Simple Green Vs. Lye in a Head-to-Head Challenge
March 6, 2014

Written by Scott Wunder

When I think of green products, especially a green cleaner, I think of something that is nice to the environment and nice to dirt. I imagine a product that tries harder to make me feel better about using it than it does about getting the job done. Now, I am not in a hurry to damage the Earth, but if I have to choose, I often lean to the more manly and more toxic.

One of my favorite toxic substances is lye. It is mean and if you want something to melt any organic substance you can think of, lye is it. Lye is the main ingredient in Drano drain cleaner and it removes clogs by dissolving the most common culprit - hair. I also know that it burns skin and while I use it to darken cherry, if left on too long and too strong it will actually dissolve the wood.

Now that got me thinking. I have used oven cleaner in the past to clean saw blades; it did a good job dissolving the wood stuck to the blades and it burns my skin. With those two things in common, there just might be lye in the oven cleaner. It doesn't really matter what is in the oven cleaner, but it started to make a stronger connection in my head between lye and using it as a cleaner to remove wood and wood pitch that gets stuck to every high-speed tool in the shop.

Lye to Clean Everything

I got very excited and very sidetracked and started using lye to clean everything and it worked great. The most impressive use of the lye was on belts from my widebelt sander. At $40 a pop, the sanding belts are hard to part with, especially when I know the only thing wrong with them is that they are full of pitch. In the past, I had used the rubber sticks that are specifically built to clean sanding belts and there were always spots that wouldn't come clean, but not with the lye. In just a matter of minutes, even the nastiest chunks of burnished and burnt wood streaks melted away and left me with a like-new belt. Luckily, the sanding belt itself seemed rather impervious to the lye.

I couldn't believe it. There was only one thing left to do - go to YouTube and see if anyone else knew about this dramatic new finding. I didn't find anything for cleaning big belts, only ideas for smaller belts and none of them mentioned lye. I couldn't believe that no one had come up with this yet. Lye was the ticket. But as I soon found out, it wasn't the Holy Grail.

The more I searched the Internet to see what others were saying about lye, the more I came across what I assumed were the granola's of the earth pushing Simple Green to clean saw blades. I thought sure, if you want your saw blades cleaned sometime this year then go ahead. Then I read a few more posts about the virtues of Simple Green and eventually I couldn't ignore it, so I tried it.

Simple Green worked great on my saw blades. They cleaned up as quickly as they would have with lye or oven cleaner - WHAT? I truly couldn't believe it. No way on God's Simple Green earth was it going to beat the muscle-bound, knee-busting power of my good friend lye. There was only one way to find out, so I put them in a head-to-head test on a belt of wood-clogged sandpaper from my widebelt sander. I am sure you can tell from the title that Simple Green had more than a good showing. Simple Green worked just as well as lye - absolutely no difference. If a spot needed to soak a bit with lye, it needed to soak the same amount with Simple Green, with the added benefit of not melting everything it touches. I don't know what is in that stuff, but it works.

Lately, I have even been using Simple Green in my drip system on my sawmill. In the past (when my sawmill was outside) I would resort to using diesel to keep the blades clean on pitchy wood, like pine. It worked, but at the end of the day everything felt extra dirty and smelled like diesel, which is the exact opposite of how it should smell when cutting fresh wood, especially pine. Just a little Simple Green added to the water in my drip system keeps the blade clean and the shop smelling fresh. It really is amazing how well it works. Simple Green, who knew?