Molasses vs. Rust
By Terry A. White
past spring I attended a local cartridge show and suddenly became
a collector of Civil War artillery shells. Five to be exact. The
price was such that I could not refuse purchasing the entire lot.
According to the seller, he and his wife dug them sometime in the
1970s. They never cleaned them, leaving 140+ years of dirt and rust
still attached when I made the purchase.
I talked with a couple civil war cartridge collectors and they suggested
the zinc and lye method for rust removal. This did not present a
problem other than I did not have either the lye or zinc ingots.
Talking with a machinist friend, he suggested using a solution of
water and molasses. Never having used this for rust removal, he
was unable to tell me the exact ratio of molasses to water. With
a little Internet searching, I found suggestions ranging from 10:1
to 20:1 as the proper ratio of water and molasses to use in my "cleaning"
I purchased a 3-1/2 gallon bucket of liquid molasses at the local
farm store for just under $10. I figured that if 10:1 was good,
4:1 would be better. Whether this is true, I can not tell you, but
that is the ratio of water to molasses I chose (4 gallons of water
to 1 gallon of molasses). Using a five gallon plastic bucket, in
went the water and molasses followed by three of the shells. I covered
the top of the bucket to reduce evaporation and to keep out unwanted
critters. At the end of each week in the solution, I checked and
the rust was indeed falling off. The
one mistake I made was that I did not remove the dirt first which
would have reduced the soaking time. Actually I made two mistakes.
The second being that I did not take a "before" photograph
of the shells. So you'll have to take my word that this worked really
After four weeks, I removed the shells from the solution. I washed
them in warm water and used a steel bristled brush to remove the
remaining black material, which I believe is carbon. After a thorough
drying with the wifes hair drier, I gave each a couple coats
from a spray can of high-grade clear lacquer, purchased at the local
paint store. What were once unsightly blobs of dirt and rust are
now clean artifacts that my wife will allow in the house for display.
to right, 3.8" Hotchkiss, 10-pdr. Parrott, 20-pdr. Parrott.
on the image to enlarge
note -- I have not tried this method yet myself, but it seems to
offer a safer, non-caustic alternative to using zinc/lye or electrolysis
to clean iron relics. -JimT]
Photo Publication Rights Reserved
Terry A. White