How to Clean a Toolbox Without Going Crazy

rusty old toolbox

Things get dirty when you work with tools. Over time, a toolbox can get caked with all sorts of dirt, grime, and even rust. But with a few hours of time and a little elbow grease, the average toolbox can be cleaned up fairly well.

Most modern toolboxes are made of either aluminum or plastic. Both attract dirt and grime. However, they don’t necessarily clean up the same way. Cleaning aluminum requires an understanding of how the metal reacts with cleaning solutions and the surrounding air. Plastic is a bit more forgiving. It also doesn’t tend to hold onto dirt and grime as much.

In this article you will learn how to clean both aluminum and plastic toolboxes. Trust me when I say that no toolbox is beyond hope. All you need to get yours looking like new is:

  • a few hours of your time
  • the right tools and cleaning solutions
  • the patience to do it right.

Are you ready to get started? Then let’s go.

Begin with the Basics

The number one rule of cleaning a toolbox is understanding the material you are working with. If your box is aluminum, is the surface flat or diamond plate? This is important to know inasmuch as diamond plate aluminum can be a bit more difficult to restore to its original condition. It can be done, but you will probably need to be a bit more aggressive.

Perhaps your toolbox is plastic. It is not terribly important that you know specifically what kind of plastic it is, but you should at least assess the material to get a good idea of its hardness. Harder plastics are more forgiving where softer plastics are more easily damaged.

You’ll need to assemble the proper tools and cleaning solutions based on the material being cleaned. Aluminum toolboxes can be cleaned with a commercial aluminum cleaning product or a bottle of cola. Both work equally well. You will also need a piece of steel wool, a stiff brush, a putty knife, and a selection of rags.

If you are cleaning a plastic toolbox, any generic plastic cleaner should do the trick. A typical glass cleaner or all-purpose household cleaner should work well enough. You will also need a sponge, some rags, and a plastic putty knife.

Empty the Box Completely

Emptying your toolbox before you clean it should be a no-brainer. If you hadn’t thought of it, now you know. An empty toolbox is easier to work with than a full one – especially since you’re going to want to clean the inside as well.

The reason for bringing this up is to suggest the following: as long as you are cleaning your toolbox, why not use that time to clean the tools as well? You are already taking the tools out of the box to get them out of the way. There is no better time to clean and polish them.

This is also the time to think about a better arrangement. Let’s say you have a lot of little fasteners sitting in the top tray of your toolbox. As long as you are cleaning the box out, you might want to think of a better way to store those fasteners.

Once your toolbox is completely empty, use a vacuum to remove any loose dirt and debris. If you’re working with an aluminum box with significant rust, use your wire brush to loosen as much as you possibly can. Then vacuum up the dust. Now you are ready to begin the cleaning process.

How to Clean an Aluminum Toolbox

Set your toolbox on some newspaper or a couple of rags. Beginning with the inside, generously apply either your aluminum cleaner or the cola. Use one of your rags to evenly distribute the cleaning solution over the entire surface of the metal. If you’re using cola, let it sit for five minutes. If you are using a commercial cleaner, follow the instructions on the label.

Next, you are going to scrub the metal with your steel wall. This should loosen all of the remaining rust and embedded grime. Use your putty knife to scrape embedded dirt out of all the corners, applying more cola or aluminum cleaner as needed.

Now use a wet rag to clean up the mess you just made. If your toolbox was exceptionally dirty, you may find it necessary to rinse the inside with warm water. After the inside is clean, repeat the process on the outside of the box. Be sure to set the box in a warm, dry place to air out when you’re done. Whatever you do, don’t put tools back into the box while it is still wet.

Diamond Plate Aluminum

It was previously stated that diamond plate aluminum might be more difficult to clean. That’s because of the textured surface. The key here is to scrub with a circular motion. Whether you are using steel wool or a stiff brush, scrub in circles. Also, change the direction of your motion every few minutes. You want to cover the service from every angle so that you don’t leave any grime around the edges of the diamonds.

Diamond plate aluminum looks really good when it’s polished. You can get aluminum polish at most auto parts stores or online (here’s a selection on Amazon). Truck drivers and car guys use it all the time to spruce up bumpers, grills, and wheels.

How to Clean a Plastic Toolbox

Cleaning plastic is a bit easier. With your toolbox empty and completely vacuumed, you going to use your cleaning solution and sponge to do most of the work. Start by cleaning the inside. Spray down the interior if you’re working with a spray bottle; wipe it down with a saturated rag if you’re using a liquid solution. Then let the box sit for about five minutes.

After sitting, you can use the putty knife to do the same thing described earlier. Work the edge of the knife into the corners of the box to dig out all of that grime. Then use your sponge to soak it all up. Finally, use a wet rag and some clean water to rinse everything off and soak up any remaining dirt. Repeat the same process on the outside of the box.

The one thing you do not want to do with plastic toolboxes is use anything abrasive on them. Even the toughest plastic is prone to scratches. That’s why I recommend a sponge rather than steel wool. You should not need an abrasive scrubber anyway because dirt and debris don’t embed themselves in plastic in the same way they do aluminum.

A good polish will protect aluminum against oxidation and rust. There is no such solution you can apply to plastic. But you don’t need it. Plastic is pretty tough on its own.

Putting Everything Back Together

A clean and dry toolbox is ready to be filled once again. If you are working with plastic, you’re good to go. Put your tools back in the box the same way they were before. If you can think of a better arrangement, now is the time to try it out.

Aluminum toolboxes might require one more step before you put your tools back. What is that step? Addressing the hinges and handle. Being that aluminum is metal, the hinges attaching the lid to the box body might need some oil. The same goes for the handle.

Use an all-purpose household oil on the hinges and handle. Just do so sparingly. Oil attracts dirt, so using too much can gunk up the works in short order. All you need is a drop here or there applied with a toothpick or your finger. Whatever you do, don’t flood the hinges with oil or you’re going to have a real mess on your hands.

In Summary

Both aluminum and plastic toolboxes have a tendency to get dirty over time. You don’t have to live with it, though. You can clean a toolbox with some elbow grease and the right cleaning solution. It doesn’t have to take all day, either. Following the instructions that you have just read in this post means you can have your toolbox looking like new in no time.


I am a content creator by profession but I love tools. Merging the two created this website...

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