Wet Cleaning with Stainless Steel Media

(Revised 03/17/2014)

Wet cleaning with stainless steel media is better than the dry, vibratory method and takes no additional time — when adjusted for my needs. Obviously, your needs may be different but the approach I took should work for you, too.

Background

Dirty

Dirty 45 ACP Brass – Note the build-up in the primer pocket and black “soot” inside the shell. (Click any picture for a bigger version.)

Cleaning is, of course, used on brass after it has been fired and before it is reloaded. Cleaning the brass before reloading makes the reloading equipment last longer — the carbon dust on the fired shells is said to slowly cut into the steel reloading dies and shorten their life. Also, the “dust” contains a small amount of lead, which I will presume you already know, is bad for you and extremely bad for children and grandchildren. If it’s on your brass, then it’s in your reloading room, on your clothes and everywhere you have set foot.

The advantages of wet cleaning with stainless steel media are cleaner brass, a less dusty reloading room, a lessened risk of breathing or otherwise ingesting carbon and lead-laced dust, and guns that may run smoothly longer because of less build-up in the chamber area.

Cleaning with Dry Media

Vibratory

Vibratory Method Result – Brass cleaned (typically with fired primer in place) by the vibratory method. Outside of shell is pretty clean but the inside still has lots of carbon (and lead?).

Up until recently, I cleaned brass with a Dillon CV-750 vibratory case cleaner that would process up to 500 shells. I used crushed walnut shells from Harbor Freight for the cleaning media and would run each batch for two (2) hours. From time to time I would also add a little case polish.

When done, I would then separate brass and media and finally hose off any remaining dust and allow the brass to dry.

This method works reasonably well. But while the outside of the shells has almost no carbon, it doesn’t do so well on the inside nor anything for the flash hole and primer area. Nonetheless I, along with many other Bullseye shooters, have reloaded shells dozens of times with no obvious problems with this dry method.

Wet Cleaning with Stainless Steel Media

But I guess you could say that curiosity got the best of me because I had read reports of brass that, after cleaning, looked “practically new” and, well, I wanted to see for myself. These reports were all about the use of stainless steel media — small rods, to be precise — and tumbling with soap and water.

So, I decided to give it a try. Here’s the equipment I used.

I purchased most of the harder to find parts in a kit from Stainless Tumbling Media including the tumbler, stainless steel and Lemi Shine. In hindsight, if your media separator does not have a lid that closes, I would recommend one step up to their kit that includes that as well. (Those little stainless steel pins like to go flying during the separation step. A closed lid will keep them in check.)

Initial Trials

Here is the initial process, as per the vendor, with which I began. (Some details added.)

  1. Deprime all dirty brass (Lee Universal Depriming and Decapping Die).
  2. Add 5 lbs stainless steel media to drum.
  3. Measure 1 gal (8.34 lbs) cold (filtered) water and add to drum.
  4. Add brass (1.66 lbs) to drum.
  5. Add 1 tablespoon of Dawn dish washing detergent.
  6. Add 1/4 teaspoon of Lemi Shine detergent.
  7. Tumble 4 hours (high-speed tumbler).
  8. Pour out most water (careful of the stainless steel media going down the drain or, worse, into the garbage disposer!) and rinse repeatedly with tap water.
  9. Pour out most water, do a final rinse with filtered water (to minimize spotting).
  10. Dump into clean media separator and separate brass from stainless steel media.
  11. Use magnet in baggie for final separation (stainless steel will be on outside of baggie — remove magnet and stainless steel should drop away from the baggie).
  12. Dump brass onto towel and let dry in sun.
  13. Inspect brass for any remaining stainless steel pins (see primer hole esp.).
ByTheBook

Test #1 – Brass cleaned “by the book” with five (5) pounds of stainless steel media, Dawn and Lemi Shine for a total of four (4) hours. The brass seen here has been fired many times and previously cleaned, primers in place, by the vibratory method. Note in particular the primer pockets and the inside of the shells, all the way down. They are spectacular!

That process results in spectacular brass. If it weren’t for the occasional dent, scratch or extractor mark, you might think the brass is completely new.

But there are some significant downsides to this original procedure. First, it takes four (4) hours in the tumbler. That’s double the time needed by the vibratory method.

Worse, with a full load of stainless steel media, it can handle no more than about 138 pieces of 45 ACP brass in a single batch due to the weight capacity (15 lbs) of the tumbler. With a gallon of water (8.34 pounds) and stainless steel media (5 lbs), that leaves only 1.66 pounds for brass. With an average of 83 pieces of 45 ACP brass per pound, that means the unit’s weight limit is reached with only 138 shells. That’s just barely more than half what I generate at a 2700 with an EIC match included.

