Ultrasonic Cleaning for Hand Guns
by Mike Porter (aka TomSwift)
June 2004

Updated December 2004 - Poly-Dunk-It
Updated July 2006 - Flammability Testing
Updated external links Feb 07, 2009
-Notice-

The procedures detailed below have worked well for me and I'm comfortable using this process. However, it should be understood that each person should make their own determination as to the safety and comfort of using this gun cleaning method.

Safety first: Always be sure that firearms are unloaded
before beginning any cleaning procedure.
 

Several months ago it occurred to me that using an ultrasonic cleaner (UC) for cleaning pistols might be an efficient way to perform this task. An internet search turned up a wealth of information. There are UC units made for law enforcement applications that are big enough to put several AR type weapons in at a time. Those are a little bit pricey. Among large departments, ultrasonic cleaning appears to be quite common. So it looks as though I'm on the right track. Now to find a unit that is large enough to hold a 1911 (the longest pistol in my collection) but cheap enough that I could afford. There are hundreds of ultrasonic cleaners available on eBay but most are small units meant for rings and watches. After several months of looking I finally found one that had a tank 11.5 inches long, 4 inches deep and 5.5 inches wide for $120...perfect. This was really a good deal considering that most other units that are big enough to hold a 1911 or full size Beretta, much less all the components of a field stripped pistol, are usually in the range of $200 - $400.

 
 

Now, what cleaning solution to use. The companies that sell ultrasonic units specifically for firearms also supply cleaning liquids too, but kinda pricey (of course if you are paying in excess of $10,000 for a unit, the price of the cleaning solution is of little consequence). Poly-Dunk-It appears to be a good solution, fairly inexpensive and lasts a long time. There are several good cleaner/degreasers that are water based, but I wasn't thrilled about introducing water into any of my guns. I wasn't confident that could get it out of every nook and cranny and I wasn't willing to take a chance of rust developing in areas that couldn't be seen.

 
 

Additional reading also stated that ammonia is a good gun cleaner, but DON'T use it on aluminum, that's very bad. Not knowing where any aluminum parts might be, I didn't want to risk it, plus the fumes from ammonia are quite unpleasant.

 
 

What about a possible home brew? To the internet...a Google search on homebrew or homemade gun cleaner lead straight to Ed's Red. OK, now I gotta research this to be sure it's not gonna damage the pistols, especially those with polymer frames (See footnote).

 
 

Ed's was developed by Ed Harris who worked at Ruger and was looking for a less expensive cleaning solution for all their cleaning chores. Here is the formula he developed and tested and has used for many years.

 
1 Part Dextron transmission fluid - Provides a very high quality lubricant and the red color.  
1 Part Mineral Spirits -Also called Stoddard's Solvent in the original Ed's Red recipe. (See footnote)  
1 Part Kerosene (See footnote)  
1 Part Acetone - Accelerates the cleaning process. VERY Low Flashpoint - 0 Degrees!  

1 Pound (assuming you are using 1 quart each of the above components) of Anhydrous Lanolin - Provides odor reduction and helps eliminate fingerprints. You can get this stuff off eBay or from several other internet sources.

 
 

There are lots of articles on the internet about this mixture so what follows are not my own findings, it just provides additional support for what I wanted to accomplish.

 
 

Personally I don't like Acetone, to me it's just nasty stuff, I can't stand the smell of it when my wife is using it to remove fingernail polish. As stated above the flashpoint of acetone is 0 degrees Fahrenheit. No, I didn't leave any numbers out, it's zero! That means if you have this stuff in an open pan, outside at ZERO DEGREES, it is still giving off a vapor that can be ignited. Gasoline is worse at minus 40 degrees. Kerosene and Mineral Spirits are in the 100 plus degree zone. Automatic transmission fluid is 352 degrees.

 
  Please note that a warning label has been prepared for Ed's Red and can be found here: Ed's Red Article  
 

Since you will probably be storing this in a container meant for paint thinner, mineral spirits, etc., it would be wise to print this out and affix it to the container. For those of you that might have doubts, the above link is also the Ed's Red article written by Ed Harris himself.

 
 

The acetone can be left out. Since I'm using an ultrasonic cleaner I don't need the additional speed. The lanolin can also be eliminated. A pound of the stuff adds about $8.00 to the cost of the solution. Total cost for the 3 other liquids, about $9.00, makes nearly a gallon and, like Dunk-Kit, you can use it again and again.

 
 

The UC I found on eBay didn't have a basket to hold parts so I made one out of a couple of under cabinet baskets you find in the kitchen section at Target. Field strip the pistols and REMOVE THE GRIPS. A small stainless steel net (made from a $1.00 kitchen sink filter) holds small parts such as springs, slide stops, barrel bushing, etc. With this setup I can put an XD, 1911, and Colt Mustang all in at the same time. The frames go in with the grips up, so only the rails get submerged. The magazine well stays dry.

 
  Since Ed's Red doesn't clean the fouling in the barrel, I clean that first with Hoppes #9 and bronze brush. Once that's done, all parts go in the basket.  
 

My particular UC has a 15 minute timer. Turn it on and let it finish the cycle. There is also a heater in this unit which helps the cleaning process. As I stated in another post, the first time I did this a black stream of junk literally blew out from around the extractor on the XD. I thought I kept this pretty clean with standard cleaning procedures but this proved me wrong.

