How to Clean Old Corvette Car Parts

dirty car part
This is a perfect example of the kind of greasy yucky buildup that develops on old cars. How will you get it cleaned and ready to replace in your car?. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

Inevitably, any Corvette restoration project involves a tremendous amount of cleaning - people tend to take care of their car's paint and wheels, but what's behind and underneath the shiny side always tends to get grungy over time.

If you're not restoring an old Corvette, you can still use these steps to keep your current Corvette at restoration quality cleanliness while you're driving it.

This simple step-by-step takes you through the parts cleaning process using techniques that you can apply in your home garage or workshop before resorting to expensive commercial cleaning services.

There's no doubt that the commercial services clean things more completely than you can, but if you're looking to save some money and gain some "I did it myself" points, try these steps before you whip out your wallet.

Hot Water & Soap Work Wonders

Oil Eater
This is a small benchtop parts washer that uses water and detergent - it has a pump and a built-in brush for cleaning. It's great for small parts!. Photo courtesy of Oil Eater

Hot water by itself takes off greasy grime better than any cleanser combined with cold water. The hotter your water, the easier your job. And if you get some good detergent, you can get very good results without using any products that are harmful to the environment or your health.

The first step is hot water - check your household water heater if it's in a convenient place near your driveway. Many household water heaters are located in the garage. If yours can be used, look for an extra spigot right on the heater - attach your hose to the spigot and you get your hot water right from the source. Turn your water heater all the way up for the duration of your washing exercise, but don't forget to turn it back down again - and warn your family about what you're doing! You don't want anyone to get scalded.

Next, you need a good detergent for breaking down greasy yuck. I like Oil Eater and Dawn dishwashing liquid. If you can get a hose sprayer that sucks cleanser into the stream (available at any hardware store) that works the best, especially with Oil Eater.

One nice thing about a water-based approach is that you can use plastic or any kind of scrub brush to help get stuff off your parts.

If all this isn't enough, you can usually rent pressure washers that use an extra kerosene tank to heat your water almost to boiling before it gets sprayed. These always have a reservoir for detergent, too. You'll be amazed at how the yuck comes off!

Using Solvents to Clean Corvette Parts

Biodiesel Parts Washer
This parts washer is designed to use solvents like mineral spirits or biodiesel, it has a pump and a tray for effective cleaning. I like to use biodiesel in this washer. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

Sometimes baked-on grunge just won't succumb to soap and water. In this case, you can try a solvent-based solution. Mineral Spirits are popular, as is gasoline or kerosene.

It pays to be careful with solvents - and not just because they soak into your skin! Solvents dissolve rubber, plastic, and other non-metal parts very quickly, so make sure you know exactly what you're cleaning!

You can use solvents for cleaning in a bucket, but for about $100, you can buy a parts washer with a pump and jet, and this makes the solvent cleaning process much easier. Be sure to invest in a good set of chemical-resistant gloves as well. The latex shop gloves you might be using simply will not stand up to this kind of stuff - even the nitrile ones.

For a good all-purpose cleaning solvent, I like to use biodiesel of B50 or higher (B99) concentration. There's less harmful stuff in biodiesel than in #2 petro-diesel, and it actually works better as a solvent. But it does attack natural rubber, so pay attention.

Get yourself a good selection of scrub brushes with steel, brass, and nylon bristles. Also, a selection of kitchen Scotch-Brite pads will work wonders.

One last word - under no circumstances should you use Acetone. This stuff is pretty nasty and evaporates quickly while you're working, and you inhale it. Plus, it doesn't work any better than biodiesel.

Using Brake Cleaner Spray to Clean Parts

Orange Brake Cleaner
This product uses citrus oils to clean metals - it works pretty well, and is much better for the environment than the products that use TCE. Photo courtesy of Gunk

One solvent that works very well on almost anything is Trichloroethylene - more commonly known as brake cleaner. Use this stuff sparingly, because it causes liver damage when you inhale the fumes and when it soaks through your skin.

