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Restoration Tips

Click below for links to the following articles. Please note that I may make updates to the articles depending on what kind of questions I get.

  • Clean Your Parts with Electrolysis (.pdf)
  • F-I-T's Opinion on Using Stainless Steel for Electrodes (.pdf)
  • Fuel Tank Cleaning (.pdf)

    Cleaning Your Tractor Parts with ELECTROLYSIS!!!

    **NOTE: In order to save space on this page, the pictures from this article have removed. They are, however, available in the .pdf version of this article.**

    I have been accused of attempting tractor restoration on occasion, and because I sometimes run into one that is not all that, (ahem), pristine, I find that have need to remove all manner of grease, oil, layers of paint, and of course rust. After searching the Internet, I learned of a cleaning method that works for me and might work for you. That method is called “Electrolysis”, and I’ll get to that in a while.

    First, some history.

    I married a city girl who after over thirty years of marriage still can’t understand why I just have to have a tractor in the garage while her car sits outside. What can I say? I moved her to Florida from Ohio so she doesn’t have to scrape windows!

    If you have ever attempted to resurrect an old machine, be it a lawn mower, tractor, or old car, you know cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness. I have seen many a valiant effort to perform a proper rebuild stopped dead because of a shaving in a bearing, or a speck of dirt in a newly rebuilt DLTX.

    In cleaning parts, one usually performs the following steps, in some sort of order: pressure wash chassis, remove part, soak in suitable solvent, drip dry, apply paint remover (if needed), use oven cleaner (for heavily soiled/greasy items), wire brush scrub, wash, dry, prime, and finally paint. Sometimes, these activities take place in the residence around the laundry sink (not recommended), the dishwasher (HIGHLY not recommended), or the bath tub (now that you’re single, who’s gonna know?). Now if your part has a fair amount of rust on it, you should apply something like phosphoric acid to convert the red rust to black oxide, or your beautiful paint job may soon have all sorts of pits and pops before you ever get the first pop out of the tractor !

    On heavily painted and/or rusted parts, sandblasting had been my cleaning method of choice, and I still use it. One of the problems with sandblasting is that you use, well, SAND!, and it gets into places of which you never dreamed. Here, again, phosphoric acid as a wash is helpful, as it will, for the most part, dissolve the remnants of silica stuck to the metal surface, and help to dislodge and dissolve any remaining grains of sand. The downside is that because it is an acid, it will also erode a small portion of the part surface, so that you could find yourself with a shaft journal that is bit smaller than when you started.

    Electrolysis is a method used by many who restore old tools, hardware, musical instruments, or anything else that is made of cast iron, wrought iron, or steel. Electrolysis to the purist means the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, but for our discussion, we will assume it to mean a solution that contains water and a suitable electrolyte, which can be either washing soda (Sodium Carbonate) or household lye (Sodium Hydroxide), and through which is run an electrical current. We will be making an electrolytic bath. In our bath, our part will have its red rust (Fe2O3) converted to the black rust (Fe3O4,or black oxide to you tool & die types). This black oxide is stable in that it doesn’t want to react with oxygen anymore. Once dry, it not swell or shrink, so you can safely paint it, though I like to scrub as much of it off as I can with some brown Scotch Brite since it removes fairly easily. This will normally reveal nice shiny iron metal beneath, among the patches of gray or whitish material. This coloration is normal.

    A word of caution: While the strength of the chemicals in the bath is pretty tame, you are still dealing with caustics that can cause discomfort to skin and eye membranes. Always use appropriate precautions when mixing, handling, and disposing of these compounds.

    Here’s what you’ll need:

    Washing Soda: This is Sodium Carbonate. Some folks use baking soda or trisodium phosphate and report satisfactory results, but I find that the reaction seems to yield much better results if I use washing soda. I found my washing soda in the laundry detergent aisle of the supermarket.

    Lye: Also known as Sodium Hydroxide, it’s often found under the Red Devil label. Again, it’s available at the supermarket or hardware store. If lye is difficult to find, you can use crystal Drano (Drano is not my first choice as it has some magnesium crystals in it that can intermittently plate onto the iron but it’s not really a problem). Lye is nasty stuff. Handle it carefully! If you rub a bit of lye and water solution between your fingertips, you’ll notice it is very slick. My old chemistry professor reminded us that “That’s your top layer of skin cells sliding around on one another as they come loose”. USE RUBBER GLOVES AND EYE PROTECTION ! Some folks say it is getting more difficult to find lye in their local markets. However, if you keep you eyes open you will often find it under another product name in another area of the store. I recently found this product in the plumbing aisle of Home Depot: Roebic Crystal Drain Opener. A quick look at the label shows it is 100% Caustic Soda, which means it is perfect for our needs.