 
 

By the way, I'm doing this outside as I haven't yet tested the flash point of this solution. Should be fairly high, but why risk a fire in the kitchen? The odor from Ed's Red is not too bad, most of the odor is from the kerosene and since it's diluted it isn't as strong as it is would be on its own.

 
 

I also highly recommend using some rubber kitchen gloves while handling the parts coming out of the cleaner. After 15 minutes in the tank, the parts are removed and placed on a shop towel to let as much of the solution drain off as possible. Then it's mostly a matter of wiping the parts down with a soft cotton rag (read that as old T-shirt), touch up with a cotton swab in some of the tight places inside the slide, run a patch through the barrel and reassemble.

 
 

I've noticed on the XD that there tends to be some "weeping" of solution around the firing pin indicator on the back of the slide. A little shot of canned air will usually rid this area of any extra fluid. After this I wipe them down with a silicon cloth, but that's just my preference. I think the lanolin would help this as fingerprints do seem to show a little easier using this process. If you choose to you could use this method after every range trip but I only use this about every third range outing.

 
 

My particular UC has a drain on it which makes it easier to dump the solution back into the storage can. The last time I did this I placed a paper coffee filter in a funnel and then drained through the filter which should help remove any sediment.

 
 

I wish I had a picture of the Colt Mustang before it was cleaned the first time. It was purchased used a few of months ago. After the first UC bath it looked almost new. The cavitation caused by the ultrasonic process really deep cleaned the inside and outside of this little blued beauty.

 
  Final Thoughts  
 

1. It's fast.

2. It's fairly easy.

3. Depending on tank size, several pistols can be done at a time.

4. Except for the initial investment of the ultrasonic unit, it's inexpensive. Ed's Red was originally developed as a cheap alternative for cleaning lots of guns simply by soaking them in this stuff, so you don't have to use an ultrasonic cleaner but by using one it sure makes for an efficient and thorough procedure.

5. I think you get a detailed cleaning/lubrication without having to do a detailed strip. Small screws and springs and I tend to get separated easily, especially outside.

6. Eventually I will try the Poly-Dunk-It to see how it stacks up against Ed's Red for cleaning ability, lubrication, and safety.

 
  Update December 2004
Poly-Dunk-It
 
 

Well, I finally got around to ordering a bucket of Poly Dunk-It and tried it out this weekend. I placed the order online on a Saturday night and the product arrived the following Thursday. While Dunk-It is said to be safe for polymer frames, Cylinder and Slide has formulated Poly-Dunk-It for polymer framed guns for those who might have concerns.

According to the review that came with it, it has some similar chemicals in it as Ed's Red. It is a petrolium based product. It is Tydebowl blue in color and is slightly less viscous than Ed's Red. I'm sure if I added the acetone to Ed's Red that the viscosity would be about the same as this product. According to the paperwork it contains a mineral spirits-like chemical, naptha, acetone, and a lubricant. It has a pleasant odor and cleaned my XD every bit as good as Ed's Red.

It is intended to just place the entire pistol either assembled or field stripped (recommended), less grips if you have wood or otherwise removable grips, in the bucket, leave it for 5 to 15 minutes, take it out, brush out any crud that has accumulated in the rails, bore, etc., then a final rinse back in the bucket. Remove from the final rinse, let the excess solution drain off, wipe it down and put it away. I used it in the ultrasonic unit and it worked well. It is not recommended that nickel plated guns be soaked in this product but it is OK to dip a rag in it and wipe those particular weapons down with the soaked rag. It states that it doesn't hurt the nickel finish per se but if there is a crack in the finsh the solution can get under the finish and possibly damage it from underneath next to the base metal.

From my first experience I would certainly recommend this product. They (Cylinder and Slide) recommend that if you normally store your firearm in an enclosed container that you leave it out 24 hours to allow the remaining solution to evaporate.

If you don't want to fool with buying the various chemicals and mixing Ed's Red then Poly-Dunk-It or Dunk-It is the way to go.

 
 

Update July 2006
Flammability/Flashpoint Testing

 
 

OK, I finally got around to testing flammability of both Ed's Red and Poly Dunk It. Just went out back with about 2-3 ounces of each in a stainless steel cup. Outside temperature is about 85 degrees F. I used a butane lighter, ignited it and placed it as close to the surface of each as I could. No flash and no ignition. BTW my Ed's Red formula as stated above does not have the acetone in it. I don't think it would make any difference though.

I then dropped a lighted match in each, no flash or ignition, the match went out. I then dipped a rolled up paper napkin in each and lit that. Both cleaners will SUPPORT combustion by helping the napkin to burn much like oil in an oil lamp on a wick. I then poured a little of each liquid on the burning napkin. There is a little more agressive burn but NO flare up as if you were squirting charcoal lighter fluid on your grill. None-the-less, I will still continue to use my ultrasonic unit and cleaners of choice outside. As stated above, this works for me and I feel completely safe in using this method. You must decide for yourself as to whether to use these methods.

 
 
 
  Footnote:  
 

Aliphatic Hydrocarbons: Aliphatic compounds comprise a wide range of solvents such as mineral spirits and kerosene. These solvents have superior cleaning ability and are compatible with most plastics, rubbers, and metals, and are reusable when distilled. However, aliphatic hydrocarbons are flammable, slow to dry, and have low occupational-exposure limits. Because of this fact, aliphatics have not been considered a desirable substitute for traditional solvents. - Source

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  Posted: June 22, 2004 Updated: February 07, 2009  
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