WD-40: Canny Marketing

Today’s Washington Post has an article about a new social marketing campaign being launched by the WD-40 Company, for its eponymous product.  The product, WD-40, is a familiar sight in many workshops.  It was originally developed as part of “a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry”; according to the product lore, the “WD” stood for Water Displacement, and the formula was supposedly the 40th one tested.  The company has introduced a commemorative “Twin Pack”, with one modern can of WD-40, and one can with a “retro” design from the 1950s, complete with the company’s original name, Rocket Chemical Co. (the product was apparently originally developed for the Atlas Missile program)

WD-40 Twin Pack, courtesy WD-40 Co.

There is even a WD-40 Fan Club at the company’s site, where users are invited to contribute their favorite applications of the product.

Although you will find a can of WD-40 in many serious mechanics’ shops, the product has also acquired the reputation of being, like duct tape and baling wire, a favorite tool of the un-handy handyman.

If you didn’t own or couldn’t identify the right tool for the job, there was always WD-40 and a hammer.

If lawnmowers wore cologne, it would smell like WD-40, the Old Spice of the two-stroke engine.

WD-40 is to bad handymen what cream of mushroom soup is to bad cooks.

It is handy, and often seems a good short-term fix for things like squeaky hinges and stubborn locks.  But the temptation is to overuse it, and in places where it is not the right tool for the job.

Back in the 1990s, when USENET discussion groups were still active, and had not yet been rendered almost entirely useless by spam, I was a frequent participant in the rec.bicycles.tech group.  A question that came up regularly there was whether WD-40 was a good lubricant for bicycle chains.  The consensus answer is no, although it can be useful for cleaning really crappy chains.  In these discussions, it was almost inevitable that various more or less fanciful ideas would be advanced about what was actually in WD-40.  One of these discussions led to my own small contribution to the group’s FAQ:

Subject: 8a.8 WD-40
From: rgibbs@XXXX.com (Rich Gibbs)
Date: Wed, 09 Sep 1998 04:03:00 GMT

There have been many opinions posted here on WD-40's composition, but here is what the Material Safety Data Sheet [MSDS] says (it's from Oct 93, the latest I could find):

50% Stoddard solvent (mineral spirits) [8052-41-3]
25% Liquified petroleum gas (presumably as a propellant) [68476-85-7]
15+% Mineral Oil (light lubricating oil) [64742-65-0]
10-% Inert ingredients

(The numbers in square brackets '[]' are the CAS numbers for the ingredients, as listed in the MSDS.)

Mostly, WD-40 is a solvent, with a bit of light oil mixed in. It doesn't contain wax (except incidentally, since it's not exactly a reagent-grade product).

Personally, I use it sometimes for small cleaning jobs, but it's not a particularly good lubricant for anything that I can think of, offhand.

The composition of the product is still proprietary, although it does seem that it might have changed slightly, looking at the current MSDS [PDF].

Still, there is always a can of WD-40 in my toolbox, because sometimes anything that works is better than unobtainable perfection.

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