Stainless steel tool boxes are pretty common. You see them on tractor-trailers and utility trucks. People use them on their boats and RVs too. As tough as stainless steel is, it does have one inherent weakness: 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.
Below are five of the easiest ways to clean a stainless steel tool box. Four of them involve things you probably have lying around the house right now. The fifth requires purchasing a commercial cleaning product. Before we get to cleaning though, we have to talk about oxidation.
Oxidation Does Not Mean Rust
Many people confuse oxidation and rust as being identical. Technically, they are not. A stainless steel tool box is rather prone to oxidation but not likely to rust under normal conditions. That begs the question, what is oxidation?
From a chemistry standpoint, oxidation is a chemical reaction in which a 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 goes through a process similar to a very slow burn. There’s no combustion per se, but the stainless surface of the 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.
The thing that causes oxidation in stainless steel is chromium. In order to make steel stainless, additional metals have to be added to it. Chromium is one of those metals. And it turns out that chromium and oxygen have a strong affinity for one another.
When chromium is exposed to oxygen, it begins shedding electrons. That creates a chemical reaction resulting in a film that covers the surface of the steel. This film is that which makes stainless steel start looking old and dull. To restore the steel to its original condition, all you need do is remove this film.
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 created by oxidation protects the surface against rust. We don’t want that film though because it is aesthetically unattractive. So we clean and polish.
5 Easy Ways to Clean and Polish
With a clear understanding of oxidation under our belts, we can get to the main discussion of cleaning and polishing a stainless steel tool box. A tool box that isn’t terribly dirty may be addressable with something you have lying around the house.
1. Regular White Vinegar
That same white vinegar you use in the kitchen works very well on stainless steel. All you need to make it work is a soft cotton or microfiber cloth. Here’s what you do:
- Using a spray bottle, spray a bit of vinegar on a small portion of the tool box.
- Wait a second or two, then wipe the vinegar away with your towel in the same direction as the grain.
- If the area is clean, choose another area and repeat the process. If not, spray the same area again and wipe away the vinegar.
Unless your tool box is heavily oxidized after many months of neglect, vinegar should work for you. There are a couple of additional tips you might find helpful as well. First, do not use something abrasive like steel wool on your tool box. It will scratch.
On the outside chance you do find scratches, you can work them out with a block sander and some commercial polish. Just make absolutely sure you sand in the same direction as the grain. Otherwise it will scratch the surface even more.
The other tip is to oil your tool box after you finish cleaning it. Any clear household oil will do. This extra step will keep your box looking shiny for a longer period of time. The oil creates a protective barrier that slows down oxidation by preventing the chromium from making contact with oxygen.
2. Olive Oil
If vinegar doesn’t work for you, try using olive oil. Do not buy the expensive olive oil from the imported section at your grocery store; the cheap stuff will work well enough. To clean with olive oil, use the same process described above.
An added bonus of the olive oil method is that you don’t need to oil your tool box when you’re all done. Olive oil cleans and polishes in one fell swoop.
3. Club Soda
You may have a dirty stainless steel tool box that just doesn’t respond to white vinegar or olive oil. That’s fine. You may have to break out the big guns. We suggest you try some club soda. Yes, that same beverage that can be quite refreshing on a hot day can also clean stainless steel. It is all about the carbonation.
Here’s how you do it:
- Use a broom or soft brush to remove any loose dirt and debris.
- Choose an area to start with and pour a bit of club soda on it.
- After waiting a few seconds, use your cloth to work the club soda in, using a circular motion.
- Keep working the club soda in until the oxidative film disappears. You may have to pour additional club soda on the area.
- Once the film is gone, use a separate cloth to wipe away the remaining club soda. Wipe in the same direction as the grain.
The theory behind cleaning with club soda is to temporarily reactivate the oxidation process and then wipe away the film while it’s active. It is a lot like washing grease off a dirty pan. You use hot water to cause the hardened grease to liquefy so that the soap and water can wash it away.
All of the cleaning solutions we have offered thus far utilize what we would consider natural products. If they don’t work, you have to start looking at chemicals. WD-40 is certainly an option.
WD-40 is classified as a penetrating oil. It is also a water-displacing chemical as well. The beauty of this incredible product is that it comes in an aerosol spray. It is one of the easiest penetrating oils on the market to use. And guess what? It works wonders on stainless steel.
Here’s how to use it:
- Just like with club soda, first clear away loose dirt and debris with a brush or broom.
- Start with the top of your box, spray it entirely with a liberal amount of WD-40.
- Work the oil in with a soft cloth using a circular motion.
- Wipe away the oil with a separate cloth to reveal the clean stainless steel.
The only downside to WD-40 is that it might leave a dark film of its own. That is not a problem, though. A little soap and water solves that particular issue. Just make sure you use another type of clear household oil to polish the tool box after you wash it. A clear motor oil will do the trick.
5. Commercial Cleaning Products
Household products and WD-40 should all work well for stainless steel tool boxes that are not excessively 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 a kit that includes a de-oxidizer (cleaner) and a polish. To use it, simply follow the instructions on the packaging. Here’s an example of what you will do:
- Apply the cleaner in small amounts using a cloth or sponge.
- Gently rub the cleaner 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 cleaner while shining the steel at the same time.
A good commercial cleaner and polish should leave your stainless steel tool box looking brand-new. Just remember that stainless steel will continue to oxidize thanks to the chromium it contains. A good quality polish will slow down the oxidation process by leaving behind a bit of its own protective film.
Caring for Your Clean Tool Box
Now that you have a clean tool box that glistens in the bright sunshine, we suspect you’ll want to keep it clean for as long as possible. Once again, just remember that you cannot stop oxidation permanently. At some point your tool box will need to be cleaned again. Your goal is to reduce how frequently cleaning is necessary.
You can slow down oxidation by keeping your tool box oiled. We recommend checking the box at least every couple of weeks. If you can do it every week, that’s even better. If it looks like most of the oil you applied has worn away, give it another quick coat. With a soft cloth and a bottle of clear motor oil, you can take care of this in just a few minutes.
We also recommend regular washing if your tool box is mounted on a truck. Environmental dirt, road debris, and other things can penetrate the protective layer of oil on your box and encourage oxidation. Be especially cognizant of this during the winter when road salt and sand can be problematic.
Note that every time you wash the box, you’ll need to put a new layer of oil on it. If you run it through the wash and forget about it, your tool box will start oxidizing within hours.