Super Clean Brass Without Breaking The Bank

Written by Sierra Bullets Ballistic Technician Gary Prisendorf

I recently purchased 1,000 rounds of once fired 5.56 LC brass that was fully processed and ready to load. The brass had been wet tumbled, using stainless steel pins and looked great inside and out, including the primer pockets.

I had always used a vibrating tumbler with either corn cob or walnut media and I always thought my brass looked pretty good until I saw what the wet tumbling and pin combination did.

Being the budget minded reloader that I am, I started looking for a cheap way to wet tumble my brass using stainless steel pins. Harbor Freight had recently opened a store nearby and I had received coupons in the mail, one of the coupons was 20% off any one item.

So I headed for the Harbor Freight store and after roaming around for 20 minutes or so I found a dual drum rotary rock tumbler for $55.00 and thought it would do just fine for what I was planning. The drums are rather small and only have a 3 pound maximum load limit each, but I figured that was big enough for around 150 .223 cases or maybe 300 9MM cases at a time.

I pulled the wrinkled up coupon out of my pocket, paid, and walked out with my new $47.00 brass cleaning machine. I didn’t have any stainless steel pins and couldn’t find any locally.  At our local hardware store I picked up some brass plated ½” finishing brads that I thought might work until I could get some pins ordered.

I bought two small packages of the finishing brads(1.75 oz.), for $1.69 each then headed to my local Walmart to pick up some Dawn dish soap (.99 cents) and a bottle of Lemi Shine ($3.27).  I had read online that is what a lot of people use for cleaning their brass.

When I got home, I started depriming .223 brass for my new toy, I mean brass tumbler. I deprimed 100 cases, put 50 in each drum, dropped a package of brads in each one, filled them ¾ of the way with water, gave each drum a small squirt of Dawn dish soap and a tablespoon of Lemi Shine. I sealed up the drums and fired up the tumbler.

After an hour and a half, I just couldn’t stand it any longer and had to see the results. The water was filthy but the cases were super clean, I couldn’t be happier. For a total investment of around $55.00, I can now get my cases looking almost new.

Here are the before and after pictures of my first run of brass.

I have since ordered two pounds of stainless steel pins, I put one pound in each drum. To be honest the brass really doesn’t look any better, but the pins don’t seem to get stuck inside of the cases near as bad as the brass plated brads did.


Tip: Make sure to inspect your cases and look inside each case to ensure all of the brads/pins are removed.

Just lay the brass and brads/pins out on a towel and let them dry. Mine were dry after about 12 hours.

If you want your cases to look like new without breaking the bank, give it a try. You can’t clean 1000 at a time like the $200.00 tumbling machines that are made for specifically for brass, but this is a much cheaper alternative and the results speak for themselves.

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28 Responses to Super Clean Brass Without Breaking The Bank

  1. Philip Black says:

    I use 1 tsp. citric acid and 16 oz. of Awesome (Dollar Tree) in a gallon of water. I put the mixture in an ultrasonic cleaner and run about 4 eight minute cycles with the heat on. Don’t have to worry about checking cases for any pins. Also, I would think the brads would rust at some point.

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  2. Daryl says:

    First off, I’ve been using STS for years. Started with my son’s Thumler rock tumbler and I’ve since graduated to the Frankfort Arsenal rotary which holds (btw) 20 plus pounds of brass at a crack.

    Hard to beat the clean and much less pocket prep, in fact, none at all..

    Couple things I note here that will enhance your experience…
    1. Use hot water when you tumble the cases, not cold water. Hot water cuts the crud much better.
    2. Any liquid dish wash Detergent will do, not just Dawn and for your small quanitiy, a couple drops is sufficient, not a squirt.
    3. Additionally, a couple drops of Lemishine (liquid or dab of powder. The Lemishine reduces the tarnishing and water spotting from hard water.
    3. Get yourself some minature stainless jewelers balls from E-bay and add to the pins. The balls will enhance the pocket (and flash hole cleaning).
    4. I use my old rotary cob separator to separate the pins and balls from the brass. It’s quick and easy that way.
    5. I would invest in a Frankfort Arsenal pickup magnet to sequester the pins for storage. The little buggers are a PITA to deal with and the stainless is slightly magnetic, enough to use the magnet.
    6. ‘Borrow’ your wife’s food dehydrator and use that to dry the brass, and/or cookie sheets in a warm (lowest setting not to exceed 200 degrees) oven. Much quicker and leaves the brass dry inside and out without any water spots.

