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Prevent tools from rusting

A common problem with tools, whether we are talking garden tools or hand tools, is the tools rusting in storage when we aren’t using them. Here’s how to prevent tools from rusting in your garage, your shed, or your toolbox.

An honest mistake

Prevent tools from rusting

There’s an old, ritualistic trick to keep tools from rusting in storage in your toolbox, garage, or shed. The trick is a light coat of oil.

A couple of years back, my internet pal Rob O’Hara wrote a blog post about his rusty socket sets. And I remember an exchange on social media where someone told him tools don’t rust if you take care of them. Rob responded that he didn’t know that putting your tools away in your toolbox wasn’t taking care of them. In some cases the sockets that were rusty had never been used.

And Rob had a point. Nobody is born knowing this stuff. And we don’t all get opportunities to learn this stuff.

I noticed that if I keep my tools in a climate controlled environment, they won’t rust. This generally means the living space in your house, but I haven’t had a problem in my basement either. If your basement is damp and musty, your experience probably won’t be as good as mine. But running a dehumidifier usually helps that situation.

The problem is, the living space in our house isn’t usually where we need our tools. We more frequently need them in the garage, in the shed, or in the basement. That’s where we have room for projects, after all. So how do you protect your tools from the elements and keep them from rusting in your toolbox in your garage, shed, or basement?

Protecting your tools from the elements and humidity

We solved the problem of protecting tools from the elements generations ago, because for most of human history, we didn’t have climate control. If it was hot and muggy outside, it was hot and muggy in your house as well.

Another friend, who works as a sheet metal worker by trade, told me a story a couple of years back. He said a generation ago, construction workers had a tradition at the end of the work day. They would gather up their tools, and spend 10 minutes after quitting time cleaning their tools with an oily rag. And the experienced workers would tell their apprentices that a good worker takes care of their tools, because their tools take care of them.

Evidence of this practice survives to this day, not just as oral history. Occasionally, someone gets hold of their grandfathers toolbox after it’s been sitting in storage for decades, and they’ll open it up and make a YouTube video about it. If they worked in the trades, inevitably there’s still a hint of oily residue on the tools and there may even still be an oily rag in the toolbox from the last time they put the tools away.

So to protect your tools from the elements and keep your tools from rusting in a toolbox in storage in your shad or garage, wipe them down with some oil. When you buy a hand tool, wipe it down before you put it in the toolbox for the first time. And at the end of a project, when you put your tools away, wipe them down again.

What oil to use to keep tools from rusting

Organic oils are not ideal for this purpose, because they go rancid. Any petroleum based oil provides some degree of protection from the elements. Traditionally, 3-in-One oil or WD-40 were two common choices, and before that, any type of machine oil or automotive oil would do.

Today, the very best choice is a product called CRC 3-36. It is a petroleum based oil formulated specifically for the purpose of protecting tools from rust. Wipe a thin layer on your hand tools or garden tools to keep them from rusting in a shed or garage.

This practice will give even cheaply made tools a fighting chance against the elements. Of course being exposed to moisture in large quantities for prolonged periods of time isn’t ideal, but tools treated this way and then stored with reasonable care should be fine.

You don’t need to be obsessive about this practice. It’s not like you need to make a habit of wiping down every tool in your toolbox once a year or anything. Wiping it down after you bought it, and then wiping it down after each use is plenty.

What tools don’t rust? Does price make a difference?

You can spend as much or as little on hand tools as you want, realistically. The most visible difference in a professional grade tool off a tool truck versus tools from a hardware store versus cheap tools from a store like Dollar Tree is the handle. The more expensive the tool, the more comfortable and more durable the handle will be. But that’s not the only difference. The more expensive tools are made from stronger and harder grades of steel, so they don’t wear out as quickly. But they also have thicker metal plating on them to make them more rust resistant. The very cheapest tools may have very thin plating or no plating at all, in some extreme cases.

The cheapest hand tools from Harbor Freight are especially notorious for rusting. They may still guarantee them, but that’s partly because they know most people won’t bother to take them up on it. A light coat of oil helps protect seldom used tools for the next time you need them. Even if you don’t pay much for them.

Generally speaking, the more expensive the tool, the better it holds up to the elements and humidity. But if I expose even the highest quality tool to the elements long enough, eventually it will rust. Then again, wiping my tools down with oil occasionally goes a long way to ensuring moderately priced or even cheap tools last decades, if not a lifetime.

Balancing cost and a rust guarantee

Paying a bit more for tools frequently means they will have a guarantee against rust. It’s worth asking in the store what the conditions of the guarantee are, because it can vary.

I’m old enough to remember buying Craftsman tools at Sears and on the rare occasion I had a problem with one, I could drive the tool over to my nearby Sears hardware store, which happened to be less than a 2-minute drive, and they’d take one look at the tool and give me a new one.

The house brand for the three major home improvement stores in the United States have a similar guarantee today, so that’s why I tend to favor hand tools from whichever of those stores is closest to me. We’re talking Husky, Kobalt, and Masterforce in these three cases.

I also realize not everyone is like me. Some people want to live 30 minutes away from the closest store. If that’s you, protecting your tools from the elements saves you a great deal of inconvenience. Taking a few minutes at the end of a project to oil your tools and then store them carefully can save you an unnecessary trip into town in that case.

2 thoughts on “Prevent tools from rusting”

  1. Is there a concomitant trick to removing rust if your tools have already suffered that fate? I’ve seen videos of you train track being de-rusted in vats of water and vinegar, but wonder if there isn’t a better method?

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