A dirty, grimy tool chest can be an uncomfortable piece of equipment to work with. The wheels might be so gunked up that it’s hard to move the chest around the garage. You might feel like you clean your tools before you put them away but by the time you get them back out, they are dirty again.
Dirt and tools go hand-in-hand. It is hard to use tools without getting them dirty. But your tool chest doesn’t have to be filthy. A good cleaning every now and again goes a long way toward making your beloved chest a pleasure to work with. It will look better, too.
I have put together a guide explaining how to clean a tool chest in five easy steps. The guide assumes you are working with a commercial-grade tool chest on wheels. It is the type of chest you might find in a mechanic’s garage. If your tool chest is anything less, you can adapt what you read here to your circumstances.
The five steps for cleaning a tool chest are:
- Deep cleaning
If it has been a while since you have cleaned your tool chest, plan to dedicate a few hours to it. Regular cleanings thereafter shouldn’t take nearly as long.
It would seem obvious that cleaning your tool chest means emptying it first. Learning how to clean a tool chest doesn’t do much good if you don’t remove the tools. But don’t stop there. The job will be easier if you completely disassemble the chest as well.
If there is a work surface on top, remove it. This will typically be a piece of wood, rubber, or plastic. It may be fastened with screws or it might just lie on top as a floating surface.
Next, you are going to remove the drawers. In all likelihood, the drawers will be secured to the rails with either tabs or screws. Tabs are more attractive because you can pop the drawers out with very little effort. If yours are screwed to the rails, you will need your screwdriver.
Whether or not you remove the rails really depends on how freely these move. Try to clean them in place if at all possible. Otherwise, removing and reinstalling the rails could add quite a bit of additional work.
2. Brushing and Vacuuming
Some guides describing how to clean a tool chest leave this second step out. I think it is important enough to include because it saves some effort during deep cleaning. This step involves brushing and/or vacuuming each component of your tool chest. I recommend brushing first.
Use a soft-bristled brush to loosen any dirt and grime on the surface. Work the brush into the corners of all the drawers as well, working out as much dirt as you can get to. If the drawer handles are scuffed and dirty, a wire brush should clean them up nicely. Just one caution: do not use a wire brush on painted handles as it might scratch the paint.
If you are planning to repaint the entire tool chest, feel free to use a sander with a fine grit paper. The sandpaper will rough up the finish, but that’s okay as you are painting anyway. As for the wheels, brush them too. Use a pair of pliers or tweezers to pull hair and other debris out of the axles.
The final piece to this step is vacuuming. You want to vacuum the entire surface, inside and out, so that you don’t leave behind any rough particles that can scratch the paint during deep cleaning. A shop vac will do nicely.
3. Deep Cleaning
Deep cleaning is the easiest part of the job. You will need some rags and a cleaning solution. A foaming glass cleaner should work well in most cases. You might also use a degreaser combined with an all-purpose cleaner if your tool chest is exceptionally dirty.
Just work the cleaning solution into the surface and wipe away according to the instructions on the label. You might find it easier to wipe away the dirt and grime with a separate rag dampened slightly with water.
4. Oiling and Painting
The deep cleaning process is followed by oiling. So oil the wheels and the rails. The one thing to remember here is that grease is a bad idea as it only attracts dirt. In a shop setting, grease can negatively affect normal use just a few weeks after cleaning.
A better option is an all-purpose or 3-in-1 oil. Apply just a drop or two in each spot. For the wheels, one drop on one of the axles should be sufficient. Spin the wheels a bit to work the oil in. For the rails, just a single drop on the back edge is good. Work the rail back and forth to spread the oil evenly.
If you want to hit a few spots with paint, now is the time to do it. You can get spray paint online or from any home-improvement or auto parts store. If you want the paint color to match exactly, you might need to contact the manufacturer for the paint’s corresponding ID number.
Now you are ready to reassemble the toolbox. Attach each drawer to its corresponding rails and work it back and forth a few times to make sure everything fits. You may have to adjust the rails (if applicable) after cleaning. But doing so shouldn’t be a big deal.
Replace the work surface as well. If the piece you removed was pretty beat up, you might want to replace it with a new piece of plywood or rubber. That is really all there is to it. The key to cleaning a tool chest is to take your time and do it right. Complete disassembly and deep cleaning will relieve your tool chest of most of the dirt and grime. If you are really picky, you can power wash it before deep cleaning.