Cleaning Machinery

Ive been spending the majority of my time in the robotics shop recently cleaning off the 50 year old south bend lathe that Ive been the only one to use on a regular basis and for more than simple jobs in the past 30 years at the least and the thing was greased to all hell when i started to clean it last week (which explains why it is off by allot). using WD-40 and a whole lot of scrubbing i have been able to get some of it off but no where near the level i wanted where i could be able to eat off of it. getting to the point I was wondering if anyone has either some old school machine cleaning tricks they want to share or any success with commercial cleaners like all the dirty dish ones i see advertised on TV all the time working.
thanks, Simon

Maybe try Gunk Engine Brite. Although WD40 has always worked great for me. If you use the engine brite be sure to oil the machine soon afterward.

It depends on what is really on the machine. Is it really grease, or is it cosmoline still in place from the original packing? If the lathe is really old and some of the original packing material is still in place, it may actually be rendered pig fat (is there a faint odor of bacon? no, I am not kidding).

If it is cosmolene, try a good citrus-based degreaser (Wurth Citrus is one that I have used successfully). Spray it on and let it sit on the surface for a few minutes (up to 20 based on the age of the material and how “caked on” it may be). Then scrub off the softened material with lots of paper towels or rags. Then make a second pass with the same procedure. Some people have suggested using very fine steel wool, but I try my best to avoid this if possible, unless you also need to remove a surface leyer of rust, as the steel fibers have a nasty habit to finding their way in between the ways and way bearings.

If it really is grease, the best thing that I have found is kerosene on a rag applied liberally with elbow grease. Do the work in a very well ventilated area. When you are done, be VERY careful about how you dispose of the rags. Make sure they are placed in a fireproof metal container, as spontaneous combustion is a very real possibility with kerosene-soaked rags. Citrus degreasers are a suitable second choice, although I have found that kerosene works better.


Ahhh yes i have an old south bend lathe in my basement that is also at least 50 years old probably more and my dad and clean it with either scotch brite for removing rust. or for grease laquer thinner (aka paint thinner i think) that is a very powerful flamable cleaner and the same care should be used as kerosene but i think this is sronger than kerosene. it works very well but also removes apint so be careful.

may i inquire what size your lathe is? just wondering for no reason

Dave, are you asking whether or not my lathe smells like Andy Baker at the end of the day? no, what I’m dealing with is most definitely grease, although i cant exactly walk over and smell it right now i do know the last person to use it for any real turning purposes and know that he at one point had it all nice and shiny. Also unfortunately our shop is very poorly ventilated which is why i am trying to avoid kerosene or an abundance of WD-40 but i will try using a rage before i go at it again with steel wool like i had been.

So no one knows if any of the heavy grease removers for dirty dishes that are advertised all the time would work?

-Thanks, Simon

After a saturday of working on building a float for the Tournament of Roses parade (lots of dirt, rust, and oil) nothing will clean my hands except for “Fast Orange.” Worth a shot.

the one process that will remove all the grease (and the paint too), but requires completey disassembly of the machine, is the a “jet washer” at an automotive machine shop.

I kind of like the patina on my 60 year old south bend lathe…scrubbing it half clean with mineral spirits is good enough for me. This solvent requires good ventilation, and the soiled rags are flammable, but it’s not quite as bad as kerosene, and not nearly as bad as lacquer thinner. And it won’t get all of the grease off, just the top layer, so the lathe will still look old when you’re done cleaning it up.

have you searched the web for info about this? there’s at least one South Bend Lathe forum out there.

What you might try is carburator choke cleaner. It is a solvent spray that removes hardened grease and other gunk. Also very good for cleaning tools. I used it to clean my drill press, as well as my woodworking tools. Find it at any store in the automotive section.

I was about to suggest kerosene, but Dave covered it well. The elbow grease part is important - you can spend a week of 8 hour days and still not really have ot clean. You might consider taking some of the parts off the machine for cleaning - it sounds like you know what you’re doing.

As you suggest, a clean machine will last a lot longer, and work better, too. The most important parts of the lathe are the ones that slide across each other - the bed ways, screws and nuts, etc. - THOSE need to be clean enough to eat off (if you don’t mind some oil…).

Grease is not what a lathe wants - use 10 or 20 weight non-detergent oil. An auto parts store would sell that. Coat everything that isn’t painted with a light coat.

If you need to rig up some ventilation, do it. Fans and flexible ducting is a workable solution - a good fan blowing air through 25’ of 12" flexi-duct (Home Deopt) bringing fresh air into the room will be enough, and you won’t have much of a fire risk from the fan motor (sparks!) and solvent fumes.

WEAR GLOVES while you do this - Nitrile are the best. Although brief contact likely won’t kill you, no contact is always preferable. Also, don’t forget your safety goggles - grease in the eyes hurts.

Wish I had that problem. My 6" Atlas is already clean…


I don’t know how bad your lathe is, but I have yet to run across something I can’t clean with good 'ol isopropanol. If you can find a shop in your area with one of those nifty ultrasonic cleaning devices, it’d probably take care of the grime in no time. (At some point I’d like to try to build one of those, but it is probably a bit hard and unlikely that I will)

Two other cleaners I could suggest that don’t have heavy fumes are Simple Green and Power Disolve Dawn.

I’ve used both of these in my 20 gallon parts washer when cleaning car parts of grease and oil (similar to your situation) with success.

They are available in spray bottles that will work well for your situation and also 1 gallon containers like I use. The Power Disolve Dawn has been known to attack some paints if left on for some time, I found out the hard way about this. :wink:

I have used both simple green and WD40. An additional solvent I occasionally resort to is brake cleaner usually in pressurized spray cans. It is designed to dislodge particulate stuff including metallic particles and get them away from machined surfaces and it works well. It can be irritating to your skin though so use some of those vinyl gloves. Not a bad recommendation for any solvent cleaning operation in the shop. I think if I had a South Bend I would be spending enough time to at least eat around it as I would be spending lots of time there making chips. Go for it! Larry.

Some thing i learned today while cleaning, if you think flossing your teeth is bad try flossing all the groves on your lathe’s screw drive, that takes love and dedication.

I use a brush :slight_smile: