View Full Version : Tips for cleaning inside the motor cabinet of a lathe

07-17-2006, 03:54 AM
My Rockwell 11" has an absolute mess inside the motor cabinet. Much of the bottom and the back wall look like undercoating from the accumulated and hardened grease. It had about 1/2" of solidified chips in oil at the bottom that was scraped, scooped, and vacumed out, but still leaves a huge mess.

I had to pull all the belts and stuff out anyway to get the head off for some minor repairs (that went well by the way) so I figured I would spray down the inside with some "Casteroil Super Clean" I had from previous projects (cleaning automotive stuff). Relatively "paint and plastic safe" and worked fairly well in the past. With a considerable bit of soak time and effort it got a bunch of it, but the undercoating like portion it won’t touch. AND it seem to have started removing the top coat of paint, though there is another that seems untouched below it. One owner and only original paint on the outside, not sure what’s up with that. It also chalks aluminum a bit, so after I dug out the varispeed plates and found out they were aluminum, I stopped for the night.

So, question to the group is, what is the best cleaner for something like this? After an hour of “wetting and soaking”, the “Super Clean” seems to have no effect on the undercoating and I’m just not impressed in general. Too much freaking work for too little return. I’ve read that Zep Orange cleaner from HD is very good, but have not tried it. There is also a Zep “Professional” (purple) grease cleaner that is reported much more effective, but it has all sorts of warnings about paint and such, so I’m not sure about using it in there with the motor, bushings, bearings, seals, and electrical wires; much less the paint that seems to be damaged even by the relatively mild “Super Clean”.

Also, I’ve finally set up a parts washer and was given some water based solvent to be used. It’s several years old and I have no idea about shelf life with Pheonix heat. I’m thinking of tossing it and getting some “mineral spirits” (odorless kerosene, etc.) or other oil based cleaner. What I would like to do is just drop the head stock, gear train, vari-speed jack shaft, and apron parts (my next project to tear down) in there and clean it all up very well before putting back together. I *HATE* oily messy tools.

Fortunately my mill came to me from a shop where maintenance kept stuff looking like it was in the kitchen of a 5 star restaurant. But with the lathe I was not so lucky. I paid a guy to clean it up, and he did a fabulous job on the outside considering what he charged me, but he wouldn’t touch the motor cabinet. Afraid of damaging stuff I think, plus it’s cramped and messy. So, it’s left to me if I want it up to par with my other stuff. I figure you guys who buy used machinery have got to have a good process for keeping this stuff clean and/or cleaning up machines from messy shops. Care to let a newbie in on the inside scoop?

Michael Moore
07-17-2006, 07:40 AM
I've been very impressed with the job that "Oil Eater" does for removing the old caked-on oil and grease. It does lift junky paint though, and may take off some of the good stuff if you leave it on to soak.


07-17-2006, 09:10 AM
Oven cleaner ought to do it, but that may take the paint off too. If you were careful you might be able to strip only the inside of the cabinet though, and preserve the external paint.

It may also attack aluminum, not sure about that. If you try oven cleaner, a few small test patches might be advisable before you cheerfully start slathering it over everything.

07-17-2006, 09:26 AM
You might consider using a degreaser designed for electrical components. CRC makes some and I believe HD handles it. However, I don't know how it would do with the 'undercoating' that has accumulated in you lathe cabinet.

WD-40 is a hit or miss proposition, but it might be able to cut through the grease, and shouldn't affect the paint.

Another thought is pulling the motor out (depending on how hard it would be), and then going after it with something that would get the job done. Engine degreaser comes to mind.

Let us know what you wind up doing. Tricks like this are always handy!

07-17-2006, 12:12 PM
I've had excellent results with CRC "Electroclean" - I get it in spray cans at the local auto parts store. I use it with a tooth bruch for the nastiest grime. Caveats:

1. Use good ventilation.
2. It will haze the paint on my Bridgeport
3. It doesn't work on layout dye as well as plain old denatured alcohol from Home Depot.

