The Best Ways to Beat Back Rust — From Stainless to FrogLube
“Rust Never Sleeps,” warned Neil Young back in the 1970’s, and nowhere is rust more awake than on the water. At sea, rust never even naps. It’s the ultimate curse of the marine industry, which has spent billions of dollars developing and applying coatings (the industrial word for paint) to the hulls of ships.
Recreational boaters have also gone to great lengths to prevent rust. Today, the materials of choice are plastics, fiberglass and derivatives like carbon fiber. Mega-yachts with mega budgets will spend almost anything to prevent the brown stains, including replacing stainless steel deck and rigging fittings with significantly more expensive titanium parts.
What about your gear? Tools, knives and many removable parts aboard boats routinely go unprotected and, unless stored in a dehumidifier or an air-conditioned space, eventually begin to rust. Then there’s the boat itself, always exposed and always vulnerable. We’re going to look at four options for combating or at least minimizing rust — stainless steel, anti-seize products, Vaseline and FrogLube.
Stainless steel is a favorite material for combating rust, except for three shortcomings: not all tools are available in stainless, those that are come with a much higher price tag, and not all types of stainless are equally rustroof. What is “stainless steel” anyway? In truth, there are hundreds of different grades and types. Some stainless steels are stronger, less brittle, more malleable or harder than others. And some grades of stainless are susceptible to rust.
But labeling is voluntary and erratic. If you’re purchasing a tool or a piece of equipment for the first time, you may be able to find out if the stainless steel listed on the package is truly stainless or just marketing hype. The different grades and composites of stainless are beyond the scope of this article, but a few Google searches will provide the basics. Just click on phrases like “grades of stainless steel,” “stainless magnet test,” and the like.
The best way to ensure the grade and quality of your stainless items is to purchase from manufacturers with solid reputations for making rustproof stuff. Also pay attention to warning flags. The poorest manufacturers — who do little more than coat low-grade steels with thin layers of two-part paint — will be reluctant to disclose the grade or composite of their steel. They will have no (or bad) reputations among retailers, and their products will not be certified as having met ISO and other commercial standards.
You can also look for bad packaging, amateurish websites, grammatical mistakes in the product information, and other signs a company lacks attention to detail. However, some great manufacturers with high-quality products can also come up short in one or two of these areas. ISO certification, for example, is expensive and great engineers are rarely great grammarians.
It’s caveat emptor, or buyers beware, out there. But knowing what to look for — and look out for — will go a long way toward getting you there. There are, however, some additional products that can help improve the rust fighting ability of even the lowest grade steel.
When I started working on boats, then ships, there were two schools of thought about protecting exposed metal surfaces. The first school was a fan of anti-seize products; the second school used Vaseline.
Some of the most rust-free vessels I have worked aboard were operated by anti-seize fanatics. This stuff works. Anti-seize products grip surfaces like octopus tentacles. They‘re impervious to water and nearly all soaps and chemicals, do not drip off when exposed to heat or vibration, and can last for decades.
Sounds great, right? Wrong, because anti-seize products not only tightly grip metal parts for decades but also your hands, clothing and anything else they accidentally get onto. I have a natural hatred of the stuff. Despite this, I still find occasion to use anti-seize products, but sparingly and usually on bolts I don’t intend to take apart for years to come.
The second camp of professional mariners, myself included, were fans of Vaseline. Vaseline 100% Pure Petroleum Jelly, the skin-care ointment made by Unilever, is great for protecting stuff against rust. Unlike WD-40 and other so-called protective oils, Vaseline is thick, sticky and non-evaporative. WD-40 is also a great product and PB B’laster is even better, but both share a common problem. Most of both drips off a surface within seconds of being applied, and much of what’s left evaporates into thin air, leaving a very thin coat of oil that’s easily disturbed. Vaseline, on the other hand, repels water and encapsulates salt, grit and grime, keeping surfaces covered and rust-free.
However, Vaseline needs to be reapplied every few months. The gel starts dripping and evaporating if exposed to heat, and it can wear off with vibration or use. It’s not perfect but, until recently, was my favorite type of rust fighting goop.
Another great thing about Vaseline is you can spray it! Most commercial ships carry a case or two of PB B’laster, which is the most effective WD-40 alternative and great for loosening bolts. Alongside this, seamen will often find a case of CSP Corrosion Stop, which is made by B’laster Corp. Corrosion Stop, claims the company, is a custom “water-resistant spray grease,” but once sprayed you will recognize the stuff as plain old Vaseline — which is great. Keep a few cans of Corrosion Stop to spray things around the house and boat.
Until 12 months ago, Vaseline spray was my go-to protectant. Then I met Paul Robinson, a former Navy Seal and founder of Six Maritime, a company that protects merchant ships from pirate attacks. Paul’s last job before retiring from the Navy was to find and evaluate new technologies active-duty Seal teams could use. We were discussing the best way for Six Maritime’s security teams to transfer men and equipment from small inflatable boats to lordships when I asked what sort of waterproof cases the teams used to transport their weapons in the harsh marine environment.
“There’s no need to keep them waterproof,” Robinson said. “We coat our weapons with FrogLube. The stuff works great and our gear remains rust-free even if it’s submerged in salt water.”
Frog Lubeis a bio-based, food-safe (yes you can eat it, though I can’t vouch for the taste), “weapons grade solvent” and cleaner, lubricant, preservative. Ddesigned by former Navy Seal Captain Larry Lasky to coat rifles and prevent rust from forming, it can also be used on most metallic surfaces. Audemous, its manufacturer, says it will in addition “moisten and preserve” most non-metal surfaces, including plastic, rubber, nylon and wood.
While we’ve only tested FrogLube on metal, the surfaces we coated one year ago are still rust-free. One item has been particularly impressive. Crescent wrenches seem particularly prone to seizing up with even the slightest amount of rust. Last year, I took apart a crescent wrench just purchased from Home Depot and applied FrogLube. The wrench has since tackled a few dozen projects and endured one week accidentally left on deck, and remains rust-free.
Because it’s USDA-approved, FrogLube’s data sheets contain no information about the secret substance that makes it effective. But the application process may reveal a clue. Before applying FrogLube, you need to clean the surface with a solvent (we used acetone though FrogLube also sells a solvent), then heat the metal and apply. The heat allows the substance to better grip the metal and also helps it “dissolve carbon on contact.”
FrogLube’s best feature is its ability to lift and repel salt. Paint is the best material for preventing rust aboard a ship, but even the best two-part paint will start to bubble if the surface is not properly prepared and washed before it’s painted. This is because a painted over grain of salt will cause rust even under a coating. FrogLube doesn’t coat salt residue. It gets beneath it and lifts the salt from the surface. This is why it’s so effective