Iron can easily accumulate dirt, grime, and rust over time. Learning how to clean iron properly will help remove stains and prevent further damage. With the right techniques and products, you can make wrought iron, cast iron, and steel look brand new again.
Assess the Iron and Type of Dirt
Before scrubbing away, take a close look at the iron item and the type of grime present. Is it surface level dirt or more stubborn stains that have set in? Determine if the marks are from:
- Dust and particulate matter
- Mineral deposits
- Mold or mildew
- Burns or smoke damage
- Old paint or finishes
Knowing the source of the dirt will help you use the appropriate cleaning method.
Gather the Proper Supplies
Having the right tools and cleaners on hand will make the iron cleaning process more efficient. Here are some recommended supplies:
- Dish soap – For light dirt
- Baking soda – Helps remove grime and stains
- Vinegar – Removes rust and hard water stains
- Ammonia – Cuts through grease and burnt on food
- Steel wool soap pads – For scrubbing off stubborn gunk
- Rust remover – For heavy rust
- Old cloths, sponges, scrub brushes – For applying cleaners
- Plastic scrapers – To peel off stuck on grime
- Steel wool pads – Helps scrub off rust
- Sandpaper – For smoothing away large flakes of rust
- Masking tape – To section off areas not being cleaned
- Tarp or drop cloth – To protect surfaces beneath the iron
- Rubber gloves – To protect hands from chemicals
- Eye protection – For guarding against debris when scrubbing
Try a Spot Clean Test Patch
Before cleaning the entire surface, first test a small inconspicuous area. Check that the cleaning solution does not damage or discolor the iron. Start with the mildest product first before moving to stronger chemicals.
Wash with Soapy Water
For light dirt, grime, and dust, start by washing the iron with warm soapy water. Dish detergent or laundry soap both work well for basic cleaning. Use a sponge or soft brush to gently scrub the surface. Rinse thoroughly.
Repeat as needed until the dirt is removed. This simple method may be enough to freshen up iron with light soil.
Use Baking Soda for Stubborn Grime
For set-in stains or dark greasy build up, make a thick baking soda paste. Add just enough water to form a spreadable consistency. Apply the paste and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. The alkaline soda helps break down stubborn oil and grime. Scrub with a damp cloth or brush. Rinse clean.
Remove Rust with Vinegar
To remove surface rust spots, use full strength white vinegar. Pour or spray the vinegar liberally on the rusted areas. Let it soak 5-10 minutes. Use steel wool or emery paper to gently scour away the rust. Wipe clean and dry well. Repeat for stubborn spots.
Use Ammonia on Burnt Areas
If the iron has burnt on food, grease, or smoke damage, ammonia works well to dissolve the carbonized material. Dilute household ammonia 50/50 with water. Use a plastic scraper to help loosen the burnt bits. Rinse and dry thoroughly after cleaning.
Try a Rust Remover for Heavy Rust
For iron items with significant rusting, a commercial rust removal product often works best. Look for ones designed for metal. Apply as directed. Let it sit for 15-30 minutes before scrubbing and rinsing. These removers contain acids that break down rust quickly.
Smooth with Sandpaper or Steel Wool
After getting iron clean, you may need to smooth any remaining rust spots, flakes, or rough areas. Start by rubbing gently with fine grit sandpaper. Move to steel wool for polishing to a smooth finish. Work in the direction of the grain. Avoid scrubbing too vigorously.
Re-Seal and Protect the Surface
Once all dirt, rust, and grime are removed, re-seal and protect the iron to prevent future staining. Wax or mineral oil helps keep cast iron from rusting. Paint or powder coating adds a protective finish on steel. Regular cleaning and sealing is key for ongoing maintenance.
Know When to Call a Professional
Extreme rusting, pitting, or other severe damage may require professional refinishing. A reputable contractor can media blast, re-paint, or hot dip galvanize severely deteriorated iron. This restores the metal back to a like-new condition.
