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Home » Mastering Brass Cleaning: Proven Methods for Pristine Reloads

Mastering Brass Cleaning: Proven Methods for Pristine Reloads

Cleaning brass is an essential aspect of the reloading process, ensuring the safety, accuracy, and longevity of ammunition. Whether you’re a seasoned reloader or venturing into the world of commercial reloading, understanding the various methods available for cleaning brass is crucial. From traditional methods like tumbling with media to innovative techniques involving ultrasonic cleaners and stainless-steel pins, each approach offers unique benefits and challenges. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the spectrum of brass cleaning methods, examining their effectiveness, scalability, and cost efficiency to help you make informed decisions tailored to your reloading needs, whether on a small-scale hobbyist level or in a commercial setting.

A General Overview of the Three Most Common Methods

Wet Tumbling:

Wet tumbling involves submerging brass cases in a cleaning solution inside a rotary tumbler. The cleaning solution typically consists of water mixed with a detergent or specialized brass cleaner and stainless steel pins or chips. As the tumbler rotates, the stainless steel pins scrub away dirt, carbon residue, and oxidation from the brass surface, leaving it clean and polished. Wet tumbling is highly effective in removing tough stains, carbon buildup, and tarnish, resulting in brass that looks almost new. However, wet tumbling requires more time and effort due to the drying process required afterward.

Conventional Vibratory Tumbling:

Conventional vibratory tumbling involves placing brass cases and a cleaning media, such as crushed walnut or corn cob, into a vibratory tumbler. The tumbler vibrates, causing the media to rub against the brass, removing dirt, debris, and oxidation. This method is simpler compared to wet tumbling, making it more suitable for hobbyist reloaders or small-scale operations. While it may not achieve the same level of cleanliness and shine as wet tumbling, conventional vibratory tumbling is still effective in removing surface contaminants and preparing brass for reloading. It also doesn’t require a drying process since the media absorbs moisture during tumbling.

Ultrasonic Cleaning:

Ultrasonic cleaning utilizes high-frequency sound waves to agitate a cleaning solution, creating millions of tiny bubbles that implode upon contact with the brass surface, effectively dislodging dirt, carbon, and other contaminants. Brass cases are submerged in a tank filled with the cleaning solution, and the ultrasonic waves penetrate even intricate crevices, ensuring thorough cleaning. Ultrasonic cleaning is highly efficient and requires minimal hands-on effort, making it ideal for both hobbyist reloaders and commercial operations. It is particularly effective in cleaning primer pockets and removing stubborn fouling from the inside of brass cases. However, ultrasonic cleaners can be costly, and the cleaning process may take longer compared to other methods, especially for heavily soiled brass. Additionally, in my experience ultrasonic cleaning does not produce the same level of shine as other methods.

Deep Dive into Wet Tumbling

In a nutshell:

Pros:

  • Amazing results
  • Minimal consumables
  • Easily scalable

Cons:

  • Large investment
  • Drying brass takes time
  • Media can be a pain.

When it comes to cleaning brass for reloading, wet tumbling stands out as a popular method due to its effectiveness, scalability, and cost efficiency. This comprehensive approach involves submerging brass cases in a cleaning solution within a rotary tumbler, typically containing water, detergent, and stainless-steel pins. Its effectiveness in removing tough stains, carbon buildup, and tarnish from brass surfaces is widely acknowledged, making it a preferred choice among shooters seeking pristine ammunition. Moreover, wet tumbling offers scalability, accommodating both small-scale hobbyist needs and large-scale commercial operations. Whether you’re reloading cartridges for personal use or running a professional reloading business, wet tumbling can be tailored to suit your specific requirements. Additionally, while initial investment costs may be higher compared to other methods, its long-term cost efficiency and superior results make it a compelling choice for those prioritizing quality and consistency in their reloading endeavors.

As with everything, there is some give and take when wet tumbling. The first is drying the brass. For hobbyists, simply toweling the brass dry and letting it sit out works well, until you want to get started prepping the brass before it has had time to dry. A solution that I’ve found to work well is to put the brass in front of a small space heater. This gets the brass dry much faster. Another downside is media separation. Stainless pins can get lodged sideways in the necks of rifle brass and must be removed by hand. Sometimes the media can get missed and end up at the bottom of your case. When you resize your brass, this can lead to a broken decapping pin. Never a fun day when that happens.

What we do to get around these drawbacks

At Terminal Munitions we most frequently use some form of wet tumbling to clean our brass. With a commercial scale operation, we use a combination of Frankford Arsenal Rotary Tumblers, and cement mixers and typically we don’t use any stainless media. As with all media, you need to remove it when you are finished tumbling. Stainless media is somewhat of a hassle to remove. Over time, some pins or chips lose their magneticity and therefore cannot be removed with a magnet. We find that “part-on-part” cleaning, generally speaking provides effective enough cleaning and time savings to simply nullify the benefits of using media.