    Plastic container(s): Size depends on the parts you intend to clean. I started with a five-gallon plastic bucket, then I moved on to one of those plastic storage containers you find at Wal-Mart, and now I am building a large tank from a black plastic, 150 gal stock tank. I ought to be able to fit most large parts in that. I have also used the 35 gallon tall plastic cans for long pieces like hoods. You can use virtually anything, but stick with plastic.

    Battery charger: Now one time someone let the switch on on my tractor, so now I have a charger. If you’ve never run a battery down you all might have to go out and buy one. Big or small, 6 or 12 volt, around 10 amps is fine.

    Scrap iron, steel, or stainless metal: This will function as the sacrificial electrode, so don’t use anything you’ll want to use again because it will eventually erode into rust (a great time to put that old cracked “G” cylinder head to use!). I have used 16 Ga. sheet steel, old steel fence posts cut and welded together, and old lawn mower blades. The main thing is you want it to have an exposed metal surface so that it will be in contact with the bath. Once the electrode gets coated in red slimy rust, which will occur as the part is cleaned (the rust is traded from the part to the electrode) the reaction will slow or stop. At this time, you’ll have to stop and scrub the red rust from the electrode so that the process can continue. If you use stainless steel, the cleaning will be greatly reduced or not required at all.

    NOTE: A few people caution about the use of stainless steel for the sacrificial electrode, because they claim there is a risk of producing chromium tainted waste products. However, after much study, several calculations, and after 30 years of industrial experience with electrochemical machining of stainless alloys to the tune of 20,000 pounds per month, I have determined that I never come close to approaching the technical and legal quantities of chromium concerns in my little electrolysis tank. If you would like to read my reasoning for this position, please continue to my text on the subject. See link to F-I-T opinion on using Stainless Steel for Electrode. Main thing. If you are concerned in the slightest, stick with common carbon or cast iron and you will have no question as to the safety of the process.

    Water: I’ll let that up to you.

    Let’s cook a part !

    Mix your solution at the rate of one tablespoon of washing soda or lye to one gallon of water. It’s not critical, and it will vary from tank to tank, part size to electrode square area, etc., but add the chemicals to the water so it doesn’t splash full-strength on you. Take a stick and stir it a bit.

    Place your sacrificial electrode in the bath, say around the edges of the container. Place the part in the center so that it doesn’t touch the electrode. I use old 12-14 Ga. iron wire to connect the part to the battery clamp above the bath surface. Since we’re dealing with just a few amps, it doesn’t take much of a connection. See Figure 1.

    Hook up the charger.

    NOTE: Two important points here:

    1: We’re dealing with electricity (110 v at the charger) and water that is in a highly conductive state. Use an appropriately fused or GFI outlet.

    2:Polarity is important ! If you hook it up backwards, the part will erode, and receive the red rust from the electrode.

    Hook the BLACK cable of the charger to the part you want to clean, hook the RED cable to the electrode that will erode. Turn on the power and observe bubbles coming up from the part as well as the electrode. This is hydrogen and oxygen gas bubbles, and it means current is flowing just fine. If you have lot of current flowing, or the meter goes off the scale, you probably
    have the part touching the electrode. Shut off the power, reposition the part, and try it again.

    Now that everything is working properly, go away for a few hours. Time is your ally. Since this process will only work on the red rust, you can leave the part in the bath for weeks, and as long as the electricity flows, the part will not rust in the solution. If the power stops, it will begin to rust in seconds.

    After it appears that the part has had all of its rust converted to black oxide, take it under running water and scrub it with a wire brush or some Scotch-Brite® to remove the loose black oxide. Don’t work too hard. If it still has paint or rust on it, cook it some more and work on something else. You’ll note the pits will remain, as there is nothing we can do to replace the metal that is gone, but now the part is rust-free. If it needs more time, put it back into the bath. On a particularly rusty piece, you will find that if you remove the part and give it a good scrub, and then put it back in, it will speed up the process. Now dry it and prime it or oil it if it needs to remain natural. By the way, a pressure washer works very well here, too (See Figures 2 & 3).

