rusty old toolbox

How To Clean A Tool Box – What You Need To Know

Key Takeaways

1. Understand the material of your toolbox before cleaning it and use appropriate cleaning methods for different materials.
2. Prioritize safety by wearing protective gear like safety glasses before starting the cleaning process.
3. Empty the toolbox completely and consider taking a photo of the layout for easy reorganization later.
4. Clean drawer liners separately by scrubbing with a mild detergent, rinsing thoroughly, and ensuring they are completely dry before placing them back in the toolbox.
5. Plastic tool organizers can be cleaned using a soft cloth or sponge with mild soap to remove dirt and oil.
6. Aluminum toolboxes require specific cleaning techniques, such as using aluminum cleaner or cola and distributing it evenly with a rag.
7. Diamond plate aluminum can be challenging to clean due to its textured surface and trapped dirt, so thorough cleaning is necessary to prevent long-term issues like corrosion.
8. Use gentle cleaning methods, especially for vintage toolboxes, to preserve their patina and test any cleaning solution on a hidden area first.
9. Deal with rust in metal toolboxes by scraping off grime with a putty knife, using a wet sponge to remove it, and rinsing with clean water. Avoid abrasive cleaning methods for plastic toolboxes.
10. Remove adhesive residues with professional strength adhesive removers like Goof Off, applicable for various surfaces including hand tools and vehicles.

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 a toolbox (aluminum and plastic toolboxes) and I’ll touch upon antique toolboxes as well. 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.

How to Clean a Tool Box – 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.

Safety Precautions

Always Protect Yourself

First and foremost, safety should never be compromised when you’re performing any cleaning operation, including one as seemingly simple as cleaning a toolbox. Many of us may underestimate the potential hazards involved, from handling sharp tools to using potent cleaning solutions, or dealing with rusted components. Don’t be one of those individuals.

Wearing protective gear isn’t a sign of being overly cautious – it’s a sign of being smart and well-prepared. When dealing with toolbox cleaning, two key pieces of protective equipment should always be donned: gloves and safety glasses.

Gear Up: Gloves

Choose a sturdy pair of gloves that provide good grip and are resistant to the chemicals in the cleaning solutions you’ll be using. They will not only protect your hands from harmful substances but also shield you from sharp edges on tools or rusted parts of the box. Whether you’re scrubbing an aluminum toolbox with a steel wool pad or wiping down a plastic one with a rag, gloves will keep your hands safe and free from irritation.

Eyes Wide Open: Safety Glasses

Safety glasses are another essential piece of safety gear. When scrubbing surfaces or using sprays, tiny droplets can be flung into the air, and these droplets may contain hazardous chemicals or small particles of metal or rust. A quality pair of safety glasses will shield your eyes from these potential threats, preventing irritation and potential damage to your eyesight.

While it may be tempting to overlook these precautions, remember that safety should always come first. This is one area where it truly is better to be safe than sorry. So, before you dive into the task of toolbox cleaning, take a moment to suit up properly. It’s a small investment of time that can spare you unnecessary harm or discomfort.

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.

Before you begin emptying your toolbox, consider taking a quick photograph of your toolbox’s layout. This can act as a handy reference when you’re putting tools back into the box, especially if you have a specific arrangement you’re comfortable with. This snapshot could save you from the frustration of forgetting where every tool was located.

In the process of emptying, it’s recommended to place your tools on a clean, flat surface or a clean tarp. Spread them out so you can see each tool individually. This method not only keeps your tools clean and organized but also allows you to inspect each tool for any required cleaning or maintenance.

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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. Also, use this opportunity to discard any broken or unwanted tools.

As you empty your toolbox, this is the perfect time to rethink your toolbox 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. Maybe using small, clear containers or zip-lock bags can help in better organization and visibility.

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.

Remember, the goal isn’t only how to clean the tool box but also to optimize your tools’ placement for easy accessibility and longevity. Using this method, not only will you end up with a clean toolbox but also one that’s better organized and easy to work with in the long run.

