Antique surgical instruments are made of several different materials. Early blades were made of iron, and by the turn of the 20th century stainless steel blades became common. Often blades were nickel-, silver- or chrome-plated. Handles are made from ivory, horn, metal or wood. Because of the ferrous metal (iron) used on early blades, collectors often encounter rust and corrosion. It is worth noting that some rust, corrosion and use-wear is natural for antique objects. Thus, to try to bring artifacts back to their “as new” appearance is often damaging to the object and detracts from its value.
Control humidity. High humidity is the primary factor in causing rust and corrosion. A hygrometer will help monitor levels.
Check and continually monitor for active corrosion. Look for rust powder, loose iron oxide spalls (rust flakes), and/or "sweating" that will appear yellowish-brown or orange. If active corrosion is present, store in a dry environment (relative humidity less than 35 percent). Use silica gel desiccant products to reduce humidity in storage container, if necessary.
Clean dirt and grime, but carefully. Do not use water or detergents to clean blades and handles. Introducing water will only hasten corrosion. Instead, carefully brush dirt away with a soft brush and wipe with a soft dust cloth. A cloth dampened with mineral spirits may be used for stubborn dirt. However, be mindful that mineral spirits can dissolve unstable plating, and do not get spirits on the handle.
Remove light rust gently with fine steel wool (000 or 0000 grade) or very fine/super fine Scotch Brite hand pads made by 3M. Then wipe with a cloth dampened with mineral spirits (again, be careful with plated surfaces). Do not attempt to aggressively “sand” away rust. You will merely damage the surfaces and possibly remove important information such as manufacturers stamps.
Wipe blades lightly with machine oil to protect them from further corrosion.
Consult a conservator for cleaning instruments with unstable plated or painted blades or handles.
- 000 or 0000 Steel wool
- Machine oil
- Soft dust cloth
- Silica gel desiccant
- Very fine or super fine Scotch-Brite (made by 3M)
It is better to do nothing than to attempt a rust-removal or cleaning method that you are not confident in or unsure about. Wear clean cotton or latex gloves when handling instruments. Dirt, oils and salts from fingers can damage artifact surfaces. When in doubt, seek professional help. Start with a curator or conservator at a local museum.
Do not aggressively attempt to remove rust. Such cleaning can permanently damage the object and greatly reduce its value for collectors. Do not use commercial rust strippers.