Product Review - Harbor Freight Ultrasonic Cleaner and Ballistol
...Cleaning very well and very cheap
by Kirk Lawson
As most of you may know by now, I'm a cheapskate. I wrote the book, literally. But I'm also a bit of a tinkerer and I'm infinitely curious. Sometimes satisfying curiosity doesn't necessarily lend itself to cheapskatedness. When I did my tests on corrosion resistance, I ended up buying several products which I still haven't used up, almost a decade later.
I've tried many different products for cleaning firearms and, honestly, most of them work very well, comparable to each other. One of my favorites is Ed's Red home-brew. Works well and is a fraction of the cost of "gun specific" products.
However, I've also been curious about ways to reduce the time it takes to clean a firearm. This mostly breaks down into three different categories. First, the various cleaning solvents and oils usually make claims about how the regular use of their specific product reduces over all cleaning times over their competitors (because of the inclusion of pixie dust, most likely). Second, is the advice of certain "Tips & Tricks" from the firearms community and from personal experience (such as "spray part X and let it soak while performing some other task"). Third is the use of certain machines and mechanical aids (such as electrolysis rods for removing copper fouling from barrels). It is this third option which I want to focus on for this article.
In particular, there is the common use of Ultrasonic cleaning baths. Naturally, there are numerous commercial products from gun specific manufactures along with their proprietary bath solutions. Translation: "expensive stuff" and I'm cheap. Honestly, I did look into what it would take to DIY build an ultrasonic bath and, while doable, the end result simply wouldn't save the cheapskate any money unless he already had a bench full of parts as part of his hobby. So to satisfy my curiosity I bought a cheap, small, unit from Harbor Freight, using a 20% off coupon. I have tried several different cleaning agents now, including water, Ed's Red, a Moose Milk recipe, and a Ballistol emulsion. Most home-brew ultrasonic cleaning fluid recipes include ammonia which I avoid for gun cleaning except for certain specific applications related to removing copper fouling from barrels.
[Harbor Freight (tm) small size ultrasonic cleaner]
Because of the limited volume of this unit (1 Pint/600 ml), I can only put small parts in, up to roughly the size of a slide from CC handguns such as the Kel Tec PF9 but not a full sized slide such as from a 1911. What I have found through trial is that the Ballistol emulsion does the best job of cleaning and lubricating for me and my parts. Ballistol advertises on their web site many different applications for their product such as cleaning & lubing firearms, as a cutting oil, and for use in ultrasonic cleaners. For ultrasonic cleaners, they recommend a 10% emulsion of Ballistol in water. This is what I used. The cheap ultrasonic cleaner I chose from Harbor Freight has a warmer to heat the fluid, a common recommendation for best results in ultrasonic cleaning. Most charitably, I could say that the controls are "simple." But they consist of two buttons: "On" and "Off." When the unit is plugged it, it automatically runs the heater so make sure the unit is unplugged when not in use and has fluid in the bath when plugged in. The "on" button starts a single, 3-minute, cycle. If you want a longer cycle with this unit, you're out of luck. Wait for it to stop and push the button again.
As I wrote, the Ballistol emulsion cleans the best of the various products I've tried in the ultrasonic bath. And, because it's a 10% emulsion, it's comparatively inexpensive. The fluid is hot so when parts are removed from the bath an wiped down, the water content of the remaining fluid on/in the part quickly evaporates leaving a film of pure Ballistol. When deposited this way, the Ballistol is amazingly slick. It works particularly well with the Beretta NEOS magazines which I chuck into the bath fully assembled. When completed through 2 or 3 cycles of the bath, the exterior surface is almost too slick. I give them an extra wipe down to make sure that the excess is off, but it still feels as if I'd "over-lubed" the exterior. The other small parts come out equally clean and well lubed. I admit that when I reassemble the parts, I do perform a judicious wipe using Breakfree CLP on the mating surfaces with a q-tip, though this probably isn't strictly necessary by that point. Old habits, I guess.
[Ballistol brand gun cleaner]
When finished, I ladle out the bath fluid and into a jar for future use. Keep an eye on it because it will eventually become so contaminated with carbon and detritus from cleaning that the fluid will need replaced. Keeping the fluid stored in a jar between uses prevents spills and water evaporation from the fluid. It also allows me to pre-warm the fluid in the microwave prior to returning it to the ultrasonic bath.
I have used the ultrasonic unit to clean brass from reloading, with varying home-brew brass case cleaning recipes. It performs this task acceptably well but, honestly, I prefer tumbling the brass in media because that gives the brass a slight polish which the ultrasonic cleaning can't.
I am satisfied with the way the combination of an ultrasonic cleaning unit and a Ballistol emulsion works and am planning on buying the larger, 2.5 Liter, unit eventually. It still won't let me pop whole rifle barrels in but will easily accommodate full sized pistol frames, slides, and barrels. Storage of the fluid between uses may be a bit more challenging. Maybe I could use a clean milk jug.
On a side note, Ballistol is friendly to wood and should be accommodating to wood grips should you choose to run those through a cycle in the ultrasonic bath as well, where as most other ultrasonic cleaning solutions, and gun cleaning/oil products in general, are not friendly and may damage or discolor the wood. I generally prefer lemon oil or rose oil for wood, but my experience is that Ballistol works well enough.