How I Restored My Antique Iron: Two Methods

Both of my grandmother’s had cast iron collections. These were things they either purchased in Kansas or are my family’s heirlooms.

My family on a road trip to Washington DC.

My granny on my mom’s side married a jerk, (to say it mildly) after my grandpa died. He made her get rid of her antiques, which was really a crime. She had a huge collection, including first edition books my grandfather had collected. Luckily her second husband wasn’t a part of the family for long. But her iron and all of her beautiful books and antiques are gone.

Although one side of my family’s antiques are lost, my grandma on my dad’s side, brought her iron collection with her as she moved around. I was lucky enough to inherit it.

Heavily flaking iron can be cleaned up using a hammer. It works best to tap it with the edge of the hammer rather than hitting it straight on. In case you had dreams of using an iron vat to plant things in: this flaking and severe damage is from my grandmother using hers as planters.
I’m going to clean it up and paint it with something thick and waterproof. I’m going to make these into fountains. Once they’re completely sealed with paint, the water won’t do any more damage.
My twelve year old going after the rust while I took a break. It was above 100 degrees out.

These pieces were either acquired in Kansas (at farm sales during the 40s and 50s), or came out with my forebearers from the east coast in covered wagons. I moved the iron from Kansas to a different state, on my own. And, like my grandmother before me: I made my husband move the iron with us when we moved down here to Texas. (It was no simple feat. I have a lot of antique iron and it’s heavy! My husband isn’t a big fan of my collection!)

My grandmother was in her late 80’s when she passed away. I haven’t painted or cleaned this part of my collection since I inherited it, about 15 years ago. Because of my grandmother’s age (and my memories of the condition of the cast iron growing up): I’d say these pieces haven’t been cleaned or painted in 40 or 50 years (maybe the full 100 years, back to when they were new.)

The difference between iron: with and without lubricant.

But! Today was the day that I finally tackled it! I got out the small and medium sized iron pieces and got to work restoring them.

Method One:

Elbow grease!

There are a lot of videos on YouTube comparing rust removal products. I watched a few of them. Some name brand liquid rust removers come in gallon containers and you soak the metal. I would have to buy many bottles to be able to soak my big pieces, and that stuff is 15+/- bucks a bottle.

If you want to do some research on heavy duty rust removal: look up old tractor forums or blacksmithing sites. Here’s a nice breakdown of the most popular products, some are homemade: https://www.agriculture.com/machinery/maintenance–repair/battling-rusted-bolts-winning_567-ar51830

Some spots were worse than others.

This is starting out with just WD40 and 100+ years of rust.

This stove was cast in 1913.

The best stuff to loosen frozen nuts, bolts and hinges is a home mix “penetrator” of automatic transmission fluid and acetone in equal measure. But I have no idea how to store that, or where to dispose of it, so I just picked up some stuff at the store.

I’m not interested in creating museum quality iron pieces, they are, after all (as they were for my grandmother): decorations for my garden. And, right at the moment, money is pretty tight. So, I decided I was going to try elbow grease instead of the soaking methods.

Scraping off the flaked rust.

So, I figured I have the time and energy to manually clean these, and decided to restore the iron for as little as possible. I started out with WD40 and a wire brush with a scraper on it, that I picked up at Walmart. I sprayed the pieces I am cleaning with the WD40 and let it soak in.

This is what I started with on the stove base.

Iron is porous. I know a little bit about working with metal after taking a beginner welding course in college (I also occasionally cook with my own cast iron pans so, I know how to care for cast iron.)

I actually took the welding class with my mom. She’s also been to lumberjack school, where she learned how to build log cabins. We’re more farm than city, it’s in the DNA. But, I am not a professional welder (or contractor etc) so I look to my uncle (who is) for advice on this sort of stuff.

No scrubbing yet, but it does have the WD40 on it.

He recommended PB B’laster, for the rusted shut hinges and bolts on the stove base that I’ve been working on. I used WD40 (which I already had) to loosen the caked on rust and then tried the PB B’laster on the parts that the WD40 couldn’t touch.

