How to Prevent Rust on Tools in a Marine Environment

How to Prevent Rust on Tools in Marine Environments

Whether you’re a casual hobbyist or a career carpenter, you’ve figured out that a worker is only as good as their tools. You may have dozens of tools of a variety of qualities and brands, or maybe you’ve got a trust few from a brand you personally trust. Whatever the case, you care about your tools. They’re important to you. Which is why there are certain steps you need to be taking to ensure the longevity and quality of all of your metal tools. Unfortunately, you can’t just let your tool casually sit somewhere whenever you’re using them. There would be a lot of risks to that carelessness, but perhaps the greatest is rust.

Rusting is already a common problem for tools, especially tools that sit in storage unused most of the time. But in marine environments it only gets exponentially worse. Whether you live near the ocean, do work on boats—whatever brings your tools close to water, there are certain steps you need to take to ensure you’re not buying a new set every year. Rust is completely preventable, it just takes a little extra effort.

What is Rust?

It helps to understand what exactly the rusting process is. You have to know your enemy! Rusting is a chemical process, and it’s a relatively simple one, actually. “Rust” is another name for iron oxide. It’s common; iron and oxygen react pretty easily. You don’t normally find pure iron in the wild for this reason. So really, you’re constantly fighting nature with each of the steps we’ll discuss soon.

So basically, rusting is one example of corrosion. The process includes an anode, an electrolyte, and a cathode. Anodes are metals that easily give up electrons. Electrolyte are liquids that help said electrons move to the cathode, which is another piece of metal that likes to accept electrons. As oxygen contacts the metal in your tools, the metal loses some electrons. Those flow through the electrolyte to the cathode, and the metal is swept away or converted into rust.

And all it takes are iron, water, and oxygen. But salt makes everything worse! It speeds up the whole process so you have even less time to stop it before the damage becomes severe. Salt, more plentiful in marine environments, makes each of the following steps even more vital.

Preventing Rust with Higher Quality Tools

So, for starters, higher quality tools tend to be made of materials the are more resistant to corrosion. They aren’t invincible, but they do a pretty good job if you have the means. That’s just another reason that spending more on tools saves you money in the long run. Perhaps this is an example of Terry Pratchett’s “Boot Theory.” The basic idea being that spending more on important things saves you money in the long run, because you don’t have to replace them as soon. But it’s not always that simple; you can’t always spend the maximum on every tool, right? And even if you can, rust is still coming for your metal tools if you don’t take further steps to prevent it.

Keeping Your Tools Clean

So if that’s not cost effective for you, that’s fine. Simply keeping your tools (of whatever quality) clean and dry goes a long way in preventing rust. That might sound obvious, but after a long day of hard work it’s easy to forget (or choose to forget) to clean up. But it really is an important step in taking care of your tools. Wipe off your tools after every use, especially if they’re exposed to salt water. Salt speeds along the rusting process, so you want to keep it out of your toolbox. If you’re working on boats or anywhere near the water, you’ll find yourself putting in extra work to save your tools, or just having to replace them far more often if you don’t take a couple minutes at the end of each work day.

After you’ve wiped down and dried off your tools, oil them a bit. Maybe that sounds counterproductive because you just dried them, but oil acts as a layer of protection between the metal of the tools and the oxygen. It’s the same as using paint or epoxy to protect metal surfaces. The chemical process is really very simple, and it isn’t going to happen if the metal doesn’t have direct contact with the oxygen. So anything that you can put between your tools and the deadly air when you don’t need to use them, is another layer of defense against the ever encroaching Mother Nature. You can use WD-40, motor oil, even the dirty motor oil from your last oil change. WD-40 is designed especially to displace water. That’s what the WD stands for, in fact. But any oil is going to have that effect. Get the water off your tools, and act as a barrier between the iron and the oxygen (and salt!).

Storing Your Tools Properly

Keep your tools in a protected environment. Leaving tools laying around is more convenient, sure, especially for that trusty hammer you use every time you go to work, but for the sake of your tools you should take the extra time to lock everything up safe. If you really love that hammer, you’ll let it go…into a sealed toolbox. Especially if you work outside. It can be inconvenient and time consuming to tear down and set back up your whole workspace every day, but leaving tools and metal surfaces out in the exposed air, in a salty environment is just asking for your tools to disappear to rust.

If you can manage it, colder temperatures are great for slowing the chemical reaction that causes rust. The colder the better, actually. Dehumidifying doesn’t hurt either. If you can keep moisture out of the air, you can keep rust out of your tools. Water is the electrolyte in the process and if you remove it from the equation, rust won’t happen. Even air conditioning does some dehumidifying. So if your house has AC but your garage doesn’t, consider giving your tools some storage space inside. Which shouldn’t be a problem since you’re cleaning them off after every use now…right? You can also try using an old-fashioned wood toolbox, because the wood will actually help soak up some of that dangerous moisture. Not to mention, you don’t have to worry about your toolbox rusting then.

You can also consider adding anti-slip mesh liner to your toolbox. In addition to stopping your tools from flying around the inside of your toolbox, the anti-slip mesh liner puts a layer of protection between your tools and the bottom of the box. Moisture can accumulate at the bottom of your toolbox, but it will stay under the liner, keeping your tools clean and dry. This is a relatively cheap way to solve multiple problems. Like everything else in this list, it’s just another step that doesn’t take much. It’s worth doing if you really care about the safety and long life of your valuable tools.