    I’m the ‘go to’ guy for all my friends dirty cases now. You can take the cruddiest range brass, even brass that has laid on the ground and started to turn green and clean it like new again. Of course with range pickup brass of questionable heritage, you need to inspect every case for defects like mouth crakks and bulging from over pressure, it’s not laying in the dirt for no reason after all.

    STS makes that inspection much easier however. A clean shiny case will show defects to you much easier than a dirty case.

    Unlike cob tumbling, STS GETS THE INSIDE OF CASES AS CLEAN AS THE OUTSIDE, something that cob will never do and cannot. No powder residue inside or in the neck of a bottleneck case means smooth bullet insertion and much more consistent neck tension. I clean mine after every firing and anneal after every 3 firings. I use an Annealeze case annealer but that is for another time…

    Just thought I’d pass on my experiences. Have fun, shot straight and respect the ‘rules of the road’.

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  3. Tim says:

    Some good advice in the two posts above! I’ve heard really good stuff about the stainless steel pins, but haven’t tried it yet.

    A few things I’d add are:

    The food dehydrator works very well for drying, but you may want to purchase a dedicated unit so you don’t get any primer/lead/carbon residue throughout something you’ll use for food prep. I usually run mine about two hours, and everything is dry.

    I’ve had issues with water stuck inside bottlenecked cases if I didn’t deprime first. Straight wall cases weren’t an issue, and some people don’t clean primer pockets on pistol brass anyways.

    My process (a little more labor intensive!) for really cruddy brass is:

    1. Put brass, hot water, citric acid (powdered, from the canning aisle) and a drop of Dawn in a bucket
    2. Stir with a wooden stick every few minutes for half an hour
    3. Rinse well with hot water
    4. Dump brass out of water through a colander
    5. Shake inside old towel to get the outside dry
    6. Use food dehydrator for 2 hours
    7. Tumble in walnut media
    8. Remove, use rotary separator, and blow away dust with air compressor

    That said, it definitely doesn’t get the inside as well as steel pins would!

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    • I’ll keep those tips in mind Tim. Thanks for sharing! – Gary Prisendorf

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    • Daryl says:

      You NEVER NEVER run your brass in STS with the primers intact, that is a big NO. Reason being is the pins need to pass through the cases unencumbered, they pass through the flash holes. Always remove the primers. In fact with cob, primer removal is advisable as well. Back when I used cob / shell media, I always deprimed first. I never wanted to have to get compacted media out of the cases even though I used the same RCBS rotary media separator I use for the STS pin separation.

      My very first operation on any to be cleaned case is depriming, and to taht end I use a dedicated depriming die, I have 2, a Redding and a Lee. All those dies do is deprime and both have very substantial depriming pins. In fact, none of my sizing dies have pins, I’ve removed all of them. With a dedicated depriming die, there is no pin breakage associated with the slender pins that come with sizing dies. In fact, one time I had a military case with the ‘other’ primer’ in it and I rammed the pin on the dedicated depriming die right through with no issue. Of course I tossed the case as the head was junk.

      In your case a kitchen food dehydrator is not advisable because you still have powder residue inside the cases, IOW, they are not clean Inside.

      Proper use of STS (time duration of wet tumbling and the pins), remove ALL traces of powder and of course the primers are long gone so your wife’s dehydrator is only drying the brass and no powder or lead residue will be present.

      Having said that, I tend to use the cookie sheet / oven method more or lay them outside on a towel in the sun to dry.

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  4. Brittius says:

    Reblogged this on Brittius.

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  5. Mitchell Maxberry says:

    Was doing this back in the 1980’s and a guy in Utah asked how I got my cases so clean and told him about the stainless steel pins I made . Will add to you cleaning process , Ivory clear dish washing liquid works great if you can’t find the Limshine , have used Ivory for years . The contents of the tumbler need to be emptied as soon as the tumbler stops , if not the dirt will re-adhere this is why detergent has surfactants in them. Dry tap the case mouth down on a towel then roll them , I use a loading tray with a small hole to allow ait to pass through. For quick drying of pistol brass a deep fry wire basket, sitting on the dash of the car facing the sun will get them hot and dry quickly otherwise leave on a dry towel. .

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    • Daryl says:

      I’ll give the Ivory a shot next time. I tend to get ‘care packages’ of dirty fired brass left in my car when I visit the club, usually with a ‘thanks in advance’ note attached. I even tried Simple Green, it works good too.

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  6. Stephen Good says:

    I use an old hot air corn popper to dry my wet brass. Just put the brass into large pot, blow hot air down into it, and stir the brass every couple minutes. Brass is usually very warm and dry in about 10 minutes.

