Clock cleaning 101, by Stephen Nelson, who provides no warranties, stated or implied, as to the effectiveness of these techniques. If you want to see how well they work, check out the “Fantastic Mechanisms” section of this site.
It seems like people are always curious how I get the mechanisms I work on so wonderfully clean and shiny. There are a number of reasons they come out so well, the first of which is the cleaning solution I use. This is a classic recipe, one that has been around for a very long time. It consists of an ammoniacal solution (to remove the tarnish from brass) with a surfactant (to help dissolve oils and greases) and a brightening agent (to brighten the brass parts).
Wear hearing and eye protection when using compressed air.
Wear appropriate gloves when handling acetone, ammonia, and the cleaning solution
Have adequate ventilation when working with volatile chemicals like Acetone and Ammonia
Wear eye protection when working with solutions that can damage your eyes – this includes soaps, oleic acid, acetone, and ammonia.
The first two steps involve making the two blends listed in the table shown elsewhere on this page - one that contains only Oleic acid and Acetone, the other containing the final 4 ingredients. Note, when I call for Ammonia - I am referring to household strength ammonia.
Stir these two solutions separately until they are well mixed, and, in the case of the first blend, until all the oleic acid is dissolved in the acetone. The acetone is used to get the oleic acid into solution. Once into solution it can then be mixed with water (the second solution)
Combine the two solutions described above and stir well to make the cleaning solution.
After cleaning with the above, rinse with water, then dry. I put small screws and other small bits into an aluminum-foil lined pie pan and place that on my gas range. I then turn on the fire and let it heat for 3 or 4 seconds, then turn off the gas and let the parts dry. Dries the small bits wonderfully.
I blow dry the larger parts with compressed air.
Discussion - See recipe below
This recipe is basically a 1 in 4 ammonia solution with soap to help dissolve/disperse oils and waxes, and oleic acid to brighten the brass. Yes, ammonia smells bad. As noted above, I am talking about household ammonia - the higher strength ammonia used to fume oak is really not worth the safety issues it raises. I tend not to put my face down in it to test my breathing, unless I need to clear my sinuses. Common sense should rule here – don’t work unless you have adequate ventilation – no matter who’s recommendation you follow. Flip side, house wives have been using ammonia to clean windows for a long, long time. They are pretty smart, those house-wives.
The ammoniacal solution works great, and is very effective in an ultrasonic cleaner. It is not uncommon for me to take a really filthy mechanism and first soak the parts in an organic solvent, mineral spirits comes to mind, to remove the oils and greases. This helps keep the ammoniacal solution cleaner, and softens up the hard stuff.
After cleaning with this solution I polish, where necessary, with Brasso, or Simichrome. After polishing with Brasso or Simichrome, it’s back into the ammoniacal solution, etc.
I also wear, always, nitrile gloves. I strongly recommend using gloves, whatever you use to clean. I also recommend that every part be fully taken apart before cleaning. Everything. All screws removed. Otherwise the corrosion that you leave behind will one day preclude the screws coming out in one piece.
Environmental impact – well, let’s see – oleic acid comes from animal fat. Totally biodegradable, in fact, drink as much as you want. Ok, it will clean you out, much like mineral oil. But, not deadly. Ammonia – pour it down the drain. Ammonia is a fantastic nitrogen source for the bugs at the local POTW (fancy initials for publically owned treatment works – or sewage plant if you don’t recognize the high faluting name). Dish soap – well, better be environmentally benign. And, that leaves acetone – which is necessary to help get the oleic acid into solution in water. Once again, good bug food in the POTW.
When not to use an ammoniacal solution. Thin, very worked brass (as in the bases of anniversary clocks that are covered with brass that has been spun to form the base) is work hardened. Or thin, spun brass bezels for clock dials. The ammonia can and will cause hardened brass to stress crack. So, don’t go there with spun bases and the like. Flip side, I have never had a problem with brass springs found in Vienna Regulator mechanisms. Actually, I will go one step farther, I have never had a problem with stress cracking of brass. But, my metallurgical training tells me loud and clear that one can have such a problem.
After cleaning it is necessary to peg every hole to get any residual grunge or grit out of the holes. I even use my wood lathe to turn down dowels for pegging the larger holes. I can then “power peg” right on the wood lathe. My power pegging is the subject of another tech tid bit.
One question that came up after I wrote up this for the Becker Yahoo group focused on Oleic acid and on ultrasounds: “Is the oleic acid any particular type or purity? I could not find it locally. Online the less expensive stuff says that it is used with soldering flux (like $20/qt). Also, do you know how the ammonia solution performs without the ultrasonic cleaner? I am just getting started and have not invested in an ultrasonic cleaner yet.”
