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The screw sockets for the license plates on my car have some rust in them due to a rusty screw. If possible I'd like to clean out the rust from the screw sockets when I replace the screws, but I'm not sure if/how I can do that without risk of damaging the paint job.

It's not a major problem (the screw goes in and seems tight enough) but if possible I'd like to clean them up. If there's no way to do it without harming the pain I just won't bother.

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Yes and you should. Rust is always bad and it sounds like you have a relatively easy job. Remember, if you have rust, you don't have paint. If you're careful, there shouldn't be any effect on the paint surrounding the threaded hole.

In terms of cleaning the threads out, you're going to need an abrasive to remove the rust and then a tool to remove any debris. If you'd like to start gently, I'd recommend something like a white toothpaste (not gel!) applied to the threads of the screw. Work the screw in and out a few times to grind your minty freshness into the threads. Now, if you spin a thin pipecleaner in the threaded hole, you should be able to get out a bunch of dirty toothpaste along with some portion of the rust. Repeat as necessary.

Once you feel that you've removed the rust that's going to come off, I'd recommend switching to vinyl plate screws. They hold just fine and certainly won't rust on you.

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You shouldn't have to worry about removing the rust from the nut if you are going to replace the screw. If the new screw won't screw into the nut because of rust run a tap through the nut to clear out any rust and dirt (this is assuming that the nut has machine threads).

The best preventative maintenance is to replace the bolt with a stainless steel license plate bolt that wont rust and put some anti-seize on the threads of the bolt before screwing it back in. There is no easy way to keep an inside of a nut from rusting. Even if you sandblasted and painted the nut, the paint would come off as soon as you screwed the bolt back in and it would start rusting again. The idea with the anti-seize is to prevent the bolt from rusting to the nut to the point where you can't get it back out. It will also help prevent water from getting in between the nut and the bolt.

This is what I use: http://www.permatex.com/products/automotive/lubricants/specialty_lubricants/Permatex_Copper_Anti-Seize_Lubricant_b.htm

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Yes, a metal fitting with anti-seize is a good choice for parts that are out in the weather (and the salt, around here). For license plates, I generally go with vinyl screws: the load on them isn't very high. –  Bob Cross May 25 '12 at 13:45
    
Yeah for sure, its definitely a big issue in the north-eastern United States, here in Buffalo the roads are salted almost every day in the winter. Vinyl screws are a good idea also, I just prefer stainless because they are nice and shiny but either option is a good one. –  M. Cooper May 25 '12 at 17:18
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