How To Keep Woodworking Tools From Rusting

Woodworking tools are a major investment, and keeping them in top condition can occasionally be a challenge. One of the most common fates of old or unused tools is rusting; luckily, there are various methods and tips to stop woodworking tools from rusting and becoming ruined.

To keep woodworking tools from rusting, use them frequently and keep them away from moisture. Low humidity and a clean workshop will help with this. Protective coatings can be helpful when storing tools for any length of time. Most rust can be removed with a grindstone to restore tools.

There are a few basic maintenance tips for both the tools themselves and the area where work is commonly done. With some minor forethought and care, rust can be prevented, and tool life easily extended. Learning more specifics about each tip can be even more helpful in preventing rust.

Maintain A Low Humidity Workshop

Maintaining a low humidity workshop and storage area for your tools is one of the easiest and best ways to prevent rust from building up on tools. Whether hand or power tools, any metal surface is significantly more likely to rust due to higher humidity or dust, as these both trap moisture. 

Especially if you live or work in a high humidity climate, such as the south-east United States, these preventative steps become even more important. While they are not the only way to prevent rust, and other steps should also be taken, this is likely the easiest way to keep tools in good condition.

Use A Dehumidifier To Prevent Rust Build Up

If you have a workshop or common work area, consider installing a dehumidifier. Although it may seem expensive at first, consider how much money or nostalgia is in your tools – a small bump in upkeep costs is likely worth keeping them in great condition.

A dehumidifier installed in a workshop is an easy and great way to keep humidity down and prevent moisture from settling into tools. Keep it running at all times, even when you are not there, for maximum effectiveness. Modern dehumidifiers are extremely efficient and do not require significant power, so the largest financial hit is likely to be the price of the unit itself. 

A dehumidifier is essential if you store your tools in the workshop’s open-air, especially power tools. While most hand tools can be stored in a chest, as our next method goes over, it’s fairly difficult to hide a table or bandsaw inside an airtight container. 

Other Ways to Lessen Humidity

There are alternative methods to reducing humidity that does not require a dehumidifier, but they are less effective and may not prevent rust. Still, they are worth considering if a dehumidifier is not an option; alternatively, combining a dehumidifier with some of these other methods will only improve your tool’s health.

Improve airflow, introduce ventilation, get rid of any standing water, and cover any pipes in your work area to reduce humidity. Every method of reducing humidity is meant to stop water from gathering in the space or evaporating into the air, which is what humidity actually is. Getting creative with methods here is a great option.

Keeping Tools In An Airtight Chest Will Help Prevent Rust

If running a dehumidifier does not feel like enough or is not possible effectively, keeping an airtight chest where tools are stored is another great option. In fact, combining this with a dehumidifier will be even better for preventing rust on woodworking tools.

The thought process of an airtight chest for tool storage is simple; it essentially creates a mini-climate inside of your work area where moisture and temperature can be regulated. While it is possible to get highly creative with this and introduce a mini dehumidifier and temperature control, it is unnecessary to reap the benefits of a small tool chest.

To create a mini-climate area for your tool storage, all you need is an airtight container and some way of trapping moisture inside the chest. 

Use Silica Gel

The most common way is through the use of silica gel packets, which often ships with shoes or other clothing. These are easy to find or cheap to buy and can effectively trap a significant amount of moisture compared to their size. A large tool chest will only need a few to manage moisture effectively.

Try Out Moth Balls to Prevent Rust

Mothballs are another common item that can help prevent rust in small areas, as they release a gas that directly interferes with oxidization, the actual cause of rust

There are all sorts of ways to keep humidity down, so finding one that works for your setup should be fairly easy. In fact, keeping humidity low, whether, in a workshop, home, or chest, all use the same basic science; read here for more information about reducing humidity.

