How to Remove Rust from Tools

Everyone has that old, forgotten toolbox in the back of their truck or in some dark corner of their shop or garage that suddenly becomes needed again. However, when the box is opened, the tools are barely recognizable due to the layer of rust caking them, and you know you will not be able to complete the job or be taken seriously with your tools in their given condition.

How do you remove rust from tools? There are both do-it-yourself and commercial options for removing rust from tools that can get them looking like new again, from white vinegar solutions to commercial-grade cleaners. As tool rust is a common problem, there is no shortage of solutions.

Whether you are choosing do-it-yourself or commercial rust removing remedies, it is important to have proper personal protective equipment. This includes long sleeves, rubber gloves, and goggles, as the flying rust debris and acidic elements used for cleaning should not be introduced to sensitive areas of the human body.

Do-It-Yourself Rust Removal Options

There are several do-it-yourself options for removing rust from your tools. This will generally be the most cost-effective option, as you are likely to already have the ingredients needed for rust removal in your home pantry or refrigerator. If not, they are readily available at your neighborhood supermarket or general store.

In addition to the proper personal protective equipment and rust removing solution ingredients, it is important that with each of these DIY options, you have some abrasive tools at hand to help scrape and scrub the softened rust, such as wire brush and sandpaper.

DIY Option #1: White Vinegar

Vinegar has been a miracle product for homemakers for years, used for a wide variety of cooking, cleaning, and preservation purposes. While it is a must-have in any home pantry, its efficacy is not limited to just the house, and it can be an extremely effective weapon to use in removing rust from your corroded tools.

The following steps can be followed to use white vinegar to get rid of tool rust effectively:

  1. Find a large container. You will need to find a container large enough to be able to submerge your rusted tools completely. The container should be non-reactive, such as glass or plastic. Avoid metal containers or containers of any other substance which may start a reaction of its own with the vinegar.
  2. Add the vinegar. Add the vinegar to the large, non-reactive container. To increase the potency of the solution, and make it more effective, add a little sea salt. A good mixture is ½ cup of sea salt for every half-gallon of white vinegar. Scale the amount of solution, as needed, based on the size of your tools and container.
  3. Place the tool into the solution. You will want to make sure that the rusted surface is completely submerged. Ideally, you want the vinegar to have access to all rusted surfaces, so, where possible, prop or hook the tool on the container’s edge to keep one side from being blocked by the container’s bottom.
  4. Let the vinegar work. Depending on the size of the tool and how heavily it is rusted, you will need to let the tool sit in the vinegar solution for anywhere from several hours to several days. You should notice some small bubbles sitting on the rusted surface of the tool to indicate the vinegar is breaking down the oxidation.
  5. Remove the tool from the solution and clean it. Once removed from the vinegar solution, use a screwdriver or paint scraper to knock off the major chunks of rust. Once this is clear, take some steel wool to the tool’s surface, scrubbing vigorously to get rid of any remaining rust.
  6. Rub the tool in denatured alcohol. After the rust is cleared, rub the surface of the tool down in denatured alcohol to get rid of any moisture that remains. This can be done with a small cotton pad. While this is not necessarily a required step, it can help ensure that future rust does not form.
  7. Coat the tool in a machine or gun oil. This is another step to help prevent future rusting, giving your newly rust-free tool a like-new gleam.

While the use of white vinegar to remove rust from tools is a classic, low-cost DIY method, there are a few things to remember before starting the treatment:

  • It is not necessarily a “fast” process. As mentioned, heavily rusted tools may need to soak for days. If the tool still appears rusty after soaking for an extended period and cleaning, you may need to repeat the process. It may take several treatments before the tool is completely rust-free.
  • Vinegar reacts differently with different materials. In particular, vinegar can be corrosive to aluminum. While it will not affect the integrity of your steel surfaces during the rust-removal process, any aluminum skirting or covers on your tool may be damaged if left in the vinegar for too long. Know your tool’s makeup before starting treatment
  • In addition to limiting the amount of exposure aluminum surfaces get to the vinegar, you will also want to make sure that any absorbent handles, such as non-treated wood or padded foam models, stay out of the solution while the rust is soaking.

