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Case Cleaning with Stainless Steel Media

9779 Views 18 Replies 13 Participants Last post by  casebro
I have always used the typical corn cob or walnut media to clean my cases for reloading. I've burned up several vibratory tumblers over the years, partly because I like my brass to be shiny. 3-4 hours may get the brass clean but 'shiny' takes 24 hours or so, depending on how funky that brass is to start with and how badly I overload my tumblers. Then there's the dust issue to deal with, and each case ends up needing to be hand-wiped. I recently started decapping my cases before cleaning in order to cut down on primer dust, which is also a lead contaminant. No matter how long the cases run in a typical tumbler, the primer pockets are still dirty (very dirty if you don't decap before tumbling) and the residue inside the case bodies is all still there. I have always believed that the residue builds up inside the case with each firing just like it does in the primer pockets.

For the past several months I have been seeing some threads on other sites about cleaning cases with stainless steel media (HERE'S ONE). I finally decided to give it a try. I bought a Thumler's Tumbler and a 5lb bag of media from Sinclair, since they had the best prices (shockingly). I added some anti-vibration knobs for the tumbler from McFeeley's and I got a bottle of LemiShine citrus hard water detergent from the local grocery.

The media is a bunch of little stainless steel rods, small enough to easily pass through the primer hole. I had to run the tumbler about 15 minutes just to clean all the manufacturing gunk from the media itself. Then I loaded up and ran the new tumbler for 4 hours.

Here are some pictures of my first test run:

My 'football watching' decapping station - A Frankford Arsenal portable stand with Lee decapping die mounted on an $18 Lee press (my only Lee tools), and my custom LaRue primer-catching tray (since the Lee press throws them everywhere). BTW, if you get the Lee decapping die, you have to use the biggest end wrenches you own to tighten that thing down enough to keep the decapping pin from slipping. I wrestled that thing for 20 minutes with smaller tools.

The Thumler's Tumbler Model B with high-speed motor and a bottle of LemiShine from the local grocery. I added the vibration-proof knobs in place of the factory wing-nuts, but you have to use the low-profile knobs to allow enough clearance.

Just to show the scale of the media next to a .223 case.

I started with 80 cases: 20 x .270, 20 x .308, and 40 x .223. I could have added 50% more with no problem. Others say they can get around 120-200 .308 cases, 200-250 .223 cases, and up to 300+ 9mm. You are supposed to keep the total weight of contents down to 15 pounds - the rating of the tumbler. 5 lbs media plus 7-8 lbs water leaves 2-3 lbs for brass.

I picked some of the worst cases I could find for this test. Those .270 cases came from a friend. They belonged to his late father and had been sitting in a hot, humid garage for at least 30 years. Normally I would have thrown them into the trash they were so funky.

The rest were a mixture of Win, IMI, PRIVI (Serbian surplus), and PMC from the late 70's when they were sold as military surplus. All except the PRIVI (PPU) were 20+ years old and well aged.

To start, I added a big squirt of Dawn and about 1/3 teaspoon of the LemShine to the water. The water was black after 4 hours of tumbling. I poured out half and wiped off most the soap suds for this pic:

The results after rinsing and toweling most of the water away.

It's hard to get a good picture, but the cases were just as clean inside as they were outside, even those funky .270 cases.

Overall, I am seriously impressed. It was a pain to deal with the water and separating the brass, but I'm sure a routine can be worked out to minimize the hassle. I dropped 4-5 sticks of media during the process, but a magnet really helped there. (I understand some stainless is non-magnetic, but this stuff I got from Sinclair jumped to my magnet) I had 3 cases out of 80 that had media stuck in the primer hole - two sticks side-by-side in every case. They nearly fell out as soon as I put some needle-nose pliers on them.

It would be nice to have a big, deep sink in the shop or garage. I had to do my rinsing, etc in the kitchen. I just made sure to avoid any chance of media falling into the garbage disposal side.

After any full-length resizing, the brass will still have to go into a vibratory tumbler to get rid of the lube. But that should only take 20 minutes or so and I'm hoping that with some clean corn cob media, the dust problems will be minimal. I will still have to poke it out of primer pockets, though. I hope I can wipe any lube (Imperial wax) from neck sizing using alcohol and avoid the tumbler the majority of the time for bolt gun brass.