So between doubling the cleaning time and then needing two batches to do all the shells from a 2700, the wet method, as originally published, would take me four times as long as the dry.

That will not do.

So I put on my problem solving hat.

How can I clean more brass in less time?

The limiting factor is the weight capacity, 15 pounds, of the tumbler. Let’s look at what that includes.

Water, 1 gallon 8.34 lbs.
Stainless steel media 5 lbs.
Brass 1.66 lbs.
Dawn (1 tbsp.) negligible
Lemi Shine negligible

First Experiment

First, the water at 8.34 pounds is the biggest impediment to more brass. So, I tried a load with only three quarts of water. Unfortunately, the water got so dirty so fast that it just seemed like it stopped cleaning — everything was icky. The water just didn’t seem to be able to hold onto all that dirt.

Later experiments, not documented here, will suggest that the water can indeed be reduced but that there is some optimum ratio of water to brass. See the “Addendum” at the end of this article.

(I did not take a picture of this result. It was “Test #2.”)

Soap and Water Only

What about the stainless steel — there’s five pounds of it in there? Just how essential is it to the cleaning or would just soap and water do just as well?

NoSSM4Hours

Test #3 – Four hours of tumbling in soap and water but with no stainless steel media. The result is far less than stellar as you can see.

So, I ran a batch that way, without the stainless steel media. Just soap and water: one gallon of water, 1 tablespoon of Dawn and 1/4 teaspoon of Lemi Shine with the same number (138) of shells as before but no stainless steel media.

After four hours (plus final rinse and air dry), the results were very disappointing. The inside walls of the shells were still black and sooty, and the primer pockets still had almost all of built-up char from the primer.

Plain soap and water was a bust.

Compared to the previous batch, it’s clear the stainless steel media is doing the work in both the primer pocket and on the inside the shell. Even the outside of the shells were visibly different with only soap and water and inferior to the batch with the added stainless steel media.

Half Load of Stainless Steel

2.5SSM4Hrs

Test #4 – 2.5 pounds of stainless steel media tumbled for four (4) hours. (The water spots suggest I forgot the filtered water rinse at the end.) These look pretty good. The primer pockets and the insides of the shells are nice and clean.

So, what about using half the stainless steel, 2.5 pounds? Would that clean as well as the full load? If not, would it be “good enough”?

Lacking a scale for measuring those 2.5 pounds, I grabbed two baggies and visually divided the stainless steel media approximately in half. I figured either bag was now close to 2.5 pounds.

I ran a load with that and the same number (138) of dirty shells for four (4) hours.

They look good almost as good as the batch cleaned with the full five (5) pounds.

The stainless steel media can be reduced if you are willing to compromise, just a little, on the result.

I can do that.

This is promising.

2.5SSM2Hrs

Test #5 – 2.5 pounds of stainless steel media for only two (2) hours.

What if we now cut the time to two hours? That’s how long the vibratory process takes and one of my goals is to use no additional time. How will that work with the reduction to 2.5 pounds of stainless steel media?

I ran yet another batch, this time for two (2) hours.

Uh-oh.

Look in the primer pockets and inside the shells.

There’s definitely some crud still in there and although the camera doesn’t show it as well, the inside bottoms of the shells are dingy. Two (2) hours is inferior to four (4) with only a half-weight of stainless steel media.

But we’re not out to win the “shiney brass” contest. These are perfectly usable and, to be frank, they’re a lot cleaner than what I get from the vibratory method after those same two hours in the machine.

We’re onto something here. This is the right path. It just needs some tweaking.

To recap what we’ve learned so far, the brass and time can both be reduced if we’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of shine.

And just as significant, by reducing the stainless steel, we can include more brass.

Increasing the Brass Quantity

Assuming we always use a gallon (8.34 pounds) of water (and disregard the weight of the Dawn and Lemi Shine), just how much 45 ACP brass can we use with different amounts of stainless steel media while staying under the tumbler’s weight limit?

Well, the 8.34 pounds of water with the 15 pound capacity leaves 6.66 pounds for brass and media.

Here’s a table showing media and brass which must always add up to no more than 6.66 pounds and, for the brass, how many “average weight” 45 ACP shells that is.

Media (lbs) Brass (lbs) # 45 ACP Shells # 38 S&W Shells
(Added later)
5 1.66 138 176
4 2.66 222 282
3 3.66 305 388
2 4.66 388 494
1 5.66 472 600
0 6.66 555 703

Now the result with “0” pounds of stainless steel media we did earlier was unacceptable whereas the test with 2.5 pounds of media was OK after two (2) hours and much better after four (4).

