Last Updated: Oct 31, 2016 @ 10:28 am

remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution

A few months after I sold my first horse, I was walking through the pasture and found a shoe he’d lost sometime in the preceding year. Although it would be a nice keepsake and something I could use to create an equestrian project with sentimental value, it was covered with layers of rust.

Thankfully I’d been experimenting all winter with using citric acid to clean rust off garden tools that I (oh-so-irresponsibly) tend to leave out in the elements. Turns out, the basic combination of citric acid, water, and time completely removes rust from metal. I was pretty thrilled, especially after trying to remove rust from tools with caustic chemicals like CLR and The Works without luck. A common ingredient in canning recipes, citric acid is an organic acid a little stronger than vinegar, depending on the concentration you mix it in.

Supplies You’ll Need:

A bucket or plastic container large enough to hold your rusted object(s)

Very hot water

Pure Citric Acid – You may be able to find citric acid locally, but it’s usually sold in small packages by the ounce. Amazon has 5 lb Bags of Citric Acid for a much better price that anywhere I’ve found locally. (I actually get a regular delivery of it, because it’s also great for boosting dishwasher detergent, descaling coffee makers, removing hardware stains, and general cleaning)

Instructions:

1. Scoop the powdered citric acid carefully into your bucket. I add about 1/3rd cup of powder per gallon of water, but you can use more or less depending on how rusty your object is and how quickly you need results.

2. Fill your bucket with very hot water and stir to dissolve powder completely.

3. Add your rusty object. (in this case, a horse shoe and rusty bolt cutters!)

remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution
Use hot water and make sure the citric acid completely dissolves.

 

5. Leave the bucket to let the rusty object soak. After 10-15 minutes you’ll see bubbles forming on the surface of the object as the acid reacts with the rust and creates gas.
remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution
The citric acid solution will slowly turn yellow as the rust dissolves

 

Next, Soak your object until you see visible results. After a day you may want to remix your citric acid solution (it will slowly lose acidity as it breaks down the rust) And if you are a fan of instant gratification as I am, you may want to do a bit of scrubbing to speed the process.
Scrubbing is optional, but speeds the process up significantly. The acid will loosen before it completely dissolves the rust, so a lot of the rust can be wiped off after an hour or two in the solution.
How my rusty objects looked after 2 hours in the solution and a quick wipe with a paper towel:remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution
Then a 30 second scrub with a steel brush produced this result:remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution

The remaining rust in the grooves of the horse shoe bothered me, so I remade my solution and let it sit overnight (In this photo you can see the rust sediment settled in the bucket)
soak a rusty object in this natural solution for no-scrub rust removal

When you are pleased with your object’s new, bright finish, dry it completely and apply a protective coat. (The metal will seem “dirty” and rub off dark marks on your hands, this is normal for steel and iron with no protective coating) You MUST protect the finish or the unprotected metal will rust again almost instantly. You can apply clear coat / lacquer, or just spray with cooking oil and wipe.

remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution
… and enjoy the final result!

remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution

 If you’ve cleaned up a keepsake horseshoe or bit, I have a few tutorials on how to display them:
remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution

 

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51 thoughts on “Removing Rust from Found Objects without Scrubbing”

  1. A good source for Citric Acid is No Sugar Added Lemon Cool-Aid (or equivalent as long as there is no sugar in the mix). Citric acid is generally the first ingredient listed and therefore has the greatest percentage of the mix.

    1. That would be a great idea for removing rust from small items like coins or medallions if you were in a hurry and had it on hand! But you can actually get a couple pounds of pure citric acid for the price of what you’d pay for 2 dozen kool aid packets.

  2. I’ve cleaned many many horseshoes with a wire wheel on a bench grinder, which does a great job but the grooves are always a problem because the wire doesn’t get down into the grooves easily. Besides rust, there’s always a whitish dirty powdery residue in the grooves. I’m not sure soaking in citric acid would actually get rid of it but will try.

    1. Hi Alissa! It totally works on cast iron! It won’t remove the black seasoning but will definitely remove rust from unseasoned spots- I’ve tested that! Just be sure and season your iron immediately, or it’ll rust again within hours!

      1. I’m blown away thank you so much it worked beautifully on my cast iron no dangerous chemicals and so easy wish I could send you a picture but I don’t know how I did post to my Facebook page

    2. The best way to clean a cast-iron frying pan is to put it in a self-cleaning oven and turn it to clean cycle on the oven. I seen this on a talk show and it works great all the black come off of ours and they were grey again you could even see the words on it who made it. when you take it out of the oven wipe it with canola oil when it’s still a little bit warm and nothing will stick to it

  3. I bought citric acid in the canning section at Walmart for $2.97 (Ball brand). The whole bottle equals about a cup’s worth. Dumped it in a 1.5 gallon bucket of hot water and soaked some rusty stuff for 24 hours. You can definitely see the bubbling action. Did a good job but the items still need some high speed buffing from the wire wheel on the bench grinder.
    As far as just what this will work on, it doesn’t matter. Rust is rust and it’s the rust the acid is dissolving.
    It’s much more economical to buy the citric acid by the pound on ebay but I wanted to experiment first.
    I read somewhere that anti-freeze would remove rust by soaking but I tried it and it didn’t do anything whatsoever.

