Jul 07, 2023
How to Remove Rust From Metal Surfaces—From Garden Tools to Vintage Finds
By Kristi Kellogg and Jennifer Beck Goldblatt Outdoor garden tools, kitchen knives, and other metal objects are all susceptible to corrosion, especially if they are exposed to the elements. Learning
By Kristi Kellogg and Jennifer Beck Goldblatt
Outdoor garden tools, kitchen knives, and other metal objects are all susceptible to corrosion, especially if they are exposed to the elements. Learning how to remove rust can help them work better, last longer, and look sparkly. Luckily, rust removal—if it’s just banishing surface rust—just takes a bit of time and elbow grease. “It is not something to worry about because there are ways you can get rid of rust,” says Jamie Penney, home improvement and outdoor design expert and CEO of The Backyard Pros in Vancouver.
Much like brass cleaners, chemical rust removers can be found in any hardware store. But many household cleaning items—like baking soda, lemon juice, vinegar, and even soda—can do the trick. Once you learn how to remove rust, that wrench or expensive chef’s knife will look brand-new. Here, expert advice on how to remove rust, the best way to remove rust quickly, and the best homemade rust removers.
Ferrous metals—like cast iron, carbon steel, and wrought iron—are used to make a bevy of items you frequently use around the house, in your backyard, and on the outdoor patio. Knives, skillets, garden tools, yard equipment, fireplace tools, and nails are just a few examples of the everyday metal items that contain iron. When these household objects are neglected or not properly cleaned or dried, corrosion takes place and your beloved goods are covered with reddish-brown rust. This happens because ferrous metals don’t mix with acidic substances, water, and oxygen. Rust is persistent, and when left unattended, more rust forms, making rust removal a chore that could take a couple of hours and a whole lot of elbow grease to complete.
To keep your metal objects rust-free, steer clear of water, which is the main culprit when it comes to corrosion. That means you have to dry your garden tools after you take care of the vegetable beds and wipe down the putty knife after caulking any leaks in the gutters. Kitchen knives should be washed and dried as soon as possible. Don’t let the cutlery sit in the sink, and avoid placing them in the dishwasher. Store metal objects, including home improvement tools, in a dry area with low humidity, and you won’t have to clean rust anytime soon.
You can also apply a protective coating to prevent rust from forming on metal surfaces. For an item like a pocket knife, use a soft cloth to apply a small amount of mineral oil two to three times per year. Tools and lawn equipment can be treated with products like paste wax or WD-40 to help slow and prevent rust stains. If you happen to have a metal item with a little—or a lot—of rust, here are seven proven removal method hacks to try.
Is there anything white vinegar can’t clean? This powerhouse ingredient can work wonders on many metal items that have succumbed to rust. “White vinegar may be the most accessible and reliable option,” says Steve Elliott, franchise owner of Restoration1, a water-damage company in Waco, Texas. “Put your rusty metal pliers [or other small metal items] in a jar of white vinegar for a few minutes, and the degrading brown coating may be easily scraped away.” If you’re attempting to remove rust from a bigger metal object, such as a shovel, pour white vinegar directly onto the rusted region, give it sufficient time to cure, and brush the shovel with a cloth, he adds.
To tackle items with significant corrosion, submerge your rusty tools or knives in a bowl of white vinegar and let them sit overnight or as long as 24 hours. Once they have had a good soak, remove them from the vinegar and scrub the rust off with steel wool, a scouring pad, or a wire brush. Don’t be gentle when trying to remove rust stains, this is likely going to take some serious elbow grease. If there are some remaining rust spots, repeat the process, soaking the object for longer than you did the first time. Once all the rust has been removed, clean the item with a mild dish soap and water, and make sure you dry it thoroughly.
Baking soda works well on items with light rust stains. It also works well on items made out of thin metal, like knives. To use this method, simply mix enough water into baking soda until you are able to form a thick paste. Use your hand or a toothbrush to spread the paste all over the metal, making sure that rusty spots are well covered. Let the paste sit on the object for an hour or so. Use steel wool, a scouring pad, or a wire brush to scrub the object and remove the rust. Rinse the paste off with water and repeat if needed. Dry thoroughly.