    This reaction is for the most part line of sight, so the placement of your electrode is important. Feel free to add as many electrodes as your charger can accommodate. I even link parts to be cleaned together with wire until I reach the load of my charger. You can also pass a rod down into a passage to clean something out, but you may have to play around with insulating parts of the electrode so that it doesn’t short against the part. I have even placed a long rod from a hydraulic cylinder into a PVC pipe to soak, and it worked well. Almost any container can be fabricated. It just has to be able to support itself, and hold water.

    Because almost any piece of iron or steel has some rust on its surface, even under the paint, soaking in an electrolytic bath can and probably will damage or remove paint. If you use lye as the electrolyte, this can almost be guaranteed. For me, that was a real plus to using this method. The lye electrolyte does the best job on grease, too. I call it my “Electrical Paint and Rust Remover”. By the way, I figure if I run mine 365 days a year, I won’t use over $60 in power, and that won’t begin to buy the oven cleaner and chemical paint remover that I’d need to accomplish the same amount of cleaning.

    I have cleaned exhaust manifolds, cylinder heads, engine parts, sheet metal, even bolts with rusted nuts on them, and have been very pleased with the results. I even soaked my belt pulley assembly (after removing the bearing) and it came out very nice. It even cleaned to flaky rust out of cotter pin eyes and the rust from the clutch bolt threads.

    The solution can get pretty nasty looking, but it really doesn’t ever need to be changed, though sometimes you may want to do so. You can strain it through some panty hose (but now that you’re single, how you gonna get those?), or skim off the large pieces of debris and foam. It’s mildly basic, so you can pour it out in the yard, and hose things down well. The grass will like it as it normally likes to be limed anyway. But please! Check with local ordinances first!

    You can clean your sacrificial electrode with a wire brush from time to time, as this helps to maintain peak conductivity. If I really want to clean the electrode well, I’ll put it in the bath hooked up as the part, and use another electrode. That really makes the rust fly off of the electrode. By morning, it’s ready to go. Eventually, the electrode can rust no more, and must be replaced (see Figure 4). Remember, now is the time to weld together all sorts of bits of junk. My steel fence post electrode is very rugged and extremely durable.

    If you are going to prime your part right away, it can be coated as soon as it is completely dry. If the part is for an internal engine or gear box use, I oil or grease it lightly prior to storage, just like you would if the it was a new part. If it will be a while before you can get to the priming, I like to treat the surface with a phosphoric acid product like Ospho brand, Ph-Ospho-Ric+, or Jasco Prime and Prep. There are many products out there that contain sufficient amounts of phosphoric acid, so read the labels. I have found these three products at my automotive paint supplier and in the paint prep aisles of Home Depot/Lowe’s/Ace Hardware. Here is a typical product label:

    After the phosphoric acid has been applied and left to dry, the part can be stored inside for quite a while, if not for years. When I am ready to prime and paint, I scrub the dry surface once again with a fresh bit of brown Scotch Brite, wipe down with a tack cloth, and apply my coatings.

    I’ve been very pleased with this process, and I hope you’ll try using electrolysis on your next project. It’s simple, cheap, and all you have to do is let the electricity do the work and sit back and wait for the results.

    Questions? E-mail

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    F-I-T's Opinion on Using Stainless Steel for Electrodes

    There are two types of Chromium compounds that are yielded from the reduction of stainless alloys in this electrolytic process: Trivalent Chrome and Hexavalent Chrome, also known as Cr(III) and Cr(VI). Cr(VI) is toxic, and as such requires certain handling if it is held in significant quantity. This is the key. Arsenic for example is a naturally occurring element, and it must be controlled if you have a significant amount of it, but if the quantity or concentration is small (some is present in most drinking water in incredibly small amounts), it is of no consequence.

    While it is true that the electrochemical reduction of stainless steel alloys can produce some Cr (VI) (Hexavalent Chrome), it is important to remember that not all Cr in the alloy becomes Cr(VI). Most remains the less toxic Cr(III). Cr(VI) will only be produced in quantity if you use an extremely hot reaction (mine stays at ambient plus 10 *F or less at all times) or in the presence of atmospheric Oxygen (not present in an aqueous solution). In an aqueous solution, very little Cr(VI) will be produced, (I have had the electrolyte from my bath tested by an environmental laboratory, and the level of Cr(VI) is virtually undetectable).

