Stainless-steel tool boxes are pretty common on tractor-trailers and utility trucks. People use them on their boats and RVs too. As tough as stainless steel is though, it does have one inherent weakness in that it tends to oxidize. Stainless steel left to its own devices quickly dulls and begins looking old and ratty. The good news is that stainless steel is pretty easy to clean and polish.

Before we get to that, let us talk oxidation. From a chemistry standpoint, oxidation is a chemical reaction in which the loss of electrons changes the surface of a substance. When something burns, its electrons are being released into the surrounding air. That means burning is a form of oxidation.

The surface of stainless steel essentially goes through a process similar to a very slow burn. There’s no combustion per se, but the stainless steel is still releasing electrons into the surrounding oxygen. The result is a change in the molecular surface of the steel. This is why it gets dull and ugly.

Some scientists believe oxidation to be a natural method of self-preservation. That makes sense. One of the reasons it is unnecessary to paint stainless steel and aluminum is because the film oxidation leaves behind protects the surface from further degradation. We don’t want that film though, because it is aesthetically unattractive. So we must clean and polish.

Easy Ways to Clean and Polish

A stainless steel tool box that isn’t terribly dirty maybe addressable with something you have lying around the house. The first thing to try is vinegar. Just moisten a cloth with white or cider vinegar, work it into the stainless steel surface, then wipe clean with a different cloth.

If vinegar doesn’t work, you can try olive oil using the same process. Still not happy? Then move on to club soda. The carbonation in club soda may be enough to loosen the film and any other dirt that’s making the surface look dull. Don’t use soft drinks unless you want to wash the tool box with soap and water after your done. Otherwise the sugar left behind could cause problems.

Cleaning and Polishing with Commercial Products

Household products may work well for stainless steel tool boxes that are not heavily oxidized. But if none of the above solutions work, you might have to move on to commercial cleaning and polishing products. You can buy them at most auto parts and hardware stores.

Your commercial cleaning solution should actually be labeled as a de-oxidizer. Apply this product in small amounts using a cloth or sponge. You will not need to scrub; just gently rub the product in using a circular motion. If you are cleaning a diamond plate tool box, you’ll want to go in four directions: clockwise, counterclockwise, and diagonally across both directions of the diamond pattern.

Next, apply the polish using the same method. The polish will remove the oxidizer and its subsequent debris while shining the steel at the same time. When you’re all done, your stainless steel tool box will look brand-new.

Just remember that stainless steel will continue to oxidize due to its natural molecular structure. A good quality polish will slow down the oxidation process by leaving behind a bit of its own protective film. This is one case in which it pays to buy something a bit more expensive.

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