Corrosion Inhibitors

If all else fails, there’s handy little devices meant to do exactly the work of preventing rust on your tools. They’re called “corrosion inhibitors.” They even come in the form of small pods you can just toss in your toolbox for years of protection from rust. They put out a vapor that fills your toolbox and bonds to the metal surfaces. That seals out moisture much like the oil we talked about earlier. That acts as yet another layer of protection against corrosion. They really get in there too, protecting the hard to reach places on your more complicated tools. Silica packets do a similar job of absorbing moisture from the air. They’ll only work in a closed environment though. If your tools are just out on a shelf, silica packets will be useless against the constant flow of new, moist air. In general, storage is a huge part of rust prevention and general tool maintenance. How you store your tools is how you negate the conditions of whatever environment you do work in. If stored correctly, it becomes irrelevant that you do work in a moist, salt-prone environment. As long as you do the extra work to clean off your tools and place them in effective storing, they will stay clean and like new.

At the end of the day rust prevention is actually pretty simple no matter what environment you’re in. Keep your tools away from water as much as possible. Whether that’s through cleaning them off, giving them coats of protection, or surrounding them with devices that suck moisture from the air, there’s plenty of long-term solutions to the problem of rust that anyone from the professional to the hobbyist should employ.

Removing Rust

But hey, sometimes things happen. Sometimes, you’re not the only one with access to tools, but you are the only one who takes care of them. So, what should you do if despite all your best efforts, nature still wins out and rust overtakes your tools? Easy, just buy more tools!

Just kidding. There are some steps you can take to save your tools from corrosion and get them shiny and squeaky clean again. The sooner you do these the better. The rust can just be on the surface of the metal, without having caused much damage to the tool itself. If you can take action at this point, you’ll hardly notice the tool was ever rusted. But if you wait too long, until the rust starts to really eat way at the structure of the iron, then irreparable damage has already been dealt, which may or may not compromise the strength and efficacy of the tool itself.

A pretty simple fix is to soak the tools in dish detergent and warm water. Then take to the tools with steel wool, or sandpaper. It takes some elbow grease, but you can get the rust off the surface of your tool. You can use a vinegar and salt soak as well. Ironic right, that salt can water can be what you use to undo the rust, after they worked together to cause it in the first place? It should be noted that some experts say not to use sandpaper, ever, because it can create more pits in the metal and scratch them up. Aluminum foil is a possible alternative. You just need something that can wipe off the rust. Sandpaper might be easier, but it can have unfortunate side effects.

Oxalic Acid

There are commercial products available for this process as well. Consider picking up some Oxalic Acid at a hardware store. It will work quicker than home remedies. As this is a somewhat dangerous acid, you’ll want to wear gloves and eye protection while working with it.

Take your tools and the Oxalic Acid to a well-ventilated area. The acid releases some fumes that could irritate your lungs and get you feeling light-headed, so to be safe do the work outside, or open a window and turn on the fan.

Wash the tools first in warm water. Mix in grease-cutting dish detergent and clean away any dirt and oil that’s still on the tools. In a separate container, pour a gallon of water. The container should be big enough for the tools you’ll be washing. Add three tablespoons of acid to the water. Mix it carefully and slowly, being sure not to splash it around onto yourself.

Now you’re ready to drop (carefully) the tools in. You can let them sit in there for about twenty minutes. That should be enough time to break down the rust. The nice part about this method is: no scrubbing required! The Oxalic Acid does all the work for you, breaking down and removing the rust. Once you remove the tools carefully from your solution, rinse the acid off, then completely dry the tools with a clean cloth. Now your tools should be back to their former glory!

The last step should go without saying: dry the tools completely so you don’t have to repeat the whole process. It’s worth noting that once rust starts to form, the process will continue faster and faster. So, you really don’t want to put off solving the problem. After some time, rust will eat away at the structure of the tool. It can pass to a point where no amount of cleaning is really going to save the tool.

The last step should go without saying: dry the tools completely so you don’t have to repeat the whole process. It’s worth noting that once rust starts to form, the process will continue faster and faster. So, you really don’t want to put off solving the problem. After some time, rust will eat away at the structure of the tool. It can pass to a point where no amount of cleaning is really going to save the tool.

Summing It All Up

A worker is as good as their tools, and tools are only as good as the care you put into maintaining them. You don’t want to find yourself suddenly short a screwdriver because you pull it out of the drawer to find it’s covered in dust. Maybe it seems like overkill. Maybe someone will say, “but we’ve always done it like this,” as they toss their hammer onto a workbench, ready to be used again tomorrow. But that will catch up to them, especially in a marine environment. It’s worth spending just a little bit more money and daily time to take care of your equipment. You don’t want to be the kind of person who wastes money and resources replacing things that should be lasting years and years. Some tools, not even the most expensive, are built to last decades. Tools of that quality deserve to be treated with a little bit of respect.

So remember, rust happens when the metal of your tools meets oxygen and water. There’s water in the air, so you need to keep your tools protected from air. And the closer you are to saltwater, the worse things are. So keep your tools stored safely, and always return them to that storage whenever you won’t be using them.

Oil your tools and wipe them down after every use. Use silica packets, corrosion inhibitors, and anti-slip mesh in your toolboxes to help keep the moisture off your tools. Follow all these steps to have a safe and shiny tool set whenever you need it, no matter what environment you do work in.

Leave a Comment