Wrench Tip: Get a Jewelry Cleaner

by David Zipf

Cleaning small parts can be a real hassle.  If you’re rebuilding, say, a carburetor, with lots of little jets, needles, and pins and screws, it can be very easy to break or lose something.  Some parts refuse to come clean, even when scrubbed with strong solvents (brake calipers are a great example of this).  So what’s a car guy to do?


The first engine I ever rebuilt was a 0.15cc nitromethane engine for an R/C car.  The piston is smaller in diameter than a dime.  Getting everything nice and clean is very hard, especially inside the cylinder since there’s no room for a brush.  I picked up this little ultrasonic jewelry cleaner for $20 10 years ago and it has served me well ever since.  I got it at Big Lots, but have not seen them in many years.  Harbor Freight has two available, a pint size like mine, and a much larger 2.5L cleaner, which is what I would go for today.  For a solvent, I use denatured alcohol as it is not corrosive to plastics and cheap to get a hold of.  A bit of degreaser like Simple Green can also help with extra greasy or oily parts.
Carburetors that have sat for a long time will get varnish and mildew inside of them.  Two stroke carbs will also get oil buildup.  This was the float bowl of an old carb after we gave it a hose down with carb cleaner and a scrub with a toothbrush.  This carb had been sitting on an old 2-stroke moped for nearly a decade before we bought it and the carb was a full of old oil and fuel scum.  Still pretty gross and it’s impossible to get into the corners because of the size.  If this debris breaks off, it will clog our tiny fuel jets, rendering our moped useless.
The one pint cleaner just barely fits the carb.  We had to do a second pass with all the small parts (jets, float, needle and seat).  For these parts I use an old yogurt container to drop everything in, then fill it with alcohol.  The vibrations from the cleaner still do their job, but you don’t have to fish through the muck to find your parts later.  Fire up the cleaner and on really gross parts you can literally watch the dirt melt away.
After drying, this is our float bowl.  Massive improvement.  There’s still some really baked on gunk in the corners, but most of the hard work has been done by the cleaner.  The rest of the old varnish and corrosion came off a lot easier after the carb went through our jewelry cleaner.
And here is all the debris leftover.  If you’re really cheap, you can actually strain and save the dirty alcohol and reuse it.  On top of this carb, and R/C parts, I’ve also used this cleaner to clean and rebuild brake calipers for SAE cars.  Rebuilding a leaking caliper saves a ton of money (the seals were about $5, while a new caliper is $100+) and after the tiny caliper bodies took a dunk and shake, they looked brand new. 

If you buy a larger cleaner, you can clean things like pistons, connecting rods, and other assorted engine parts.  KW Suspensions and Cosworth both use ultrasonic cleaning in their production (though their machines are a lot more powerful and expensive and include heating elements for a truly deep clean), so if you need to clean small, delicate, or complex parts, ultrasonic cleaning is the way to go.


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Thursday, January 28, 2016 6:14 AM
I've had one of the cheap 2.5L Harbor Freight ones (link below) for 5 Years, works great! (includes a heater too) for like $80 (minus the obligatory 20% off coupon)

Thursday, January 28, 2016 6:48 AM
This is pretty brilliant. I have wanted to get a parts cleaner for some time but could never justify the cost for the small stuff I wanted cleaned (bolts, brackets, etc.).
Thursday, January 28, 2016 9:47 AM
This is something I've always wanted to get !
Thursday, January 28, 2016 3:37 PM
works good for cleaning bike chains too (bicycle).
Thursday, January 28, 2016 4:53 PM
Cleaning hardware alone would be worth it. Going to have to pick one up.
Thursday, January 28, 2016 7:33 PM
A lot of people in old motorcycle circles use Pine-Sol in ultrasonic cleaners for carb cleaning. No need to break a bank of four apart, just remove the bowls and easy bits, then dunk them all together. I've seen some great results!
Micah McMahan
Micah McMahanlink
Friday, January 29, 2016 8:05 AM
HA!! I have the exact same 2.5L Harbor Freight cheapo as autolex. I've been using it for years with no complaint.

Pin-sol or Mr. Clean works well. I use Purple Power as it has a little more muscle.
Friday, January 29, 2016 4:43 PM
I used the little guy last winter to clean all my lifters, dogbones, pushrods (required flipping), rocker arms, and main caps for my truck's 350 ('Merica!). They went in black and came out like new. I used Berryman's Chemdip and it worked like a champ. Next I tried carb cleaner and melted the housing. Still got my $12 worth, but now I need to buy another.
Tuesday, February 02, 2016 7:31 AM
Do NOT, repeat DO NOT soak aluminum parts in Purple Power as it's corrosive to aluminum. Learned this the hard way with the oil filter housing on my Jeep. Luckily, being a domestic vehicle with an engine made since The Beginning of Time, it was only a $40 mistake.
Tuesday, February 02, 2016 10:16 AM
If any, you probably didn't even need to have the whole bath in alcohol.
Bag the part with a ziploc, put enough alcohol to completely submerge without having any air spaces.

However, during operation, as long as you see the fine bubbles (cavitation), that's part of what you need to do the work of cleaning the part.

Or "borrow" your wife's sonicare

Tuesday, February 02, 2016 1:19 PM
Wonder if I can use the water pick she has to clean those difficult books and crannies?
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