Cleaning Toolbox Accessories

Just as it’s crucial to maintain your toolbox, it’s equally important to keep your toolbox accessories in top shape. These often-overlooked items, including drawer liners, tool organizers, or even small containers for nails and screws, are key to maintaining an organized and efficient work environment. Over time, they can accumulate dust, grime, and oil, just like the toolbox itself, and need regular cleaning.

Cleaning Drawer Liners

Drawer liners play a critical role in your toolbox; they prevent tools from sliding around and damaging the toolbox’s interior. To clean them, start by removing the liners and shaking off any loose debris. For fabric liners, a vacuum might come in handy. Next, mix a mild detergent with warm water and gently scrub the liners. For stubborn stains, an old toothbrush can do the trick. After washing, rinse them thoroughly and air dry. Remember, drawer liners should be completely dry before returning them to the toolbox to prevent any mildew or mold growth.

Cleaning Tool Organizers

Tool organizers like trays or compartments often collect a good amount of dirt and oil from the tools they hold. When it comes to plastic organizers, using a soft cloth or sponge with mild soap is typically effective. A soft brush can help clean grooves or tight spots. Rinse them off with warm water, and ensure they are thoroughly dry before putting them back to avoid water damage to your tools. For metal organizers, you might want to use a commercial metal cleaner following the manufacturer’s instructions.

Cleaning Small Containers

Finally, let’s address small containers often used to hold nails, screws, and other small parts. These can be cleaned similarly to plastic tool organizers, but if they’re particularly grimy, soaking them in a soap and water solution for a while before scrubbing can help. Rinse and dry them thoroughly before reusing.

Remember, clean toolbox accessories not only contribute to a better-organized workspace but also extend the life of your tools and toolbox by reducing the amount of dirt and grime transferred onto them.

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

Diamond plate aluminum, with its recognizable rugged texture, is undoubtedly attractive and practical for toolboxes. Its durability and non-skid properties make it a desirable choice for such applications. However, these same advantages make diamond plate aluminum somewhat challenging to clean.

Why Is Diamond Plate Aluminum Difficult to Clean?

The reasons for this increased difficulty stem primarily from the distinctive raised diamond pattern on its surface. This pattern creates numerous small, angular crevices that dirt, grime, and rust can hide in. While this pattern is excellent for creating a slip-resistant surface, it also provides plenty of nooks and crannies for dirt and other contaminants to accumulate.

Moreover, because of the textured surface, cleaning products and moisture can be trapped within the ‘diamonds’, leading to potential issues such as corrosion over time if not thoroughly removed. These intricacies make it more challenging to clean compared to flat-surfaced aluminum.

Cleaning Techniques for Diamond Plate Aluminum

Despite its challenging nature, a thorough, methodical approach can effectively clean diamond plate aluminum. The key here is the direction and pattern of your scrubbing. A circular scrubbing motion is ideal as it enables you to reach the crevices from multiple angles, thus ensuring a more thorough cleaning.

Whether you are using steel wool or a stiff brush, scrub in small circles and pay special attention to areas with evident staining or grime. This circular scrubbing motion coupled with applying moderate pressure should help dislodge any stubborn dirt or grime.

Periodically, change the direction of your scrubbing. Not only should you scrub in circles, but also vertically and horizontally across the surface. This shift in direction helps to tackle grime or rust that might be lodged from a particular angle.

The Finishing Touch: Polishing

Diamond plate aluminum doesn’t just look great when it’s clean, it looks fantastic when it’s polished. Polishing after cleaning can bring out the luster of the aluminum and provide an additional layer of protection against future grime and rust.

Aluminum polish is readily available at most auto parts stores or online. This is a favorite product amongst truck drivers and car enthusiasts, who frequently use it to maintain the shine of bumpers, grills, and wheels. The same product can work wonders on your diamond plate aluminum toolbox. Apply it according to the manufacturer’s instructions and buff it off to reveal a shiny, like-new surface.