This cleaning hack might seem a bit more like ingredients in a salad dressing than a serious rust remover, but it definitely works. When the acidity of the lemon (or a lime) combines with the abrasiveness of the table or kosher salt, magical things can happen. To try it on your garden tools, simply cover the rusted areas with salt and then squeeze fresh lemon juice (stay away from bottled lemon juice, you want the real deal) over the layer of salt. Don’t discard the used lemon. Let the salt and lemon mixture sit for about two hours, then use the lemon rind as a scrubber to remove the rust. If there are particularly stubborn rust stains, break out the steel wool, a scouring pad, or a wire brush. When done, rinse off the lemon juice, salt, and rust residue, and dry the metal item thoroughly.
You read this right: A potato can treat a rusted area. All potatoes contain oxalic acid, which you may be surprised to learn is a key ingredient in many cleaning products. Oxalic acid also dissolves rust. To try this technique, slice a potato in half, cover the cut section with dish soap, and sprinkle salt (or baking soda) onto the potato. Both the salt and baking soda will act as a mild abrasive to help scrape the rust off the metal surfaces as it dissolves. Rub the rusted area with the potato until the corrosion is gone. Rinse and dry well. This technique works best for pieces of metal without detailing or relief work.
Citric acid, which can be found in health food stores and in the baking aisle of some supermarkets, works like a charm when it comes to removing rust, but it will also remove paint and other coatings, so it may not be the best method for treating a rust stain on metal surfaces that you painted for a DIY project. To try this method, add three tablespoons of citric acid to a bowl of hot water and submerge rusty metal objects and leave them to sit overnight. The next day, scrub the freshly dissolved rust using steel wool, a scouring pad, or a wire brush, and dry thoroughly.
Maybe the easiest DIY rust removal method: a crumpled sheet of aluminum foil. “A simple aluminum scrub will ensure that your items don’t get damaged or retain any scrub marks,” says David Lee, founder of Neutypechic, a mirror retailer. This hack works wonders on hard to reach places with nooks and crannies, like antique mirrors, a vintage vanity, or a dingy medicine cabinet.
You can use Coca-Cola to remove rust from metals like iron, steel, and copper. “This household staple contains phosphoric acid, which is a powerful rust remover,” says Pulkit Damani, founder of OffbeatBros, a blog about home improvement tips including home cleaning, organization, and decor. Just pour it over the rusted surface and let it sit for a few minutes. Then, use a brush to scrub away the rust.
Don’t feel like raiding your kitchen for a rust-removal solution? No problem. You can also remove rust from metal with a store-bought chemical rust removers like Metal Glo. It’s formulated for safe use on knives, silverware, cookware, and even jewelry. When cleaning your knives, make sure to rub any solution along the grain pattern to avoid scratching the metal.
For outdoor metal surfaces, such as stair railings and patio furniture that have seen better days, try Goo Gone Rust Remover spray. Looking for something to remove rust from large objects in and around your house? Try a heavy-duty solution like Naval Jelly for barbecue grills, tools, lawn mowers, bikes, mailboxes, and lampposts. This chemical rust remover is soluble in water, so even though it’s powerful, it’s also easy to clean up. To use Naval Jelly, spray or paint the solution on the rusted object. The rust typically dissolves in five to 10 minutes. Keep in mind, this product is only for objects with thick metals, such as those listed above. It should never be used on thin metal or stainless steel.
If a rust remover doesn’t work, try a polishing cloth, says Dale Steven, lead researcher at Mower & Yard Tools. “A polishing cloth is soft and gently removes rust and other stains,” he says. “Wet the cloth and apply pressure to the stain. Use a circular motion to polish the area until the stain is gone.” For stubborn rust stains, try a sandpaper block.
If you have something that has an intense rust coating, call a professional. Using harsh chemicals and strong acids, like hydrochloric acid, can cause serious damage to your skin and lungs—even if you use it as a diluted or gel form to remove rust.