    The quantity of Cr(VI) is no doubt a concern, but so is the soluble lead from the paint you are removing along with the conversion of the Fe2O3 to Fe3O4, so proper handling of this and other shop waste is always important. The quantity of Cr(VI) is what you need to determine, so that you can then adequately compare this to the CERCLA and RCRA reportable quantities as published by EPA. As of today, the reportable quantity of DIRECT release to the environment on an ANNUAL basis is 1 pound of Cr(VI) per CERCLA, RCRA, and SARA Title III. This is for non-determined Chrome compounds. This number can go as high as 1,000 pounds annually with proper analytical documentation. You can increase this amount even more with increased handling documentation. For instance, I contain my electrolyte, and only add to it, so there is no release. But, if we take this one pound and compute that the Cr(VI) component of the waste sludge is 5% of an original 18% (a very high percentage of chrome) of the Chrome by weight present in the original stainless steel, I would have to digest and then pour into the ground water, the equivalent of 111.11 pounds of electrodes PER YEAR, and I will not digest that much stainless steel in my lifetime. This is why I feel that the continuing statements from some authors that any and all electrolysis baths that use stainless steel as sacrificial anodes are creating hazardous waste that needs to be handled, transported, and processed and by a hazardous material hauler is alarmist.

    Also important to remember is that the carcinogenic attribute of Cr(VI) is given as inhaled, as other contact studies have been deemed to be inclusive. In this electrolysis process it is difficult if not impossible to inhale the non-boiling electrolyte. You must not compare the release of Cr(VI) in this electrolysis process with that that takes place in the Chrome electroplating process using Chromic Acid. The amount of fuming and airborne Cr(VI) in that process is exponentially higher than from this mild form of electrolysis.

    Many folks read or hear from someone that didn't really know in the first place that Cr(VI) is dangerous, and began to assume that Cr(III) or Cr(VI) in any amount is a concern. While it is true that Cr(VI) is dangerous enough as to dictate proper control in certain quantities, it is also true of many household chemicals such as Chlorine Bleach, paint remover, brake cleaner, MEK, lead paint dust sanded from old tractors, gasoline, lacquer thinner, Stoddard Solvent, all old crankcase products, and many, many more.

    Many people are eager to leap to a conclusion that is not supported by regulations or good science. It is important to understand that the EPA regards hazardous as relative to the particular process you are using, and the specific chemical compounds released over a given period of time. Again, for example, Arsenic is a poison, but it also naturally occurring. If you concentrate it, it can be harmful. But once you understand the minimum or Rf (Reference dosage) limits as published by EPA, you should be able to see that only an amount exceeding that specified over a given period of time will determine ultimate toxicity. Reference: 40 CFR, Table 302-4, page 293 and 334 for Chromium Compounds.

    I have operated electrolytic processes on and off for over 30 years. I have served as a line supervisor, process engineer, materials manager, manager of technical services, and environmental officer for a jet engine component manufacturing facility for 26 of those 30 years, so I feel that I have more than a little experience, but there is always someone who can teach me more. Any way, we used an electrochemical machining process on stainless alloys including Inconel 718 and AMS 5616. I was in charge of disposing of the filter cake precipitated from the electrolyte, and I never failed a Cr(VI) filter cake analysis over all those years, yet we were digesting over ten tons of stainless steel per month.

    I also have a degree and an industrial background in Chemistry, and it has served me well in understanding this process as well as the pertinent environmental regulations. I feel confident that I am observing care well within prescribed guidelines, and I base this on regulatory facts and science, and not internet conjecture, but I invite anyone out there to develop their own opinion as to how they manage their personal electrolysis tanks. It is after all, your responsibility.

    Some people mentioned their concern about using Lye, a.k.a. Caustic Soda, chemically named Sodium Hydroxide because it is, well, caustic. As far as my choice of using Sodium Hydroxide as an electrolyte, if used properly, I am confident that there is no concern. At the rate of one tablespoon per gallon, it is less than .1 Molar, yet I find that a small amount will help to emulsify fats, oils, and grease, and increase the efficiency of the reaction while held at or slightly above ambient temperature.