This stuff was actually a few cents cheaper than the WD40. I tried spraying the hinges, bolts and then I covered the whole piece to see if it was any easier to clean with a penetrator rather than just a lubricant. No dice on the general cleaning. Stick with the WD40.

B’laster PB is caustic. WD40 is pretty tame. If you are going to work with the B’laster then I’d wear gloves, something over your clothes, eye protection and something to cover your hair and face. Scrubbing with a wire brush will fling stuff all over you. As careful as I thought I was, I ended up with a burning sensation on my lips from the wind blowing the sprayed mist around (B’laster sprays in a stream, but it did shoot out in a mist when I had it at odd angles.)

The WD40 was really good at lifting the rust and dissolving it, so I could scrape it off. But it really didn’t do much for the hinges and bolts. I used my wire bush’s scraper (it has little pointed ends on it), to get into the tight areas.

Cleaning the base took me about an hour and a half. I got all of the rust flakes off and was able to follow the decorative areas with the scraper sides. The scraper worked well to remove the rust built up on the swirls and flourishes.

It took a fair bit of time to remove the rust around the details. It’s also late May in Texas which means it’s 🔥 HOT 🔥 already, but removing rust isn’t really that hard to do, it’s just time consuming. I used the scraper more than the bristles, so I was really happy with the brush I bought. Had it only had bristles, I’d probably still be out there working on it!

After cleaning about half way, with WD40 only, around the stove base. The areas of solid rust are where it’s rusted shut. PB B’laster should… hopefully… help with the old doors and vents that were for coal or wood.

Good enough for me, for today! This is an hour and a half of work with just a brush and WD40.

This is the PB B’laster after the first application. We’ll see if we can free up the hinges and bolts.

These bolts are 100 years old and in very poor shape. I imagine just tapping these with a hammer would make them disintegrate, but then the bolt would be stuck where the hole should be and I couldn’t just run another bolt through. If I break off the end of the bolt, these pieces will not go back together and I’d have to try and drill the bolt out to reassemble it. That doesn’t sound like any fun.

My uncle used the B’laster on some rusted shut lug nuts. He said he sprayed with the B’laster and tapped the frozen lug nuts with a hammer, daily, for two weeks. He eventually got them freed, but just so you know: this approach takes time. Be prepared for at least a two week wait time for this to work and don’t give up early because it doesn’t get fixed immediately.

Also, everyone has heard of WD40 but it really isn’t the best thing to use on most projects. Do your research and decide what product will work best for you.

As far, as the B’laster over the entire project: it really hasn’t done much more than than the WD40 did. Either way: there’s a whole lot of scrubbing. I would save the more caustic B’laster for the hinges and frozen areas and use the milder WD40 on the caked rust, especially when you are using a wire brush that will flip stuff onto you.

I’m about a week into working on the hinges and rusted shut areas. It looks like it’s doing something, but, I don’t know if this piece is too far gone to expect it to free up the hinges and bolts. I’m still hopeful!

I wore gloves the entire time I was working with the vinegar instructions below.

Method Two:

Acid bath, using vinegar.

I finally got frustrated enough with the heat (115° “feel like” temperature this week) and the slow going with the scrubbing (As I’ve mentioned: the stove is only one piece, in a large collection of iron), that I decided to try what is listed online as a cheap rust remover: some extra strength vinegar that you soak the iron in. It’s an acid bath (extra strength vinegar is 9% acid, opposed to 7%. The 7% is what you’d usually use for cooking and canning).

I poured the extra strength vinegar into a plastic container and placed a small piece in it (one of the legs), to test the efficacy of the vinegar rust removal. I used 100% vinegar, (no water to cut it) for 12 hours. It worked wonders!

Before

After

It stripped the rust back completely and I ended up with bare metal. This looks like it pitted the metal, but in reality this is how deep the 100 years of rust was. There is either stove black or paint on this. The rust was on exposed areas. Whatever is on this: it protected the metal that’s underneath it.

