Rusting of iron and steel is a commonly occurring process with which we are all familiar. This experiment investigates the conditions needed for rusting to occur.

Class practical

In this class experiment students put  iron  nails in various conditions including wet, dry, air-free and salty to find out what causes iron to rust.

Lesson organisation

This experiment will need to be set up in one lesson and then left for more than 3 days before being re-examined. It could be left set up for longer if necessary.



Per pair or group of students:

Eye protection

Test-tubes, 4

Test-tube rack

Rubber bung to fit test tube

Cotton wool


Pen or other means of labelling test tubes

Iron  nails, 4

Anhydrous  calcium chloride  granules (IRRITANT) Students with sensitive skin should be offered gloves.

Cooking oil

Deionised water

Boiled deionised water (15 min boil) (Note 1)

Sodium chloride  (table salt)

Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.

Health & Safety and Technical notes

Read our standard health & safety guidance

Wear eye protection.

Anydrous  calcium chloride,  CaCl2(s), (IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.

Sodium chloride,  NaCl(s) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.

1 It is best if the deionised water is boiled, eg in a kettle, as close to the start of the lesson as possible and supplied warm to the students. They could boil it themselves for 15 minutes in a beaker on a Bunsen burner, but whether this is advisable will depend on the class.


a Label the test tubes 1-4.

b About ¼ fill tube 1 with deionised water and add a nail.

c About ¼ fill tube 2 with boiled deionised water and add a nail. Carefully pour a little oil over the surface to prevent air from reaching the water.

d Mix some salt with some deionised water to make a solution. About ¼ fill tube 3 with this mixture and add a nail.

e Put a nail into tube 4 and add about 2 cm depth of anhydrous calcium chloride granules. These absorb water. Put a bung in this tube to prevent any further water from getting in.

f Leave for at least 3 days and then note any changes in appearance of the nails.

Teaching notes

You could ask students to tabulate which conditions are present or absent in each of the tubes.

  • Tube 1 – water and air

  • Tube 2 – water but no air (it is removed during boiling and the oil prevents any extra from dissolving in the water and reaching the nail)

  • Tube 3 – water, air and salt

  • Tube 4 – air, no water (the calcium chloride removes the water from the air and the bung prevents any extra from entering.)

They should see that the nails in tubes 2 and 4 do not rust. The nail in tube 3 rusts the most. From this they should be able to conclude that water and air (actually oxygen in the air) are essential for rusting. Salt can increase the rate of rusting. This can lead to a discussion about rust protection and methods which can be used to keep air and water away from the iron such as paint, grease and plastic coating.

Very simply, rusting is the reaction of iron with oxygen – but water is an important part of the process too.

Health & Safety checked, August 2016


This Practical Chemistry resource was developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

© Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry

Page last updated September 2016