This takes much longer than the ultra-sonics I've seen discussed recently and the start-up costs are higher. But look at those results. Okay, maybe it's just the shiny cases that got my attention, but there's no doubt that this will take care of any powder residue build-up in the primer pockets and also inside the case body. And there is no way the ultrasonics can shine up old cases like this. It cost me just under $250 to gear up for this but I think it will be worth it in the long run. Both the tumbler and the media should last many years, and I know I've paid more than $250 for the vibratory tumblers and media I've used up over the years.
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I cut open two of those funky .270 cases to see just how clean this media got the inside of the case. Here they are, one before cleaning and one after:
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I have heard of this, but thought it was a bad idea, because I thought the steel media would work harden my brass.. Of course thats just my thoughts and by no means reality
Since I just started, I can't say anything by personal knowledge. The guys that have been using it longer say it doesn't work harden the brass and the cases don't lose any weight (another concern floated around). When I think about it, it's hard to see the work hardening. The brass isn't being worked, it's just being abraded - no different than traditional tumbling except that it's faster and more complete. Nothing is being stretched, compressed, or bent back and forth.
I've been really tempted to pick up one of those lately...
Jewelers use magnetic pin vibratory cleaning all the time. Good enough for precious metal, good enough for our precious metal!
I've seen some reports from guys using the new batch of ultrasonic cleaners on the market (sometimes using the same cleaning chemicals - soap and a mild acid like LemiShine). To read the reports, those things do as good a job as the SS media. Not many of those reports have pictures, though. The few pictures I've seen still have slight traces of primer residue, etc.

Since they don't have any way of physically polishing the brass, I can't see how they could do as good a job at removing heavy crud and corrosion. But for getting most of the light stuff in less than 15 minutes, they sound pretty good. Beats running the old vibratory tumbler for several hours, then fighting the dust, and still having dirty primer pockets. Especially since the sonic cleaners are fast and cheaper than this method.

I need my long line brass cleaned inside and out, how much do you charge per hundred??? cheers...
I just picked up one of those tumblers last month. I've been using corn cob. But after seeing how well the steel media works. I'll need to get some of that. Thanks for the report.

I need my long line brass cleaned inside and out, how much do you charge per hundred??? cheers...
LOL I can't even keep up with my own stuff.....and I have thousands of rounds of brass out in the garage that needs complete processing. USN4

But Here's a retired guy who decaps, cleans with SS, and anneals old brass for 10 cents a pop. I've never used him but that annealing machine of his is top-quality.

I've been thinking about getting one of those annealing machines, either the Bench Source or the Giraud. M14 brass doesn't last long enough to need it but bolt gun brass does. Hmmmmm... The more I think about it, that wouldn't be a bad way to make a couple hundred bucks a day when I get old and decrepit. You know, in a few weeks from now. GI2
LOL I can't even keep up with my own stuff.....and I have thousands of rounds of brass out in the garage that needs complete processing. USN4

But Here's a retired guy who decaps, cleans with SS, and anneals old brass for 10 cents a pop. I've never used him but that annealing machine of his is top-quality.

I've been thinking about getting one of those annealing machines, either the Bench Source or the Giraud. M14 brass doesn't last long enough to need it but bolt gun brass does. Hmmmmm... The more I think about it, that wouldn't be a bad way to make a couple hundred bucks a day when I get old and decrepit. You know, in a few weeks from now. GI2
Of course I understand old man.... lol

I just sent a PM to the guy in the SH thread
I've run several thousand rounds through my tumbler since trying the SS media and decided to give it another torture test. I found a box of mostly old .308 LC brass dating back into the late 60's in my garage. I have no idea how long it's been there but I'm guessing at least 25 years. In addition to the obvious corrosion on some pieces, the colors of the brass was very odd. Silver, greenish, gray - colors I've never seen on brass before. This picture doesn't really show how odd the colors were:

To make it a harder test, I put about 250 cases in the tumbler - more than twice the recommended number. I offset the extra weight by adding less water than usual, with the water level about 1.5" below the top. Everything else was just the usual process - LemiShine and Dawn running for 4 hours. I ran two loads like this and here are the results:

After sorting the brass, I didn't find one that still had any visible corrosion. I've seen some guys claiming that their new ultrasonic cleaners can match the SS, but I dare them to try something like this.
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For what it's worth, I've tried about every method of cleaning brass over the past 40 years,
including the ultra sonic. The stainless steel media is by far, the best that I have tried.