I reserve the Electroclean for the nastiest stuff, but it does work. Normally, if I have to resort to it, I'm resigned to some painting, too.

Not sure how well it works for petroleum-based oils and greases, but for organic stuff (like grease in the kitchen), ammonia works really well, if you can stand the smell. Window cleaner, near as I can tell, is mostly a mix of ammonia and alcohol, and it works similarly. It also doesn't hurt most paints.

For the caked on gunk (petrol-based), I also like to keep a good plastic putty knife on hand. They're also fairly paint-friendly.

It used to be that machine makers would recommend a bath in kerosene to clean the preservative grease off of new machines. It's usually pretty effective, too, but you have to deal with the lingering smell and potential fire hazard.

Oh, and Boraxo powdered hand soap and a toothbrush can do a surprizing job at getting oil and grease from clothing. Ask me how I know. :D


07-17-2006, 12:33 PM
Oh, and Boraxo powdered hand soap -Mark

This is a little bit off of the thread, but I've looked for that stuff everywhere I can think of. The grocery stores, Wally World, the industrial suppliers, Home Depot, and auto suppliers around here don't handle it. I've used it at work in the past, and really liked it. It'd be nice to find a source!

Mike Burdick
07-17-2006, 01:03 PM

If the lathe is broken down and the parts you want to clean are not too heavy, how about taking them to a self serve car wash? If that isn’t strong enough then perhaps you can have them steam cleaned. Where I live the Caterpillar dealer has a steam cleaner at their office and one can rent the use of it - maybe they do the same in your area.

07-17-2006, 01:12 PM
Ditto on the Boraxo hand soap. I found some a couple of years ago and laid in a supply, but I'm running low. It used to be easy to find, now I don't see it anywhere.

I did find this link http://www.soapsgonebuy.com/category_s/2.htm but it would be nice to find it locally.

07-17-2006, 03:19 PM
I think the secret to heavy gunk removal is to let something else do the work for you. The strong solvent idea (carbureator cleaner, lacquer thinner etc) is hard on the body and still usually requires elbow grease to get the job done.

I have had very good luck with the Castrol purple stuff. On heavily greasy stuff, I do it in two stages though. I use Gunk SC mixed with Kerosene or roughly the same stuff is available in a spray can as Gunk Engine Brite (not the foamy variety). With the machinery outside, a warm day works best. Soak the heavy grime and just let it sit and penetrate--an hour or more will not hurt. I then use a pressure washer to knock off a layer.

After that, I use the Castrol stuff to remove the small amount of remaining greasy residue by spraying and allowing to sit a bit then pressure washing again. This is water based and will tend to dry on a hot day though and you may have to mist it to keep it wet, or work a bit at a time.

The castrol stuff is a mild caustic. Oven cleaner is a stronger caustic....if you need it :-)

I have found that the biggest key is to find the *right* solvent for the material you are cleaning. I have cleaned two mills, a shaper and two drill presses that had been in a shop that housed welding facilities (a school). They were all covered in a heavy covering of oil and black suety stuff. In another case, my Bridgeport had been in a commercial operation with mist coolant which is basically just swarf glue:D

Everything I have worked with had a mixture of grease/oil based stuff best soaked loose with the solvent based product, as well as some swarf and coolant as well as the oily residue from the first pass with the Gunk SC mix that was best cut with the Castrol purple bottle stuff. This regimen got them clean enough to eat off of, but the use of water means lots of work disassebling and using compressed air and a high speed fan to dry things quickly.

Peter N
07-17-2006, 03:57 PM
First get a pallet knife and scrape it all off...:D

On my lathe I had a mess that was very similar to how yours sounds. After scraping and chipping the fossilised grease & swarf off I used an automotive engine cleaner product called Jizer, and worked this into what was left with a short, stiff, alloy wheel 'detailing' brush.