    1. Yes! Vinegar is super for a long-soak if you don’t have citric acid handy- however in the long run citric acid is more potent and cheaper, so it works faster for less $$

      1. I use apple cider vinegar, soak for 2-3 days. Reuse several times to make it cost effective. Shoes come out looking new as in your after photo. Loosens that gunk in the groove too!

  4. Another very good way to remove rust is to soak in a solution of molasses and water. I use this method all the time to restore metal and it consistantly gives great results.

    1. I don’t think it would hurt to dump it- it’s definitely much gentler on your pipes than many household cleaners and might do some good on any buildup or corrosion on your pipes! On a really ruted project, though, you’ll end up with some sediment at the bottom of your bucket- so if the bottom is sludgy you may want to throw that in the trash!

      1. Have you ever used a pH strip on the used stuff to see how acidic it still is? I’ve forgotten most of my chemistry, but I would think the interaction with the rust (which is oxidation, right?) would change the pH. Perhaps it isn’t the least bit acidic afterwards?

  5. Hey Lindsay,

    This is a great post. I’ve used this technique for many years and it has never failed me. Hand saws, gardening tools, even objects on my boat that has been subjected to the harsh salt elements come clean and functional again.

    I like to use rustoleum invisible barrier after this process. Have some tools that despite some neglect, still haven’t rusted after years afterwards.

      1. I think it can work for small projects (for example rubbing a lemon on a butter knife with rust spots) but I don’t know about larger, very rusty items. I do not know the science behind this (would love to be enlightened if a chemistry buff can explain, though!) but based on the fact that sometimes the solution needs to be remixed to remove rust completely, I’m guessing something about the chemical process that removes the rust neutralizes the acid. Therefore, (again, just a guess), I think the more rust present the more acidity and/or time spend in a lower acid solution is needed to dissolve it away.

        1. Thank you. I appreciate your response and it gave me more understanding of it, when you stated the part about the item possibly needing a less acidic solution …I’m not sure of the science either, but that is something to consider.

    1. I do frequently use phosphoric acid. I don’t even soak items, I just brush it on and rust will change into a protective coat that you can paint on without further preparation. If you don’t like having a coating, quickly remove it with a wire brush. I usually leave it as protection on tools or just spray paint it.

  6. Have you ever done this with rusty portions on a nylon or cloth material (Ex: horse tack) to get the rust off the metal portion? Will it hurt the cloth?

  7. I have used Diet Mountain Dew on an old car heater fan that had 45 years of collective rust and it came out rust free after 3 days of soaking. I did a little brushing where I could and it looked great.
    Use Diet Mountain Dew as regular leaves a sticky residue. Poured it in a bucket and covered the items I wanted cleaned. Worked great. Have not tried this idea though…may have to give it a whirl.
    Was more expensive than this method but, its what I had on hand at the time.

  8. I built a trailer 15yrs ago using rusty iron i brushed off loose rust, i used a rust reformer every thing turned black i applied semi gloss rustoleom for the final coat, there’s no rust after 15 yrs.allways parked out side 7 mi from the ocean.

  9. Dose any out there know how to clean horse shoes in a large way I am talking about 100 or so not one or three at a time to get the rust off

    1. Hi does the citric acid discolour brass as I have a cast iron pot with brass handles a little awkward to emerge
      Regards michael

  10. I have been using white vinegar and water for several years to remove both rust and mill scale. Place in a five gallon bucket with the metal you want to clean for a day or two. Once clean to your liking, rinse with clean water and dry. You may have to wipe the pieces with a paper towel or cloth, but it will definitely do the job. You may also paint with vinegar to obtain a rust patina, the more the darker.

  11. I simply buy ‘cleaning vinegar’ at the local box store for this purpose. It has a higher acid content than vinegars used for food. Besides, it’s dirt cheap and ready to use straight from the bottle. I always keep a couple of gallons handy. Also, the dissolved rust solution makes a beautiful red stain.

  12. I frequently do clean horses shoes and thee answer is good old elbow grease. I am gunna try baking sodi and vinegar thou. I have done thousands. I weld in the winter, furniture tables and itshellcleaningthem.

  13. I have a very old metal dresser and it is very rusty. I don’t want anything to eat through the metal. It has no holes at all and in good shape so I want to preserve it. Any suggestions?

  14. I have an old brass torch that has green stalagmites on it which is pretty bad. I was wondering if Citric Acid would work for this case?

  15. I have some old rusted horse hames that I will try this with. Will probably find a portion of old gutter to submerge it in.
    We shall see…..

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