Keep Your Workshop Free of Dust & Clean it Regularly

Dust and wood shavings are notorious for trapping moisture. Although this may sound like a good thing at first, it is actually the opposite; whenever dust, wood shavings, or sawdust lands on a metal tool, it is trapping any moisture or condensation from the air directly on the tool. This is almost a guarantee for developing rust.

To prevent this, keep your shop clean. Wiping down tools after usage and before storage is a nice way to ensure they stay effective and provide another opportunity to handle them and make sure everything looks good. 

Take the time every so often to sweep out the shop, wipe down work surfaces, and do basic maintenance on the area. Not only will this help prevent rust in the long run, but it will also improve your general workshop and make it easier to work.

Introducing proper ventilation is vital for any workshop that uses power tools but can also help keep a clean area to prevent rust on all tools. 

The best filters are the HEPA filters, which can filter almost everything, but even average systems can be wonderful for tool maintenance. Dust collection systems are fantastic for the people working in the shop, helping prevent lung issues from sawdust.

Use Tools Frequently To Prevent Rust

The single best way to prevent rust from developing on tools is to use them often. Rust most often develops when moisture, dust, or wood particles are allowed to sit on the tool for long periods of time. Moisture is the true killer, while wood and dust particles trap it close to the tool’s surface and speed up the process.

When tools are handled, moved, and used, moisture on the metal areas is moved and not allowed to settle. This is one of the main reasons why use prevents rust and why old or neglected tools are so often covered in it; they have sat in the same position, likely in a humid environment, for years and years.

Another aspect of using tools is the oil from our hands slowly coating the tool. Oil and coatings are a great way to prevent rust when applied externally, but there is also value in our body’s natural oils rubbing off on the various metals and woods we encounter. 

While these oils are most commonly associated with causing the degradation of surfaces, there is a positive to them. While it obviously will not hit every part of a tool, it can provide extra protection on some of the more prominent areas of either power or hand woodworking tools.

If you have tools that you do not use often, consider picking them up and handling them every so often anyway. While it is not as effective at preventing rust as actually using the tools, even the small movements and contact can help the tool from rust. This is especially important if the tools are stored in the open air or see significant sawdust around them.

Apply Protective Coatings When Necessary

Protective coatings are not enough on their own to prevent all rusting, but they are beneficial, especially when storing tools for long periods of time. Various oils prove beneficial here, and some less popular but still effective options like wax also exist. 

Choosing one will largely come down to personal preference; the most important part of choosing a protective coating is ensuring that it is non-oxidizing. Even paint is commonly used to prevent rust from occurring. For more information on how the various coatings available can help prevent rust, read more here.

The type of coating you choose may depend on the tool, common uses, and storage options. For example, paint is actually one of the most common ways to prevent rust despite its intended purpose. 

However, if the tool has internal mechanisms or a look you would prefer to preserve, paint is not an option. Likewise, keeping a tool in a tub of petroleum jelly is a fantastic way to prevent rust from occurring but is not feasible for any tool that sees use.

Use A Non-Oxidizing Oil For Long Term Storage

When storing tools for an extended period of time, it is worth applying a protective coating right beforehand. Preferably, this protective coating should be thick and particularly good at preventing rust, as dust and other particles should not be an issue during storage (if done correctly). 

While any rust preventive coating will work, consider choosing a thick gel or oil for coating before storage. 

These materials often make the tool more difficult to use under normal circumstances, but they are the best ways to stop rust from accumulating on a stagnant tool. When you eventually take the tool out of storage, if the coating is bothering you, wipe it away and replace it with a thinner coating that does not bother you.

As always, ensure that the oil or gel is non-oxidizing. Oxidation is what directly causes rust. In fact, the main thing most protective coatings do is create a barrier between the metal of the tool and the air, where oxygen is. The thicker the barrier, the less oxidation that can occur. Non-oxidizing oils are specifically engineered to prevent oxidation as much as possible.

Be Careful of Dust When Applying A Protective Coating

While a protective coating such as WD-40, mineral oil, or even motor oil is most beneficial for long term storage, reapplying the protective coating even while the tool sees common usage is still great for rust prevention. 