    So, in conclusion, if you have any reservations about using stainless steel electrodes in your electrolysis tank, then don’t. Common steel or cast iron will work fine, but will require very frequent cleaning to maintain good current flow. Also, if you have any concerns about how to handle the electrolyte (which if filtered from time to time through cheese cloth to extract the junk and leaves and pieces of gasket and sheets of peeling paint, can be used forever) then set it to the side to evaporate and put the powder residue that is left in a can for a future hazardous waste clean up day. By the way, you should also be doing this with all of your household hazardous waste like car batteries, flashlight batteries, laptop batteries, spent paint remover, motor oil, antifreeze, computers, rat baits, old leaded paint containers, pesticide containers, toilet bowl cleaners, brake fluids, oil based paint containers, etc. I bet there is whole lot of decaying Ni-Cad and Alkaline flashlight batteries rotting in the city dump ready to contaminate the ground water than there is Cr(VI) powder swept up from the last time every mechanic in town cleaned out his electrolysis tank.

    If you want to be a good steward to the environment, you need to be one all the time.

    Anyway, enjoy the process and be careful as it involves electricity and fluid in a highly conductive state. And if you are the least bit concerned about the mysteries of Cr(VI), just use some steel fence posts, but be prepared to clean them at least once a day.

    Questions? E-mail

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    Fuel Tank Cleaning

    I generally use a three pronged attack in my war against tank crud, starting with cheap chemicals and working my way up in cost and time until the job is done to suit me.

    First you need to determine if it's just varnish and decomposed gasoline, and not varnish plus gravel, dirt, bird feathers, straw, dead mice, nests, red rust, etc, like one finds in a tank on a tractor that was left sitting in the fence row with no cap.

    To dissolve varnish, my favorite solvent is Methyl Ethyl Ketone, or MEK. You can find this in the paint/thinners section of most Lowe's/Home Depot/Ace Hardware stores. You may need several quarts depending on the size of the tank and the amount of varnish in there. Fill the tank part way, swish it around, and then let it capped for a while so it can work. Now you swish, drain, repeat, and maybe use a few nuts or small bolts in there to cause aggressive agitation, but steel ones that can be retrieved easily using a magnet.

    If you have non-petroleum contaminants in there, hot lye water will really do the job to emulsify that stuff into a water-soluble paste that can probably be removed with a good hot water rinsing. Using a power washer will also help speed the job. You can also repeat this process of hot lye rinsing, but be careful that you don't harm the paint on the outside of the tank if that matters. If it does not, fill it with a cork in the bung, and cap it and let it sit overnight. Any petroleum will turn to a type of primitive soap, and the dirt will deteriorate into simpler sediment, both of which can be rinsed out. Again try the nuts and bolts method during agitation.

    The last chemical I use is Phosphoric Acid. This will convert any red rust into an inert form of black oxide that will be harmless if left in the tank. Now, rinse, slosh, and repeat, until you can no longer see any rust. You'll want to rinse with plenty of water to get the foamy, soapy residue of the acid out, but don't worry about the discoloration left behind. That is a phosphate coating that will help inhibit rust in the future.

    Now this tank is pretty much chemically devoid of any vestiges of flammable hydrocarbons, so now is the best time to solder any pin holes or place any repair patches that might be required. I have an assortment of old solid copper soldering irons that I acquired years ago, the kind that you heat in a torch or on a stove and then the bulky copper mass stay warm for a good long time. Since they use no flame, and hold they heat really well, they are an ideal choice for soldering a steel tank. Start by tinning the area with some good quality soldering paste and flash a coating of solder about the area. A very clean, thin, steel patch can now be placed and fully soldered to cover any large holes. Pin holes can normally be soldered only with a dollop. Check it for leaks before moving on.

    To finish it, slosh it with some lacquer thinner and that will work to drive the water out of any creases or seams. If you're not going to use the tank right away, I like to swirl a few ounces of diesel fuel to oil the inside so no further rusting can take place. If you want to use it right now, rinse it with a few ounces of gasoline and let this run out. It will take any last vestiges of water with it and you should have a very clean tank. If you want to paint the outside, you might have to re-arrange the order of the steps.

    Here a couple of shots of an "H" tank that I used this process on. I thought it turned out well.

    Questions? E-mail

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