DIY Option #2: Baking Soda and Water

Baking soda is another classic product for homemakers, often used in refrigerators to help ensure freshness and eliminate odors. However, like with white vinegar, baking soda can serve useful functions outside of the house, as well—in this case, removing rust from tools.

The following steps can be taken to use baking soda to clean rusty tools effectively:

  1. Get a mixing bowl. This does not necessarily have to be a large container, like with the vinegar treatment, as the tool will not be soaking in the solution. In fact, a smaller mixing container is preferable, as you can mix the paste and apply the treatment, as needed.
  2. Mix the solution. Add some baking soda to the bowl (½ cup is a good place to start, adding more as needed). Add some water to the baking soda and stir, creating a paste-like mixture. You should be aiming to mix a solution that has a consistency close to that of glue.
  3. Apply the solution to the rusted surface. Use a cloth to spread the pasty solution over the rusty surface of the tool, ensuring that the solution is evenly distributed, and all rust is completely covered.
  4. Let the solution work briefly. Unlike with vinegar, you do not need to let this baking soda solution work for hours on end. In fact, the solution can start working in a few minutes. To make the removal process easier, you want to make sure the solution does not dry and get caked on the tool’s surface.
  5. Scrape the tool clean. After giving the baking soda solution several minutes to react with the rust, use an abrasive pad—such as steel wool or the rough backside of a sponge—to scrape the tool clean of the baking soda solution. The solution will now be a reddish-brown color as it mixes with the removed rust.
  6. Rub the tool with denatured alcohol. This helps guarantee that the clean tool is free from any remaining moisture.
  7. Coat the tool with a machine or gun oil. This aids in the preservation of the tool and helps limit future rust flare-ups.

Like with rusted tools treated in white vinegar, this DIY process, while cheap and convenient, does come with some limitations that should be considered:

  • This process only works well with surface rust and will not be effective if the rust has sunk in and started eating away at the metal itself.
  • This will be much more effective for small tools, like lightly rusted screwdrivers and wrenches. Large saws and sledgehammers will be very time consuming to clean using this method
  • Several applications of this treatment may be required before all surface rust is completely removed.

DIY Option #3: Sea Salt and Lime Juice

The last DIY rust cleaning option on this list involves a couple of more staples found in the kitchen: sea salt and lime juice. While it may sound like we are making margaritas instead of cleaning rust from tools, this combination offers a surprisingly powerful option for ridding tools of unwanted rust.

The following steps can be taken to use sea salt and lime juice to remove rust from a tool’s surface:

  1. Line a clean, flat surface with aluminum foil or wax paper. This method will not require the use of any container for soaking or mixing. However, the rusted tool will need someplace to rest, and this method does get a little messy, so make sure your underlying surface is covered before getting started.
  2. Coat the rusted tool surface with sea salt. Evenly sprinkle sea salt over the tool’s rusted surface, perhaps adding a little extra to areas that appear more deeply rusted
  3. Squeeze lime juice over salt. Once the rusted surface is coated with sea salt, cut a lime in half, and squeeze the juice over the entire affected area. After applying the lime juice, allow three to four hours for this mixture to work its magic.
  4. Scour the rusted surface. Once the solution has had enough time to work, use some steel wool or other abrasive scrubbing surface to rub away the rust thoroughly.
  5. Rub the clean surface with denatured alcohol. Like with the vinegar and baking soda treatments, this helps clean the tool of any remaining moisture.
  6. Apply machine or gun oil. This helps treat the tool and inhibit the formation of any future rust.

Many of the same limitations apply to sea salt and lime juice as the other DIY rust cleaning methods on this list. One helpful hint is to use the rind of the lime as a scouring agent, as the rind itself can be abrasive enough to clean the treated surface while increasing the acidity to help break down the rust.

Commercial Rust Removing Options

Using the DIY options listed above is a great place to start when attempting to clean rust from your tools, as the methods are generally very simple and cost-effective, thanks in large part to the necessary agents being already available in your house.

