While we might try our hardest to always keep our tools clean and dry, they may still battle rust. When your prevention methods fail, common wisdom might be to toss out the damaged tools—and sometimes that’s inevitable. But before you junk your metal implements, there are a few things you can try to salvage them and save yourself the replacement cost.
What causes tools to rust?
Rust is caused by oxidation, or the process that ferrous metal goes through when it reacts with oxygen. This process can be caused by moisture, especially salt water, and is often accelerated when moisture is allowed to come in long-term contact with steel objects. Luckily, this process can be arrested, protecting the structure of the tool. While you can’t turn rust back into iron without a very fancy physics lab and an electrolysis machine, you can remove it and prevent it from damaging your tools further.
How to remove rust from your tools
There are several methods you can try to remove that pesky rust. Let’s walk through them.
The vinegar method
Soaking your affected tools in a vinegar bath is one way to loosen up rust deposits and make it easier to scrub away. All you need is a container large enough to fit your tool and enough white vinegar to submerge it. The acetic acid in vinegar chemically reacts with the rust to produce salt and water, making the vinegar method both simple and safe. And, because the acid involved is innocuous to humans, you don’t need to worry about dangerous byproducts, and the liquid left over is safe to pour down the drain.
For tougher rust deposits, you can soak your tools overnight to allow it to penetrate more deeply. After a good soak, you should be able to brush rust off with a good stiff-bristled brush.
The ketchup method
To get at small spots of rust, ketchup will, surprisingly, do the trick. Add a liberal layer of ketchup to a rusted surface, allow it to sit for a few hours, and then scrub the ketchup off with a wire brush to remove the rust spots. This works similarly to the vinegar method because ketchup contains similar acid to vinegar. The consistency of ketchup also makes it good for objects it would be difficult (or impossible) to dunk in a vinegar bath.
A word of warning, though—while ketchup isn’t dangerous for wildlife, it might attract insects and animals because of the sugar ketchup contains. If you’re doing this outside, you might want to cover the area so you don’t end up with a bigger problem than rust spots.
The baking soda method
Baking soda can also be used to remove rust: Make a thick paste with baking soda and water and leave it on the rusted surface for about an hour, then brush off rust stains. This method works by dissolving the rust into an alkaline solution, making the rust pliable. This can work especially well for thinner kinds of metal that is stained, but it will also help with tools that have awkward surfaces if you can get the paste into the nooks and crannies. This might be a better method than ketchup for outdoor use because the resulting mixture won’t cause increased wildlife activity.
The salt and lemon juice method
The lemon juice and salt method for rust removal is a good option if you’ve got a smaller amount of rust or a flat surface with rust. It’s harder to get into tight spaces than pastes or baths, and it can’t be left on the surface for too long, though, so you should use it with care. Squeeze a little bit of lemon juice onto the affected surface, then sprinkle on some salt before adding more lemon juice. The citric acid in the lemon juice will react with the rust, allowing you to wipe it off with a scouring pad or a brush. Make sure to remove all of the mixture, because it can also react with the unaffected metal, causing damage.