Restoring old tools is fun, educational and economical.
There are several good reasons for restoring old hand tools, such as planes, spokeshaves, chisels, handsaws and the like, particularly for those new to the craft. It’s a great way to learn about hand tools and how to maintain them. You can also assemble a decent kit of tools at a fraction of the cost of buying new. And it’s a good feeling to take something that was meant for display or disposal and give it a new working life.
There are a lot of name brands of older tools, among them Stanley, Miller Falls, Sargent, Buck, Greenlee and Marples. Planes from the mid-1930s to late-1950s are generally good value.
Depending on the condition of the tool and the type of restoration you want to do (“maintain originality,” “make fit to use” or “make like new”) you could spend as little as half an hour to most of a day on a restoration. I go for “make fit to use” as I’m not a tool collector. My goal is to get the tool into serviceable condition as quickly as I can so I can get back to work.
Ideally you want to personally inspect any tool before you buy it. If you buy “sight unseen” make sure you’re dealing with a reputable seller. Tools that are cracked, severely chipped or deeply pockmarked with rust should be avoided. Surface rust is nothing to be concerned with. Check to see if the sole is reasonably flat, and in particular pay attention to the areas just behind the mouth, toe and heel. Missing or damaged components (knobs, totes, blades, lever caps and the like) can be replaced easily, though it involves extra time tracking down the parts and an additional cost.
Most of my finds are by word-of-mouth and from garage sales. Many of the tools I see at flea markets and antique stores are priced in line with vintage tools, regardless of their condition. Woodworking clubs are another good source (and a great way to meet like-minded people). If you’re in a rush to find something to restore, or you’ve exhausted local sources, try an e-commerce site such as eBay, Facebook Marketplace or Kijiji. I’m not a collector, so I steer away from tools that are pegged as antiques or collectibles.
The following steps are what I did to restore a Stanley Bailey No. 4 hand plane. The plane, for which I paid $25, was in fairly good condition. Including the bath to clean off rust, it took about four hours to restore. There’s no need for you to follow these steps slavishly; use them as a general guide. If you’re restoring a spokeshave, chisel or other tool these steps should help as well.
If this is your first time taking a hand plane apart, before you disassemble it take a few photos to remind yourself of how it goes back together. The parts may look weird to a new woodworker. A few photos, both of the entire piece and a few closeups of how the pieces fit together, will help guide you. There are also lots of schematic drawings online for you to view if needed.
Take It Apart – Remove all of the screws and threaded parts to allow you to have a close look at them and start the cleaning process.
No Major Problems – A few stains aren’t the end of the world. Deep pits or cracks, on the other hand, are harder to deal with. This is the underside of Duguay’s plane before he set to work breathing new life into it.
Once disassembled, I use a wire brush or wire wheel to remove as much rust as I can. I then give all the metal parts a bath. Use either a glass or plastic container and pour in enough rust solvent to cover the parts. I’ve tried various vinegar/baking soda concoctions in the past, but I find they take a long time to work. I now use Rust Dissolver Gel (Homehardware.ca) that does the job in 30 minutes. Halfway through I vigorously brush all the parts with an old toothbrush or bristle brush. After the bath it’s time for a good rinsing in hot water.
Get Rid of Rust – Using Rust Dissolver Gel, Duguay gives the parts a bath to remove as much rust as possible. Some scrubbing with a toothbrush part way through the process speeds the removal.
Rust Is Mostly Gone – After the rust bath the parts are looking a lot better. They’ll also function more smoothly
While some woodworkers like to flatten the entire sole, I only flatten in three spots – about an inch at the toe, a quarter to half inch behind the mouth and another inch or so at the heel. This will ensure the plane sits flat on a work surface. I start with Sia PSA-backed sandpaper (KMStools.com). They’re 2-3/4″ by 16-1/4″ long and come in a range of grits.
The grit I start with depends on the condition of the sole. For this plane I began with 100-grit working up to 180-grit. Every so often I check the sole with a machinist square. Once it’s flat in those three key spots I switch to 3M aluminum oxide sheets (Leevalley.com). These sheets are available in grits down to 0.3 micron, last a long time and are inexpensive. I use the 9, 3 and 1 micron sheets.
Depending on the condition of the sole it can take a fair amount of time and energy to get good results so you need to be patient. I also clean up the sides of the plane. If the sides are square to the sole you can use the plane with a shooting board for squaring up the ends of wood and finalizing rough-cut mitres.
A Flat Sole – Flattening the sole, or at least at the toe, mouth and heel, is a critical part of improving an old plane’s performance.
Refurbished Sole – Although the sole isn’t perfect, it doesn’t need to be. The odd stain or imperfection can be overlooked. Note Duguay spent some time on the sides of the plane to allow the plane to be used with a shooting board.
Flat Across the Sole – Check that the sole is flat across its width and length with a straightedge.
I find most blades that are serviceable need to have the bevel re-established before being sharpened and honed. I use a wet sharpening system, but any method will do the job.
On quite a few of the tools I’ve refurbished the blades are either missing, bent or in too poor condition to salvage. Rather than looking for an old replacement blade I always opt to install a new blade. For plane blades I turn to Toronto-based IBC Tools (Ibctools.com). The blades are precision ground and hold an edge nicely. They’re slightly thicker than the original Stanley blades so you may have to file the mouth a bit wider. It doesn’t take much time. You just need to file a small amount and check the blade fit frequently. A benefit with the IBC blade is that the extra thickness reduces blade chatter.
Blade Upgrade – Although you may very well be able to salvage the old blade and bring it back to life, a new blade (shown on the left) can also be purchased for just about every older hand plane out there.
If you don’t mind the original finish on the tote and knob leave as is, otherwise strip and refinish. You could also try your hand at making your own parts if they’re worn, broken or tired looking. A durable polyurethane finish looks good, though it can cause blisters if you use your plane for extended periods of time. A penetrating oil will allow your skin to move more freely over its surface while in use, even if it doesn’t look as clean and shiny as a film finish. The choice is yours, though.
Remove the Old Finish – Paint and varnish remover will get rid of the old, cracked finish and leave you with a smooth surface on which to apply a new finish. This not only looks great, but it also provides you with a smooth, comfortable grip on your tools during use.
I clean up all the other metal pieces using the 3M sheets. I want the front edge of the lever cap and chip-breaker to be smooth and flat. Same goes for the top surface of the frog, against which the blade sits. These parts need to be smooth and clean for the plane to work properly, though this isn’t as crucial with most of the other parts.
Once everything is cleaned up, I spray all the metal parts with Boeshield T-9 (Leevalley.com), an anti-rust protectant. About once a year I disassemble all my planes and apply another coating.
Re-assemble the components, adjust the blade and give it a whirl. Invariably you’ll need to do some fine tuning to get everything working just right. This often involves making minute adjustment to the position of the frog so it’s lined up flush with the back of the mouth.
Widen the Mouth – Widening the mouth might be needed in order to allow the right amount of a gap between the blade and the sole of the plane.
Old (top) vs. New (bottom) – Just a few hours of work results in a shiny tool, smooth handles and a sharp blade. You’ll definitely notice an improvement in performance, not to mention the updated plane will look much nicer on the shelf above your workbench.