So, somewhere between 2.5 and 5 pounds of media, there should be an amount that will be just right. But as the media weight goes up, the number of shells has to go down to keep from overloading the tumbler.

To be practical, the key question is how many pieces of brass do I usually want to clean at one time?

Well, a 2700 has three stages: 22, center fire and 45. The 22 brass is not reloadable and it goes into the range’s recycle bin. But I often shoot my wad gun for both center fire and 45 stages. That’s 90 rounds each or a total of 180 shots if I have no alibis. Adding in a couple of those brings it up to 200. And if we also shoot an EIC match, that will add another 30 shells.

That’s what I bring home from a 2700, about 210-230 dirty 45 ACP shells. With the vibratory cleaner dry method, they would be done in about two hours (plus drying time after the final hosing off that I had added for dust reduction).

So, that’s my goal: Clean 210-230 pieces of 45 ACP brass in two hours.

Balancing Out Stainless Steel versus Shell Count

According to the above table, I should be able to run just about that quantity with four (4) pounds of stainless steel. The result, in two hours, should be better than what I saw after that same time with the smaller load of 2.5 pounds of media.

But I don’t have a scale for measuring a small number of pounds. The powder scale I use when reloading is limited to 600 grains which is less than 1/10th of a pound. And the bathroom scale that has sat neglected in the dark closet for all these years since it was banished from sight barely registers five pounds much less one.

So how do I take out one pound from the five pounds of stainless steel?

Why, with the kitchen measuring cup, of course.

The stainless steel, dumped into a two cup kitchen measuring cup is, by volume, slightly more than 16 ounces. Therefore, if 16 ounces is five pounds of weight, then one fifth of 16 ounces would be one pound. 16/5 = 3.2 ounces, approximately.

But, lo and behold, on the measure cup right next to the ounces scale is a metric scale and the full five (5) pounds of stainless steel is right at the 500 ml (milli-liters) mark.

How convenient!

100 ml = 1 pound of stainless steel media

So, I measure out 100 ml of media, stick it in a separate baggie and what’s left is four (4) pounds of stainless steel.

Perfect!

For reference, I decided I would run one load for four (4) hours with the exact same contents as a load for two (2) hours. That way I could compare them side by side to see if the shorter time would be adequate.

4SSM4Hrs

Test #6 – Four shells, drawn at random from the 220 pieces cleaned for four (4) hours with four (4) pounds of stainless steel media (and Dawn and Lemi Shine).

Here’s the batch of 220 pieces tumbled with four (4) pounds of stainless steel media for four (4) hours.

As expected, they’re gorgeous! (Well, except for that tiny little bit of crud inside one primer pocket.)

Four (4) pounds of media seems to do just about as well as five (5). Indeed, it’s very likely that with five (5) pounds of media, the brass was completely clean some time before the four (4) hour mark.

With five (5) pounds, we really don’t need four (4) hours.

Final Test

4SSM2Hrs

Test #7 – Four shells, again drawn at random from the 220 pieces cleaned for the shorter period of only two (2) hours with the same four (4) pounds of stainless steel media (and Dawn and Lemi Shine). The results are very good and clearly much better than the dry method, and in the same amount of time. Bingo!

Time to try a two (2) hour test with four (4) pounds of stainless steel media.

And the result, seen here, is almost as good as the four (4) hour run, and it’s also not much worse than the result I saw using the entire five (5) pounds of stainless steel media.

There’s still that small amount of build-up inside some of shells in the primer cup but the inside walls and bottom of all of the shells are now shiney clean.

Practical Measure of Brass Quantity

The final issue to be addressed is how to measure out those 220 (or so) shells without resorting to counting them one by one.

A volume measure worked very well when measuring out the one pound of stainless steel to be excluded, why not use a volume measure again?

2013-08-30 16.34.59

Brass Measure – One quart (by volume) yoghurt cup filled with exactly 220 pieces of 45 ACP brass. A “full scoop” level with the top added 1/4 pound, a small excess I deemed not worth fretting about. Just do it.

It turns out, I already had the solution. I’ll simply continue to use the empty quart yoghurt containers I already have as “utility buckets” in the reloading room. I already knew that, when dumping brass into the case feeder on my Dillon 650, those yoghurt containers hold just a little over 200 shells.

As a double-check, I counted out 220 shells and dumped them into one of the containers. It is almost full to the top. I then added more shells, five at a time until it was level with the top — 235 shells.

That slight overage (15 shells) adds about 1/4 pound and, frankly, the unit’s weight limit isn’t a hard and fast number. Exceeding the limit will simply wear things out sooner. A little over, a little sooner.