However, there may be some cases when you do not want to use DIY options or cases when DIY methods may not be effective. Some examples of when it may be too time-consuming or inefficient to use DIY rust cleaning methods include:

  • Heavily soiled tools that will take days to break down using at-home solutions
  • Extremely large tools that need mass quantities of treatment
  • Tools that are dealing with more than surface rust and have had their constituent steel suffer rust damage

In some cases, a DIY method may be used to start, with a commercial remedy coming in to combat those particularly tough cases.

Commercial Option #1: Rust Converters

Rust converters are water-based primers that help to convert oxidized material into a more organic, aesthetically pleasing substance. Rust converters should not be confused with rust removers. They react chemically with rust to form a new, stable compound that conceals the existence of rust.

Rust converters effectively seal tools from future rusting and serve as a water-proof primer, meaning that rust converters are a great option for tools that are going to be painted over. They can be applied to rusted surfaces using a brush or roller. Before applying, make sure that the surface is clean and chip away any excess rust or debris.

While this is the simplest option of rust maintenance, it is not necessarily the best for getting rid of rust. As such, a good idea for maintaining your rusted tools and protecting them from future oxidation would be first to use a DIY method to clean the tool of rust. Then, add a rust converter to give the tool a shiny finish and convert any remaining oxidation that the DIY method did not catch.

Popular brands of rust converters are Rustex and Zep, both of which can be found on Amazon or your local hardware store.

Commercial Option #2: Chemical Solutions

These solutions are essentially white vinegar on steroids.

Home improvement stores will sell rust removal solutions that contain many active ingredients known for breaking down and removing rust. While these chemical solutions can get messy and take a while to set, they are extremely effective in removing rust from hand tools.

The following steps should be taken to remove rust from a tool using a chemical rust solution:

  1. Obtain a large container. This container must be large enough to submerge the rusted surface of a tool completely. It should also be non-reactive to the chemicals in the solution, making glass and plastic containers a great option.
  2. Fill the container. Add just enough solution to the container to cover the rusted tool surface completely.
  3. Soak the rusted tool. Allow the rusted tool to soak in the chemical solution for a couple of hours.
  4. Scrub the tool. A wire brush is a preferred method when cleaning surfaces treated with chemical rust solutions. However, steel wool will work just as well.
  5. Rub the clean tool in denatured alcohol. This helps remove any remaining accumulation of moisture.
  6. Apply machine or gun oil. This provides a protective coating that helps block the future buildup of rust.

Chemical solutions work best with smaller tools, in addition to some of the other limitations common to DIY remedies. However, the chemicals used may be slightly more damaging to human tissue than household products, so make sure you have quality personal protective gear in place before using chemical rust solutions.

Commercial Option #3: Electric Tools

For extremely large tools or particularly pesky rust jobs, no amount of soaking and scrubbing will take care of that oxidation.

Electric chisels and sanders can be used to knock free and grind down overly difficult rust. Electric sanders are particularly effective for treating rust that extends beyond the surface as it works to grind down rough surfaces and get to difficult-to-reach places. However, they can start to damage the metal of the tool with frequent abrasion.

Using fine grain, electric sanders are a great option after other remedies have been attempted, as they are effective in removing scratches and made in the effort to remove rust, giving the tool surface a smooth, shiny finish.

How to Remove Rust from Tools: In Conclusion

While the presence of rust on tools is annoying, inconvenient, and unsightly, there is no reason for pessimism. First, rust does not affect the underlying functionality of your tool, so, once removed, the tool should be as good as new.

Second, there are several easy ways to use common household products to remove rust from tool surfaces conveniently. Some common rust cleaning agents, likely to be found in your pantry or refrigerator, include:

  • White vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Sea salt and lime juice

If these home remedies cannot perform the trick, a quick trip to the home improvement store will provide you with many additional rust-fighting options, such as:

  • Rust converters
  • Commercial rust removing solutions
  • Electric tools

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