How to remove rust from tools – the ultimate guide

I spent hours researching the best way to remove rust. Then, I tested these methods and applications on rusty tools.

Most guides online only cover the basics and expect the user to have a baseline knowledge. I set out to fix that.

Rust comes in varying degrees of severity. I have given advice on how to remove any rust, even if traditional methods don’t work.

I have also aimed to use tools and materials you’ll be able to find around the house. So removing stubborn rust won’t cost you anything.

Keep reading to learn how… 

Why do tools rust? 

Rust (iron oxide or Fe203) forms when steel or iron is exposed to oxygen and moisture for a long period of time. This causes the chemical process ‘oxidation’.

Rust only occurs when iron or its alloys (such as steel) corrode. Given enough time, any iron tool would change completely into rust and disintegrate. It’s therefore important to address rust as soon as it occurs.

Some metals not containing iron don’t rust. Examples would be aluminium, stainless steel or red metals.

What do you need to remove rust?

  • One rusty bit of iron/alloy.
  • Soap and an old cloth.
  • A soaking agent (distilled vinegar or rust remover)
  • A jar.
  • Sandpaper or an old toothbrush.
  • Lubrication oil (WD40)

Method

Step #1 clean and dry

To remove rust effectively, we need to start this process with a clean and dry tool. Any excess dirt or paint residuals left on a tool can prevent the soaking process from working.

Clean rusted tools in soapy water to remove excess dirt and grease. Then rinse off and dry thoroughly.

Step #2 soak

There are many soaking agents we considered recommending. The most effective is a custom made ‘rust remover’ such as X. This concentrate makes around 4 gallons of finished rust dissolver.

Rust removers cost roughly $20 and are more potent than household soakers. A good rust remover turns black when spent, will remove rust in around 2 hours and can be disposed of down the drain. They sometimes also prevent the need for scrubbing which can damage tools. 

If you don’t want to buy a rust remover, you can use salt & vinegar, baking soda or oxalic acid. Out of the three vinegar is the most effective but the method for each is similar:

  1. Place the tool in a container large enough to cover the entire piece.
  1. Use ¼ cup of salt per litre of vinegar. Pour vinegar and salt into the container to engulf rusty metal.
  1. Leave to soak. This can take between one and three days. Check periodically.
  1. Remove from the container once rust has sufficiently softened. 

Step #3 scrub

Consider the state of the tool before scrubbing. If sandpaper is likely to damage the tool, use an old toothbrush.

Note there may be protective coating that coarse sandpaper would scrub off. Stick to light sandpaper if possible. We will be oiling the tool in the next stage so don’t be overly cautious.

  1. Sand off the thickest bits of rust with a coarse grain sandpaper.
  1. Switch to a fine grain sandpaper or toothbrush to address remaining speckles.

Step #4 dry and lubricate

To protect the tool from future rust and ensure it still functions, it’s important to dry and lubricate the tool. Water and oil don’t mix so ensure the tool is thoroughly dry.

Some of the protective coating may have been sanded off in the scrubbing stage. It’s important to oil any mechanical parts to ensure a smooth action. 

  1. Dry your tool with an old cloth or paper towel.
  1. Apply WD40 liberally to the tool paying close attention to any moving parts.

What to do if rust still won’t go

If you have tried the above method with both rust remover and ‘at home’ remedies, use a rust converter. Rust converters work on any iron or steel object. Rust converters are less preferable than removing rust but are an effective last ditch attempt.

A rust converter will convert rust into a stable, black coating. This has the advantage of protecting the original surface. It also works as a primer for oil and epoxy based paints.

After applying your rust converter, wait 24 hours to apply a second coat. After 48 hours you can paint over the rusty area.

How to prevent rusting in the future

It’s important to prevent rusting in the future especially if you have already derusted your tools. You can also be proactive and prevent your other tools from rusting.

  1. Store tools in a clean, dry place.

It sounds simple but in general if you are careful about storage, rust can be avoided completely. It’s also worth using silica packs in your tool box. Silica can hold up to 40% of its weight in water and it absorbs surrounding water molecules.

Consider using a dehumidifier in your workshop or garage. A dehumidifier will remove moisture from the air and moisture is a catalyst to the formation of rust.

  1. Use WD40 on your tools.

WD40 lubricant is a long-lasting rust preventative that will protect your tools for up to 1 year outdoors or 2 years indoors.

A quick spray of WD40 on your tools will prevent rust and is well worth it.

What to do next?

Be sure to remove rust as soon as you notice it. The longer you leave rust the worse the problem will get.

Sick of using hand tools when there are power tool alternatives? Check out our saw and power drill reviews.

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