Cleaning WW2 Relics

Ground dug WW2 relics hardly ever come out of the ground clean! The few times it has happened to me has been with stainless steel items, but even these needed surface muck washing off of them. I am often asked how I clean the relics I recover so have put this blog together to save me keep repeating myself, as I can just direct people here instead. I’m all for saving time as it gives me more time to recover and preserve relics!

The good thing about WW2 relics is that they tend to be rather robust, so they can withstand some quite harsh cleaning methods. However, you have to be very careful with the more delicate items you may recover and I would not recommend anything other than warm water and a very soft brush for fragile or delicate items. The more ‘intensive’ methods shown below are only ever used by me on big chunky WW2 relics, and never on fragile items such as old toiletry tubes, coins, badges etc… when only a wash in warm soapy water with a soft toothbrush or cloth is normally ever used.

For your everyday lump of WW2 metal though, you can use quite intensive cleaning methods. Most of these methods will retain the aged patina of an item, but some WON’T! I’ve noted in each method if it will destroy the patina or retain it so you can make your own choice. I’ve also put together a video showing two of the methods discussed below, just in case you prefer to watch moving pictures rather than read text. The video only covers two methods though, so read the below if you’d like to know more.

 

Basic Washing (aged patina retained)

To remove mud and grime, washing in hot soapy water then drying effectively can be enough. I use a variety of tools to ‘scrub’ items with, including a toothbrush, wire brush, tough scouring pad, Brillo pad and dental descalers.

This is a simple method and needs very little in the way of description. Basically, just clean the item in hot soapy water with whichever ‘tool’ is appropriate, rinse, then dry. That’s it!

You can just leave items to air dry, but sometimes, especially with items that may have water trapped in them somewhere, it is worthwhile drying them with heat. This can be done by putting them in a sunny spot (during the summer months, obvs), on a radiator or, if you’re particularly impatient, in the oven (set to 70-80 degrees centigrade). Two of these may incur the wrath of others in your house though, (normally, but not exclusively, of the female persuasion), so be warned!

Citric Acid (aged patina usually LOST)

To remove rust from items I have tried many methods over the years and numerous different chemicals, from proprietary rust removing products, to acetic acid ( AKA vinegar, and boy does it make stuff stink!), phosphoric acid and oxalic acid. Results vary depending on what you use and I have settled on citric acid for a three reasons. Firstly it is relatively non-toxic, (whereas other chemicals like oxalic acid are very toxic). Secondly it is easy to obtain. Thirdly it gives some very impressive results. Indeed, it is the citric and phosphoric acid component of soft drinks like Coke that give it its metal cleaning properties, (I’m sure you will have seen videos on Youtube of people putting a copper coin in Coke and, a minute later, pulling it out shiny and new. It does work!). However, there are cheaper ways of cleaning stuff other than soaking it in 2 litres of diet Coke. You can buy citric acid online, and also at retail outlets like Wilkos. It is quite cheap to buy, and at the time of publishing this blog, the below was £1.75 for 250g.

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For heavily rusted items, a solution of 10 to 15% citric acid is usually enough to remove the vast majority of rust. For those of you who maths isn’t your strong point, a 10% solution would be made by adding 100g to 1 litre of water. You can make a stronger solution but be aware that with solutions above about 25%, over a period of time the citric acid precipitates out and sticks very strongly to metal, so go easy, otherwise you can create a lot of work for yourself!

I start by removing any dirt, mud, loose rust or big chunks, then make up a solution using very hot or boiling water. This helps to kick start the reaction. Place the items in the solution you’ve made up and leave in a ventilated space (not in your house!) for at least 24 hrs. Once you are satisfied with the result, drain the solution away and rinse 3 or 4 times in clean water. Then let the item dry.

The two pictures above show a before and after shot of some ground dug Sten magazines. These were cleaned with citric acid as above. A pretty good result but notice there are only 4 mags in the second picture. One of them didn’t survive the process as the metal was basically all rust, so be warned…….you can lose relics with this method.

Citric acid also works on brass items but there is one major problem. As the metal is an alloy of copper and zinc, the citric acid reacts stronger with the zinc than the copper, which results in your brass coming out copper coloured or even pink! You can get the brass colour back by using a wire wheel on a pillar drill (see below), and it does produce excellent results BUT……you will lose ALL the aged patina and end up with a very very shiny brass item. Also note that the reaction takes minutes not hours, so don’t leave them unattended! The maximum time I’ve ever left a brass item in citric acid was an hour.

In the first picture, these ground dug pull through rods and Kerr sling buckles have just been scrubbed with hot soapy water. In the second picture, they have been soaked in citric acid solution for an hour, rinsed, dried, then scrubbed with a wire wheel (see below). You can see the copper/pink hue in some of the rods still, and the buckles are back to shiny brass. All the aged patina is gone…..which you may like, but I only ever do this if I have large numbers of the same relic item. For 99% of my ground dug relics I keep the aged patina.

