Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ultrasonic Case Cleaning

I am just getting into reloading.  Someone in the family gave me 90% of what I need to get started.  The one thing I didn't get was any way to clean the brass cases.  The most common way of cleaning cases is with a vibratory tumbler with walnut shell or corn cob polishing media.  The problem with this method is it takes a long time, doesn't always work very well (especially in primer pockets) and the polishing media often gets stuck in flash holes and primer pockets.  Recently ultrasonic cleaners have entered the market for case cleaning.  Ultrasonic case cleaning offers the advantages of less time, better cleaning, and no polishing media to get stuck.  If it works!

In this post I am going to test a few things. 1) Does ultrasonic case cleaning (UCC) work?  2) Will the Chicago Electric (Harbor Freight) ultrasonic cleaner effectively clean brass?  3) Which works better, Hornady Sonic Clean or a home brew cleaning solution?
If you want to spare yourself the pain of reading the whole works.  If you clean your brass soon after firing, either solution will clean the cases effectively.  If you have old tarnished brass that has been reloaded many times and sitting for years, the Hornady solution works pretty well but you may need a little hand cleaning too.

Harbor Freight Ultrasonic Cleaner

The Ultrasonic Cleaner
There are several UCC's marketed by reloading companies.  They range from $100 to about $250.  I wanted to see if I could do this on a budget.  I picked up a Chicago Electric 2.5 liter unit from Harbor Freight for $55 (on sale and with a coupon).  It looks identical to the Lyman Turbo Sonic 2500 except that the Lyman comes with a basket and the Harbor Freight only comes with a tray.  This is a problem because if the cases touch the sides while the unit is on, the vibrating cases can damage the stainless steel sides.  You can either order a basket from Lyman or put the cases in another container and place that inside the cleaner.  The Lyman basket is a perfect fit, I have tried it.  The cleaner has a heating function but it is not recommended for use when cleaning cases.

Hornady One Shot Sonic Clean Solution

Hornady Sonic Clean
This comes in a 32 oz bottle for about $20.  It is diluted 40:1 in distilled water, so one bottle will make 10 gallons of cleaning solution.  There aren't many directions beyond that.  Checking the manuals for the Hornady line of UCC's they recommend 15-25 minutes in the cleaner.

Home Brew Solution
I found a home brew recipe for a cleaning solution on  Basically it calls for 1:1 mix of distilled white vinegar and distilled water with one drop of dish soap per 8 oz water.  The site claims excellent cleaning, however it requires a baking soda wash to neutralize the vinegar and prevent discoloration.

The test cases before cleaning. The Good, once fired 45 ACP (middle).
The Bad, old 30-06 cases (top). The Ugly, old reloaded 45 ACP cases (bottom)

The Brass
I have three lots of brass that I want to clean.  The first is a bunch of once-fired 45 ACP that I shot about a month prior to the cleaning.  It's not too dirty.  We'll call this the "Good" lot.  Next is some once-fired surplus Lake City 30-06 that has been sitting for at least 7 years.  It's kind of dirty.  We'll call this the "Bad" lot.  Finally I have some 45 ACP that has been reloaded many times and has been sitting for over 10 years, many in a hot attic.  It's really dirty, covered with some sort of reddish brown gunk that looks like rust but obviously isn't (old case lube?).  We'll call this the "Ugly" lot.  All cases were decapped with a Lee universal decapping die prior to cleaning.  I will clean 10 pieces from each lot in each solution (60 cases total).  The bottom of the Ugly cases were marked with red paint, presumably so previous owner could identify his cases after firing.  The Bad cases (30-06) have sealer around the primer pockets.
First set of cases ready for cleaning.

The Test
After degassing the solution, (running it for a few minutes before adding the cases) I added 10 cases from each lot into the Hornday solution.  I then ran the UC in 8 minute sets, checked the cases, and recorded the results after each run.  I repeated the 8 minute runs until the cases were clean or I reached 48 minutes.  Then I cleaned out the UC, added the vinegar solution, and reran the same test with another set of cases.  I rinsed the vinegar cases in tap water but did not run the baking soda cycle because it only neutralizes the vinegar to prevent discoloration, it does not provide any additional cleaning action.

The Results

Looking at the outside of the cases, the Hornady solution was more effective at cleaning the old cruddy brass.  The vinegar solution did not work well on tough carbon deposits and had almost no effect on the brown gunk.  Both solutions worked equally well on the Good brass.  Hornady solution got the brass clean and shiny but does not give the mirror polish of a good round through the vibratory tumbling.
Cases after cleaning in Hornady solution.
Top-Bad, Middle-Good, Bottom-Ugly.
Cases after cleaning in vinegar/soap solution.
Top-Bad, Middle-Good, Bottom-Ugly. 

As for the primer pockets, I'd call it a draw.  Neither got every pocket 100% clean but both got some pockets 100% clean and all of them at least mostly clean.  The Hornady solution left the pockets so that they could be easily wiped clean with a paper towel.  Neither solution removed the red paint.

Good cases after cleaning in Hornady solution.
Case on right uncleaned for comparison.

Ugly cases after cleaning in Hornady solution.
Case on right uncleaned for comparison.
Ugly (top) and Good (bottom) cases after cleaning in vinegar.
Cases on right uncleaned for comparison.

When we look inside the Hornady solution is the clear winner.  The Hornady solution got the Good cases 100% clean inside and got most of the Ugly cases 100% clean.  Some of the Ugly cases still had some carbon on the bases but it could be easily wiped out with a paper towel.  The vinegar/soap solution got all but one of the Good cases 100% clean inside but it could only get the Ugly cases about 60% clean after 48 minutes.  The Bad cases were hit and miss.  Both solutions did some cleaning inside.  Depending on the case selected the insides were either slightly dirty but probably good enough to reload, or still needed more cleaning.

Good cases after cleaning in Hornady solution
Case on right uncleaned for comparison.

Ugly cases after cleaning in Hornady solution.
Case on right uncleaned for comparison.

Ugly (top) and Good (bottom) cases after cleaning in vinegar.
Cases on right uncleaned for comparison.

Bad cases from top to bottom; uncleaned, Hornady, Hornady, vinegar.
Some discoloration due to heat from cutting them open.

Final Thoughts
I think UCC is a great method for recently fired brass. If you do it within a month or so of firing, it should work great even for deep rifle cases.  The Harbor Freight UC also worked great.  Based on the uneven cleaning of the 30-06 cases, I think there may be some positional effect in the cleaner.  Mixing the cases up between cycles may help.  One of the more powerful UCC's with dual transducers may work better.  Finally, if you are cleaning recently fired brass, either solution will work.  For tarnished, old, or really dirty brass, the Hornady solution works better but still leaves a little to be desired.  Stay tuned, I may have a trick up my sleeve to easily get nasty brass really clean on a budget.

Update: Cleaning Firearms
A Friend gave me an old Mossberg 500 to look over.  It was pretty cruddy.  I decided to strip it down and give it a good clean and lube before I returned it.  After stripping it, I put the parts in the UC with a 50% solution of Simple Green and water.  Eight minutes, swish parts around, 8 more minutes and everything came out squeaky clean.


  1. You should send this to a magazine to have published! Good work using your "Scientific Method"

  2. Thanks Carlos. I would but I just copied what someone else already did. I just used a different cleaner and solution.

  3. Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!
    45 ACP Once Fired Brass