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Restoring old tools
This page is about how to take a rusty, neglected or incomplete tool and apply a little time, care and cleaning to end up with a virtuoso example of the tool manufacturer's trade.
Topics with extended discussions have links to their respective pages. The rest is lightly documented here.
While there are many variations methods boil down to: abrasive, chemical and electrolysis.
Completing a tool with missing parts can be frustrating but when you get a fully functional tool, very rewarding. The most challenging aspect of replacing parts is not finding them but rather it's determining exactly what you need. You'll quickly find yourself sliding down the slope of machinist tools just to figure out the thread pitch of a screw you need or the exact diameter of rod for a press-fit pivot.
Sources for original parts (NOS, used/donor):
- Woodworking communities like the OldTools List, Sawmill Creek
Source for reproduction or substitute parts:
- Some manufacturers are still making compatible parts
- McMaster-Carr, MSC, and other hardware retailers
- For specific tools:
With all the time and attention spent on getting a tool clean it's important to keep in clean and operating well from there on out. "Maintenance" could be a separate section but since it usually part of the restoration process any need to link to a collection of maintenance tips can link here with the following: [[Restoring old tools#Maintenance]]
Most wood parts take some form of finish but metal also benefits from a protective coats as well.
A list of galoot-preferred finishes:
- Hard wax (Johnson's floor wax, Briwax, others)
- A common application is to the sole of a plane. It makes the sole very smooth and lets the plane glide effortlessly across the board.
- Hard wax is also good for any exposed iron or steel because it prevents rust and staining while also adding a nice luster. It's a good choice for handsaw plates, chisels, axes and even wrenches.
- It makes a nice finish for wood that would otherwise be unfinished like spokeshave handles or plane wedges. I use it on saw and plane handles that have lost their original finish.
- Depending on your wax and technique, you can get a bright shine or a dull luster.
- Soft wax (beeswax, paraffin, sometimes cut with oil or spirits)
- Often used as a lubricant on working surfaces or to finish exposed wood.
- Oil-based ("Galoot Juice", BLO, walnut, teak, danish, camellia, others)
- Bluing (a process of converting a thin layer of steel to a dark oxide that resists rust)
- Paint or japanning
Whether it's making gears run smoothly or an edge sharp there's usually some part of a tools that needs mechanical attention.
You can learn different techniques for tuning planes here: Plane setup.
Lubrication is necessary on some tools. With woodworkers it's always a struggle between getting a mechanism to run smoothly and keeping dust from gumming up the works. One thing to note: the needs of a tool for use can be a little different than one that will sit on a shelf. If work in a dusty shop, keeping the lubricated surfaces clean can be a challenge.
Drills and braces definitely require some lubrication for good performance. Here are some suggestions (based on recommendations by Pacmot):
- Open gears on hand & breast drills will make a mess if you use oil or grease. They can be left dry or a spray dry film lube can be used (like superlube dri-film, crown dry lubes or LPS dry lubricant). Try to keep the spay only on the contact surfaces.
- Spindles and shafts need light oil with the weight range between 0W and 10W oil depending on the wear/tolerance of the parts. 5W-10W oil is appropriate for breast drills.
- Brace ratchets can use 5W or 10W oil.
- Brace heads will usually take oil. Some have ball-bearing that are significantly exposed. Oil or even light grease is fine but you'll need to clean them if they get gummed up.
- Ball bearing brace chucks will free up with some oil but if you rebuild one some light grease is appropriate. Try to match what's there if it's working decently.
- Pacmot notes that oil was the original lube in Yankee ratchets and 5W is appropriate for rebuilding them.
Planes generally don't require lubrication but I've found a dollop of light grease or heavy oil on the blade adjuster screw and the lateral adjuster pivot to ease their operation. Applying paste wax to the sole and chip-breaker greatly reduce friction and easy planing. I was so used to the resistance of a dry sole that I nearly fell over the first time I waxed the sole of a plane.
For woodworking vises I'd recommend a dry film lube (brand suggestions above). It make operation smoother without collecting dust. Depending on how much you use your vise the thin film can wear off quickly so an occasional wipe down and re-application is good shop maintenance. I apply it to the rails and the screw depending on the vise design. Some designs use a bronze nut which may or may not benefit from lubrication.
For machinist vises most recommend an "EP" or extreme-pressure grease because of the force on the screw and nut. The beam (or slide, rail, etc) is sometimes waxed but a better choice is a dry film lube.