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Remember, despite the extra effort required, the cleaning and maintenance of diamond plate aluminum are essential to preserve its aesthetic and functional qualities, ensuring your toolbox continues to serve you effectively for years to come.

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Considerations for Antique or Vintage Toolboxes

When dealing with antique or vintage toolboxes, the approach for cleaning and restoration demands a more delicate and careful hand, due to the age and often unique materials involved.

Recognizing the Material

Firstly, you need to identify the material of your toolbox. Antique toolboxes are typically made of wood, metal, or a combination of both. Each of these materials requires a distinct method of cleaning. For instance, using a harsh chemical cleaner that’s safe on metal may damage a wooden toolbox. Therefore, understanding the toolbox’s material composition is the cornerstone for a successful cleaning process.

Gentle Cleaning Methods

Vintage toolboxes often possess a charming patina – the surface change resulting from age and exposure. Many collectors and enthusiasts value this as it tells a story of the toolbox’s history. Hence, it’s advisable to use gentle cleaning methods to maintain this patina. A mild soap and warm water solution generally works well for both wood and metal. However, it’s always wise to test any cleaning solution on a hidden area first to ensure it doesn’t cause discoloration or damage.

Dealing with Rust and Paint

One of the biggest challenges with older metal toolboxes is rust. Using a fine-grade steel wool can help remove light rust without scratching the surface. For more stubborn rust, consider a rust dissolver. For painted toolboxes, avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive techniques that could strip away the original paint, impacting the toolbox’s value.

Restoring Wooden Boxes

For wooden toolboxes, never soak the box in water. Instead, wipe it gently with a damp cloth. In case of scratches or dullness, you might need to lightly sand the surface and reapply a suitable wood finish or oil, keeping the integrity and look of the vintage piece in mind.

Protecting the Toolbox Post-Cleaning

Once you’ve successfully cleaned your antique toolbox, it’s important to protect it from future wear. For metal boxes, applying a light coat of protective wax can help prevent rust. For wooden toolboxes, consider using a high-quality furniture wax to restore shine and protect the surface.

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.

Addressing Specific Stains or Issues

When your toolbox has been a faithful companion throughout numerous projects, it’s inevitable that it may bear the marks of stubborn stains or unique issues such as rust, dried paint, or adhesive residue. While these can seem daunting, they are not impossible to handle, and knowing how to tackle these head-on can have your toolbox looking pristine again.


Rust can be a common issue, especially with metal toolboxes. The key is to catch it early before it begins to compromise the integrity of the box. An effective homemade solution is using a mixture of baking soda and water. Apply this paste to the rusted areas and scrub using a toothbrush or a soft cloth. For more stubborn rust, products like WD-40 Rust Remover Soak or Evapo-Rust can be highly effective. Always remember to follow the product’s instructions and ensure your toolbox is completely dry before storing tools again to prevent further rusting.

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Dried Paint

Dried paint can be tricky, but not impossible to remove. Scraping can be your first line of defense – use a plastic putty knife to gently remove as much of the paint as you can. If the paint proves stubborn, apply a small amount of a solvent such as rubbing alcohol or a commercial product like Goof Off. Allow it to sit for a few minutes to loosen the paint and then gently wipe or scrape it away.

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Adhesive Residue

Adhesive residues, such as from stickers or tape, can be unsightly and sticky. One surprising hero in this case can be a common kitchen item – olive oil or cooking oil. Apply a little to a cloth and rub the residue until it lifts. For more stubborn adhesive, a product like Goo Gone works wonders. Again, be sure to test these products in an inconspicuous area first to ensure they don’t discolor or damage your toolbox.

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Each of these challenges can be tackled with a little patience and the right technique. Your toolbox has been there for you, aiding in countless fixes and projects, and with these tips, you can return the favor and give it the proper care it deserves.

Recommended Cleaning Products

When it comes to restoring the sparkle to your toolbox, having the right cleaning products is half the battle won. The ideal cleaning agent would depend on the material of your toolbox – either plastic or aluminum.