I thought these were two very relevant questions, so I put together the following discussion on Oleic acid and ultrasonic cleaners.
Oleic acid is almost amusing – you look on the web and find that “Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid found naturally in many plant sources and in animal products. It is an omega-nine fatty acid, and considered one of the healthier sources of fat in the diet. It’s commonly used as a replacement for animal fat sources that are high in saturated fat. You may find various butter and egg substitutes made with high levels of oleic acid.
As a fat, oleic acid is one of the better ones to consume. As a replacement for other saturated fats, it can lower total cholesterol level and raise levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) while lowering low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), also known as the “bad” cholesterol. Usually switching to an oil high in oleic acid is not difficult since there are numerous sources available.
From a health standpoint, oleic acid exhibits further benefits. It has been shown to slow the development of heart disease, and promotes the production of antioxidants. One very interesting use of oleic acid is its use as an ingredient in Lorenzo’s oil, a medication developed to prevent onset of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a condition effecting only young boys that attacks the myelin sheaths of the body, causing symptoms similar to those in multiple sclerosis. Though Lorenzo’s oil does not cure the condition, it can delay onset or progression of the disease in those who are not yet symptomatic.” http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-oleic-acid.htm
And, on another site, where you can buy it as a soldering flux, you find: “Hazardous Material - No Air Shipments. PRODUCT CANNOT SHIP VIA ANY TYPE OF AIR TRANSPORT, INCLUDING UPS NEXT DAY AIR, UPS 2ND DAY AIR, UPS 3 DAY SELECT, FEDERAL EXPRESS, PRIORITY MAIL, ETC. THIS PRODUCT MUST SHIP VIA GROUND TRANSPORTATION ONLY!!! Promotes Solder Flow and Adhesion. Prevents Oxidation. This CRL Oleic Acid is a soldering flux that cleans the surface and promotes solder flow. Designed to be brushed on with a Acid Brush prior to soldering. This product makes solder adhere better and prevents oxidation.” http://www.amazon.com/CR-Laurence-Oleic-Acid-Quart/dp/B001G0TJQE/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=hi&qid=1233754916&sr=8-1
So, what’s the big deal here? Simple answer – if buying a “Chemical” one gets the full load of haz mat information associated with specific words. Like acid. Now those of us that grew up in the ‘60s know what acid is. OK, that’s not what we are talking here. We are talking a material that generates hydrogen ions. Hydrogen ions can do good things (like remove oxidation products from brass) and bad things (like eat up the body of a car). Oleic is a pretty mild acid, but it does provide a very effective brightening agent in the classical cleaning solution. Regarding the specific question – I called the vendor of the oleic acid (link above), TechnologyLK, at 888-663-9830. They really didn’t know much, but gave me the manufacturer - http://www.crlaurence.com
where I was able to pull up an MSDS http://www.crlaurence.com/DataSheets/MSDS/PDF/98.pdf
, and found that the oleic they sell is 100% oleic. They list an S.G. of 0.895, which ties up nicely with the SG of a non-diluted oleic acid. OK – it is not pharmaceutical grade, and I don’t know I would recommend eating it, but it looks like it will do very nicely for making up a very effective cleaning solution.
Next question – ultrasonic cleaners. These cleaners take advantage of the turbulence generated in a liquid when it is vibrated by sound waves. These vibrations cause the liquid to move back and forth, which enhances the cleaning power of about any solution. And, yes, I use one. Even still, on a dirty mechanism, I will often lightly scrub the surface of the parts with a soft toothbrush (while wearing appropriate nitrile gloves to keep the ammonia from drying out my skin) (and while making sure that I do not put my head down close enough to the solution to clear out my sinuses) (and while wearing eye protection to keep from getting ammonia in my eyes).
My feelings on ultrasonic cleaners are a bit mixed. They do a great job, but they are expensive. Most have a handy drain hose out the bottom of the tank so it is easy to drain back into the bottle for storing the cleaning solution. But, if a new clock person is limited on funds, and also limited on tools, I would suggest that they just take a bit more time when cleaning their parts, brush off the parts while immersed in the solution, get some pipe cleaners and push them through the holes that are big enough, and you will get a better clean than you will with an ultrasound. Then, if, down the road, you have a good lathe, collets, chucks, and other needed tools, hey, an ultrasound is quite nice to have – especially since they have that neat drain out the bottom.
FYI – my background is chemical engineering, have earned 6 patents, spent many years in the environmental remediation field, managed research into a novel Titanium alloy, and now I spend a lot of my time working on Vienna Regulators. I have probably been through 3 or 400 Vienna mechanisms, and probably through more long duration Vienna mechanisms than anyone else in the world. I hope that helps give you an idea where I am coming from with the comments I made above.