to them?

  • catfish

    for rusty itimes I use a sulation of muriatic acid and distilled water (2c acid to 14c water) sook itimes in a plastic container remove heavy rust with brass brush and to remove black residue BarKeeper Friend and a 3-M pad
    to remove pitch from blades and router bits a strong sulition of general pupose cleaner (Mr. Clean)and water
    (2c cleaner to 14c water) works as well as the expensive stuff

  • Grantman

    I have an old combo square from the Union Tool Co. in Mass. Probably 60 years old if it’s a day. No real rust but just “old” and I couldn’t read the graduations any longer.

    Ironically, just last week when Chris S. was here in Atlanta talking about router planes, I bought a SandFlex block. I’d give it a solid A. Got my rule clean with five minutes of rubbing.

    The only issue I have now is I’d love to get something into the graduation grooves to accentuate the contrast to allow me to read it better. The old peepers ain’t what they used to be.

    Does anyone have any suggestions as to how I can get the contrast enhanced betweeen the graduation marks and the surface of the rule so I can actually use it?


    • tsstahl

      Two methods come to mind immediately for increasing the contrast on metal rules.

      One, which I haven’t tried, is to melt colored wax onto the surface. Wipe the wax off with a rigid straightedge before it sets completely.

      Two, which I use, is a sharpie. Color in the numbers/lines and then wrap a piece of brown paper shop towel around a screwdriver shaft and wipe off the excess. It lasts about two to three months.

      Let’s make it three. A coworker just told me he uses a raking light from one of those little shirt pocket flashlights. I figure maybe he has a third arm hidden under his shirt, but who am I to knock what works for someone else? 🙂

  • bocomo

    I’ve found spraying a rusty tool with SiliKroil, allowing it to soak for a few minutes then a vigorous scrubbing with a brass brush, and a good wipe down with a paper towel works wonders on rusty tools.

    SiliKroil is a bit pricey but does an amazing clean up and leaves a nice smooth finish.


    I recently bought precisely the same item from the same source, and in the same condition. I cleaned the blade with electrolysis. It also removes corroded metal, but it leaves sound metal and doesn’t use abrasives. I have had good success with all sorts (old planes and hand saws).

  • David Keller

    Bob – While the chemistry behind evaporust is sound, and it works as advertised, it’s a bit pricey. A much cheaper, and equally effective, alternative is citric acid. You can get citric acid at a home brewery supply store. You don’t need much – 20 grams will last you for dozens of rusty tools.

    Citric acid, like evaporust, has the advantage over phosphoric acid (the ingredient in “naval jelly”) in that it will only dissolve rust, not iron, steel or brass. Citric is safe – no matter what the concentration, you can dunk your hand in it without fear. It is also non-toxic, which is not true of oxalic acid. And, like evaporust but unlike acetic acid (vinegar – another effective de-rusting solution), it has no smell.

    About one teaspoon per quart of warm water is a good starting concentration. One other nifty thing about citric acid solutions – it will effectively remove that ugly shiny zinc galvanizing that is universally found on inexpensive steel hardware without damaging the underlying metal. You can then go on to “antiquing” the hardware to make it appropriate for reproduction projects.

  • JohnH

    You’re working way too hard. As docwks says, get some Evapo-Rust (it’s truly a miracle solution), and follow it with a SandFlex block to remove the residue – medium or fine depending on the surface. If you want to really bring it back to almost new condition (I do this if I’m making an old tool into a user and not just a collectible) get yourself a 3M Scotch Brite buffing wheel, I use a 2S Fine grade, for buffer or grinder and finish polish with that.

    I have brought back old planes and other old tools (Starrett squares i.e.) that looked as if they were lost causes. And with minimal elbow grease.

    Oh, and the buffing wheels are available from MSC Industrial and I believe Enco. I use them all the time on my tools due to living close to the ocean and having an open work shop.

  • altaylor

    These small, partial paragraph, lead in email links are not as informative as older Weekly Wood News used to be. I know there is probably an interesting blog entry on the other side, but nothing I read in the lead in hooks me to stop what I am doing and go there now. The older WWN emails often had pictures, and more than one article to peruse, (at least enough info to tell me what the blog entry is about) and frankly often “hooked” me into clicking right then…
    I stopped to write this complaint because I realized that I have passed a number of these by recently. They are too short, and stop before they have done their job.

  • Jonathan Szczepanski

    WOW! I have a can of Bartender’s Friend in the kitchen. We use it on our pans if they get real nasty. Thanks for the tip!.

  • docwks

    Have you tried Evapo-Rust. It really works well and doesn’t take any of the crisp marking away. Biodegradable—can be disposed of safely into sewer. And you can use it over and over again.

  • aaronk

    i agree – barkeeper’s friend is a great and super cheap product for cleaning anything metal, whether it be tools or pots and pans.

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