During my 5 years working at Axminster on weekends, many of my shifts consisted of cleaning the tools and machines on display. This is because the cast iron tables were constantly being touched by customers grubby hands, and us stuff were always fighting the uphill battle to keep the surface rust at bay. While also keeping the machine looking clean and presentable to potential buyers.
This is the process I found worked best for me over those 5 years and can be applied to both machine tables and tools such as planes and chisels.
Please be aware that all product recommendations on this page are affiliate links meaning I get a small cut at no extra cost to you. If you'd like to read more about the way I work with different companies, be sure to have a look at my affiliate disclaimer here.
Remove Dust and Chippings
Firstly, be sure to remove any dust and chips from inside and around the machine. Make sure to work from top to bottom to prevent debris falling onto a surface you have already cleaned.
A great way to do this quickly is with an air gun and compresssor. But you will need to wear PPE and have an air filter running. You may also need to wipe down the machine of fine dust afterward
The slow method is to use a dusting brush to rid of all the debris on and in the machine. Having a few different sizes to get into the nooks and crannies is preferable here.
My favourite method is using an extractor with a variety of nozzles. The nozzles I use are the crevice nozzle for tight areas, and the brush cup for awkward areas like around the buttons.
In order to properly clean and protect your tables, you will need to remove any residue from the surface beforehand. This residue can include things like oil, wax and/or grease from previous maintenance sessions, greasy sweaty fingers touching the machines, or things like sap from resinous timbers. It may not be visible at first, but you'll soon see your rag turn black. So make sure to give it a proper scrubbing!
Wax and Polish Remover
I like using this product as it cuts through the residue very easily, and can be used in other finishing applications, or should I say un-applications, around the workshop.
White / Methylated Spirit
You could also use spirits to cut through the grime embedded in your tables. However this stuff tends to evaporate quite quickly and you may end up using a lot of it.
Of course, you could use a proper degreaser if you have access to some. However I find the alternate two methods are more abundant in peoples workshops.
The method you choose to remove rust depends on the amount of rust you need to remove in the first place. I personally clean and maintain my machines often (wax once every 2 weeks, deep clean between every project) meaning rust doesn't have a proper chance to build up.
If you're machine is badly rusted and pitted, you may need to go as far as using a rust remover gel / liquid.
My favourite method of removing light surface rust and imperfections is using maroon abrasive mesh (Roughly 320 grit). This stuff cuts quickly, but doesn't scuff up the table too much.
As an alternative to abrasive mesh, you can also use an abrasive rubber. I'd recommend getting the finest abrasive you can find as the coarse ones tend to leave deep scratches in the iron.
With both of the listed abrasives, I like using lubricant to help carry away the swarf. The nice thing about Camelia oil is that it is commonly used as a rust inhibitor. So you're killing two birds with one stone here.
I like using a machine wax to finish the cast iron tables that are due to have material passed over the top. For example, planers, bandsaws, table saws, router tables, disk/bobbin sanders etc. I will not apply wax to cast iron surfaces that material or components need to be clamped to. For example: milling machine beds and lathe beds.
Apply this stuff like any common furniture wax. Put on a first layer, let it sit for a couple of minutes, then buff off the excess.
As you'd expect, staying on top of your machine maintenance is far easier than doing a deep thorough clean once a year or so. Personally, I dust down the machines at the end of every single day, wax them once every 2 weeks or so, and do a deep clean (as shown in this video) at the end of every major project.
Looking further into the future, once or twice a year I will check the health of the bearings and ensure they are running smoothly. In addition, I will condition the drive belts to ensure they run smoothly, quiet and last a lot longer.