George Vondriska

Electrolysis Rust Removal: Restore Old Tools with Ease

George Vondriska
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Duration:   3  mins

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 to 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 Removal

Here’s a Bailey #4 hand plane I picked up for $25. The 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.

What You Need:

  • 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

1. Preperation

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.

2. Make 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.

3. Connect one of the wire leads to the anode

Electrolysis Rust Removal

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.

4. Connect a lead to the tool

Electrolysis Rust Removal

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.

5. Make 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.

6. Suspend the tool in the vat and check the set up

Electrolysis Rust Removal

Try to arrange the anode so it surrounds the tool, but don’t let the tool and anode touch each other.

7. Start Removing Rust

Electrolysis Rust Removal

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 backward, 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 Removal

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

8. Remove from solution

Electrolysis Rust Removal

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

9. Remove sludge

Electrolysis Rust Removal

Wearing 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 Removal

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

10. Wax it

Electrolysis Rust Removal

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

11. The Result?

Electrolysis Rust Removal

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!

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6 Responses to “Electrolysis Rust Removal: Restore Old Tools with Ease”

  1. J W

    Hi, I was worried about the hydrogen generation from the electrolysis process... Is it dangerous to do this indoors, and did you have a way to vent the hydrogen in your example? Thanks

  2. Bill Valosin

    Does the positive ("hot") wire connect to the tool or the anode? Naturally the negative wire attaches to the other point of contact. Thank you!

  3. Mark Evans

    In the recipe, it states you used a coffee can. Is there any particular metal type it needs to be? You don't specify. Is an anode like that used in a water heater or attached to an outboard motor okay to use? Metal coffee cans are hard to find. Thanks

  4. Robert Campbell⁸

    Technical question - can you make it work on the inside of a gas tank?

  5. Taher Khokhar

    Don't have a tin can so can I use aluminium baking tray or foil? I have empty paint tin cans which are painted on the outside. Can I use one of these?

  6. Ian Watson

    The body comes out black in colour. Will this happen to all tools?

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