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Rust - Impact on tools and how to deal with it!

1 rust / n a: The reddish, porous, brittle coating that is formed on iron especially when chemically attacked by moist air, and that consists essentially of hydrated ferric oxide but usually contains some ferrous oxide and sometimes iron carbonates and iron sulfates.
2 rust / v a: To become corroded. b: To deteriorate or degenerate through idleness or neglect.

Look in the dictionary for a definition of rust and these (or variations of) are the answers you'll find. But we all know what rust's that ugly, reddish-brown, corrosive termite that eats away at our cars...our old steel gutters and downspouts...and yes, our precious hand and power tools. In short, that miserable, corrupt stuff that ruins ferrous metal objects before their time.

However, rust, or the corrosion of metals, is a totally natural process. In the “unnatural” process of making steel, iron and carbon are combined...and the resulting substance is always ready to combine with its plentiful, natural enemies - water and oxygen - to form that dreaded new compound - RUST. “Natural?”, you might ask. The fact is, it's through oxidation and corrosion that steel returns to its “natural” state of iron ore, from whence it came.

Don't give up, though. There are steps that can be taken to fight the relentless, parasitical menace we call RUST. Neglected or improperly cared-for tools can, in most cases, be restored to like new condition. Cleaning and sharpening will certainly help. But the first step in the restoration of rusted metal tools is to remove the rust and dirt.

Chemical rust removers will brighten most metals. Simply apply the solution and allow it to “soak in” for a specified length of time, loosening the rust from the metal so it can be wiped away with a rag.

An old toothbrush, small (brass) wire brush or metal-handled, throwaway “acid brush” can be helpful in the application of these chemicals. Steel wools, emery cloths and nylon abrasive pads (such as ScotchBrite®) are also effective rust removers when used with turpentine. In this example, the turpentine helps loosen additional dirt and grease that the abrasives alone may not remove.

For stubborn, anchored-on rust, more aggressive work will be required. Start by sanding the item down to clean metal. Remove all rust and pitted metal with a fine grade (150-180 grit) wet/dry silicon carbide abrasive. Progress to finer grades until the surface can be smoothed with a super-fine (320-grit or finer) abrasive.

If you find that rust has overtaken a part of a tool that was once painted, remove the rust down to clean metal, dry the surface thoroughly, apply the proper primer, then repaint. Should you decide NOT to repaint the surface, apply a coating of lightweight machine oil or a sealant such as Dri-Cote® to prevent future rust build-up. Another option is ordinary furniture Paste Wax®. Remember that the frequent application of these materials must become a part of your normal tool maintenance procedures to avoid future rust problems.

Extremely stubborn rust can be removed with a rotating wire brush, attached to a portable drill, drill press or electric grinder. Be sure to wear adequate eye protection as loosened rust and an occasional brush bristle could fly off the tool at high speeds, causing serious eye injury.

The best and easiest way to deal with rust on any tool is to prevent it before it ever happens. The key is proper lubrication. The motor bearings of most power tools require occasional lubrication (unless they're “sealed bearings”, as in the case of the MARK V) to help guard against moisture and keep all of their parts running smoothly. Greases (which are a combination of petroleum oils and thickeners) usually contain additives for corrosion and rust protection and are acceptable in situations where a great deal of dust is not produced during use. Portable electric drills are an example. Excessive fine dust (such as that produced by power sanders or saws) can combine with greases and oils to produce an undesirable “sludge” that will hold moisture and gum-up the operation of certain tools.

When lubricating tools that produce a lot of dust, try using one of the special bearing lubricants that are designed specifically for these situations. Dri-Cote® Bearing Lubricant® is an example of one of these products.

Obviously, routine checking of power tool lubricant levels and the proper lubrication of their moving parts is extremely important (check your tool owner's manuals). Following each use, be sure your hand and power tools are dry, free of moisture and coated with wax or one of the protectants discussed above.

It's also important to make sure that your shop is free of excessive moisture and dampness. Tools stored in unheated or high humidity areas such as a garage, basement or toolshed can be subjected to moisture that's created by condensation. This occurs with changes in temperature or humidity, producing surface rust. Coating your tools properly will prevent this, as will the use of a dehumidifier in areas where tools are stored.

Another excellent rust-preventative measure is provided by using dessicants in tool boxes and small, enclosed tool storage areas. Silica Gel Canisters are an excellent example of this. Just slip one of these small canisters into a drawer (or compartment) in your tool box and its crystals will “suck-up” all moisture, protecting your tools. Then, just slip it into a heated oven to restore its capabilities.

In closing, there is no single, simple cure for rust. All ferrous metals will eventually return to their natural form, although you can do a great deal to prolong the lives of your tools. Regular maintenance - and good, old-fashioned common sense - will help.

Rust-Removal Cautions:

  • When using rust-removal chemicals,
  • Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for use & safety
  • Work in a well ventilated area
  • Wear a respirator, as some of these products create highly toxic chemical vapors
  • Wear proper eye protection to guard against potentially harmful splattering.
  • Wear rubber gloves to protect hands from dangerous chemicals
  • Wear a dust respirator when removing rust with abrasives
  • Wear safety glasses or a face mask when using rotating wire brushes

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