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Remove Rust from Tools without Scrubbing – An Easy How To

 

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

With one natural ingredient, it’s easy to remove rust from tools, heavily corroded antiques, and other metal objects.

Read on to learn how to remove rust with this simple method: Soak the rusty tool in citric acid for several hours,  remove it from the water and wipe down the tool to remove rust from crevices. No elbow grease needed!

In this article, I show how this method removes rust faster than vinegar, easier than scrubbing, and naturally – without the harsh chemicals in caustic rust removers. 

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 year before. Looking at it, I thought it would be a nice keepsake- and something I could use to create an equestrian project with sentimental value- but it was covered with layers of rust.

One simple step to dissolve rust from tools and found objects

I’d been experimenting all winter with using citric acid to clean rust off garden tools that I, in my distractability, tend to leave out in the elements. As it turns out, the basic combination of citric acid, water, and time completely removes rust from metal. I was pretty thrilled, especially after trying and mostly failing to remove rust from tools with caustic chemicals. 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.

2022 Update: I’ve loved reading your feedback on this article and how many of you have found this tutorial useful! Man of the comments have suggested replacing citric acid with vinegar and soaking a little longer, but my tests showed it doesn’t actually work as well, and costs quite a bit more.  

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Supplies You’ll Need for No Scrub Rust Removal:

  1. A bucket or plastic container large enough to hold your rusted object(s)
  2. Very hot water
  3. A surface treatment for raw metal. Oil or clear coat varnish works.
  4. Pure Citric Acid – You can buy this wherever canning supplies are sold, however, the pricing on citric acid sold for canning includes a huge markup. As of spring 2021, Ball brand citric acid is priced over $1/ounce but a 5 lb bag of food-grade Citric Acid is 25¢/ounce.

My advice is to order in bulk and don’t worry about having too much – it’s SO handy for cleaning! A tablespoon of Citric Acid is great for boosting dishwasher detergent, descaling coffee makers, getting grime off pots and pans, removing hard water stains, and general cleaning. You can use it in cooking too- soaking cut apples in a weak citric acid solution to prevent browning, or adding a tablespoon to bone broth at the beginning of the cooking process to help break down bone and transfer nutrients into your broth.

Instructions:

Prepare Acid Bath

It sounds intense, but Citric Acid in the following concentration is very safe- just a little more punch than average household vinegar. Scoop the powdered citric acid carefully into your bucket. I add about 1/3rd cup of powdered citric acid per gallon of water, but you can use slightly more or less depending on how rusty your object is and how quickly you need results.

Fill your bucket with very hot water and stir to dissolve the citric acid powder completely into the water. There should be no grit remaining at the bottom of the bucket.

Submerge Rusty Item in Solution

Being careful not to splash the citric acid solution, place your rusty object in the solution. In this image, I’m de-rusting a found old horse shoe and I’ve tossed in some rusty bolt cutters.

Allow Rusty Object to 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 tiny gas bubbles. When the bubbles rise to the surface and the water turns yellow, you’ll know the solution is working.

Continue soaking your object until you see visible results. Some items will be rust free in hours, while others may take a full day or multiple soaks. After a day you may want to remix your citric acid solution, because it will slowly lose acidity as it breaks down the rust. If you are a fan of instant gratification as I am, you may want to do a bit of scrubbing to speed the process.

Speed the Rust-Removal Process with an (Optional) Scrub

Continue soaking 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.

The above image is how my rusty objects looked after 2 hours in the solution and a quick wipe with a paper towel.

Remix & Resoak if Needed

To remove all rust with absolutely no scrubbing, just remix and soak until no rust remains (you may still need to wipe with a rag or run under running water to remove loosened rust particles from grooves).

When finished, the solution is safe to discard down a drain- the chemical reaction that dissolves the rust will have neutralized the acid, making it harmless for most household pipes (if any pieces of rust have broken off and settled at the bottom of the bucket, do NOT put these down a drain, and instead discard in the garbage).

Seal the Rust Free Metal

When you are pleased with your object’s new finish, dry it completely. The metal may seem “dirty” and transfer dark marks on your hands when touched- this is normal for steel and iron with no protective coating. Make sure the object is totally dry (10 minutes in a 300-degree oven works great as long as long the item is 100% metal with no plastic grips or heat-sensitive parts) and then add a protective finish.

IMPORTANT: You MUST protect the finish. If left uncoated, the unprotected metal will rust again almost instantly. To prevent new rust from forming, You can apply clear coat / lacquer, spray with cooking oil and wipe away the excess, or jump over to my tutorial for creating an antique gold finish (which looks great AND prevents rust).
 
