Wrenchin’ Wednesday: Power brushing with pipe cleaners

Phillip Thomas

Cleaning automotive components can be tricky work. With all the passages and ports in even the most basic combustion engine, getting a thorough swipe at every nook and cranny can be impossible by hand. Especially when rebuilding an engine, it’s vital to work out every bit of nastiness before reassembly, and today’s Wrenchin’ Wednesday will help you do just that.

I recently acquired a 1925 South Bend 9-inch lathe, rusted solid in places from sitting outdoors for years. I needed to get creative to clean the tailstock, as the quill (the shaft that holds tooling in the tailstock) refused to fit. Applying rust-eating chemicals only made things worse, since the residual grit ate up the tolerance between the parts, making the quill impossible to reinstall. That said, the trick I learned for cleaning the quill also works great for cleaning oil and coolant passages in engine blocks.

Phillip Thomas

You can usually find long-handle pipe cleaners at any hardware store. Plastic-bristled versions are best for areas with critical tolerances, as they cannot damage the surrounding material. Brass bristles are great for non-critical areas where you need to really scrub and aren’t worried about the wire brush scraping a machined surface; brass is softer than steel, but it can still scratch it with enough applied effort. In the case of this quill, the plastic-bristled pipe cleaners were the go-to.

Clip off the handle at the length you need, and chuck it up in a drill.

Phillip Thomas

Check it: 900 rpm of problem solved. It took no time to restore perfectly smooth quill action in the tailstock, and no harm was done to the tolerances, ensuring that the tooling and supported components won’t vibrate during use. Be mindful of the twisted wire shaft, though—you don’t want it to rub on the parts you’re cleaning and ruin them as you’re cranking along.

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