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  7. Bill Deans says:

    Hi Gary.

    I read with great interest regarding the budget tumbling method you employed. I use the larger tumbler you mention, and love it. Many times though I’d only like to process a small amount of brass, and your “value conscious” method seems like an ideal option.

    One comment about your process; most of the large tumblers only call for 1/8 teaspoon of Lemi Shine. I don’t know the science behind the addition of the Lemi Shine, but internet lore indicates more is not better.

    Also, to Daryl and the other dedicated LSD, (Lemi Shine + Dawn), folks, get one of the Lyman Rotary Tumbler Stainless Steel Pin Media Sifter Sets and never look back. This thing is the single best addition to my stainless steel media kit. Now I have to figure out what to do with all of the bowls, sieves, pans and strainers I have laying around.

    Road trip to Harbor Freight!

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    • Daryl says:

      In as much as I have the RCBS rotary separator from my cob days, no point in reinventing the wheel for me. It would become a relic if I didn’t use it and it works for the STS process plus the pins and balls fall nicely to the bottom where I can scoop them up with the FA magnet.

      Many ways to effectuate your process and many methods but the bottom line is STS does an excellent job with no dust (from the cob), no buying more and more cob as it loads up, no need for polishing additives and no vibrating tumbler.

      No matter how you do it, ultimately you’ll loose a few pins (down the drain or on the floor) every time you clean with STS so I just keep a spare pack of pins in the drawer (which are available all the time on E-Bay) as are the jewelers balls I use to enhance the cleaning process.

      One note that needs to be posted is that when cleaning 308 cases, an ocassional pin will get lodged sideways in the shoulder datum of the case because the length of the pins is slightly shorter than the internal case walls but as the case tapers upward, a pin might get stuck sideways so look for that. Not very often, but it does happen.

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      • Thanks Daryl, I agree I don’t think we can express that too much. ” Make Sure No Pins Are Left Inside Of The Cases Before Loading Them!!” – Gary Prisendorf

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      • Daryl says:

        I might add that in between the dry media and the STS wet media, I tried the ‘Ultrasonic’ cleaning method and it left me, shall I say, unimpressed with the results. I do use the ultrasonic tub cleaning method to give my ‘hard to take down’ Ruger pistols a bath as well as cleaning trigger groups and small parts (great for removing excess lubricant and gunk that collects), but overall cleaning, you cannot beat STS time wise or cleaning ability wise. Great innovation in case cleaning..

        I remember when STS first came on the reloading scene and all there was, was the Thumlers Model B and the pins. It’s advanced way past those beginnings.

        Have fun, shoot straight and obey the rules of the road….

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      • Bill Deans says:

        Yeah Daryl, I feel your pain…what to do with the last “best” accessory, i.e. the rotary sifter. My process is to use the Lyman separator, (there is no rotary motion, it’s only two interlocking pans/trays/classifiers), to get the majority of the pins separated from the brass and give the brass a thorough rinse. I then use my rotary sifter “wet” to remover the remainder of the pins from the brass. The amount of pins is negligible, so I just leave them in the bottom of the bucket. The advantage for me is that the brass in the rotary separator is already rinsed off and I don’t have to keep changing the soap contaminated water as the final pins are removed from the cases. I also have a second set of the little oarlock things that hold the rotary separator that I installed onto a second Homer Bucket. I use that two tumble the water out of the clean cases. BTW, my rotary separator is a Frankfort Arsenal. I don’t know if the RCBS or Lyman versions allow the use of the separator in a three or five gallon bucket. For my situation the whole process is much more assembly line-like.

        Daryl mentions that the “art” of STS has come a long way since the early days. One vast improvement is the adaptation of the .047″ x .255″ pins. The are waaay less prone to wedging into the flash hole.

        Back to the Harbor Freight wet tumbler. Great call Gary. I went and picked one up yesterday. I did four batches of brass and it worked great. The most advantageous aspect of the tumbler is that I can keep small batches of dissimilar brass segregated. It was nice to be able to clean a bunch of my fully processed cases separate from a few handfuls of range pickup brass. Can you tell I’m a little CDO, (that’s OCD in alphabetical order)?

        BD

        .

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      • Daryl says:

        Next thing we need to discuss is case annealing…. STS cleaned cases are pretty, annealed cases that are run in STS are even more pretty….Last a lot longer too (bottleneck anyway).

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      • Mitchell Maxberry says:

        Break the surface tension by holding the case upside down under water , I also use the bottom half of a 5 gallon bucket with a wire mesh deep fry basket to sift out the majority of the media . You can then use that same wire mesh basket to put the cases in on the dash for the car ; facing the sun; to dry them out very quickly after you’ve rolled them on a dry towel and tapped the mouth on the towel to empty any water inside it .

