Monday, January 4, 2010

Adventures in Cosmoline

If you buy tools that were made in any of the former Eastern Block countries or in India or Pakistan, you're probably familiar with the brown goo - the Devil's gunk - the big sticky - the crap known as:

Cosmoline

Wikipedia has this to say about the stuff:

"Cosmoline is the trade name for a generic class of rust preventatives, conforming to MIL-C-11796C Class 3, that are a brown colored wax-like mass; have a slight fluorescence; and have a petroleum-like odor and taste. Chemically, cosmoline is a homogeneous mixture of oily and waxy long-chain, non-polar hydrocarbons. It is always brown in color, and can differ in viscosity and shear strength. Cosmoline melts at 113-125 °F (45–52 °C) and has a flashpoint of 365 °F (185 °C).

Its most common use is in the storage and preservation of firearms. Previously, cosmoline was used to preserve other items. Objects the size of entire vehicles could be preserved for future use with cosmoline. During World War II, US Coast Artillerymen (serving the huge coastal artillery batteries) were known as "Cosmoliners" because they were tasked with the near constant cosmoline application ("greasing down") of the guns. During Pacific island campaigns in World War II, the United States Marines sang a song about cosmoline. Adapting the popular big-band tune "Tangerine," they would sing "Cosmoline...keeps my rifle clean."

Due to its gelatinous nature, cosmoline can be difficult to remove..."

An understatement to say the least.

***

Firearms aren't the only thing that come coated in Cosmoline - tools made from carbon steel from the aforementioned places East of Here come packed in it. It makes sense, since they are shipped via ocean freight, and salt and water are innimicable to non-stainless steel. It would be nice, though, if once they got to the US, they were cleaned up and repackaged so that one could actually use the tools without having to spend hours degreasing.

Getting Cosmoline off of steel bench tools is probably child's play compared to getting it out of a rifle or engine, where it's packed into every tiny crevice. A few months back, on the Beading Daily forum, I was bemoaning a lost opportunity to purchase a small rolling mill. I had passed on it because the gears were caked in the sticky goo, and I had no way to clean them. A member told me that he had great success using denatured alcohol instead of a commercial degreaser - which is extremely caustic. I tried it on a disgustingly sticky bench block, and was eminently satisfied. Denatured alcohol does need to be used with proper ventilation, but it's not caustic and won't destroy clothes or skin.

Anyway, last month I bought myself the PepeTools dapping block and punch set I really wanted - the one with the big 2" punch and the 2.5" block. For some reason, I thought that it would be all nice and clean and look like this:

But no, it wasn't. It was a bag of brown, stinking mess. Actually, it was a bag of brown stink in a box filled with packing crud. I tried to save myself a bit of effort by opening the box over a garbage can (a big 60 gallon can already three-quarters filled with packing material and other assorted detritus). That would have been a Good Thing, except that I picked up the bag from the wrong end and all 21 punches plus the block fell out of the bag into the garbage can, swiftly sinking amongst the upteenthousand pieces of polystyrene packing peanuts. I was able to get the big pieces easily, but the small punches were elusive. Shifting the garbage into an empty pail, I recovered 20 out of 21 punches, before I up-ended the last quarter of the garbage onto the floor to sweep through it by hand. Of course, I almost missed the last punch - it was the smallest one, with 3 or 4 peanuts sticking to it.

Ready to commence de-greasing, I reached for a small metal utility bucket - from the paint department at Home Depot - when I nicked the tip of my right middle finger on a strip-making tool for my metal clay work. Lesson learned - putting a sharp edged tool out of the way does not mean you've put it away safely. The blood from this cut ran down my hand, dripped over my arm and spattered all over my workbench (note to self, check hammers for blood spatter).

Since I hadn't even thought about shop safety (note to self - get a small First Aid kit for the bench), I ran back to my desk, fumbled for the spool of medical tape I keep handy, a paper towel and some latex gloves.

I also decided to see if regular rubbing alcohol would work on removing the Cosmoline coating. It actually did - for the punches, which were also wrapped in Cosmoline-coated paper. The block, however, was another story. The goo was too thick for the isopropol alcohol to work, so I switched containers and poured the denatured alcohol over it. Eventually, with a bit of elbow grease (pun clearly intented) the goo came off.

Of course, well after the fact, I went on-line and researched methods on Cosmoline removal. Most of the information comes from gun and militaria collectors who have a strong preference for commercial degreasers, but one site recommended using a steam cleaner, which makes perfect sense. While boiling hot water will melt away the gunk, I'm adverse to exposing easily rusting metal to water, and letting large hunks of steel soak in boiling water brings up a different problem altogether. Metal holds heat, and letting a pound or two soak long enough to remove the Cosmoline will mean that it will become too hot to handle easily, which means that if I let it sit in the hot water long enough to cool down, all of the grease will re-attach itself, leaving me back at square one. Using a steam cleaner means that while the steel is exposed to boiling water, the steam flashes hot, blows the goo off and the minute droplets dry quickly, minimizing the opportunity for rust.

Anyway - I've cleaned up all of the bench tools, gave them a light spray of WD-40, and now that my vacation's over, I'm left wondering when I'll actually have time to use them.

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