Tips for Regular Iron Cleaning
Keep your iron items looking their best with regular maintenance cleaning. Here are some useful tips:
- Wipe down with a dry cloth after each use to remove dust and debris that can lead to rust.
- Hand wash smaller iron pieces at least monthly using the cleaning steps outlined.
- Re-wax cast iron pots, pans, and skillets after cleaning to prevent rusting.
- Check outdoor iron furniture and railings periodically for rust spots. Clean as needed.
- Wash vinyl strap patio furniture separately from the iron frame to prevent rust stains.
- Use rust proof fasteners when assembling iron parts. Stainless steel screws often work best.
- Store iron items in a dry area during the off season. Prevent moisture exposure that promotes rust formation.
What to Avoid When Cleaning Iron
Certain cleaners and techniques can damage iron and cause discoloration or etching. Here are some things to avoid:
- Harsh acidic or alkaline cleaners not formulated for iron. For example, muriatic acid.
- Abrasive powders like Comet cleanser or Bon Ami. These scratch the surface.
- Hard scrub brushes or steel wool that mark the finish.
- Power washing or spraying with high pressure water. This drives moisture into the metal.
- Letting iron air dry after washing. Always fully dry immediately with a clean soft cloth to prevent water spots.
- Leaving cleaning paste or soaked rags on too long. Prolonged exposure can etch the surface.
Storage and Maintenance Tips
Storing iron items properly helps slow down rust and corrosion. Here are some useful storage and maintenance suggestions:
- Keep indoors in a dry spot. Prevent outdoor moisture from collecting.
- Use furniture covers or waterproof tarpaulins. This creates a protective barrier.
- Separate iron surfaces with felt or linen. Avoid direct contact of metal parts.
- Apply a thin coat of wax, mineral oil, or silicone lubricant. Adds a protective film.
- Inspect regularly for new rust spots. Clean promptly to halt damage.
- Check for weaknesses like cracks that allow water intrusion. Repair or replace damaged parts.
- Touch up paint chips to prevent exposure of bare metal. Use an iron specific paint.
When to Call for Professional Help
While many minor cleaning and rust removal tasks can be DIY, larger restoration projects are best left to professionals. Seek expert help for:
- Antique, designer, or valuable iron pieces requiring specialized care. Don’t risk damage with amateur cleaning.
- Total restoration of iron with heavy pitting, corrosion, or rust damage. Requires industrial techniques like media blasting, metal fabrication, welding, and powder coating to recondition extensively deteriorated iron.
- Intricate cleaning like removing old lead paint requires hazardous materials training and containment protocols.
- Structural iron repairs on buildings, bridges, or monuments need engineering expertise.
With the right techniques, supplies, and care, you can restore the beauty of ironwork. Regular cleaning prevents long term damage from rust, grime, and weathering. Seek help from restoration specialists for iron pieces with extensive deterioration or that require structural repairs. Otherwise, most typical cleaning and maintenance can be successfully tackled as DIY projects if you follow the proper methods. With a little time and elbow grease, you’ll have that iron looking pristine again.
What is the fastest way to remove rust?
Vinegar or a commercial rust remover work more quickly than other methods to dissolve surface rust on iron. Let the acids soak in before scrubbing.
What home remedy removes rust best?
White vinegar is often the most readily available and effective home remedy. The acetic acid breaks down the rust chemically. Baking soda and ammonia also work well for stubborn rust stains.
What should you avoid cleaning iron with?
Avoid harsh acidic cleansers like hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid which can etch iron. Also avoid stiff abrasive brushes and scouring powders that scratch.
Does WD-40 remove rust?
WD-40 can help penetrate and lift some light surface rust. However, it doesn’t chemically break down and remove stubborn or heavier rust. Use mechanical methods too like steel wool.
Can I use water to clean rusty iron?
Water alone won’t remove rust but is fine as a rinse. Be sure to immediately hand dry iron so moisture doesn’t re-oxidize and form new rust. Avoid high pressure blasting that drives water into the metal.