 
 
remove rust from metal tools and found objects without scrubbing witha soak in this natural solution
It’s normal for the citric acid solution will slowly turn yellow as the rust dissolves

Scrubbing is optional but speeds the process up significantly. The acid will loosen before it completely dissolves the rust, so much of the rust can be effortlessly wiped off after an hour or two in the solution.

Rusty horse shoe and bolt cutters after soaking for 1 hour
A bare steel  horse shoe with no rust, after being cleaned.
Bare steel horseshoe and bolt cutters with no rust, after being cleaned.
 
 
After wiping with a paper towel, a 30 second scrub with a steel brush produced the dramatic result shown above (After only 2 hours soaking in the solution! If left overnight or allowed to have a second round, I could have skipped the abrasive scrub)
 

In this photo you can see the yellow-tinge the solution takes on as it is working, as well as the loosened rust sediment that will settle in the bucket.

soak a rusty object in this natural solution for no-scrub rust removal

 If you’ve cleaned up a keepsake horseshoe or bit, I have a few tutorials on how to display them in my post: How to Mount a Keepsake Horseshoe. Or you might like my advice for pricing vintage metal items for a flea market booth.

 

2022 Update: Vinegar vs Citric Acid

testing the pH of citric acid vs white vinegar
testing citric acid vs white vinegar

Since published, this article has traveled far and wide and collected a lot of feedback comments- many advising to “just use vinegar” was a comparable technique. Recently, I decided to do a side by side comparison of vinegar vs citric acid in my kitchen. Without repeating the entire rust removing process (difficult to compare with scrutiny, since no two objects rust exactly alike) I ordered some pH testing strips.

To be the “better” rust-removing solution, the winner would need to be 1.  higher in acidity, 2. lower in cost, or 3. both. My suspicion was that citric acid would win by a landslide, but my experiment progressed.

I mixed one cup of citric acid solution at the concentration recommended above (.33 cup per gallon, or in this case, the ratio scaled down to 1 tsp citric acid to 1 cup water) and tested it against a leading name brand of undiluted white vinegar.

RESULT #1: ACIDITY

At the recommended dilution, Citric Acid solution is slightly more acidic than vinegar– matching the scale in my pH testing kit at a pH of 3, compared to the name brand distilled white vinegar at pH 4. (Interestingly, according to the internet, the pH of distilled white vinegar should be between 2-3, meaning either my name-brand vinegar was weak or, more likely, my pH testing kit was not lab-accurate. Even if this is the case, I anticipate the values relative to other values read by the same test strips should generate accurate comparisons)

But how do they measure up in terms of cost? Read on

testing the pH of citric acid vs white vinegar
Adding 3 teaspoons of citric acid powder to 1 cup of water lowers the pH a full point.

 

RESULT #2: Cost of Vinegar vs Citric Acid

For one gallon of cleaning solution (just enough to clean an average-sized tool or a few horseshoes), you need either 1 gallon of vinegar or 1/3 cup of citric acid mixed with tap water. (To make the math easy, let’s say .5 cup of powered citric acid)

At major grocery outlets, a gallon of vinegar seems to run about $3-$4.

Currently, citric acid powered in bulk (5lbs) is $15 for 5 lbs. Citric Acid powered weighs about 2 cups per pound. The 5 lb bags, then, contains 10 cups, resulting in a cost of roughly $1.50 per cup of powder. The one half of a cup required to make a gallon of rust removing solution, then, comes in at right around 75¢

 

Therefore, rust treatment with citric acid costs less than 75¢ per gallon, while the same process with white vinegar costs $3-$4 per gallon. Given that the citric acid solution is stronger, and thus faster acting, it’s the better choice for rust removal through no-scrub soaking.

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Easy DIY for dissolving rust from tools and antiques
 

Using Citric Acid to Remove Rust from Things that can’t be Soaked.

While this tutorial is a low-effort and speedy way to remove rust from tools without scrubbing, it has its limitations. large and bulky objects cannot be dropped into a bucket for soaking.

Recently, I ran into this problem in Hawk Hill Cottage, and I came up with a solution worth adding as an update to this post. The cottage features only one full bathroom, but oh, it is a glorious bathroom! A large skylight opens up over the shower to add a view of the sky and swaying trees visible from the shower. Recently updated and clean bright white, the only eyesore in this bathroom was an ugly red rust stain in the bathtub.

Even the professional cleaner hired to clean the cottage before I moved in couldn’t get this ugly red stain out of the tub. I was determined, however, that I would. So I set out to experiment with various cleaners.

I won’t run through my laundry list of tub and tile cleaners I tried on my bathtub’s rust stain, but suffice to say it was more than a few (and a lot of elbow grease!) Nothing even touched my rust stain.

One day, though, as I was reading the instructions on the bottle of Bar Keeper’s Friend Soft Cleanser, I noticed that citric acid was listed among the primary ingredients. I wondered: “Could this be my solution?” Bar Keepers Friend, since it is a thick, viscous liquid, might stay in place when dabbed on the stain (rather than running off like a liquid or immediately drying like other cleaners).

