Electrolysis Rust Removal

This article is two-fold. First, I’m going to show you how to use electrolysis to remove rust from tools. Secondly, this is the first installment in a series of articles that will take you through the rehabilitation of a hand plane including finding replacement parts, tuning, and sharpening. You can watch as I get the plane back in working order.

Ever get to an auction or flea market and stare lovingly, but in despair, at a hand plane that you’d love to own, but are going to pass on because it’s too rusty? There’s a solution for this problem. Electrolysis. It’s crazy cool, and easy to do. Here’s the overview; submerge the tool in a solution of baking soda and water, connect a battery charger, and let it sit overnight. By the next day the rust will have sloughed off.

The beauty of using electrolysis for rust removal is that you’re not abrading the tool and removing metal. It’s better for the tool, especially if you’re concerned about its value, if you don’t hit it with sandpaper or a wire wheel. This, and the ease of doing it, makes electrolysis the perfect answer for restoring old tools. Electrolysis provides a very easy way to get rust out of a tool’s nooks and crannies.

I picked up the plane in this story cheap. You’ll see it go through the rust removal process here and, in future stories, get to follow along as it’s restored and tuned up.

Follow These Electrolysis Rust Removal Steps

Electrolysis Rust RemovalElectrolysis Rust RemovalHere’s a Bailey #4 hand plane I picked up for $25. Last patent date on the body is April 1910. It’s sound, but has a lot of surface rust on it, and is unusable in its current condition. I’ll remove all the parts from the body and use electrolysis to remove the rust.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalWhat You Need:

Gather your electrolysis supplies together –

An electrolysis vat that is non-conductive. A plastic five-gallon bucket works well for most tools.

An anode (I’m using a coffee can)

Auto battery charger

Baking soda or washing powder

Measuring spoon

Scotch Brite pad and soft bristle brush

Wire leads

Rubber gloves

Electrolysis Rust RemovalPrep. Wash the tool you’ll be treating. Make sure there isn’t any oil or wax on it that will prevent the electrolysis process from working. Give it a good bath with soap and water.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalMake an anode. You need some kind of sacrificial steel for this. It’s best if the anode surrounds the tool so the electrolysis can happen from all sides. The anode will get eaten up by the electrolysis process, and will need to be replaced after being used a few times.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalConnect one of the wire leads to the anode. Make sure you have a good, solid connection and that the lead is long enough to connect to the battery charger outside of the bucket.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalConnect a lead to the tool. You’ve got to have a good connection or the process won’t work well. This can be challenging with a rusty tool. You may have to clean a small section of the tool with sandpaper to make certain you have contact.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalMake up the electrolyte solution. You need enough water to completely submerge the tool. Add one tablespoon of baking soda or washing powder (either one will work) per gallon of water. Mix the solution to dissolve the powder.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalSuspend the tool in the vat and check the set up. Try to arrange the anode so it surrounds the tool, but don’t let the tool and anode touch each other.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalStart Removing Rust. Connect the clips from the battery charger to the leads on the tool and anode. Make sure you get this right. With the charger unplugged connect the positive to the anode and the negative to the tool. If you do this backwards your tool will become the sacrificial anode. Set the charger on a 2-amp charge and plug it in. Don’t let the connections from the charger touch the electrolyte solution.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalWithin minutes of plugging in the charger you should see bubbles rising from the tool. Allow the tool to “cook” for 15-20 hours.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalResults. After some time the top of the vat will be covered with sludge. This is a good thing. The sludge is the rust coming off the tool.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalUnplug and disconnect the charger and remove the tool from the solution. It won’t look like much now. It’ll need some cleaning.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalWearing rubber gloves, use a fine Scotch Brite pad to remove the sludge from the tool. It doesn’t take much elbow grease, just some wiping.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalUse a soft bristle brush to get into the spots you can’t reach with the pad. Wipe the tool clean using a paper towel.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalAfter the tool is clean and dry, coat it with paste wax so it doesn’t start to rust again.

Electrolysis Rust RemovalThe result? A tool that’s clean of rust. If only I could make a vat large enough for my 1959 Farmall tractor to fit into…

The vat of electrolyte solution is pretty benign stuff, but will burn your lawn if you dump it all in one spot. It’s best to dilute the liquid before disposing of it.

Now that the rust is gone from the plane body it’s time to do some shopping. In the next installment we’ll have a look at the replacement parts I purchased for this tool.