It took about 3 goes with this and subsequent hosing off, just with normal tap pressure, to get it to a reasonable condition. It did take some paint off with it but I was reapinting anyway as part of the restoration process.

Some before/during/after pictures below.





Jim Caudill
07-17-2006, 04:08 PM
greased lightning from Home Depot followed by fresh water rinses, blow drying and electrical cleaner

07-17-2006, 04:21 PM
Nice job Peter!

I used aviation stripper and a high pressure washer on the Craftsman restore. :D

Came out like new. ;)

Alistair Hosie
07-17-2006, 04:25 PM
They sell stuff in the uk called Gunk brush it on wash it off works very well for all thick grease etc .I am not sure what it is called in the states but any good degreaser from an auto shop will do a good job what you want is basically a very strong detergent good luck Alistair

Alistair Hosie
07-17-2006, 04:26 PM
Beautiful job on the myford peter well done regards Alistair

07-17-2006, 04:31 PM
Wow, lots of good input here.

A couple of new points though.

It weighs about 1400 lbs, and I’m not interested in a full restore. In fact, I would like to have it as original as possible, particularly since the external paint turned out surprisingly nice. So I don’t want to completely dismantle it (at least not to the point where I can walk the cabinet outside) and I am reluctant to fight/roll it outside. Plus the drive is sloped and risks dumping it as well as getting the run-off on the concrete and my wife would fuss more than she already does. :D

I’m pretty much resigned to stripping everything out of the cabinet, scraping undercoating mess out along with any incidental paint, and the repainting the inside of the cabinet. I'll be doing that in my shop, so rinsing/spraying is not an option. It'll be rolls of paper towels with the cabinet sitting on news papers. <sigh>

Hmm, not really worth catalyzed paint, but I doubt rattle can will hold up in there. Hmmm...


That pic of the myford head does look a lot like what was in my cabinet. But as mentioned, getting it where I can follow that procedure is not likely. My head stock however is MUCH cleaner than that and I’ll likely just put it through he parts washer along with the drive components I have to finish stripping out of the inside of the cabinet. I hope mine comes out as nice as yours, but I don’t plan to completely remove the spindle or shifting/brake mechanisms. My biggest concern on that is that the solvent will wash a bunch of crap into the bearings and places it should not be. :(

07-17-2006, 04:47 PM
[QUOTE=BadDog]Hmm, not really worth catalyzed paint, but I doubt rattle can will hold up in there.QUOTE]
I have used Rustoleum industrial paint (rattle can) with good success. I have it on my bench, grinder stand, welding table (cold areas), and millhead. The paint on the bench is the area that has seen the most abuse, from oil to solvents, it hasn't shown much wear. If fact, the only place that has had a problem was where some brake fluid wound up on a leg, and it curled up. But, then I haven't seen much paint that would stand up to brake fluid.

Good thing about it is that its cheap, and readily available at HD. It's the can with the hard hat on it.

07-17-2006, 04:57 PM
Any problem with using coolant(diluted Valenite) for a rinse after most of the grunge is loosened with strong chemicals? My thought is that if you did not get all of the rinse off as the water evaporated a little film of oil would be left behind. I'm cleaning up a B&S #2 surface grinder and really don't want to take it apart all the way just to get most of the years of stuff off of it. It is outside, under cover, on a trailer now. With 104F temps I think it would dry pretty fast. Your comments would be appreciated.
John Burchett
in Byng OK

07-17-2006, 05:03 PM
Good to know. I've had good results with it as well, and almost every can in my paint cabinet is Rustoleum of one form or another. But then I've never put it where exposure would be pretty much constant either. I'm not sure if I've got Industrial Gray or not, but if not, it's easily acquired as you said.


Peter N
07-17-2006, 05:20 PM
Thanks guys. You'd really cringe if I posted a picture of the bed before it was re-ground or, the state the lathe originally arrived in.

