How to get rid of rust

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Salt, vinegar, baking soda, alcohol: the ingredients for a like-new plane.

As a beginning woodworker and recent college graduate, I don’t have the cash to buy brand new planes and tools. The issue with many old woodworking tools from tag sales and garages is that they have been sitting in a drawer, or worse a damp box, and have accumulated surface grime and rust over the decades or disuse or abuse.

I’ll explain how to remove rust on vintage hand tools in a cheap and easy way without dealing with harsh chemicals or paying to have it cleaned. All you need is some salt, vinegar, baking soda, denatured alcohol, some abrasives like a 3M pad or steel wool, and a mat for your work bench.

Camelia oil prevents rust on metal tools

Fighting Rust

  • Best Rust Preventers
  • Removing and Preventing Rust
  • Camelia Oil

Step 1: Use vinegar and salt to eat rust

The first step is to completely disassemble the plane and hose it down to get rid of the deposited dust, dirt, and loose scale on the plane. Now grab a plastic container deep enough to fully submerge the tool or pieces. In the case of the old Stanley 220 block plane above, a take-out container worked perfectly. After everything is in the container, fill it up with some white vinegar from the supermarket or your cabinet until it is fully submerged.

Once everything is sitting in its vinegar bath, it’s time to add the salt. While vinegar by itself is a mild acid, the salt increases the acidity in the solution and let it chew rust even faster. When using a full gallon of vinegar, add a full cup of salt per gallon of vinegar. For this block plane, two hefty tablespoons, distributed evenly, was the perfect amount.

This is when you get to walk back into the house for dinner or a nap, and forget about that rusty plane for a while. Let it sit for at least 12 hours, but the longer you leave it in there, the more effect it will have. Usually one to three days will have the rust falling off.

Step 2: Start scrubbing

With the tool having sat in the solution, it’s time to get that rust off. Remove the tool from the container and scrub it down with a 3M-style pad. I prefer the pad at this stage because its woven strands won’t clog with the heavy sediment that will be coming off the plane. Any super tough rust can be hit with a brass-bristled brush.

Step 3: Neutralize the acid with baking soda

Now the acid solution covering the tool must be neutralized. Put everything back into the container and fill it with water. Wait, WATER?! Don’t worry, it won’t be in there long. Once things are submerged, add two tablespoons of baking soda (or about one cup per gallon, again) to the water and give it a mix. The baking soda will neutralize the acidity and also cause any vinegar trapped under or behind rust to foam and loosen even more.

Step 4: A final polish, then it’s time for a tune up

Pull the pieces out of the neutralizer after about 10 minutes and scrub everything with some 0000 steel wool. At this point, the steel wool should start bringing a nice cast sheen to your tool without removing the patina. After this final scrub, wipe it down with a rag soaked in denatured alcohol. The alcohol will wick away any moisture left on the metal so rust doesn’t come back to haunt you. Finish the cleaning with a light coat of camellia oil to make sure no new rust sets in.

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Now that the plane is clean, it’s time to set it up and get to making some shavings. For more information on getting the plane flat and ready to use, see Roland Johnson’s article on tuning up a bench plane in Fine Woodworking #216.

There are a couple of extra tips about this process. While the vinegar and salt mixture will not harm steel, it can eat aluminum fairly quickly. If your plane has aluminum parts, be sure to only leave them is the solution for a few hours. This is critical when dealing with any threaded aluminum parts.

Also, another common issue with older planes is that the japanning (the black enamel coating) can sometimes be ruined or partially taken off. Some people don’t mind leaving it half-on, but if there are extensive sections missing sometimes it is easier to start fresh by removing all the japanning. I’ve found toluene will remove stubborn enamel and allow a uniform cast look, and it can be applied with steel wool to etch off the coating.

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What is Rust?

If you only want to some methods for removing rust, skip these next two sections, but it will be helpful to learn more about why your blade is rusting.

First, let’s tackle the nature of rust.

Rust is the common name for a compound called iron oxide — that reddish-orange flaky stuff you see peppered on some metal. This forms when iron and oxygen react to moisture. It doesn’t even have to be water exactly, it could just be the presence of water in the air.

Here’s a more scientific explanation from How Stuff Works:

Iron (or steel) rusting is an example of corrosion — an electrochemical process involving an anode (a piece of metal that readily gives up electrons), an electrolyte (a liquid that helps electrons move) and a cathode (a piece of metal that readily accepts electrons). When a piece of metal corrodes, the electrolyte helps provide oxygen to the anode. As oxygen combines with the metal, electrons are liberated. When they flow through the electrolyte to the cathode, the metal of the anode disappears, swept away by the electrical flow or converted into metal cations in a form such as rust.

Natural Rust Removal Methods

When you don’t have the materials around the house to get rust off your knife, there are a few natural methods you can use.

