How to clean rust off props

We have searched around for various old tools for Stephen and Conrad’s workshop over the last few days and came across a great haul. The tools were exactly the sort of things we were looking for – wooden handles, older styling, etc., and Sloane was happy with them in that respect. The issue we had was that they had been left out in the rain for months, and were covered in rust. You can see the ‘before’ video here (and if you don’t care for looking at rusty tools just watch Harry the dog!)…

Obviously, we need items that were well used (i.e., no pristine and shiny bits), but rust is a no no. So, the price was right – all we needed to do was bring them up to some semblance of decency.

So – top tip… a mixture of baking soda and vinegar works great to clean off rust (extra points if anyone can explain the chemistry in comments). Coat the item in the mixture and then rub it down with silver foil (that’s tin foil to all our American friends and family!).

The devil is in the details, and Sloane wanted the tools to have the sort of markings they would have gotten from recent use. A bit of steel wool to rub off some of the finishes, blades sharpened (with the ‘prop’ file of course), etc., give them an ‘authentic’ look.

The wooden parts (handles) were lightly sanded – again, not enough to remove the years of grime, but enough to make them look ‘several’ years old, as opposed to fifty! Once we got them looking like they had the right amount of wear, the handles were lightly oiled, which not only darkens the wood but also makes them look ‘healthier’ (i.e., not so dried out and cracking). I also gave the metal parts a light oil to give them a slight sheen (you really notice this on the trunk) which is actually metal and not wood.

Will anyone ever notice this when they watch the film, is a question asked by art departments (and every other department!)? The answer is – it doesn’t matter. If there is a chance that these details make a difference, then they are all worth doing. Anything that distracts the viewer from your finished film is bad – if Stephen picks up a rusty hammer, someone will notice (even on a subconscious level) and it will break the moment. Yes, this attention to detail is hard work – but if you don’t like hard work you have no business trying to make a film!

You can see the results here:

One thought on “How to clean rust off props

  1. The baking soda and vinegar are acidic (sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid). They react with the iron oxide (rust) which transform it and make it easier to remove.

    Rubbing the rust with aluminum foil is another trick. This one creates an electrochemical reaction. Electrons from the aluminum flow to the iron. You could speed this process up by making a plastic bucket full of water and baking soda then attaching the negative pole of a battery to your rusty tool and the positive to a bit of scrap metal. Then put the whole lot into the bucket of water (not touching each other). Electrons will flow from the scrap metal to your tool.

    You can also use aluminum foil to get static out of your clothes by placing a 2-3cm ball of it a tumble dryer with your garments. It absorbs the spare electrons and results in cling-free clothing.

    Do I get a prize now?

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