I actually used it in this condition for 6 months to make some fixture parts before starting on the rebuild. It was fine as long as I didn't need to move more than 7" up the bed, or turn anything larger than 1" diameter as the spindle bearings were more than a bit wobbly too :D

CCWKen, I remember that thread about your rebuild. Vey nice job you did too.


(sorry about the slight hi-jack of your thread BadDog)

07-17-2006, 06:00 PM
Allistair...I may be recommending the same thing. Gunk is actuall a brand name now and the product I most remember going back several decades is calle SC or "Super Concentrate" It mixes with Kerosene. I called Solder Seal (the maker) and talked to a chemist there a couple years ago and he indicated that it is just a petroleum mixable surfactant. It makes for really slippery kerosene and that helps it penetrate. I was asking about its safety mixed with Kero in my parts washer and he reminded me that they sell a parts washer mix (lots more expensive), but indicated that it would work just fine and gave me a recommended ratio that was not on the can. It is water rinsable, but that makes its use a one shot thing since they tell you that it looses its solvent capability with even a tiny amount of water in it. That was why I was recommending the two-stage operation with the Castrol water-based stuff after you have rinsed the first time. Once you get things wet, you are done using the Gunk.

The SC solution will not get all the grunge off and will leave an oily residue not suitable for painting.

I don't know how you will get it clean enough to paint, BadDog, without being able to flush it out. My take is that if you wouldn't eat off it, it isn't ready for paint. The anal-retentive engineer in me will not let me paint over *any* remaining grunge. I'd rather just leave it pretty clean in its original condition than paint over junk.

BTW-- on paint, I have had really good luck with the Valspar-made equipement enamels with the hardener they offer. They come store branded some places, but TSC, Farm and Fleet, and (I think) Lowes carry them. I brush it on (maybe better in a confined space like that anyway). The hardener makes for better flow, a quicker cure, more durable paint, and higher gloss. It goes in 16:1, so a small cup full for a project like that only takes a tiny bit of the hardener.

07-17-2006, 06:49 PM
Ditto on the Boraxo hand soap. I found some a couple of years ago and laid in a supply, but I'm running low. It used to be easy to find, now I don't see it anywhere.

I did find this link http://www.soapsgonebuy.com/category_s/2.htm but it would be nice to find it locally.
Yeow! SoapsGonebuy wants 5 bucks a can for the stuff!! Robbery!

I tried to find the place where I eventually got it. I checked (the maker) Dial's website a while back, and it claimed that it's available in all of my local grocery stores, but it's not. I can't find the original place, but it was something like "Restaurant supply", and I bought it by the case for something like $2 per can. Ah - found it:


Ok, they want a little more than $2/can, or $25.80 per case of 12. That's more like it.

Anyway, I've always liked Boraxo, but I had to resort to online ordering to finally get some.


07-17-2006, 06:50 PM
Oh yeah - Beautiful work there on the Myford, Peter.


07-17-2006, 07:42 PM
Thanks Wirecutter. I just did a quick search and that SoapsGoneBy place was the first thing that turned up....didn't really bother to look at it. The link you give, it's REALLY cheap by the case of 5-pound boxes!!!!

J Tiers
07-17-2006, 08:17 PM
Any of the strong base (alkali) cleaners should disassemble oily gunk into soap. That's what Castrol SC, Zep purple, or oven cleaner does.

The other two are cheaper than oven cleaner.

For bad cases, soaking in a tank of the stuff is best. But the spray or brush on and wait system also works.

If you found something it would NOT take off, either you didn't get enough on the stuff (very likely) , or it isn't what you think it is, and isn't susceptible to that type attack.

Thick coatings are best mechanically removed. Then you can clean with your choice of cleaners.

As you noted, aluminum is not a candidate for soaking in alkali. The existence of aluminum in teh assembly means you need to do something else involving more work.

Per th Myford, who lets a $6000 piece of gear get to that bad a state?

Good job on cleaning it. Swarf and congealed oil is the worst sort of interlocking sharp and annoying gunk.....