(Don’t Let It) Rust in Peace: How to Restore a Rusty BarbellWe love our barbells, and sometimes they need some love too. Maybe you lift in the garage, and your bare steel bar is starting to rust from the humidity. Or perhaps you found a great old bar that needs a second chance. Matt Moore shows you how to give new life to old steel.
By: Matt Moore
Rust in Peace: How to Restore a Rusty Barbell
By: Matt Moore
What You’ll Need:
- An old rusty bar (of good quality)
- White vinegar
- Baking soda
- Wire brushes and wire wheel drill attachments (brass is preferred, but steel may be necessary for the stubborn stuff)
- Green Scotch-Brite pads and/or steel wool (0000)
- 3-in-1 oil
- Cold Gun Blue (optional)
Step 1: Find an old rusty/mistreated barbell
Listen, we can all make a difference. Sure, you could buy a new barbell from the big corporate barbell mills, but what about those poor mistreated bars that have a little age on them? They wind up in dumpsters, landfills, scrap yards, and are never given a chance to be loved by a real lifter. By finding and restoring one of these bars, you can really make a difference.
On a serious note, there are some DEALS out there on some GREAT bars, if you know where to look and aren’t afraid of a little time and elbow grease. There are tons of places to look nowadays: Facebook Marketplace, Letgo, OfferUp, Craigslist, Facebook yard sale groups, public auction, high schools/colleges renovating their gyms, etc. you’re only limited by your imagination. (Pro tip: Use IFTTT.com to automate some of these searches for you!)
It’s also worthy to note that not all barbells are worth saving. Some of them deserve to be melted down and turned into cheap pot metal. You want to find a bar with solid construction and one that is straight. As a general rule of thumb, no quality barbell has a hex bolt holding the sleeve onto the shaft, and no quality barbell has a diameter of greater than 29mm unless it is a specialty use squat bar (not likely to wind up in a dumpster anyway). Look for older York “split sleeve” bars and older Texas Power Bars made by Buddy Capps. These bars have excellent track records for maintaining their straightness over time with tons of abuse. There are some good barbell identification guides if you dig enough on the internet, but that goes beyond the scope of this article, so this exercise is left to the reader.
Step 2: Assess the Damage, disassemble, and soak in white vinegar
Start by taking off the sleeves. Disassembly will vary from bar to bar, so hop on the Google machine and figure out what the best process is AND DON’T LOSE ANY PIECES. It would be a total bummer if you wound up with an unusable barbell because you lost a roll pin or a specialty part that isn’t made anymore. If there’s any grease buildup or anything, now is a good time to get rid of it. All of it. Forever.
Before soaking the bar, use your wire brushes to knock off the loose rust and dirt. Don’t worry about getting everything here, just the big chunky bits.
Soaking the bar is really simple, but you may have to get creative on the container that you soak it in. When I restored an E-Z curl bar, I made a 4”x4”x48” box out of some cardboard I had lying around and lined it with a thick contractor bag to serve as my soaking tub, which worked really well. If you can get the bar down to just the shaft, you can get some 1.5” PVC from the hardware store, use PVC cement to attach a cap to one end, insert the bar, prop it up so it can hold the liquid, then fill with vinegar. Cap it off if you want, just make sure it’s totally submerged! You can always soak the sleeves separately in another plastic container of your choosing.
Depending on the type of bar you have and how badly it’s rusted, you may not even have to (or want to) submerge it entirely. With the older York bars, it’s not possible to remove the inner flanges. So, if the bar is in rough shape, you’ll need to find a wide enough PVC pipe to soak it in (and a LOT of vinegar). Or, more preferably, resort to the “paper towel method.”
The paper towel method involves soaking paper towels in vinegar, wrapping them around the bar, then wrapping the towels with plastic wrap to prevent evaporation (or else you’ll just get more rust).
Whatever way you decide to go at this, make sure you’re soaking the stuff for at least 4 hours. I let mine sit overnight. The longer it soaks, the more effective the vinegar will be and the less elbow grease you’ll have to put in.
