Mike and I have been busy in the shop lately restoring a pile of old tools. We’re tuning up derelict planes, sharpening and straightening saws, and rehandling various tools. Whenever we get to set aside some time like this to bring old tools back to life, we find it such an invigorating process. Saws were designed to sing, not to hang as relics on a wall. Around these parts of Maine, we find old tools in need of TLC all over the place. I’d be willing to bet there are more antiques stores on Route 1 than there are stop signs. Mainers expect to find decent user planes for $15-25 a piece. Most require no more than an hour of cleanup work to get them going again. Same thing with saws, etc.
Whenever Mike or I mention this embarrassment of antique riches, we inevitably get messages from people telling us that they don’t have that kind of access. The want to get their hands on these old tools, but they don’t know how to do so. The good news is that anyone can get their hands on these tools. I’ve previously written up a list of online tool suppliers. I’ve bought a number of tools online and have rarely been disappointed. If the listing has decent photos, and you know what you’re looking for, you can feel confident purchasing. So, sourcing is not the real issue.
The real issue is what the heck to do with them once they show up at your workshop. Depending on where they’ve been stored, some abandoned tools show up pretty grungy. It’s not uncommon to find them coated in blackened oil, splattered with paint flecks, and layered with dust. It can be hard to envision the thing back at the bench again.
My wood cleaning process is dead simple: it boils down to a gentle application of mineral spirits in a maroon Scotch Brite pad to remove most of grime, and a quick wipe with alcohol to freshen the surfaces. After a light padding of shellac followed by paste waxing, I’m off to the races. The whole process takes me less than 15 minutes.
So, it’s easy to spruce up the finish, but there’s still the tuning up to do. Sometimes a fresh edge is all that’s needed, but more often than not, there’s a loose handle or a wedge prong to trim – really basic stuff. I’ve patched plane mouths a few times over the years but have never once scarfed patches onto broken horns. I see dings, dents, and chips as signs of authentic use. As long as it’s not hindering the work or uncomfortable in use, I’m happy to call it “patina.”
I remember teaching a class on restoring wooden-bodied planes at Lost Art Press a few years ago, and I had 10 students with no prior experience in plane restoration. By the end of this one-day class, we had 10 new tool restorers in the world. In all honesty, the process is so straightforward, it’s kind of embarrassing to demonstrate. At least that’s my goal. When a student says, “Oh, that’s it? Well, I can do that!” I know I’ve done my job.