Our solution to drying the brass in a reasonable timeframe is two parts. After our initial cleaning, we towel dry the brass as best we can, and it goes into a drying rack over a space heater. Forced air circulates around the brass and gets it dry very quickly. For our brass that is cleaned post-processing, we actually tumble it in corn media after wet tumbling it. Dry tumbling our brass at this point gets it nice and dry, as well as gives a final polish before it gets packaged.

Recommendations

I typically recommend people wanting to implement wet tumbling to pick up a Frankford Arsenal Rotary Tumbler or the smaller ‘lite’ version of the same. I have been using them commercially for quite some time, and they simply work amazing!

Into The Weeds with Dry Tumbling

In a nutshell:

Pros:

  • Good results
  • Inexpensive initial investment
  • Easily scalable

Cons:

  • Consumables can add up
  • Some brass just can’t get clean

Dry tumbling, another popular method for cleaning brass, offers its own set of advantages and considerations. Unlike wet tumbling, which involves submerging brass cases in a cleaning solution, dry tumbling relies on the abrasive action of media, such as crushed walnut or corn cob, to remove dirt and debris from the brass surface. This method is often favored for its simplicity and convenience, making it a viable option for both hobbyist reloaders and commercial operations.

There are two different types of media that are most used for reloading: corn, and walnut. The primary difference between the two is the amount of abrasion. Corn media is typically much finer and is a softer material compared to walnut. Walnut does a much better job at getting dirty brass clean while corn typically does a better job at producing a shinier finish. One of the best ways that I have found to get better results with dry media is to use mineral spirits and NuFinish Car Polish. Adding a splash of mineral spirits to the media helps dissolve case lube, and NuFinish really brings out an extra shine.

The only real drawback to dry tumbling is getting incredibly dirty brass clean. There are a lot of factors that dictate how clean you can get your brass such as: the power of your tumbler, the grit of media, and course how dirty your brass was to start. Not all tumblers are created equal. The less expensive tumblers have less powerful motors and can’t get brass as clean as some higher end models. A great comparison is with the Frankford Arsenal Quick-N-EZ Tumbler (~$59) and the Dillon CV2001 (~$299). The Frankford is a good tumbler but can’t compete with the incredibly strong motor of the Dillon.

Recommendations

For people just starting to reload, I would absolutely recommend dry tumbling. The initial investment is relatively low. There are a lot of tumblers on the market for only $50 and media is very inexpensive. However, media is a consumable and I typically only get 8 to 10 uses out of each batch of media before the results start to deteriorate.

Ultrasonic Cleaning

In a nutshell:

Pros:

  • Primer pockets get clean

Cons:

  • Large initial investment
  • Consumables can get expensive
  • Brass does not come out as shiny as other methods

Ultrasonic cleaning has gained popularity among reloaders as a method for efficiently cleaning brass. Utilizing high-frequency sound waves to agitate a cleaning solution, ultrasonic cleaners promise thorough cleaning, even in hard-to-reach areas like primer pockets and case necks. However, like any technique, ultrasonic cleaning has its own set of pros and cons that reloaders should consider before integrating it into their reloading process.

Ultrasonic cleaning offers several benefits for reloaders. Firstly, it provides superior cleaning performance, removing dirt, carbon, and contaminants effectively. Additionally, it is time-efficient, requiring less time compared to traditional methods like tumbling. Ultrasonic cleaning also demands minimal hands-on effort, allowing reloaders to focus on other aspects of reloading while the cleaner does the work. Moreover, ultrasonic cleaners are versatile, accommodating various cleaning solutions to suit specific needs.

Despite its advantages, ultrasonic cleaning has some drawbacks that reloaders should be aware of. Firstly, there is an initial cost associated with purchasing an ultrasonic cleaner, which may deter some reloaders, especially those on a tight budget. Additionally, ultrasonic cleaners have limited capacity, requiring multiple cleaning cycles for large volumes of brass. There is also a risk of potential damage to brass if not done properly, including etching or pitting from overexposure to ultrasonic waves or harsh cleaning solutions. Finally, ultrasonic cleaners require regular maintenance to ensure optimal performance, adding to the overall upkeep of reloading equipment.

What The Pros Do

As commercial brass specialists, we adhere to a meticulous cleaning process to ensure the quality and integrity of our products. In this example, we tackle the challenge of cleaning extremely dirty mixed 223 / 5.56 brass. The photos attached don’t give justice to just how dirty this brass was.

  1. Initial Inspection: We begin by running the brass through our inspection station to identify and remove any wrong calibers, heavily dented, or severely tarnished cases. While all defects are addressed, our primary focus lies on eliminating incorrect calibers, knowing that the brass will undergo further inspection later in the process.
  2. Cleaning Method: For this task, we employ the use of Frankford Arsenal Rotary Tumblers, finding them to deliver superior results compared to our cement mixers with heavily soiled brass.
  3. Cleaning Additives: Our cleaning solution consists of the following additives:
  4. Tumbling Process: Typically, brass is tumbled for approximately 30 minutes. However, due to the extreme dirtiness of this batch, it required two rounds of tumbling, each lasting around 45 minutes.
  5. Results and Final Rinse: Following tumbling and a thorough rinse, the results speak for themselves. The brass comes out remarkably clean and ready for further processing.

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