29 November 2012

Save That Stuff, Part I: How to clean your tools after a hurricane

The storm has been and gone, but that doesn’t mean it’s all over. After the drywall in the house has been torn out and the furnace, hot water heater, fuse panel and washer and dryer have been replaced, it’s time to focus on the tools, hardware and spare parts that got wet.

If you’re like many people, your tools were probably stored in the garage along with a lot of your spares. Anything on a low shelf was particularly vulnerable. If it was cardboard or paper, sadly, it’s history. In the case of metal parts, oxidation or rust has probably already started.


Considering how expensive good tools are, it’s important to try to save them as soon as possible. One drawer at a time, pull them out, and wash them in a weak solution of warm water and car wash soap or another mild detergent, with a tablespoon of baking soda tossed in to help neutralize the salt. The next step is to rinse them carefully in clean water and then dry them thoroughly. Finally, spray them with a light coating of a spray lubricate such as WD40 and then wipe them again and set them aside.

Work methodically, drawer by drawer, paying special attention to hinged tools such as pliers and vice grips. Make sure you’re generous with the lubricating spray. Don’t forget the little things like Allen Wrenches, punches, drill bits and files. If any wooden-handled tools don’t appear to have a polyurethane finish, a light coating of lemon oil or mineral oil will keep the wood from drying out.

With everything out of the tool box, pull out the drawers, wash them each and rinse them. Wipe them down with more of the WD40 and be sure to oil all rollers or hinges. Before the drawers go back in, it’s time to clean the entire box, rinse it and give it that light coating of WD40 before wiping it again and putting everything back together.

We all focus on the tools in our big red or gray boxes, but there are other tools that probably fared even worse. Your floor and bottle jacks, jack stands and ramps were probably sitting on the floor and were underwater for some time. It’s essential to take the stands apart and to wash them carefully before rinsing them and coating them with wax. Hopefully the valves on the jacks were fully closed. If they weren’t you’ll have to drain the hydraulic fluid and replace it with fresh and hope for the best. The bodies and all other parts of the jacks should be washed with a mild soap or detergent, rinsed by hand and then dried and waxed. Be sure to lubricate the wheels and any moving or sliding parts while raising and lowering the jack. Cleaning and protecting the stands is a simple task and will, hopefully, prevent rust.

Machine Tools and Power Tools

Any tools with electric motors, from a simple hand drill to a lathe, can be severely damaged from exposure to either fresh or salt water. Oxidation of connections and wires can begin immediately. In most cases, don’t even try to use the tool without giving it some serious attention first. Machinist Mike Gehron says that machine tools can be saved, but that the motors will need to be properly rebuilt by a specialist, which you can find be searching the Internet for “machine tool repair” or “electric motor repair.” It’s also important to make sure that the casing for the motor and all other parts is cleaned and lubricated.

Unfortunately, moderately priced power tools, like drills, bench grinders and orbital polishers may be cheaper to replace than repair. Check with your local electric motor repair shop or with the manufacturer to explore your options.

Keep in mind that the better the tools, the more they’re worth saving. That cheap Walmart tool kit may not warrant hours of work, but the Craftsman and Snap-On Tools will last for years more if you take proper care of them.


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