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Potato Method

Certain foods also act as a good sources for rust removal. The potato is actually remarkably effective food for removing rust because of its oxalic acid.

Simply stick your knife into the potato for a few hours. After you remove it, wipe the blade with oil and the rust should be gone.

Onion Method

Onions are another food that helps get rid of rust naturally. If you saw back and forth into an onion, the rust will begin to come off by itself.

The sulphenic acids in onions are they key ingredients in getting your blade cleaned.

Dirt Method

Another more natural way many people suggest is to plunge your rust-covered knife into rich soil about two dozen times and then wipe it clean.

Everyone has their own method, so let us know in the comments what you do.

If your knife is beyond the amount of work you’re willing to put into it, it’s OK to move on.

We have thousands of knives in stock that you’re welcome to look at.

Image courtesy: Pixabay

Metals like iron and steel are sturdy, reliable and strong. That is why they are a main material used in construction and other everyday objects. (And yes, maybe even Iron Man.)

However, just like any superhero, metals like iron and steel have a major weakness – rust. Yes, it is the formidable red enemy that can weaken these sturdy things.

Rust is otherwise known as iron oxide.

It forms when iron is exposed to water and oxygen. The interaction of these three elements lead to corrosion, which translates to the dark red dust we see on metal items. Corrosion even happens at a faster rate when metal is exposed to seawater and acid rain.

As a result of rust, nuts and bolts are difficult to twist, pliers are harder to use, and on some degree, rust can stain clothing.

Rust can also damage antique items and heritage pieces. But just because rust starts to accumulate does not mean it cannot be removed. There are some nifty ways on how to get rust off metal in order to restore your metalware.

Ways of Removing Rust from Metal

Rust is the result of the reaction between iron, water, oxygen, and time. Rust when left for a long time, can eat away the metal and turn it into red dust. But there are still ways to salvage rusty items. Here are some ideas:

  • Vinegar is the so-called miracle acid. It works well as a cleaning agent including removing rust off metal. All you need to do is soak the metal in vinegar overnight.
  • The combination of lemon and salt can also wash out rust. Rub the metal item with salt, and then squeeze the lemon juice on it. Leave for a couple of hours and then use the lemon rind to scrub off the rust.
  • Use baking soda and a toothbrush or abrasive brush. Mix baking soda and water until you make a paste. Apply on the metal and use a brush to scrape off the rust.
  • ​Use a potato half and dishwashing liquid. Apply some dishwashing liquid to the exposed half of the potato and apply on the rusted metal. Leave for a few hours and rub until rust is removed.
  • Dip the rusted metal object in oxalic acid. (Extreme caution is needed as the acid is highly dangerous.)
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There are a lot of other ways that can take out rust including electrolysis and even cola. However, for cola, even though the phosphoric acid content can help clean, it is not an advisable cleaning agent because of the high sugar content.

Removing Rust Using Household Items

The most common way of dealing with rust is by using a combination of household items. Here is a video that shows how rust can be taken off nuts and bolts using vinegar and baking soda.

Follow the steps right below on how to get rust off metal.

  • Prepare an empty glass bottle, apple cider vinegar, baking soda, and WD-40.
  • Put all your rusty nuts and bolts in the glass bottle and fill with vinegar.
  • ​Close lid and shake a bit. Make sure the nuts and bolts are totally submerged in vinegar.
  • ​Leave overnight.
  • ​Drain the vinegar and then pour some baking soda in the bottle (with nuts and bolts in).
  • ​Add water, close lid, and shake a bit again.
  • ​Leave overnight.
  • ​Drain the liquid from the bottle and put nuts and bolts on dry cloth.
  • ​Leave to dry.
  • Spray nuts and bolts with WD-40 to protect against further corrosion.

This is just one way to remove rust from small items like screws and bolts. For bigger items, other methods might be better. Using rust removers might also be more useful for larger objects.

Preventing Further Corrosion

Just because you got the rust off does not mean your metalware is rust-proof. Remember that continuous exposure to water and oxygen can still create new rust points unless you take some steps to prevent it.

Once you’ve cleaned your metal items, it is important to take note of these tips to keep them protected and preserved.

  • Always keep your metal items dry. As much as possible, do not expose your metals items to water and more importantly to saltwater and acid rain. If it does get exposed, make sure to dry it quickly.
  • Apply primer paint to your metal items to serve as a protective coating. This will shield your metal items from water and air exposure.
  • As an additional layer of protection, it would be great to coat your metal items with good and solid paint.

Whether you’re restoring old items or making rusty metal feel like new again, these household tips can help you do it with much ease.

Remember that not one method is the most effective as it will depend on the metal item you want to de-rust. Feel free to try out different methods on how to get rust off metal and come up with your most effective way.


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