Editor’s note: Visual journalist Gabor Degre recently took on a challenge at home: cleaning the rust from old tools he had around. He shares the process he used and the results. — Sarah Walker Caron, Senior Editor.
Have you ever forgotten tools out in the rain? Or discovered a forgotten item badly rusted? Can these items be saved?
I decided to find out, pulling together some old cast iron skillets that had been left outside in the elements, as well as some old, rusty tools. Since skillets were among the items I was cleaning, I sought an effective food-grade method.
The plan? Submerge the rusty items in white vinegar with 5 percent acidity (that’s the kind commonly found in grocery stores), and see how long it takes to get the rust loosened. The ingredients were very simple: a bucket, enough vinegar to submerge the items and a wire brush.
After the first day, I checked the progress of the rust removal. The tools, which weren’t nearly as rusty as the skillets at the start of the experiment, showed good results after 24 hours. I left them in for an additional day, and it worked great. Most of the rust was dissolved by the vinegar. The little that remained on the tools was easily removed with a wire brush. Once all the rust was removed, I rinsed them in water, dried them thoroughly and coated each tool in oil to prevent new rust from forming.
Vinegar cleaned very heavily rusted items down to the bare metal. However, it did not have the desired effect on the skillets. Though I can’t say for sure, my best guess is that the oil or grease used for seasoning, or burnt grease on the bottom from years of use, prevented the vinegar from getting to the rust and metal. I plan to experiment with the skillets further and report back with the results.
Want to try this yourself? One note of caution: Because the vinegar is an acid, it won’t only clean rusty items, but — if given enough time — will also dissolve the metal item itself. If trying this method on thin items, it could produce unwanted results if left in the vinegar for too long. It’s key to monitor the items closely.
All in all, vinegar proved to be a very effective, cheap and nontoxic way to clean up rusty tools.