Commercial Cleaners

Commercial cleaners are excellent, all-around cleaning agents suitable for a variety of surfaces. They effectively cut through grease, grime, and even rust, leaving your toolbox looking shiny and new. Products like ‘Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner’ or ‘Zep Industrial Purple Cleaner’ are renowned for their effective cleaning properties.

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Aluminum Cleaners

If you’re dealing with an aluminum toolbox, you’ll want to use a cleaning agent designed explicitly for this material. Aluminum cleaners help remove oxidation and other stains without damaging the material. Brands such as ‘Aluminum Cleaner by STAR BRITE’ and ‘White Diamond Metal Polish with Long Lasting Sealant’ are well-regarded by professionals for their exceptional performance on aluminum surfaces.

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Plastic Cleaners

For a plastic toolbox, look for cleaners that can remove stains without causing discoloration or other damage. You want a product that’s tough on dirt but gentle on the surface. ‘Weiman Plastic Cleaner’ and ‘Novus Plastic Polish Kit’ are two highly recommended brands for plastic surfaces. They can effectively clean and restore plastic toolboxes to their original appearance.

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Environmentally Friendly Options

If you prefer eco-friendly options, consider using natural cleaning solutions like vinegar, baking soda, or lemon juice. These substances are often equally effective, especially for less severe cases of dirt and grime. However, keep in mind that natural solutions may require a bit more elbow grease and time.

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Remember, every cleaning process should be followed by proper rinsing and drying to avoid any residual cleaner which might damage the toolbox over time. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the best results.

Putting Everything Back Together

A clean and dry toolbox is a blank canvas, ready to be filled once again. Both plastic and aluminum toolboxes offer their unique advantages, and it’s time to utilize this opportunity to arrange your tools more efficiently. You could put the tools back in the box the same way they were before, but consider the following tips for a more effective organization:

Sort by Frequency of Use: Arrange your tools according to how often you use them. Frequently used tools should be easily accessible, preferably in the top trays or near the front of drawers, whereas less often used tools can be stored in lower trays or the back of drawers. This arrangement can save you time and effort in your day-to-day work.

Organize by Size: It may seem obvious, but keeping tools of similar size together can make finding the right tool much easier. Larger tools like hammers, wrenches, or drills could take the bulkier compartments, while smaller items like screws, nails, and bits could be placed in smaller compartments or containers within the toolbox.

Categorize by Type: Group similar types of tools together. All screwdrivers in one section, wrenches in another, and so on. This method of organization can make it simpler to locate the right tool for a specific task.

Use Toolbox Organizers: Toolbox organizers or dividers can be especially helpful in maintaining order in your toolbox. They come in various sizes and designs, suitable for different types of tools.

After re-arranging your tools, it’s time to turn your attention back to aluminum toolboxes, which might require one more step before you put your tools back – addressing the hinges and handle. Being that aluminum is metal, the hinges attaching the lid to the box body, and the handle might need some oil for smooth operation.

Use an all-purpose household oil on the hinges and handle, but do so sparingly. Oil attracts dirt, and 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.

Maintenance Tips for Prolonged Cleanliness

Maintaining the cleanliness of your toolbox doesn’t have to be a daunting task. In fact, it can become a seamless part of your routine if you follow some straightforward advice. Not only will it help keep your workspace tidy, but it will also contribute to the longevity of your tools.

Regular Wipe-downs

Firstly, it’s crucial to develop the habit of wiping your tools down before placing them back in the toolbox. You don’t need to give them a thorough clean every time, just a quick wipe to remove any grease, dust, or debris is usually enough. This simple action prevents the accumulation of grime over time and keeps your toolbox interior clean.

Mindful Storage

Try not to leave your toolbox open in dusty or dirty environments. While it might seem convenient to keep it open during a project, this can invite unwanted dirt, dust, and even insects into your toolbox. Therefore, whenever you finish using a tool, it’s worth the extra few seconds to close your toolbox properly.