I won’t be sweating that quarter pound.

Final Process

So here now is my final version of the process. Note this is appropriate only for 45 ACP brass. If you are cleaning something different, you’ll need to weigh ten shells, compute the average and figure out how many will weigh 2.66 pounds. That’s what you want: 2.66 pounds of brass per batch.

  1. Deprime all dirty brass (Lee Universal Depriming and Decapping Die).
  2. Add four (4) lbs (400 ml by volume) stainless steel media to drum.
  3. Measure 1 gal (8.34 lbs) cold (filtered) water and add to drum.
  4. For 45 ACP brass, fill the one quart yoghurt cup and it to the drum.
  5. Add 1 tablespoon of Dawn dish washing detergent.
  6. Add 1/4 teaspoon of Lemi Shine detergent.
  7. Tumble two (2) hours (high-speed tumbler).
  8. Pour out most water (careful of the stainless steel media going down the drain or, worse, into the garbage disposer!) and rinse repeatedly with tap water.
  9. Pour out most water, do a final rinse with filtered water (to minimize spotting).
  10. Dump into clean media separator and separate brass from stainless steel media.
  11. Use magnet in baggie for final separation (stainless steel will be on outside of baggie — remove magnet and stainless steel should drop away from the baggie).
  12. Dump brass onto towel and let dry in sun.
  13. Inspect brass for any remaining stainless steel pins (see primer hole esp.).

Conclusion

For a given amount of brass, there is some mix of stainless steel media and time that will give optimum results. That combination will likely be different for shells other than the 45 ACP I was using so you will probably need to do some experimentation. The experience noted here may be of some help in that quest.

But for 45 ACP and using the equipment, cleaning products and the volumes and weights described here, you can have much, much cleaner brass in the same amount of time as with the dry method.

And regardless of the caliber of brass you are processing, with the wet method, you’ll have less dust in the reloading room, you and your family will have less exposure to lead, and because you’re not carrying that dust on your brass into the chamber of your guns, they should function better as well.

Wet tumbling with stainless steel media is a winner!

Summary of Tests

# Water Dawn Lemi Shine Media Brass Time Result
1 1 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. 5 lbs. 138 (1.66 lbs) 4 hrs Spectacular!
2 3/4 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. 5 lbs. 138 (1.66 lbs) 4 hrs Awful
3 1 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. None 138 (1.66 lbs) 4 hrs Poor
4 1 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. 2.5 lbs. 138 (1.66 lbs) 4 hrs Very good
5 1 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. 2.5 lbs. 138 (1.66 lbs) 2 hrs Inferior
6 1 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. 4 lbs. 222 (2.66 lbs) 4 hrs Almost the same #1
7 1 gal. 1 tbsp. 1 tsp. 4 lbs. 222 (2.66 lbs) 2 hrs Excellent!
Addendum
(as below)
1/2 gal. 1 tsp. (not tbsp!) 1 tsp. 4 lbs. up to 522 (6.66 lbs) 2 hrs Removing half the water allows more than four (4) additional pounds of brass. But I have not tested this with a full load of 522 shells so YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

Addendum 11/05/2013

I’ve reduced the water to 2 Qts (down from 1 Gal) and the Dawn to 1 Tsp (down from 1 Tbsp) as shown in the last line of the above table without any perceptible decrease in cleaning. This would allow more brass — perhaps as many as 300 additional shells (522 total) of 45 ACP but I did not test that way.

No doubt there is some minimum amount of water needed to effectively clean a certain amount of brass but that ratio will depend on several factors such as which propellant was used, how dirty is the brass, what is the hardness of the water and many other factors.

At the moment, however, I have no plans (and not enough dirty brass) for any methodical experimentation.

The good news is you can reduce water and probably add more brass. Exactly how much that is, however, remains to be seen. Reports from “the field” (you) would be most welcome.

Yet Another Addendum 03/17/2014

Replace the wingnuts on Thumblers tub with six of these fluted knobs and save your fingers. (And buy an extra and stick it on the frame somewhere in case one gets lost. At less than a buck each, you can afford a spare.)

4 thoughts on “Wet Cleaning with Stainless Steel Media

  1. I use my SSTM set up as per instructions. Always with wonderful results. This information will be tucked away for future reference though…

  2. I don’t screw around with equipment limitations. I built a bigger (industrial grade) tumbler. I have followed the “serve me or die” motto with all tooling, all my life. If I can’t afford the best, I wait until I can. If I can’t wait, I go to Harbor Freight. My tumbler can tumble over fifty pounds. I never weigh or measure the load. I just go for it and I get fantastic results.

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