Instructions for types of tools
What to start with? Let's begin with a basic cast iron bench plane.
A bench plane, as its name suggests, is for working at a bench. They were eventually made in more or less standard sizes. The rare Number 1, Number 2 - and all the way up to a Number 8.
The most commonly encountered is a No 4 - used for smoothing, so called a smoothing plane. If you're just starting out, get a number 4 and a number 5 - refurbishing (known as 'fettling') is the same for either.
Here's how to go about it.
First, of course, you need a rusty old number 4 or 5. Or even one that isn't *too* rusty, but you think it should be returned to work.
A 20th century bench plane is made from wood and metal, so we need to start by separating the two materials.
Unclip the lever cap and set it aside. Lift out the iron and cap iron assembly and set it aside.
You now have the body with the front knob and the rear handle, known as a tote (because that's what you tote it around with!)
Take a properly fettled screwdriver (click here for how to fettle a screwdriver) and unscrew the knob and tote. The front knob will often unscrew without the driver, or it may be a bit frozen in. more help in releasing stuck screws can be added here. The tote will release either from the base, if the nut has locked on to the retaining threaded rod, or the nut may be completely free, but stays within the tote. If it's free, then just slide the assembly off the base. If the nut is trapped, take a rod and tap it out from the bottom. If the threaded rod is still in the base you can put a drop or two of penetrating oil, or even WD40 if that's all you have, onto it and leave it for a while before gently freeing it with pliers, or something stronger. Put soft jaws in your mechanics vice, upend the plane, trapping the rod at its plain center portion and undo it.
You now have a base, with the frog assembly in place. The frog is the lumpy bit in the middle. When you examine it you see two screws aligned vertically which were under the blade. With a fettled screwdriver so you don't damage the heads, unscrew them and remove the frog.
You'll also want to remove the screw in the base and the plate attached to the frog which allows the frog to be moved back and forward, and unwind the depth regulating screw (that's the large diameter one which sits just inside the tote. Brass ones are nice, but modern ones may not be brass.
Now we can start some fettling. You may need to begin by just washing and drying it!
The aim is not only to remove rust and restore the appearance, but most importantly to ensure that the sole - that is the bottom surface it stands on, is flat, and for some people, ensuring that the sides are at 90 degrees to the sole is important, in case you use it on its side for squaring the ends of timber.
I suggest you start with some serious wire brushing if you have the bright orange, dusty rust, once the dust is gone, take a sheet of emery cloth and a flat surface such as a granite worktop end, surface plate, or even a chunk of float glass. Place the emery on the flat surface and the plane sole on the emery. Work it back and forth until there is a uniform shiny surface. You need to release the dust frequently, and you may, if your materials are suitable, run this as a wet process.
Repeat for each side. Some pock marks really don't matter. The really important part is that the area all around the mouth is flattened, and that the toe (front) and heel (back) of the plane are also flat and co-planar with the mouth. A moment or two with a pencil and paper will soon show that you need the mouth to be in contact with the wood, and the toe and heel to match the mouth in order to produce a flat surface.
The base should now be good to go, so you can consider the top surface - would a fresh coat of paint be worthwhile? the original as japanned or stove enameled, neither of which is easy to do at home, so you need to decide - [[here's a discussion about japanning, lacquering or painting]].
Now turn to the frog - it will need to match the base if you're refinishing it. There's rarely anything to do other than remove the rust and clean up the frog to match the base.
Look at the cap iron - that's the one attached to the blade with a large, short screw. Examine the sharp end. Check the fit of the cap iron, if it's possible for a sheet of paper to slide up the blade below the cap iron, you need to file the leading edge, ensuring that the very front of the cap iron presses down right across its width. Clean up the surfaces as appropriate, according to how rusty they may be. Do the same to the blade, and now may be a good time to look at sharpening it. A page about sharpening blades is here.
The woodwork is next. If you're lucky, a quick run over with some medium abrasive followed by a coat or 5 of linseed oil at daily intervals will do the job, and leave a finish which is pleasant to handle and looks the part. If the woodwork is far gone though, you may need to remove old varnish with stripper, and then use some stain to bring back the colour before applying several coats of shellac (French polish) and linseed oil.
Re assemble the plane, and test it out on some well flavoured wood and you'll be amazed at how accurate, graceful, and rewarding hand woodwork can be.