Excited to try my theory, gloved up and poured a small pool of bar keepers friend onto my tub’s rust stain one night before bed. I didn’t scrub at all, I just dumped a small amount of this citric acid-containing cleaner directly on the stain and hoped for the best.

The next morning- I won’t like- I woke up excited to clean my shower! (That might be a first for me) I grabbed a small scrubber and began gently scrubbing away the crust that Bar Keepers Friend had dried into overnight. To my delight, I found that the ugly red rust stain had entirely dissolved overnight after being soaked in the cleaner containing citric acid. I never even had to scrub except for the bit of elbow grease required to remove the dried cleaner from the tub.

Unfortunately, since I tried this project on a whim- without much hope of success, I didn’t document this rust removal success, but you can bet I’ll have my eye out for a rust stain to demonstrate how a viscous cleaner containing citric acid can remove rust from surfaces that can’t be soaked.

This trick makes removing oxidation easy

Brian

Thursday 23rd of June 2022

Tip for treating your newly de-rusted metal. If you're going to put it in a hot oven for drying, increase the temp and the time. By the way, putting it into a "Hot" oven is a misnomer. Metal always does better being heated when it starts out slowly, so put it in a cold oven and let it come up to temp along with the oven. Increase the temp to 500 degrees and leave it in for an hour minimum. If your oven will go higher, go up to 550 or even 600 degrees. You will notice the metal turning a blueish color - no problem. Now you have two choices or options depending upon what you want your finished product to look like. If you want a painted look, spray paint - the 2X kind with the paint and primer already mixed - or a good Rustoleum enamel based paint works best. Have a paint area already set up with some sort of a bench or table that will not burn with the hot metal from the oven. Some things I will hang from a wire hanger so that I can spray all sides without the need to turn it over. For other things where the back side is not critical, an old cookie baking sheet works well. What you will end up with is a "Baked-On" Enamel or a "Poor Man's" Powder Coat. Just make sure to be ready to spray as soon as it comes out of the oven so you can get a good bake. Several lite spray sessions in quick succession work well since the piece is still hot. The paint will dry quickly and new coats can be applied a lot sooner than you think. The first coat may bubble - not to worry it's the baking process and future coats will cover. Your final finish will look very professional. Now, option number 2. If you don't want a painted look but prefer a more natural look, take the hot metal out of the oven and dunk it in cold oil. Any oil will work, cooking oil or even used motor oil. Allow the hot metal to cool down in the oil bath. This is similar to a "Blueing" method like gunsmiths use to keep firearms from rusting. The hotter the metal when it comes out of the oven, the better the finish will be...so don't be in a hurry and keep it in the oven as long as you can. Your container for the oil should either be a metal bucket or stock pot or you should have a way to suspend the item in the oil bath if the tub is plastic. The metal will not cool fast enough before it melts a hole in the tub and all the oil runs out....so be careful. Also be careful when taking the item out of the oven. I like to use welder's gloves and something like a vise-grip to remove and carry the item to where it will be painted. Always think safety. Good luck.

Christine

Saturday 16th of April 2022

I'm not fond of vinegar, simply because I forget about what I'm soaking. It takes the rust off, sure, but if you leave it for, oh, say a few days? It also takes the silver finish off the tools, too. Wrenches, in my case. A little WD-40 seals them, though, and no more repeat of the rust. I am late to this party, but I do love the citric acid trick, too. Great for toilets with rust stains, as is Bar Keeper's friend! Then, of course, there's always scrubbing it with a pumice at the same time...

Dana Watson

Thursday 9th of December 2021

I've used your your technique with results. BUT... (its good) I have an old Army immersion heater and heated up about 48 gallons of water, and through a weaker solution (I didn't have enough citric acid on hand). I threw some very rusty shears in and it it did in an hour what took 24 before. I believe the continuous heat made it circulate better. Amazing results.

Lom

Sunday 4th of July 2021

I know this article is dated… but after reading it, I am curious if I spray painted the horse shoes after they were soaked and all cleaned up-rather then coat with a clear coat..

Lom

Monday 5th of July 2021

@Lindsayanne Brenner, Once cleaned of the rust- If I paint the horseshoe with a black or hammered style spray paint rather than cover in clear lacquer or oil it-will it rust?

Lindsayanne Brenner

Sunday 4th of July 2021

I try to update the post periodically, as I learn more and test other methods. I'm a little unclear what your comment is asking, though?

Albert

Friday 5th of March 2021

I did purchase 30% vinegar from green gobbler. Very strong didn’t try to use it to remove rust . I have used citric acid works great purchased on line could not find in our stores.