Rusty Tools, a recent inquiry from a student
Category : Reloading
Rust, the bad, the ugly, the often overlooked nemesis of the reloading hobby
I often get ideas for these articles from reloading class students. I had an inquiry, a few months ago, from a fellow who asked me to come by and take a look at his reloading gear. Through a series of life setbacks, he hadn’t spent any time with his reloading equipment in many months. He lives less than 1/2 mile from the Atlantic Ocean, on the mid coast of Florida. His reloading room is a side room off his un air-conditioned garage. LOTS of humidity. His expensive Foster Coaxial press was heavily rusty, as were ALL his tools. Ugh, lots of cleaning and elbow grease, but he was able to get things working properly again.
I just received another, similar email from another student, this time with a slightly different slant. His inquiry was non-specific,
What do you recommend to use to clean reloading dies from surface rust?”
Here are my recommendations for handling the protection of your tools and equipment, no matter where you live:
There is no good to be had from RUST
Ugh. he asked the wrong question. The REAL question should be, “What do you recommend to prevent rust from forming in the first place?” But, he’s already dealing with the rust, so we’ll look at that.
So, where is the rust? Location, location, location…..
If it is INSIDE the first die, the full length resizing die, and it’s really really rusted, the die might be junk. How much rust is the next question? Any rust outside of the surfaces that come in contact with the brass isn’t important. PITTED metal is junk. Surface rust, with no pitting, ir what we’ll work with here.
First step is to use some liquid Rust Remover. Or, try some vinegar. Vinegar is slightly acidic. White distilled vinegar is the best, with a pH of about 2.7. Neutral pH is 7.0.
A product that a lot of people swear by is called, “Evapo-Rust”.
First remove all traces of oil/etc before trying to dissolve the rust. Brake cleaner/carburetor cleaner is well suited for that. Use that stuff outside your home!
Leave the die parts in the Rust Remover or vinegar for a couple hours, checking every 15 minutes for traces of the rust dissolving. Rub with a Q Tip to see if the rust is dissolving (rust should start to wipe off like wet mud)
Hopefully, that does the trick. If the rust crystals are bigger than can be dissolved with that technique, then an abrasive might be needed. However, proceed gently with that. Any dramatic scratches on the die surfaces will forever transfer the scratches to every piece of brass that it comes in contact with.
I would start with the least abrasive of all abrasives. Like, tooth paste. Use a Dremel tool, with a buffing wheel/pad, and spend some time removing the rust. Clean as best as you can, checking as you proceed. Spray down with brake cleaner/carb cleaner, and use the Q Tip wipe test to see how it’s going. You can also use “Jewelers Rouge”, it’s an extremely fine paste abrasive, prefect for polishing. Keep in mind that red jewelers rouge is ferric oxide, basically the same hardness as the rust that you are trying to remove.
If you need something more abrasive after the other rust remover attempts, start with #0000 steel wool (the finest of the steel wool sizes), and use a wooden dowel or pencil to attach the tufts of steel wool to. Soak the steel wool with some synthetic oil, and spin with a drill motor. Think in terms of “polishing” rather than removing metal. The exterior, non brass contact portions of the die set can be handled later, more aggressively.
Remember that rust is iron oxide, which is harder than steel. A variation of iron oxide is what is used for the abrasive coating on sand paper (which is usually aluminum oxide, also very hard.) We don’t want to remove any of the base metal, just the rust.
Iron oxide is a product of the oxidation of iron. It can be prepared in the laboratory by electrolyzing a solution of sodium bicarbonate, an inert electrolyte, with an iron anode: So, do not use Sodium Bicarbonate, baking soda, as an abrasive or solvent.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Once you have the tools cleaned enough of rust so that they will not scratch the brass, coat them with a good SYNTHETIC oil. Do NOT use petroleum based oils as they will themselves oxidize, and lose their protective qualities. I like using Miltiec-1 or a synthetic two cycle oil as the protective coating for rust resistance.
For the maximum of rust resistance, especially here in Florida, near the ocean, even if you keep the tools in an air conditioned area, do the following:
- Coat the tools, inside and out, with a synthetic oil. Do not use petroleum based oils for this purpose. Using a grease isn’t needed, and grease would only make the process of removing it prior to use of the tools all the more difficult. Grease also attracts more dust/grit than does oil.
- Use a air hose to blow the oil into the tight corners inside the tools. The idea is to cover every surface, inside and out with the non-oxiding oil
- Place the tool in a small zip lock bag (2″ x 5″ or so). The smallest a bag that the tool will fit into, the better. The idea is to minimize the amount of atmospheric humidity and salt that might be in the air when you close the bag.
- Also place a moisture absorbing device in the bag with the tool. The sort of device that you see in with a bottle of pills. That will pull into it any moisture that is remaining in the bag. Silica Gel bags (small ones) will work. Replace after every time you open the bag to use the tool. DO NOT try to use Damp Rid chemicals, which are high in salt composition. That will destroy your steel tools quickly.
- Additionally, you can purchase OXYGEN absorbing packets. These are different than moisture absorbing. Using BOTH would be recommended in severely humid/salty locations. Companies who make both types are often found where you would look for long term food storage.
- I have tools that are 40+ years old, and with a minimum of effort, have remained rust free all that time. I have lived within 40 miles of an ocean virtually all of my reloading career.
- Use brake cleaner/carb cleaner to remove the synthetic oil from the tools prior to using them, and remember to re-coat them with synthetic oil after you are done using the tools.
Start with the least damaging method, to the surface of the tool, as possible. You can never add metal back if you remove too much.
There is no substitute for slow, careful application of elbow grease.
Don’t forget to also protect all of your other equipment and tools. Your press is one of the important pieces of equipment for reloading. I have seen presses that were badly rusted, and almost not usable. The ram on single station presses can get sadly rusted, even if the rest of the press is painted and protected. I always lube the rams of the single station (and also progressive presses) with synthetic oil. Pay attention to other parts of the press, especially where metals rub against metals. Look for the shiny spots. Synthetic oil on those spots will greatly help reduce rust from forming. Even tools like calipers, length trimmers, deburring tools, chamber gauges, etc, all need to be protected. Think of your reloading gear in exactly the same way that you would take care of your most expensive and important gun. Regular cleaning and oiling with synthetic oil, even if you aren’t using it, is critical to longevity of any metal device.
If all else looks hopeless, and you are shy about attempting any of the rust removal efforts yourself, then contact the tool manufacturer. They have staff that is trained to do this. I once sent Dillon a tool set that looked like it had been under salt water for decades. Crusty, almost barnacles growing on the tool set. They decided, after receiving the tool set from me, to replace it under their lifetime no-questions-asked policy, with a brand new set.
Keep your reloading gear, and guns, rust free. And, then you will never need to address the question of removing the rust.
Feel free to send me any of your reloading questions. I am happy to address them as they come in. firstname.lastname@example.org