There's a new citrus-based brake cleaner that also works well without the nasty chemistry of TCE. The material is called by various names, but Eco-Orange is one brand you can find. This stuff doesn't work as well as TCE, but it also doesn't kill your liver.

Using Media Blasting to Clean Parts

Media Blasting Cabinet
This is a benchtop media blasting cabinet. You can use walnut shells, soda, glass, or sand to remove paint and rust from parts with this and a small air compressor. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

With the advent of readily available discount tool stores and compressed air, a benchtop media blasting cabinet is within almost everyone's budget. What's best is that you can get a variety of blasting media to meet your needs. Ground walnut shells, plastic beads, bicarbonate of soda, glass beads, and natural silica (sand) all have their place.

This technique is best for removing paint and other coatings designed to stick to the parts. If you haven't removed all the greasy grunge from your parts, you'll find that the grease gums up the blaster very quickly, so consider this a final step.

Be sure to use low pressure from your air compressor - less is more when it comes to media blasting! Then try the technique on a test part of the same material before you commit - some media can severely abrade aluminum, pot metal, and other materials.

Place the part in the blast cabinet and close the door. Use a gentle waving motion with the blast gun to direct the stream of abrasive media where you need to remove paint, rust, and other materials. Be patient - it takes a while!

Cleaning Parts with a Caustic Bath

Caustic Dip Tank
This is a professional-level dipping tank, most often filled with a caustic solution. It cleans everything off of parts, but will dissolve aluminum and other materials instantly.

A caustic bath is generally the province of professional cleaning and stripping services, but you can buy the materials and do it yourself. Be very careful with this material, because it's hazardous at the best of times.

Warning! Any caustic bath cleaners will dissolve aluminum like sugar into hot water. So be absolutely sure of anything you put into a caustic bath - especially carburetors, which are made of an aluminum alloy. Also, be aware that cadmium-plated or nickel-plated parts are likely to lose their plating in this kind of treatment - that's how nasty it is!

In general, if you've reached this stage trying to clean a part, you're probably better off leaving this kind of material to the pros.

How To Use Electrolysis To Remove Surface Rust

Rusty Corvette Parts
Here's a perfect shot of rusty parts that would benefit from some electrolysis cleaning. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

Another new technique being used in Corvette restoration is electrolytic rust removal. This involves dissolving a bunch of baking soda in water and then hanging the part in the water and running current through the water courtesy of a carbon electrode. The electricity traveling through the water performs a reverse plating operation on the part, dissolving the rust.

You can buy electrolysis kits for this from several online restoration houses, or make your own setup very easily as described in this article.

The thing to remember is that this process is for removing rust - not grunge. So this technique should come after you've had the part thoroughly cleaned of grease and dirt.

Using Parts Cleaning Professionals

When you've got everything perfectly clean, you are ready to paint the parts that should be painted and seal the parts that shouldn't be painted and put them back in your car - that's the essence of restoration!. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

There are a few tools that pros have on hand that make their cleaning very effective. Many machine shops will also have these tools, so you can sometimes find a better deal than the professional parts cleaners.

The main tool that the professionals have is a giant dishwasher. This uses boiling hot water and detergent, and they can wash an engine block like you wash a coffee cup.

You can approximate this process with a dishwasher dedicated to car parts, but there are a few problems - one is that the size of parts you can wash is limited, and the other is that you can't discharge the waste water into the sewer because it will have motor oil and other heavy metals in it. You have to discharge it into a drum and then dispose of the waste water properly. Any machine shop or parts cleaning business should be able to help you with that.

Another tool the pros use is a hot tank - generally filled with hot caustic bath, but sometimes solvent. As always, heat is the best assistance you can get in removing grease and grime.

Generally when you reach the level where you're looking at pro-level cleaning, the best solution is simply to pay to have the work done. It doesn't cost that much, and for most hobbyists, it simply doesn't pencil out to invest in professional gear.

Getting your parts clean is the first step to getting your restoration back together. Once you have cleaned your parts, you can evaluate whether they need to be replaced or if they are suitable for further use. Plus, they're now ready to paint (or not paint) before you put them back in the car.