I soaked the leg in baking soda and water, when I was happy with the rust removal, (about a cup of soda to a gallon of water) to neutralize the acid. I left it in the baking soda mixture for about an hour.

Then I scrubbed the last of the rust off with a toothbrush under running water. It was easy to remove. I’m going to sand it a bit and it will be ready for paint.

Then I tried half vinegar half water on some other pieces. It’s been over 12 hours and they are not done. But it’s still slowly removing the rust. The higher the concentration of vinegar, the faster it works.

At this point: I’m all about the acid baths! I’m soaking the base of the stove in a container, half full of water and half extra strength vinegar (1:1) I will flip the base, in a day or so, and get the other side.

If you are going to do this, be aware that the fumes will burn your lungs. I was incredibly miserable last night trying to sleep with a severe burning sensation in my lungs. This was after being out near the containers of vinegar, scrubbing yesterday.

Bubbling action of vinegar. The water turns white as the liquid reacts to the rust and then red. Eventually the mixture will turn black. I also put some dish soap in to cut through any of the WD40 or B’laster still on the metal.

I was NEAR the vinegar baths, not directly over them, and it still burned my lungs. Just because this says “vinegar” on the jug, don’t forget this is an acid. There’s a chemical reaction going on, which may create toxic fumes (especially after I coated everything in B’laster in the previous attempt to remove the rust.)

Gentle scrubbing with a toothbrush removed the last of the gooey, acid eaten rust. If you are having difficulty removing the rust using a wire brush or: if you scrub and don’t see the metal under where it was rusted… it’s not done. Put it back in the vinegar bath. I had different pieces take very different amounts of time. The burner covers took a lot longer than the legs. I’m thinking decades of heat, grease and stove black changed the structure of the metal. Just keep checking. Eventually you will get down to the iron and it won’t take much effort to remove what is left.

Stay away from the vinegar that’s soaking (don’t do this indoors) and wear appropriate breathing protection.

Use a non-reactive container to do your soaking.

Is a stronger acid better than the extra strength vinegar? Well, it might be faster, but it won’t be as cheap (I would also be concerned about a stronger acid eating away the good iron.) The extra strength vinegar we bought is 3 dollars a gallon. I used 4 gallons of extra strength vinegar to 4 gallons of water and I can soak about half of the base of my stove at a time. I got 8 full gallons of vinegar, and half of another, but I was concerned that the container I used would leak (there’s a thin area on the bottom). I saved 4 full gallons and I will add them if the 1:1 ratio ends up being too weak.

The difference a day makes! Half of this top of my stove was submerged in the vinegar bath. It really cleaned it beautifully. I softly scrubbed the half that I’d treated and it’s down to the metal. Much nicer than trying to scrub it without an acid bath! The choice is: an hour and a half of scrubbing to remove most of the rust by hand, or soaking it for a day or two and scrubbing for about two minutes on each piece. The vinegar is the way to go!

Three other ways to remove rust are: electrolysis, heat and media blasting. There are plenty of sites that explain how to do those. I don’t have a way to heat these pieces evenly, so that was out. Electrolysis requires a car battery charger. I’m going cheap: so I didn’t try it, since I’d have to buy a battery charger. The media blasting can go horribly wrong if you use sand and you get even a little silica in your lungs (silicosis) Seriously, look it up and see if it’s worth risking… It’s not. Other forms of media were cost prohibitive.

I have an air compressor and seriously considered blasting because of the amount of iron I’m trying to clean. In the end, I decided it was going to cost too much for the equipment (mainly the protective gear) and if I were going to go that route I’d just as soon take it to a shop and have it done professionally.

A stronger acid, like phosphoric acid, is going to run about 20 dollars a gallon. It is sold as a concrete etcher (if you want to try it.) Muratic acid is super caustic (and I’m not interested in messing with it), but it’s an option. You’ll need different instructions for those two acids. I don’t have experience with those, so you’ll have to look elsewhere. Lye does not remove rust, so don’t bother with that stuff.

