How To

How to Do a Kick (Br)ass Job of Cleaning Brass

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A dry brass tumbler (left) and wet ultrasonic brass cleaner, both from Lyman Products.

A dry brass tumbler (left) and wet ultrasonic brass cleaner, both from Lyman Products.

I’m feeling a bit cranky today. So let’s focus on the ammunition reloading step that I think is the biggest pain in the butt: cleaning brass.

At the beginning of this series, when we talked about the 10 Easy Steps of Reloading, you’ll remember that the first thing to do, after hoarding brass like it’s made of Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tarts, is cleaning. Just to reiterate, you only need to remove mud, powder residue, lead, and whatever other gunk might be on your fired brass. After all, the primary purpose of cleaning brass is simply to remove loose stuff that will gum up our reloading dies and/or cause feeding problems in your gun. There is no “technical” need to make your used brass bright and shiny.

However, OutdoorHub is a class operation, so we’re going to talk about how to make it safe and beautiful. Why shouldn’t your reloads be the envy of the range?

Given the “beautiful” requirement, we’re going to dispense with the backwoods method of cleaning brass—shaking it in a bucket with some Tide, or perhaps a mixture of dish detergent, vinegar, and salt. This will make it safe, but not all that great looking.

Let’s focus on two primary methods of brass cleaning: wet and dry.

The dry method

Otherwise known as tumbling, the dry method involves vibrating or tumbling the spent brass in a mixture of what reloaders call “media.” As tempting as it is to make a wisecrack about the potential uses of the mainstream media for things like scrubbing dirt, I’ll refrain. Reloading media is the material that goes in the tumbler with your brass. Media can be made of natural or synthetic materials. Typical materials include ground walnut shells, ground corn cob, and sometimes ceramic bits. Some media is impregnated with polish to help your brass come out even cleaner.

Most dry-tumblers actually vibrate; although a few models use a rotating drum like those home rock polishers. A large plastic bowl with a clamped-on lid is mounted on an electric motor that vibrates the bowl and its contents. You fill the bowl with both media and dirty brass, clamp the lid on, and let it run. It hums. It shakes. It causes neighbors to wonder if an earthquake is in progress. After anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the condition of the dirty brass, you turn it off.

Tip: The dirt from your brass needs to go somewhere, so it’s transferred to the media in the tumbling process. If you want to make your media last longer, and get cleaner brass in the process, tear a couple of used dryer sheets (like Bounce) in half and drop into the tumbler. The sheets will attract most of the dirt, keeping your media fresh for many more uses.

At this point, you need to separate the media from the clean brass. Some tumblers have a built in filter that allows the media to be drained out while the machine is running. If yours doesn’t, you can pick up a case media sifter to speed the process.

Cleaning a load of rifle brass using a dry tumbler. Note how the used dryer sheets help pull the dirt out.

Cleaning a load of rifle brass using a dry tumbler. Note how the used dryer sheets help pull the dirt out.

Whatever the method for separating your cleaned brass from the media, you need to be sure that all cases are completely empty of media. This can be tricky in rifle cases with small necks like the .223 Remington. While you can buy media that’s ready to go and consistent in size from reloading supply companies, some folks like to use cheaper products like ground walnut shells used for pet cage liners and such. This can work fine too. Just make sure that the grind size is small enough to easily exit the casings and large enough so it doesn’t get stuck in primer pockets and flash holes.

Tip: When dry tumbling, I prefer to clean the brass while the spent primers are still in place. This prevents media from getting stuck in primer pockets. After the brass is clean, I resize it and decap the primer in one step.

The (ultrasonic) wet method

You can also use an ultrasonic cleaner to clean your brass to like-new condition. Most reloading equipment manufacturers offer an ultrasonic cleaner and cleaning solvents for both brass and steel products. Yes, once you invest in an ultrasonic cleaner, you can use it to clean gun parts too!

The cleaning process couldn’t be easier. Fill the unit to the line with water. Add the right amount of cleaning solvent. Lower the basket of dirty brass into the mixture. Cover and run for just a few minutes. Yes, minutes. My Lyman TurboSonic unit cleans the dirtiest, nastiest range pick up brass in less than five minutes. That’s it for the cleaning part.

The gotcha is that your brass finishes the cleaning process soaking wet, so it needs to be dried. You can spread it out on a towel in the sun. If you’re feeling brave, you can put it on a cookie sheet in your oven at the lowest temperature for 15 or 20 minutes. Or, you can invest in a food dehydrator. With multiple shelves and an operating temperature of only about 150 degrees, you won’t harm your brass or offend the household chef.

Tip: When using an ultrasonic cleaner, I like to use a general purpose decapping die to remove spent primers first. This cleaning method will will do a nice job of cleaning the primer pockets and flash holes. It also helps the wet cases dry faster. Once the brass is clean and dry, you can then resize it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I bent the rules a little bit by dividing the methods into wet and dry. There’s a hybrid option that’s gaining in popularity among the reloading geeks. It’s a wet method, but uses tumbling media made of small stainless steel pins. It does a fabulous job as it combines the best of both worlds. One benefit of the wet stainless steel pin media method is that the pins are small enough to clean the primer flash holes, so your brass will get completely cleaned and polished—inside and out. Of course, you still need to dry your brass thoroughly after cleaning.

