Working with rusty tools is a drag. Rusty tools look unprofessional and they might even make the job you are working on harder. The only way to deal with the problem is to find a way to remove the rust.
What you see as rust is just a coat of iron oxide hydrate that can occur on both iron and steel. Iron oxide hydrate is actually a chemical that forms when a metal is exposed to moisture. The level of moisture doesn’t even need to be extreme to cause rust. Just leaving tools exposed in hot, humid weather can lead to rust if they are not used regularly.
Rust is caused by a chemical process known as oxidation. Without getting too technical, oxidation occurs when oxygen and water react with a metal surface to create what is known as hydrated oxide. If it all sounds too technical, don’t worry. Removing rust from your hand tools might be easier than understanding the chemistry behind rust.
In the following paragraphs I describe 10 ways to remove rust from tools. Note that this applies mainly to hand tools. Check out one of our other posts to learn how to remove rust from power tools.
1. Soak in White Vinegar
White vinegar is a pretty popular rust removal solution for DIYers. It is cheap, it is effective, and it is completely safe to use. It works on rust by dissolving the iron oxide in place. What doesn’t come off in the vinegar can be rinsed away with water or wiped off with a rag.
Ideally, soaking a rusty tool in vinegar is the way to go. But there are certain things to consider. You wouldn’t want to completely submerge a wood-handled hammer for the simple fact that the wood won’t play well with the vinegar. If you are trying to clean a pair of needle nose pliers with rubber handles, you don’t want to submerge the rubber either.
The goal is to soak all of the metal parts in vinegar for 24 hours. Then simply rinse them with cold water and wipe away any remaining rust. If you are working with tools that you cannot submerge, you have another option: use a piece of tinfoil to apply white vinegar directly to the metal. The tinfoil doubles as a tool for scrubbing away the rust. This sort of spot cleaning doesn’t work as well as soaking, but it should do the trick in most cases.
2. Treat with Salt and Lime
The combination of salt and lime cleans up some tools just as well is white vinegar. With this solution, you will not be submerging your tools in a jar. Rather, you are going to sprinkle salt over the rusted metal and then squeeze lemon juice over the top of that. Let the tool soak for up to five hours and then scrub the mixture off.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to get the entire tool clean. This method is a bit slower, especially since you might have to rotate the tool multiple times to treat all of the surfaces. At any rate, you can rinse away the lime and salt mixture with water and then dry the tool afterward.
3. Scrub with Baking Soda
Baking soda is an abrasive material and one that reacts well with iron oxide. To clean your tools with it, you will need a toothbrush and a small container in which you can make a paste. Note that there is no secret formula here. Just start with some baking soda and add enough water to create a paste.
With your toothbrush, apply the paste to the metal and then leave it alone long enough to set up and harden. While you’re waiting, a chemical reaction between the baking soda and metal should be taking place. You will eventually brush the hard material off with your toothbrush and rinse your tool with water.
4. Scrub with Citric Acid
A bit of citric acid in powder form can accomplish the same thing as the baking soda paste. Best of all, you can buy citric acid at most grocery stores. You will find it in the baking section. It is also fun to work with.
To start, combine a decent amount of citric acid with hot water in a bowl. You don’t want to make a paste here. Rather, you want a bubbly liquid that you can soak the tools in. And yes, you will see the bubbles form as soon as you add the hot water. Soak the tools overnight and then rinse them clean in the morning.
For some reason, this solution works best when you cover the tools overnight. So be sure to use a container with a lid. In the absence of such a container, at least cover the container with a towel or rag.
5. Clean with a Potato
I am not exactly sure about this one, but some people swear by potatoes. They say you can clean rusty tools with the cut end of a potato and a little bit of dish soap. Apparently, you cut a potato in half and apply dish soap to the exposed end. Then place the potato on the rusty tool and let it sit for a few hours. Rinse, wipe, and repeat the process until all the rust spots are gone.
6. Polish with Sandpaper or Steel Wool
If none of these liquid solutions work well enough, you can always remove rust from your tools with a little elbow grease. Try a piece of heavy grit sandpaper or steel wool. Remember, all you are trying to do is remove a layer of iron oxide. It shouldn’t be extremely difficult unless you’re looking at a very thick layer of rust.
Just use your sandpaper or steel wool to polish through the rust and down to the bare metal. You can use a damp rag to remove the iron oxide dust as you go. With a little bit of effort and a few minutes of your time, you can have your tools looking shiny and new.
7. Use a Grinder
From time to time you might be looking at tools that are so rusty that even sandpaper and steel wool won’t help. What’s the solution? A grinder. Your typical workbench grinder can handle hand tools like sledgehammers, chisels, crowbars, and so forth.
Keep in mind that using a grinder can be dangerous. Be sure you know what you’re doing before you start. Furthermore, wear protective safety gear. Protect your eyes with goggles; wear leather gloves on your hands; wear an apron to cover your torso.
8. Clean with Oxalic Acid *
Another fairly aggressive solution is oxalic acid. It should do the trick on pretty stubborn rust, but you really need to be careful. Never work with oxalic acid without rubber gloves, an apron, and proper eye protection. And never let children anywhere near oxalic acid.
This solution dictates that you start by washing your tool to remove loose dirt and debris. Next, soak the tool in a 10-to-1 mixture of warm water and oxalic acid. You should only need to soak your tool for 15-30 minutes. If the rust is especially stubborn, you may have to hit the tool with a wire brush.
Finally, wash the tool with soapy water and rinse. Then dry it thoroughly. You should be all set if things went according to plan.
9. Try a Rust Converter *
You can buy chemicals known as rust converters at most DIY and auto parts stores. A rust converter is intended to create a protective coating that prevents future rusting. However, it can be effective in removing small amounts of rust in areas inaccessible by toothbrushes and steel wool.
Using a rust converter is as simple as spraying your tool. Spray it on, let the tool sit for a couple of minutes, then wipe it down with a rag.
10. Use a Chemical Rust Remover *
Finally, you can always turn to a chemical rust remover if all else fails. These chemicals can be harsh, so you have to be careful with them too. An off-the-shelf product is likely to be made of oxalic or phosphoric acid. Take the proper precautions as printed on the bottle.
Rusty tools typically have to soak a while in chemical rust removers. They might also have to be scrubbed with a wire brush or steal afterwards. If you aren’t sure that your particular job requires a chemical product, you might want to try all the other suggestions described in this post first.
You don’t have to live with rusty tools. There are lots of different ways to remove rust from hand tools as evidenced here. Whatever solution you try, just remember that proper care and maintenance will prevent future rust problems.
* Please be extremely careful when using these types of products as they are caustic and can cause injury. Be especially careful around children and pets and ensure they cannot get at, or come into contact with, any of these chemicals.