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What is the method?
Electrolysis is a technique for returning surface rust to iron. It uses the effect of an small low voltage electric current and a suitable electrolyte (solution). It has advantages over the old standbys, like vinegar, Coke, muriatic acid, Naval Jelly, wire brushing, sand blasting etc — These methods all remove material to remove the rust, including un-rusted surfaces. With many, the metal is left with a "pickled" look or a characteristic color and texture. The electrolytic method removes nothing: by returning surface rust to metallic iron, rust scale is loosened and can be easily removed. Un-rusted metal is not affected in any way.
What about screws, pivots, etc that are "rusted tight"?
The method will frequently solve these problems, without the need for force, which can break things. Is it safe? The solutions used are not hazardous; the voltages and currents are low, so there is no electrical hazard. No noxious fumes are produced. The method is self limiting: it is impossible to over clean an object. Small amounts of hydrogen are emitted in the electrolysis process. Good ventilation or an outdoor work site is all that is needed.
Where did this method come from?
Electrolysis is a standard technique in the artifact restoration business. I wrote this up for the Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association a few years back. Most of the tool collectors around here use it.
What do I need?
A plastic tub; a stainless steel or iron electrode, water and washing soda (Arm & Hammer, for example) and a battery charger. About a tablespoon of soda to a gallon of water. If you have trouble locating the washing soda, others have reported success with baking soda. Also household lye will work just fine. It’s a tad more nasty — always wear eye protection and be sure to add the lye to the water (NOT water to lye!!!) The solution is weak, and is not harmful, though you might want to wear gloves. NOTE: It is the current that cleans, not the solution; nothing is gained by making a more concentrated solution — DON”T!
How long does the solution last?
Forever, though the loosened rust will make it pretty disgusting after a while. Evaporation and electrolysis will deplete the water from the solution. Add water ONLY to bring the level back.
What about the stainless/iron electrode?
The electrode wants to be large (within reason); if possible, larger than the object being cleaned. The iron electrode works best if it "surrounds" the object to be cleaned, since the cleaning is "line of sight" to a certain extent. An iron electrode will be eaten away with time. Stainless steel has the advantage (some alloys, but not all) in that it is not eaten away. I have had good success with sheet stainless salvaged from a paper towel dispenser. It has a large surface area and is easily shaped to fit the container.
How do I connect the battery charger?
THE POLARITY IS CRUCIAL!! The iron or stainless electrode is connected to the positive (red) terminal. The object being cleaned, to the negative(black). Submerge the object, making sure you have good contact, which can be difficult with heavily rusted objects. Get it backwards and your object will be relentlessly eaten away! Make connections on a part of your electrode that protrudes out of the solution, or your clamps will erode rapidly.
How do I know if it is working?
Turn on the power. If your charger has a meter, be sure some current is flowing. Again, on heavily rusted objects, good electrical contact may be hard to make-it is essential. Multi-part objects may not have good electrical connections between them. Fine bubbles will rise from the object when cleaning is in progress.
How long do I leave it?
The time depends on the size of the object and of the iron electrode, and on the amount of rust. You will have to test the object by trying to wipe off the rust. If it is not completely clean, try again. Typical cleaning time for moderately rusted objects is a few hours. Heavily rusted objects can be left over night.
How do I get the rust off after I remove the object?
Rub the object under running water. A paper towel will help. For heavily rusted objects, a plastic pot scrubber can be used, carefully. Depending on the amount of original rust, you may have to re-treat. The amount of mechanical action will depend on the fragility of the object. Use your discretion.
My object is too big to fit. Can I clean part of it?
Yes. You can clean one end and then the other. Lap marks should be minimal if the cleaning was thorough.
After I take it out, then what?
The clean object will acquire surface rust very quickly, so wipe it dry and dry further in a warm oven or with a hair dryer/heat gun. You may want to apply a light oil or a coat of wax to prevent further rusting.
Will the method remove pitting?
No. It only operates on the rust in immediate contact with un-rusted metal. What’s gone is gone. What will it look like when I am done? The surface of rusted metal is left black. Rusted pits are still pits. Shiny un-rusted metal is untouched.
What about nickel plating, paint, japanning and the like?
Sound plating will not be affected. Plating under which rust has penetrated will usually be lifted. The solution is likely to soften most paints.Test with a drop of solution in an inconspicuous place. Remove wood handles if possible before treating.
How can I handle objects that are awkward to clean?
There are lots of variants: suspending an electrode inside to clean a cavity in an object; using a sponge soaked in the electrolyte with a backing electrode to clean spots on large objects or things that shouldn’t be submerged (like with lots of wood)
How can I dispose of the solution?
The bath will last until it gets so disgusting that you decide it is time for a fresh one. There is nothing especially nasty about it-it”s mildly basic-so disposal is not a concern, except you may not want all the crud in your drains.
Can I use metal containers?
This is highly risky. Galvanized metal can introduce zinc into the solution. If you have used lye, it will attack aluminum. You may have problems with electrical shorts, etc. Stick to plastic.
How can I clean odd shaped objects?
Be ingenious. Plastic PVC pipe and eave troughs, wooden boxes with poly vapor barrier, kids wading pools, etc