Which method should you use?

So, what’s the best method? That depends.

With dry tumbling, you can clean brass straight from the range—no decapping required. However, mixing calibers in the same batch can be problematic as the vibration tends to jam smaller-caliber brass (like .32 and 9x19mm) the larger cases (like .40 and .45 ACP). You’ll need to periodically replace the media, but no drying is required.

With the ultrasonic method, you can throw all brass from the range bucket in the cleaner at once and not worry about cases getting jammed into each other. You don’t have to remove primers first, but you’ll get better results if you do. It does a great job of cleaning, but doesn’t get brass as shiny as dry tumbling. And you’ll have to dry the brass, of course.

In the end, it’s up to you.

By definition, ammunition reloaders are a resourceful bunch, so I’m quite sure you folks have discovered lots of other brass cleaning tips. What tricks do you have up your sleeve?

Images by Tom McHale

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of OutdoorHub. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
  • LouieF

    I have seen brass cleaned with the SS pins and they look better than brand new! Love to have that kind of set up.

  • Jon

    I use the dry method when tumbling. I like larger ground corn cob animal bedding for pistol brass, 380, 9mm 38/357 etc…and small walnut media for bottle necked cartridges. Either way if you put in a cap full of Nu Finish car polish and run your tumbler for 15-20 minutes BEFORE adding your brass it will come out with a mirror like finish.

  • Art G

    SS pins and a rock tumbler is the only way to go. I’ve tried both other methods in this article and they don’t even compare.

  • 52hubcap

    If you use the SS pin method, make sure no pins stay in the cases after tumbling/drying. Can be hard on dies and barrels.

  • Boris Ochry

    I too use the dry method. First run with treated corn cobs to get most of dirt off (including used dryer sheets), then switch to ground walnut shells with brass polish to really clean em up bright.

  • I agree with using the treated corn cobs with used dryer sheets, followed by ground walnut shells with brass polish for excellent results.

  • JSC

    I have been decapping, then a soak in a solution of citric acid or Lemi-Shine. It normalizes the brass making it corrosion-resistant, as well as more sparkly than a diamond in a goat’s nethers.

    Occasionally a short tumble in corncob and case polish after for really grungy cases.

    Lemi-Shine is cheap, available everywhere, reusable (it slowly turns blue as you use it), and will not “eat up” either you or the brass, even if you leave it overnite (or longer). You should avoid aluminium and steel pans for the soak, and it works best if you heat the solution just shy of boiling (I use an old stainless saucepan). Dump it all through a cheap plastic colander when cooled to catch the brass, a wash with a few drops of dish soap, then rinse & dry.

    It goes without saying you should protect your eyes and avoid touching anything steel (acid, remember!) before washing your hands, but even a “strong” solution is easy on skin.

  • georgeadair

    I also use the dry method for cleaning. To fix the media jamming the primer hole (yes I remove it before cleaning) I have an air compressor in my garage and blow out each round. Can do about a hundred rounds in just over 10 minutes and I know there is no media left in the brass. The dryer sheet idea is great, I’ve already tossed a few loads of media cause it was just so damn dirty I didn’t trust it. Would e nice to get a fewextra cleanings out of the stuff.

  • Dr. Strangelove

    Thanks for the dryer sheet tip to help keep the media clean.

  • Pillgrimm

    I’ve used the dry media and got good results but the brass doesn’t stay shiny for long. Doesn’t the SS pins accelerate the wear and reduce the life of the case?

  • Marv

    I decap first then wet tumble with the SS pins with a squirt of dishwashing detergent and a shake of Lemishine. Go away for an hour or so and your brass will be shiny as new inside and out. Just make sure there aren’t a pair of pins stuck in the primer hole. The only pain is separating the pins and brass. It helps that the pins are magnetic.

    • Mike

      There not stainless if there magnetic!!

      • Smiddywesson

        That depends on the type of stainless:

        “There are several different types of stainless steels. The two main types are austenitic and ferritic, each of which exhibits a different atomic arrangement. Due to this difference, ferritic stainless steels are generally magnetic while austenitic stainless steels usually are not.”

      • Andrew Kowalyk

        Actually cheap stain less steel is magnetic

  • Jarrod Arnett

    I been reloading for about 10 years, I know the brass doesn’t have to be nice and shiny clean, just get the carbon and dirt off….but I’m slightly ocd. I’ve gotten my brass past the “brand new” looking brass! I use powdered citric acid, 1/4 cup to 1 gallon of water 5% solution. Boil the water, dump it into a bucket, put the powder in and stir to dissolve completely, put brass in and stir occasionally for 10 minutes. Separate solution and brass, rinse with soapy water. I use a tumblers tumbler with ss media, add some dish soap and lemi-shine and tumble for a hour, separate and rinse. Cleanest damn brass you’ll ever see!!