13 Clever Alternatives Uses for Steel Wool

Steel wool, now commonplace in the modern home, came about somewhat by accident. It is believed that 19th-century mechanics used to gather up the metal waste shavings from below their lathes and use them to polish metal surfaces. By the 20th century, steel wool was being mass-produced. The process begins with steel rods that are thinned and shaved; the resulting strands are then woven together to form long spools of steel wool. It is then either sold in smaller rolls or formed into pads (sometimes soaked in soap) for use in homes and shops everywhere. Steel wool comes in eight grades, from extra-coarse (4) to finest (0000)—the coarser the wire, the more abrasive the steel wool. Steel wool is handy for a variety of jobs, from removing tough rust and old varnish to buffing fine woodwork to a brilliant shine. Because it's so versatile—as good for cleaning your garden tools or car tires as it is for home renovation projects—there should always be a place for steel wool in your home or garage.

  1. Maintain Garden Tools



    Give your garden tools a spa treatment at the end of each season. Rub them clean with a piece of 000 (extra-fine) steel wool soaked in ordinary household oil. Wipe them dry with a clean rag before putting them away for winter, and they’ll be ready to hit the ground running come spring.

    Related: 9 Essential Tools for Every Gardener

  2. Sharpen Scissors



    Keep your scissors superbly sharp by periodically using them to cut through a piece of steel wool. Repeat with another cut if needed. If you do this on a regular basis, you won’t need to have them professionally sharpened.

    Related: Some Sharpening Shortcuts

  3. Keep Out Rodents



    Block mice and other vermin from entering your home through small holes around pipes, baseboards, and other vulnerable areas. Stuff some steel wool into those entry points and seal them up with heavy-duty tape. Even mice don’t want metal mouth!

    Related: How To: Rodent-Proof Your Home

  4. Start a Campfire



    Wrap a small piece of steel wool around a cotton ball to make a quick and easy campfire starter. Store a few in an air-tight container or bag until you’re ready to use them. When you want to start a fire, fluff up the cotton ball and ignite the steel wool by rubbing the leads of a 9V battery over it. Throw on some tinder, and you’re ready to toast marshmallows.

    Related: How To Make a Campfire

  5. Distress a Paint Finish


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    Use steel wool to take down the gloss on a paint finish and achieve a distressed look. More malleable than sandpaper, steel wool is easier to hold and molds more readily around awkward shapes. You can also use a finer-grade steel wool for burnishing.

    Related: Paint Makeovers—an Expert Tells All

  6. Tighten a Loose Screw



    Wind a little steel wool around a screw before putting it back into a hole that’s loosened up over time. The steel wool will tighten it up and keep the screw in place.

    Related: How To Choose the Right Screw for the Right Job

  7. Polish Brass



    Take the tarnish off real brass with some extra-fine steel wool. It works equally well with either a commercial or DIY polish made with salt and lemon juice. Avoid steel wool on brass plate, as it can scratch the thin plating. How to tell the difference? A magnet will stick to brass plate, but not to real brass.

    Related: Beyond Zesty—10 DIY Home Uses for Lemons

  8. Finishing or Refinishing Woodwork



    Use the finest (0000) steel wool to smooth the surface on a piece you’ve stained and shellacked. It will remove any dust particles that may have settled during drying and give you a supersmooth surface for that final coat of shellac.

    Related: How To: Remove Varnish and Other Wood Finishes

  9. Remove Rust



    Rid your upcycling projects of rust by working over the affected area with steel wool until it’s clean. If you’re planning on spray-painting, use that steel wool to rough up the entire surface of the piece so the paint has something to cling to.

    Related: Bob Vila Radio—Rust Removal

  10. Clean Tires



    Revive tired-looking tires by applying WD-40 and scrubbing them down with finest (0000) steel wool. Whether black-walls or white-walls, they’ll gleam with new life.

    Related: 5 Things to Do with... Old Tires

  11. Wash Your Windows



    Use the finest steel wool to clean your windows without water or chemicals. Keep a vacuum handy to remove all the grime you loosen as well as the dust created by the steel wool. If your window framing is aluminum, you can clean it with steel wool as well—and then let the sun shine in!

    Related: Know Your Window Styles—10 Popular Designs

  12. Remove Scuffs on Sneakers



    Give the midsoles of scuffed-up sneakers a makeover by brushing them up with steel wool, toothpaste, and some old-fashioned elbow grease. Then rinse with water. Your kicks will thank you.

    Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Shoe Rack

  13. Clean Your Grill Grates



    Eliminate stubborn, stuck-on deposits on your grill grates with steel wool. Soak the grates in soapy water first to soften the worst gunk, then go to work with some steel wool. With a little muscle and effort, you’ll be searing up steaks on clean grates in no time.

    Related: How To Grill Like the Pros

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