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How To Clean Steel Pennies

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Collecting coins is a fun, rewarding, and possibly lucrative hobby for many people. Steel cents, minted for only one year during World War II, pop up fairly regularly in different coin collections. For keeping your coins looking as good as possible, it may be important to know how to clean steel pennies, especially since they are made of a completely different material than most other coins.

How To Clean Steel Pennies

In 1943, because of the wartime copper shortage, the United States was tasked with conserving as much copper as possible. One of the ways they did that was to change the base of the penny from copper to steel. These 1943 steel cents were made with a low grade steel and coated with zinc to prevent them from corroding.

Because of the different coin construction, standard cleaning solutions intended for nickel and copper will not work the same. In addition, you want to be careful not to remove the zinc coating which provides protection, and the characteristic “silver” color of the steel pennies. This would also make it less valuable, and replating the zinc would make it considered damaged by collectors.

Clean steel pennies

Note: If you think your coin may be in good enough condition that it might be valuable, do not clean it. Even the most gentle cleaning procedures can scratch the surface of a coin enough to reduce its value.

Precautions to Take While Cleaning Steel Pennies

  • The Zinc coating on steelies does not extend completely around the edges.
  • Wear gloves to prevent oil, salts, or other contaminants from adding corrosion to uncovered steel. Cotton is preferred but can get saturated when cleaning with oils or liquids. Latex or nitrile are also good choices.
  • Start with gentle cleaning methods at first, then increase in harshness if desired. The following cleaning methods increase from very mild to very harsh. 

Cleaning Steel Pennies With Olive Oil

Olive oil can be used as a very gentle cleanser when used correctly, and it is very close to being neutral on the ph scale. The incredibly slight fatty acidity will help remove any grime from the surface of steel pennies and keep the zinc coating intact. This will be the safest way to clean a steel penny, but it is also not very efficient.

  1. Prepare your work area by laying down a lint-free cloth.
  2. Soak the steel penny in an olive oil bath for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Dip a cotton swab or similar soft cleaning tool into olive oil.
  4. Lightly roll the cotton swab across the surface of the steel penny.
  5. Be sure not to scrub.
  6. Remove excess olive oil from the penny with more swabs.
  7. Leaving a light, thin coating of oil will help protect the steel from corrosion if any is exposed underneath the zinc.

Cleaning Steel Pennies With Lemon Juice

Lemon juice contains between 5% to 8% citric acid, which can work as an excellent cleaner. The effects of this acid on corrosion are excellent when left to soak for a period of time, but you have to find the balance between when the rust is removed to when the entire penny may begin to deteriorate.

Lemon cut in half, ready to be juiced

You may squeeze your own lemon juice for this cleaning process, but bottled lemon juice may end up being easier depending on how many steel pennies you want to clean. If you squeeze lemons for their juice, roll them on a flat surface before cutting them to loosen up the insides, and strain the juice through a fine mesh to remove any pulp or seeds.

  1. Mix a solution of 2 parts lemon juice to 1 part filtered water. Tap water may contain mineral deposits that will reduce the effectiveness of the lemon juice.
  2. Soak the steel pennies for 3-4 hours.
  3. Check the progress of the pennies by gently removing residue with your gloved fingers.
  4. Place the coins back in the solution for another few hours if necessary.
  5. Remove steel pennies from the lemon juice solution if they are at an acceptable state.
  6. Rinse the lemon cleaner and any other residue off with clean hot water.
  7. Dry completely by dabbing with a lint free cloth.

If left soaking for too long, lemon juice can permanently etch the surface of your steel pennies, so keep an eye on them. Do not use this cleaning solution for copper pennies! After a few hours the citric acid will deteriorate the coins so much that you may not even be able to recognize the faces.

Cleaning Steel Pennies With Bathroom Cleanser

When you are not concerned about the value of your steel pennies and just want to get them shiny enough to display them, a standard bathroom cleanser plus a little elbow grease will work very well. At this point, you may use tools that add a little more friction since we are not worried about adding tiny scratches to the surface.

  1. Lay down a cloth, towel, plastic sheet, or other barrier to protect your work area from the cleanser.
  2. Spray the steel penny with a cleanser like Lime-A-Way, Scrubbing Bubbles, or other.
  3. Do not soak or leave the cleanser on the penny for a long period of time.
  4. Scrub the surface of the steel penny with a clean rag.
  5. If more scrubbing is needed, try using a toothbrush, or even a Dremel at low speed with a buffing attachment.
  6. Buff the steel pennies with a chamois or other soft cloth to polish it.

Other Ways to Clean Steel Pennies

Steel penny

There are many other ways you can attempt to clean a steel penny. If the above methods do not work for you, or if you do not happen to have the materials handy, feel free to give these a try.

  • Mild dish soap and water – This is slightly more harsh than the olive oil method. Be sure to thoroughly dry the steel pennies after cleaning and rinsing. You may still want to put a tiny coating of oil on the coin to protect it from rust.
  • Electrolytic bath – You can purchase small, fairly inexpensive jewelry cleaners that use electrolysis to remove corrosion and tarnish. This would work to remove rust from steel pennies, but with the wrong settings may remove the zinc plating.
  • WD-40 – Using a water displacement cleaning and lubricating product can work to clean and polish steel pennies. Use it like olive oil by placing the coin in a WD-40 bath for a few hours and then wiping with a cotton swab. The major downfall of this product is that it is expensive.
  • Rock Tumbler – For display purposes only, a rock tumbler can clean and polish your coins effectively, and you can just set it and forget it. They will leave a lot of small scratches on the surface, and may even remove the zinc coating.

Additional Information on Steel Pennies

Steel war pennies from 1943 are fairly common, so they are not worth very much unless they are in excellent condition. For a steelie in average condition, they are valued at about 45 cents. However, very few of these coins were minted in 1944. If you find a steel penny from this year, you could very well have a coin worth almost $100,000.

Conclusion

Steel pennies are very interesting coins from a specific period of time in the history of the United States. While not being worth very much, they can still be a great addition to any coin collection, and a steel penny stands out very uniquely among its copper counterparts. Making sure you clean your steel pennies correctly will help make them an excellent conversation piece.

Allen Michael is the Founder and Editor of Home Viable, a website that he started to provide readers with tips on home efficiency and automation. He draws on his engineering background combined with his family-of-four experiences for his articles.