Step 3: Brush off the rust, rinse, and QUICKLY neutralize the acid
Get everything ready first. When you decide to take the bar out of the vinegar, you’ll have to work quickly to prevent flash rusting. Have a hose nearby. Mix up a baking soda and water solution (as much as you can dissolve), and have it ready in a spray bottle. You can also just dowse it in the powder if you want. Either way, have the box of baking soda nearby in case you need more.
If at all possible, use your brass brush to scrub the parts down while it’s still submerged in the vinegar. This makes it a lot easier to work with later. As soon as you take the parts out of the vinegar, use your wire wheel attachment (or hand brushes) to knock off as much rust as possible. Then, use a garden hose to thoroughly rinse the part off to remove as much vinegar as you can. If your parts soaked long enough, you might be surprised at how little rust is left on the bar after just this step. After rinsing, liberally cover your parts inside and out with the baking soda powder/solution to neutralize any vinegar left on the parts and prevent it from flash rusting. Flash rust will form in under 5 minutes exposed to the air, so work quickly. Flash rust looks like a yellowy/orange tint that gradually forms on the surface of the bare steel. It isn’t difficult to remove later, so if it happens, don’t freak out. You just have some more scrubbing to do later. If everything goes perfectly, you’ll have a mostly restored looking bar on your hands.
Step 4: Scrub the remaining rust off and embrace your OCD
Now that the worst rust spots are gone and you’ve neutralized the acid to prevent flash rust, you can take your time to pretty everything up. Use the wire wheels and your drill to go over every square inch of that bar. Every nook and cranny. Get real deep into the knurl. You don’t want any leftover oxidation on there. Don’t worry about messing the knurl up either. Any GOOD bar will not be bothered at all by the brass and steel brushes you’re using.
Once all the rust is gone and you’ve cleaned up everything with the brushes, use the green Scotch-Brite pads to rub down all the smooth surfaces to get rid of all the little scratches and brighten everything back up. After rubbing it all down, rinse the bar off again to clear off any dust/residue that’s leftover. You can repeat the wire wheel, green Scotch-Brite pad, and rinse cycle as many times as you need or as few times as your OCD will let you get away with.
Step 5: Blue the shaft (optional)
This is a step I used on my older York bar because they used to blue the shafts at the factory, and I wanted it to match. It came out looking really sharp. And it’s pretty cheap. I think my little bottle of Blue cost me $8 at Wal-Mart and has enough for a few barbells in it. We’ll see how well it holds up in the future, but for now, it looks great.
If you did the last step really really well, all you’ll have to do is rinse everything one last time. Use some degreaser to prep the surface, and some isopropyl alcohol to make sure it’s clean and super dry.
Apply the bluing according to the directions on the bottle. I used Birchwood Casey Super Blue on my bar, but there are plenty of options out there. The bluing is a chemical process that–and I’m grossly oversimplifying here–is basically an ultra-accelerated oxidation process. Think of it like how searing a fine cut of steak locks in the flavor of the meat. This layer of oxidation will protect the barbell from forming surface rust as easily. Pay attention to detail here. Make even coats, and don’t be afraid to make multiple passes and use multiple coats to get a deep, dark, even coat. The knurling is the toughest part to apply the blue correctly. Use multiple passes, and you’ll be fine. Rinse with cold water thoroughly after each coat to prevent the blue from working too well and making your bar form surface rust. I used a lint-free shop towel (the kind that comes in a roll like paper towels) to apply my blue since the knurling will make short work of the cotton applicator and leave cotton fibers everywhere.
Step 6: Oil it all down, reassemble, and admire your handiwork.
Put a few drops of 3-in-1 on all the surfaces and work it in with a lint-free rag. Your bar is straight-up bare steel now, so you need to get the oil worked in there to prevent it from rusting again. It’s okay to be liberal with the oil here at first; just wipe up the excess with a dry towel later. However, only put a few drops on the bushings where the sleeves rotate on the shaft. A dab’ll do ya here. After this initial oiling, you may only have to oil the bar quarterly (or every three months) depending on your climate you may need more/less frequent oiling.