I wouldn’t recommend a stronger acid, the extra strength vinegar has already messed with my airways, at half strength. You don’t want anything or anyone near these areas while you are soaking the rusty iron, and you need to have a plan for what you’ll do when you dispose of it.

This is the little bit of rust that didn’t come off of the leg. A little sanding and some high heat paint will keep the rust from getting worse. I considered using stove black (which is what I think won’t come off of the top pieces) but these are going outdoors and I’m not sure how much protection that will give. However, the vinegar treatment ended up being not much effort for nearly rust free iron!

Vinegar will kill any plants you pour it on, or near. Plan for disposal BEFORE you fill a tub that may be too heavy to move once you have it full of liquid.

So, I tried two methods of rust removal: scrubbing and dipping in acid. They are both effective. I recommend the scrubbing if you have the strength and time for it. It’s simple and safe.

I recommend the acid dip, with reservations. But: it does work. Just don’t inhale the fumes! If you get it on your clothes or skin, immediately rinse the vinegar off.

Also, wear eye protection! I can’t imagine how much damage this stuff would do to your eyes! But with precautions, and a plan for disposal, the dip is a quick fix for generations worth of rust.

Clean enough to paint. The vinegar made the scrubbing minimal and there’s nothing to remove before I paint.
I found a picture online of the factory that made my stove! Pretty impressive! I don’t know why, but I figured it would have been a small operation. But if everyone needed heat, I guess it makes sense that this is so large!

Once the pieces are done, wipe the excess water (you rinsed them off with) up with paper towels. Leave them in a protected area until you are ready to paint. I am buying a quart of high heat, satin, black paint. I’ll be applying it with a paint gun. There will be a thin layer of rust on these from our humidity. I may or may not try and remove it before painting. I’m guessing not. These, aren’t ever going to be rust free. But, hopefully, with a few layers of paint: I’ll help these stay in good enough condition that my future grandchildren can inherit them!

If you are thinking how crazy it is that I’m fascinated and have deep respect for my iron collection, take a look at this: youtu.be video on stars and iron Iron was the last gasp of a dying star, the end of a solar system (or several solar systems.) It takes millions of years for a star to process lighter elements. Once it’s converted all of the hydrogen into helium it begins its pathß to making heavier elements. Iron is the last thing a star creates before it dies, before it explodes in a supernova.

It takes seconds of iron creation to create the conditions for a supernova. So my iron was not made here on this earth. It was not made in this solar system. This iron is older than that.

Interestingly enough: as a star starts to collapse in a supernova; it creates the more rare elements like platinum, silver and gold. Just seconds to create those, as the star goes supernova. That is why those elements are rare.

So your gold wedding ring, and your silver earrings, were created during the apocalypse of a star that was going supernova. It is from a star, that had just begun to create iron. Iron that was created just seconds before the star collapsed and exploded. Metals that were formed during the dying breath of a solar system.

Metals are fascinating creations.

The iron I have, came to my little collection from far, far away, and was one of the last gifts it’s sun had to give. It’s pretty cool to think about, and this is why I love my iron. It may be intertwined with my memories and my family, but it’s much more than that!

Next time you pick up something made of iron, remember it’s history and be thankful for the star, and the solar system’s end, that created it!

Cleaned and painted water pump. I really like how this turned out!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rebecca L Gray says:

    Wow! Great post and lots of work. When I look at those pieces, I imagine how proud the original owners were. Those old falling down farm houses and rusting iron pieces were once cutting edge, new, spotlessly clean and showed the prosperity of the original owners. You can tell by the old photos of the entire family standing proudly in front of their new farm house. So when you look at your new range and TV, imagine the pride your great grandparents felt with their new iron cook stove and new hand well pump. Please show us a picture of the finished stove, I’ll bet it will be fantastic!

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