Electrolysis (some aged patina lost)

I used to use this method on steel or iron items and did get some good results. However, I switched to the citric acid method (above) as I found electrolysis quite a time-consuming and messy method.

You will need a large receptacle/tank for the electrolysis solution, a battery charger or similar electrical supply, wires, crocodile clips, a frame or other method to ‘hang’ a relic in the centre of your tank, water, sacrificial piece of metal and a chemical to make the electrolysis solution. What you are aiming to do is transfer some of the sacrificial piece of metal on to the relic you want ‘cleaning’. This is the basic setup.

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You attach the sacrificial piece of metal to the anode (positive terminal) and the relic to the cathode (negative terminal). The electrical charge that flows between these two via the electrolysis solution, attracts the positively charged metal ions from the sacrificial piece on to the relic, thus building the metal back up. It also removes any rust. You will need to use something like bicarbonate of soda to make up the electrolysis solution. Water on its own doesn’t conduct electricity well enough to make the system work, and something like sodium chloride (salt) can result in toxic chemicals being released (e.g. ferric chloride).

You will know you’ve got the system set up right as the reaction causes the production of bubbles on the terminals, which leads me to the last point. Do this is a ventilated area as the bubbles produced contain hydrogen! Get enough of it in an enclosed space and you run the risk of causing an explosion.

Rock tumbler (some aged patina lost)

This method is really useful if you are lazy!

Rock tumblers are just that, a method of cleaning and polishing rocks by placing them in a rotating drum with an abrasive material, tumbling them around and around to get them polished. The process for rocks takes weeks. Thankfully for WW2 relics, it takes considerably less time.

The method is simple. Place your dry relic in the rock tumbler with an abrasive material such as aluminium oxide powder or very fine sand, switch on and walk away! Check every 6 hrs or so and stop the process when you are happy with the result.

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This method works really well if you simply can’t be arsed to use any energy at all to clean your relics. It does clean things like cartridge cases very well, and retains the majority of the aged patina, but it does result in some relic losses. It is only suitable for smaller items and doesn’t work very well on cleaning rust off iron/steel items.

I have used this method a lot in the past and still use it, but there is a considerable outlay in the beginning for the tumbler itself as they are not cheap! Interestingly, I used a massively souped up version of this to clean around 10,000 cartridge cases recovered in one day from one pit. (https://stephentaylorhistorian.com/2019/06/13/50000-ww2-cartridge-cases-one-pit/) I got hold of a cement mixer, some bags of kiln dried block paving sand and upgraded to a monster rock tumbler! Chuck in a bag of sand and a bucket of cartridge cases, switch it on and after 8 hours of tumbling I had nicely cleaned (but still with their aged patina), cartridge cases.

Wire wheel on a pillar drill (aged patina retained (if you go easy!))

I use this method more than any other as it gives excellent results with little in the way of elbow grease. You need two things; A bench/pillar drill and a wire wheel.

Methodology couldn’t be simpler. Put the wire wheel on the drill, turn the drill on, then just work the relic against the wheel until clean. I would recommend wearing gloves and safety glasses to prevent injury, but other than that, that is all there is to it.

The wire wheel needs to be at least 100mm in diameter. I have found that using smaller wheels results in damage to the relic as the bristles are stiffer in smaller wheels, which results in scouring of the relic, leaving behind marks. I also always use a steel type wheel and not a brass wire wheel. Again, experience has shown that brass is a soft metal and some of the brass from the wheel transfers on to your relic when you work it against the bristles. This then gives the item a coating of brass, which isn’t great!

You can clean your relic in hot soapy water before using this method, or even the citric acid method first then this, or you can skip everything else and just clean with this method. I have found that results are better if you use another method first, but for many relic items, especially brass ones, this method is fine to use on its own.

You can see it in action in the below video;

So long as you go easy when working the relic against the wire wheel, you will retain the aged patina. However, if you work the relic against the wheel hard, you will remove the aged patina quite quickly. Practice makes perfect and you should clean your relics until you’re happy with them!

The relics below have all been cleaned using just this method, nothing else.

I also used this method on these relics, BUT AFTER they had been soaked in citric acid solution for 24hrs;

 

Dremel (aged patina retained)

I have tried this method on small relics, but have to say I never got very satisfactory results. Some people swear by it though, so I thought I’d include it here for completeness. All you do is, believe it or not, use various attachments on a Dremel tool to clean your relic. Complicated I know, but I’m sure you’ll work it out.

 

And that’s how I get WW2 relics cleaned and preserved. Hopefully you will be able to get some good results yourself with these tips, but if you need any help, just drop me a message via the ‘Contact’ page.

 

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