Photos By Author

Related video: Removing Rust with Electrolysis

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58 Responses to “Electrolysis Rust Removal”
  1. Caldrifter

    Hello George. Here’s something that should be mentioned. The newer battery chargers don’t seem to lend themselves to work with this process. I’ve tried two of them (brand new) and they do not put out any voltage at the plus and minus clips. Therefore, nothing is going on in the “soup.” I am trying to salvage a rusted saw blade (mainly doing it as an experimental purposes of this process). However, I did happen to have a 12-volt 1.75amp power supply that I use for hobby purposes. I rigged that up using the same method and believe it or not, after an hour or so, I was getting some schmutz (love this word…. makes me smile) coming to the surface. Evidently, that works just as well. Just thought I’d let you and fellow members know of an alternative if a battery charger doesn’t work for them.

    • Brad Osborne

      The purpose of a battery charger is to restore the charge to a battery therefore if a charger puts out no voltage it should be considered defective. Yes I work in a
      diesel repair and tire facility.

    • rick huckabee

      from what I understand about this process , new chargers need a battery in circuit to work

  2. TasieSceptic

    I use a 12v car battery for derusting tools and fittings and keep the battery charged with a trickle-charger, this bypasses the problem of modern chargers that don’t operate without a background voltage

  3. mark richards

    Never knew steel was porous, I would avoid the oven treatment as this would most definitely alter the temper of the steel, putting it in the oven then left to cool would be annealing or normalising it, why not just follow the instructions on the video and use a hair dryer!!

  4. Robert Galloway

    Everbody needs a variable autotransformer. Once you have one, you’ll find a hundred and one uses for it. A common trade name is Variac but they’re a little overpriced for amateur use. Plug a 30 amp battery charger into one and then dial in the exact current you want.

  5. thesitrep

    I’m doing this to a real nice set of Sterret dividers and I’m going to electroplate them tomorrow.
    Then ‘I’m going to de-rust a small Stanley plane and galvanize it too.
    I live in the rain forest in Hawaii and even a good SS knives rust here.
    180 inches of rain per year.

    • WWGOA Team

      Hi, Steve. Assuming automatic means it shuts off when the battery is charged, I think it would still work. My guess is that the electrolysis process will continuously demand current, so the on board meter should never read “full.” If you already own the charger, you should set the system up, try it, and let us know.

    • WWGOA Team

      Hi, Steve. Assuming automatic means it shuts off when the battery is charged, I think it would still work. My guess is that the electrolysis process will continuously demand current, so the on board meter should never read “full.” That is our best guess, but in reality we are not certain so there may be risk associated with testing this. If you already own the charger and decide to try it, please let us know the results.

    • Matt

      An automatic charger will just burn out it will not work you need a manual charger.

  6. David Grundy

    This is a great article George and explains the process in a way easily understood, thanks a lot.
    I do have a question. Did you remove the black paint from the plane body before you started with the electrolysis process?

  7. Chris

    The new “smart chargers” won’t work for this process.
    They won’t charge a shorted or open battery.
    This is probably going to appear to the charger that it’s a dead short.
    You need an old style one that will make crazy amounts of sparks when you quickly tap the leads together.
    Check garage sales, or with Grandpa.

    Another cool use for a charger like this, is to engrave your name/initials/logo into your steel tools or whatever.
    Just put electro etch into a search on YouTube.

  8. Otis Granger

    Would this be a safe way to clean a rusted cast iron pot or pan? I know the last part, using paste wax would have to change to using oil, but for getting the rust off it seems it would be a lot easier.

  9. Robert

    I use this method to recondition old cast iron skillets, works every time. I use WASHING SODA

  10. Don Willis

    Enjoyed your rust removal method and will try it myself. Please put me on your communication list. Thank you. Don

    • WWGOA Team

      Hi, Don! We have added you to E-Newsletter. Please check your email for confirmation.

  11. George Barnak

    What a great concept. Wish there was a practical simple way to apply this to large pieces of metal.
    For hand tools such as chisels and hammers where surface rust builds up over time, I usually polish the metal to a chrome like finish using a fine grade scotchbrite belt on a bench grinder with a linishing belt attachment. Then either coating the metal with sewing machine oil or spraying a clear coat of acrylic paint from a pressure pack to coat the surface. There are pressure packs available for coating brass which are suitable.

  12. ROSS


    • WWGOA Team

      It would be a good idea to have ventilation while you’re doing this process.

      • Rick

        I worked for a gas utility company for 30 years in their corrosion control department. This process is the same used by underground utilities to protect steel from underground corrosion. The process generates hydrogen gas at the surface of the cathode (the rusted tool). That’s the bubbles you see coming off the cathode. Use this process with caution, as a buildup of hydrogen gas may be possible in small enclosed spaces.

  13. Paul

    I inherited some tools that spent years in the barn. I can’t wait to get started. Thanks.

  14. woodswolf1

    Hi, I’ve seen this process in other DIY articles using rebar. The articles I read warned against doing it indoors because of hydrogen off gassing and building up. I didn’t see that mentioned here. Has that not been an issue?