The only con I've heard about using the SS media, is that it doesn't work well on removing sizing lube. Which means to me that you have to hand wipe off each case, or put it in a tumbler with corncob/walnut media. This means that you have to clean and swap out media in your rotary tumbler, or have a dedicated vibratory tumbler with the other media. Neither of which appeals to me. Maybe Texindian can chime in if I'm wrong. dozier
I just bought a drum mixer at an auction for $45, and it is brand new, never used:

Grainger lists the 1/4HP model for over $700, and I have the 1/2HP model, so I am absolutely tickled with what I paid.

I'm thinking to add some fins inside (not sure yet how while maintaining water tight, but will figure that out), and it looks like a brass tumbler on steroids.

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Wow! Now THAT'S a tumbler! You could even clean yourself with that baby! Jist hop on in, bubba!

I also read recently someone say that you can use Turtle Wax as a polishing compound additive. I've been using Iosso Case Polish Cleaning Additive, which ain't all that cheap.

As for LemiShine, we don't have that product out here, but I'll bet CLR might also work, huh, it being a fairly strong (low pH) acid.

I got a product info sheet some years ago from somewhere (possibly at the SHOT show?). It showed all sorts of ceramics, as well as SS pins and other media types. The biggest deterrent was their high cost, though if you are careful and don't spill it all out one day onto your lawn, you'll probably get pretty much endless life out of that SS medium.

I will say; that brass truly looks cleaned up. I'm impressed. BTW, I've always cleaned before depriming in order to avoid having to then go back in and painstakingly take out all that walnut media stuck in the primer pockets.

That's quite a price deal from your link. Decaping, cleaning and then annealing for 10¢ each? Quite a deal indeed! I've been charging 17¢ if I add in an anneal, because those big machines are not cheap. Perhaps it's also because I ain't thet old yet, sunneeee! Wassat yah say? Speak up, into my ear horn! Plus, I don't drink particularly cheap Bourbon. Yet. GI2

You guyz have a good say today, yah hear?
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+1 on the stainless tumbling system. I have been using it all this past season and I am very happy with it. I set up a timer, and just come back when it's done. I have processed 2K+ cases with the same results as shown in the above picturres. The only thing that I am seeing is the primer pockets have not been cleaned as well as when the media was new. I am thinking that the sharp edges of the stainless pin media must have abraded somewhat. It is not a real issue, but most of my brass shows three dirty spots on the primer pocket base where the combustion of the primer is in contact with the brass and not contained by the anvil. You would not see the spots if the cases were not so clean otherwise.

I always decap my brass on an old press first then use the stainless tumber. I really like to have super clean cases when sizing, the reloading process is so much nicer with now as new brass, It appears that sizing the necks less stressful on the smooth clean interior and the whole sizing process appears to take much less effort and lube.

I run my cases through a corncob tumbler cycle after sizing to remove the lube. I was using Imperial sizing wax before for my LC cases, now Dillon spray lube is working fine, some cases size so easily that I take out my Mo's gauge and check them to see if everything is correct.

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You can pick up one of these cement mixers at Harborfreight for $150 bucks. Take out the mixing baffles and spray inside the drum with truck bed liner. Add your media of choice and flip the switch. During a factory tour of Sierra Bullet and sister company Starline brass, both were using very similar setups (larger scale) for finish polishing their products. IIRC they were using some sort of metallic media, that appeared to be tiny SS beads.

All that being said I have seen first hand what the wet SS needle media can do. Another member here (Blademaker) has a nice setup that uses that SS media, his only complaint was the cost of the media. However the results obtained with the SS media is outstanding.
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There is screen type 'barrel' for the Thumbler. Plastic with holes in it. Use it to filter the media out of the shells. Try eBay. You'll want a tray that fits between the rails, to catch the media. Or block up the far end, let the media fall out the other?

But with my rifle eating brass at only 2-3 firings, I just can't get too concerned about shiny-ness. Though I may have a handle on my brass life. And I've been looking into tumbling, as a way to polish a possible laser cut SS improved part for the M14. Watch this space...
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