This comes with some possible issues. However, most protective coatings attract dust and other particles, trapping them on the surface. Not only does this interfere with the look of the protective coating, but it also reduces its effectiveness.

When a protective coating ends up trapping wood or dust inside it, that wood or dust ends up trapping the moisture directly into the tool’s metal surface. 

This actually backfires, causing more rust than if the protective coating was not there. It is important to keep various particles away from the tool after the coating has been placed, especially during the early drying parts.

Different protective coatings can have dramatically different drying times, which will affect how long you should be careful with the tool. For example, most spray-on rust inhibitors dry quickly into a dust-preventive surface. This means that dust and sawdust can touch the tool without causing issues. 

Of course, they are also less effective at keeping rust out than other options such as most oils or gels. These dry incredibly slowly, if at all, but are incredible at preventing rust. Choose whatever works best for your needs.

Remove Rust With A Grindstone

Some rust developing is almost inevitable for tools that go unused for a while. Likewise, you will have to remove the rust from a tool before applying any of the above methods to prevent rust from returning in the future. 

Otherwise, the rust will continue to spread anyway and make your other efforts useless. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to remove most rust with some basic tools and some elbow grease.

Using a grindstone, sandpaper, or brillo pads is a fantastic way to remove different levels of surface rust. Most likely, unless the tool is extremely old and in awful condition, the rust is only surface deep. If not, more extreme measures may be needed, if the tool can be saved at all.

Tips for Using a Grindstone

The process for removing most rust is the same; the only real difference will be what grit of sandpaper or grindstone may be necessary. 

  1. Use a small amount of oil or spirits to remove build-up
  2. Sand or use a grindstone on the afflicted area
  3. Apply further oil and sand until all rust is gone
  4. Wipe clean and repeat with fine grits of sandpaper until the desired finish

Although the process is simple, it can certainly be time-consuming; for thick rust, especially, multiple passes will be required. Spending upwards of a few hours on heavy rust or large tools is common. 

Start with a grindstone or coarse sandpaper and slowly work up into finer levels as you want a smooth finish. After the rust has been removed and the surface polished, apply a protective coating and maintain the tool as well as possible.

If rust is not coming off or the build-up of grime is significant, soak the metal in a vinegar and water solution for a few hours. The acidity will help loosen the rust particles and make removal much easier. For more information on rust removal, including using chemicals instead of scraping, read here.

Not All Rust Can Be Easily Removed

If you notice that the rust has pitted into the metal, causing divots or affecting the structural integrity, additional work will be necessary. This could also mean that the tool is ruined or will require full repair, which may or may not be worth it. 

For divots or hard to reach areas where rust has built up, baking soda can be highly beneficial. Another chemical method for getting out rust can easily be turned into a paste and spread into fine areas before removal with a wire brush. This is perfect for small divots that occasionally occur from deep rusting.

Use Baking Soda to Remove Rust

To start, combine baking soda with water to make a paste-like consistency. Ideally, it should be thick enough to stay tacky while still being spreadable. Add the baking soda to the water slowly while mixing; there is no need for an exact formula. 

Spreading the paste can be done in several ways. For small divots, a q-tip or small wire brush is best. If you are using this method for a large area, wipe the paste on with a cloth and let it sit for a while. The longer the paste can sit on the rust, the more it will remove.

After it has set for a while, at least an hour for deep rust, scrape it out with a wire brush or steel wool. A significant amount of rust should have been removed; feel free to repeat the process a few times if necessary.

If the rust has fully pierced through the metal, it means the tool’s structural integrity is ruined. It will need to be repaired, either through reforging or replacing that part of the tool.

In Conclusion

The best way to take care of your tools is to keep them from rusting. By keeping your workshop clean, at low humidity, and taking protective precautions, you can use the same set of woodworking tools for years to come. 

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