The Myth and Magic of WD-40, the Cold War Lube That Changed America

Admit it: You’ve got at least one can at home

According to the most recent census, there are 115,227,000 households in America, and they don't have a lot in common. Only 33 percent have kids, 18 percent are millionaires, and 14 percent have trouble paying the grocery bill. But one characteristic ties much of America together in a way one would hardly expect: Some 80 percent of U.S. households have a can of WD-40 on the shelf.

In fact, there's probably no other brand in the hardware category that has so utterly transcended its origins. Not only does WD-40 generate $383 million in annual sales in the 176 countries in which it is sold, but it also boasts 2,000 documented applications and a fan club with more than 100,000 members.

Photo: Nick Ferarri

 

WD-40's place in the consumer culture owes to the fact that the stuff works, and works for all kinds of stuff. "We've heard many times, 'If WD-40 can't fix it, nothing will,'" said CEO Garry Ridge, adding that WD-40 is "an honest product. It makes heroes out of those who use it."

That is fitting, considering that WD-40 originated in the defense industry. In the early '50s, a three-person San Diego company called Rocket Chemical started work on a solvent for the burgeoning aerospace industry. Rocket was after a compound that would remove water (hence preventing rust) while also acting as a lubricant and degreasing agent. After trying out dozens of different formulas, Rocket settled on its 40th water-displacement mixture, and looked no further for a name: WD-40. Soon afterward, engineers for General Dynamics began using the solvent to protect various parts of its Atlas missiles—America's first nuclear ICBMs.

Fortunately, a nuclear war wasn't needed to bring WD-40 to the wider world. Rocket employees began to take the stuff home where they discovered that WD-40 came in handy for all sorts of chores, from lubricating locks to removing squashed bugs from windshields. Rocket Chemical began retailing WD-40 in aerosol form in 1958 and changed the company name to WD-40 in 1969. By 1993, sales had reached $100 million.

There's another twist. To avoid having to reveal WD-40's secret formula, the company never patented it, a move that opened the door for competitors like 3M to market similar formulas. But nothing has unseated WD-40 as the No. 1 miracle mixture. Surely, that geek-chic name's got much to do with it. But according to Eric Miltsch, founder of Command Z Automotive Consulting, it is also about familiarity. "The product connects to a childhood memory," he said. "There was always a can in the garage. People have an inherent need to fix things. This is one of those end-all, be-all things that do it."