Periodic Deep Cleaning

Despite your best efforts, dirt and grime will find their way into your toolbox over time. To prevent this from building up, it’s recommended to schedule periodic deep cleaning, similar to the detailed process we’ve discussed earlier. Depending on your usage, a thorough cleaning every six months or so can be a good starting point.

Organizing Tools

The way you organize your tools can also contribute to cleanliness. Store smaller items like screws, nails, and drill bits in separate compartments or small containers. Not only does this help prevent them from spilling and creating a mess, it also makes it easier to find what you need when you need it.

Toolbox Placement

Finally, consider where you keep your toolbox. Avoid damp areas that can lead to rust and damage your tools. Instead, store your toolbox in a dry, well-ventilated area.

By integrating these habits into your routine, you can prolong the cleanliness of your toolbox, ensuring it remains a functional and enjoyable part of your workspace for years to come.

How to Clean a Tool Box – Conclusion

Maintaining the cleanliness of your toolbox is essential for an organized workspace and the longevity of your tools. Whether you have an aluminum or plastic toolbox, following the proper cleaning techniques will ensure its preservation. Regular wipe-downs, mindful storage practices, and occasional polishing can go a long way in keeping your toolbox free from dirt, grime, and rust. By taking the time to clean and care for your toolbox, you’ll have a reliable companion that will serve you well in all your future projects.


Q: What safety precautions should I take when cleaning my toolbox? A: Always wear gloves to protect your hands from sharp tools and harsh cleaning products. It’s also advisable to use eye protection, particularly when cleaning an aluminum toolbox that might have rust particles.
Q: Can I clean my toolbox without emptying it? A: It’s recommended to completely empty your toolbox before cleaning. This allows you to reach every corner and ensures that your tools aren’t damaged by the cleaning process.
Q: How often should I clean my toolbox? A: The frequency of cleaning depends on how often you use your toolbox. If you use it daily, consider cleaning it every few months. If it’s used less frequently, a yearly clean might suffice.
Q: What cleaning products should I use for an aluminum toolbox? A: Commercial aluminum cleaning products or a cola drink can be used. Both work equally well to remove dirt and grime. For polishing, aluminum polish is ideal.
Q: What should I use to clean a plastic toolbox? A: Generic plastic cleaners, all-purpose household cleaners, or even glass cleaners should work well for a plastic toolbox.
Q: How should I address rust in an aluminum toolbox? A: For rust removal, use steel wool or a stiff brush to scrub the rusted areas after applying your chosen cleaning solution. If rust is severe, a rust converter can be applied.
Q: Can I use abrasive materials like steel wool on a plastic toolbox? A: No, using abrasive materials on plastic toolboxes can cause scratches. Instead, use a soft sponge and gentle cleaning solution.
Q: Should I oil the hinges and handle of my aluminum toolbox? A: Yes, applying a small amount of all-purpose household oil to the hinges and handle can help to keep them functioning smoothly.
Q: What should I do if my toolbox is made of wood? A: Wooden toolboxes should be dusted and then cleaned with a damp cloth. To maintain the wood, consider using a wood conditioner or oil.
Q: How can I organize my tools when putting them back in the toolbox? A: You can organize tools by frequency of use, size, or type. Frequently used tools should be easily accessible, while less used tools can be stored deeper in the box.
Q: Can I wash my toolbox with water? A: Yes, but ensure the toolbox is thoroughly dried before storing tools in it to prevent rusting.
Q: How should I deal with stubborn stains or grime? A: For stubborn stains, let your cleaning solution sit for a few minutes before scrubbing. If grime remains, you may need to repeat the process.
Q: What can I do to maintain the cleanliness of my toolbox over time? A: Regularly wipe down your tools before returning them to the box, avoid leaving the toolbox open in dusty or dirty areas, and do a deep clean as needed.
Q: What should I do if my toolbox is antique or vintage? A: Care for antique or vintage toolboxes may vary based on their material and condition. It’s best to research specific care instructions or consult with an expert.
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