Four Steps to Rust-Free Tools

Ever since the dawn of the Iron Age (whenever that was), rust has been the enemy of the woodworker. I live in the wettest region of the continental USA, so rust is ever present to me. Even though I store and use my hand tools indoors, there are still big fluctuations in humidity from season to season, so I have had to give a lot of thought to rust-prevention.

Like everything else in the shop, the key to success is establishing good habits and routines. Here are four practices that I have found helpful in keeping my hand tools rust-free:

1. Wipe them off. Our shops are dusty places. But dust particles that settle on your tools give moisture in the air a convenient place to condense, which leads to rust. So the less dust you have on your tools, the less rust-prone they will be. You can use a clean cloth or even a handheld vacuum to dust off your tools at the end of the day. For hand tools with a lot of nooks and crannies (like hand planes), I use a small paintbrush I got at a hardware store. Also be sure to wipe down metal surfaces that you have handled with your bare hands. The natural chemicals that our skin produces can quickly corrode iron and steel.

2. Apply a lubricant.  There are many good oils and waxes that, when applied in a thin layer, form a very good barrier between atmospheric moisture and your tools. I’ve used a lot of different lubes over the years, including jojoba oil, paste wax, and synthetic motor oil. I’ve heard of good results from natural products like camellia oil and mutton tallow, as well as products in a spray can like Topcote, Boeshield T-9, and WD-40. They all work. Pick one and try it out. (Just don’t use a drying oil like linseed oil–that goes on wood, not on metal.) Apply only thin a coat, and wipe off any excess. Waxes and some oils can get gummy when applied too thickly.

A trick I learned from Paul Sellers: to make a simple oil applicator, roll up a cotton rag and stuff it into a small, clean can. Soak it with your choice of oil. Use it to apply the oil to your tools before putting them away.

3. Store them in a wooden box. I learned this one by experience. When I first started working wood, I kept my hand tools in a metal tool box, and I would occasionally find rust spots on them. But since I built my wooden tool chest, I’ve had far fewer rust problems. I think the wood acts as a moisture regulator, absorbing excess moisture in the air inside the chest before the moisture can condense on the tools. It might not be a practical solution for large power tools, but for everything else, I highly recommend a wooden tool chest or wall cabinet. If you do need to keep your hand tools in a metal chest or cabinet, consider using a small rod heater (like a Golden Rod heater) to prevent condensation. These devices are inexpensive, plug into a regular outlet, and are designed to regulate temperature and humidity in everything from pianos to gun safes. They work for tools, too.

4. Use them frequently. One of the greatest causes of corrosion is neglect. (And that applies to a lot more than just woodworking!) Regardless of how carefully you store your tools, they will tend to corrode if left to themselves. But if you use your tools often, you will notice the small rust spots before they become big rust spots. And if you are in the habit of cleaning your tools before putting them away, you will be cleaning them frequently. But if you never use them, you probably won’t think to dust them off and oil them, either. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of shops full of duplicate hand tools just sitting around on shelves, unused. That invites rust, unless the tools are regularly maintained. There’s nothing wrong with collecting tools, and if you do, then naturally you’ll want to curate your collection in more ways than are detailed in this blog post. But if you’re not a dedicated collector, and some of your tools are deteriorating from lack of use, consider passing them on to somebody who will actually use them.

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