    • Customer Service

      Although we haven’t had any problem with this, it’s best to do the process in a well ventilated area.

  15. Daniel

    I’m thinking of trying this on a bit brace. I won’t be able to remove the wooden hand piece in the middle what effect will the process have on wood.

    • Customer Service

      Hi Daniel. I’ve never tried this, so take this as a guess, but I don’t think that the electrolysis itself will hurt the wood. The wood will be exposed to some pretty foul water in the process, however, so the gunk that is removed through the electrolysis process might affect the appearance of the wood. If the aesthetics of the wood were special to me I wouldn’t do it. You might want to try it on a scrap piece of wood before trying it on the actual tool. You’ll have to put a chunk of rusty metal in with it to make it a fair test.

  16. Fred

    I bought a blacksmith post drill the other day and it is rusted tight. I have heard of this method of rust removal before but never tried it. Will it penetrate the joints between the shaft and the frame and the other moving parts (those that should be able to move)? Since they are fitted so tighly together will the rust free itself and float away?

    • Customer Service

      Hi Fred. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect, but you’ll want to separate parts as much as possible to get the maximum benefit from this approach. I wouldn’t expect great results in removing rust between parts that are in close contact during the process.

  17. jerry yirga

    I can’t wait to pick up some rusty tools from flea markets now.If you have the newer chargers ( I do) just connect a 12 volt battery in series with this arrangement and all will be fine.Just keep the amperage t0 2 amps or less !

  18. blackhawks gear

    Most of the information that’ll be outlined during the seminar include subject material technique, social media marketing technique enhancement, unexpected operations, shopper engagement techniques and company adjust.

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Mike. In theory it should, but I haven’t tried this specifically, so I cannot confirm.

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Karl. Thanks for your question. Unfortunately we do not have any chrome plating techniques to offer you as we at WWGOA focus primarily on woodworking tools and techniques.

  19. George Bowman

    I “de rustefied” a chain.I used a 5 gal. bucket with 8 rebar rods bolted to the bucket. I welded bolts to the rods at a 90 degree angle and put that through 8 holes I drilled . With washers and nuts, and 8 pieces of wire with terminals connected all together. suspended the chain with a small chain hanging on another rebar just placed accross the bucket. My little 6 amp charger worked like a champ. I also did 3 lead ladles that looked like they had been buried for about 100 years. Total success.

  20. Willi

    G’Day George. Being a home handyman I have been using this process for a few years now and have found it to be very useful to freshen up and remove rust on wide variety of tools.

  21. Ian

    Hi trying this article appeals to me, I do however have a question you might be able to answer. If I were to use a small arc welder instead of a battery charger;
    A) would it principally give the same results?
    B) would the “cooking time” be greatly reduced?
    Can anyone see any reason why I shouldn’t try it.

  22. Jerry Wayne Carroll

    Pretty awesome I learned a lot thank you for the information I have so goodbye

    • Customer Service

      Unfortunately, we have never tried this, and don’t know if it would work or not.

  23. Patrick Murphy

    I know I’m late to this article but it is very important to use Washing Soda and not baking soda. Baking soda will emit very dangerous chlorine gas with this chemical reaction!

    • Jim Davis

      Patrick Murphy, you mean adding sodium chloride will emit a dangerous chlorine gas. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, so there are no chloride ions that will be present.

  24. Rex

    My hobby is Blacksmithing. I have a lot of tools, vices, tongs, air movers and general rust to deal with. This article will help me and I want to read your next installment (s).

  25. Jerome frasier

    I have an old sledgehammer head would duck tape be good for attaching the positive live wire,this is two questions any suggestions would be appreciated.

  26. Edward Barker

    Is there any reason this should not be tried on gun parts. My question is would it in any way affect the hardness of the steel or damage the blueing?

    • Customer Service

      Hi Edward. I don’t have expertise on firearms, but I would be concerned about damaging the bluing.



    Sir baking soda will not work in an e tank
    Go to Electrolysis tank builders on face book to educate yourself! Thank you

  28. Raymond

    I’ve used an electrolysis system similar to this for years with excellent results. My preference is to use washing soda (sodium carbonate) rather than baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but either will work. The electrolyte solution needs to be alkaline (basic) and washing soda is the more alkaline of the two.

    It has been my experience that it’s better not to use copper wire to connect the anode and the rusty tool to the power supply. If copper gets into the electrolyte solution while the power is on, it really dirties up the system. Using soft iron wire, old coathanger wire stripped of its paint/lacquer coating or some other sort of steel support will keep the electrolyte solution much cleaner. With good cleaning of the rusty item before processing, this type of system can be used for a long time without refreshing the bath if ferrous leads are used.