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  8. Thanks for reading the blog Bill. I’m glad it worked for you. – Gary Prisendorf, Ballistic Technician

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  9. Ryan Fannin says:

    If you want to get even cheaper on setup check out the cost of media with Southern Shine Tumblers. $3.00 per lb

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1482647561795229&id=713665838693409

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    • Thanks Ryan I will check them out. – Gary Prisendorf

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      • Mitchell Maxberry says:

        The media I made back in the late 1980’s is .97mm / .038in, X 2.33mm / .093 inch long. Material was 304 or 305 stainless , 316 world be too costly and not justified. This particular size cleans the primer pockets well and is very easy to remove if the case is held under water . When removing metal media do it under water as this breaks the surface tension you learned about in High School. This is akin to getting sand on your skin at the beach and stepping into the water and the sand falls off. Yea you’ll get your hands wet but a deep fry wire basket makes it a quicker job in the bottom of a bucket full of water.

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  10. Phil says:

    A few tips I’ve learned using the Frankford Arsenal SS tumbler. Definitely deprime your brass before tumble. I use a lee universal depriming die for this. I once put some brass in without depriming that was going to be used for craft project and after cleaning the cases water and SS media remain inside and you have to shake it out by hand one at a time and is very time consuming so always deprime.

    Clean similar cases. Riffle brass isn’t as important but don’t mix riffle and handgun brass. The SS pins will stick the riffle brass inside the handgun brass and doesn’t clean them as well and once again is time consuming to get them apart. Clean handgun brass with similar diameters. Don’t mix 9mm with 40 and 45. I will usually do 45acp and 45 colt together.

    Full loads of brass clean just as well as small loads in the tumbler. I use the small $5 ammo boxes from harbor freight to store used brass. Once the box is full it’s time to clean. A full ammo box of 223 or 9mm plus water comes in just under max weight for the Frankford Tumbler.

    Use hot tap water. After 2hrs of tumbling the water is still hot.

    I’ve used the dawn and lemi shine and while they come out looking great the Frankford Arsenal brass cleaner does do a better job and brass looks like new. I use 6 cap full and a teaspoon of lemi shine. I already had it, figured it would help with water spots.

    I have an RCBS media separator so I fill the bottom with water and dump the SS pins and brass into the cage and spin. By spinning the brass through the water it will get all the pins out and rinse the brass.

    I give the brass a quick dunk and shake in purified water and put them on a bath towel and run the back and forth to dry them somewhat. I had an old dehydrator that I now use to dry the brass. The full ammo box of brass I cleaned will fit into the dehydrator and will take about 30 mins to dry.

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  11. alan g says:

    For a much quicker drying process, put all your cleaned cases in a mesh bag and then dunk the lot in a big bucket of methylated spirit. This will form an aziotropic mixture with the water droplets, Shake off the excess meth’s and lay the cases out to dry, which will happen in minutes. Retain the meth’s for future use – it will eventually become “saturated” with water but that is after a lot of use.

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    • Bill Deans says:

      I’d thought about that concept. Where does one find “a large bucket of methylated alcohol”? Am I looking for a gallon of rubbing alcohol?

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      • alan g says:

        Methylated spirit is also known as denatured alcohol. Check it out at Google / Wikipedia.
        I bought a couple of gallons from my hardware depot, along with a large paint bucket that has a secure lid. That gives a reasonably large quantity to shake the cases around in, as well as taking longer to become a water saturated mixture (aziotrope). You cannot separate the water out.
        Be sure to keep the spirit in a secure container, otherwise it will simply evaporate away.
        I originally tried the heat drying method but soon became impatient. Alcohol drying is so much faster, and does not leave any water “spotting”.

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      • Daryl says:

        What the Lemishine is for (water spotting).. I believe I’ll stick with the conventional drying method. Don’t need a 5 gallon bucket of alcohol sitting around for the cats to get into.

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      • Bill Deans says:

        Thanks for saving me the “legwork” Alan. I’ve got the better part of a gallon of denatured alcohol sitting around, so I think I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the tip. I’d guess that a load of .223 brass wouldn’t require more than a few cups, and certainly not more than a quart, of alcohol to achieve the desired result. There can’t be more than a shot glass or two of residual water left on the brass cases once you turn them out on a towel after wet-tumbling.

        Plus, Daryl, my cats must be really dumb, I don’t think they could open a five gallon bucket 😉

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