Archival Tool Preservation – Cleaning and Tuning

Stanley Bailey No. 4, Type 19 This guide will cover the cleaning, preservation, and tuning of vintage hand tools using primarily natural, archival materials and methods similar, if not identical, to those used by museums and restoration professionals.  I will be focusing on the majority of tools found out in the wild, and save discussion of rare, mint, historically important, or other exceptional tools for a different guide.  Likewise, I won’t be covering restoration of tools found in extremely poor condition, or those that have suffered significant damage.

Opinions on the cleaning and restoration of vintage tools vary proportionally with the number of techniques people employ.  Some take an ultra-conservative approach with a fervor that approaches religious conviction, firmly believing that old tools should not be cleaned at all, rather left in their current state with every molecule of dust, rust, and crud that history has provided.  At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who like their old tools refinished to like new condition.  This typically involves lots of stripping, sanding, painting, polishing, and varnishing.  And, of course, there are near infinite variations between the two extremes.

In my opinion, less is more when it comes to cleaning and restoring vintage tools for use.  It’s easy to clean a little more, but you can’t unclean or undo what’s already done.  Rust is just flat out bad – it’s destructive and there is no justification for allowing it to remain on a tool.  Likewise, dirt is dirt, and unless it was trod upon or wallowed in by a former president or religious deity, it tends to reduce a tool’s effectiveness and can cause additional damage.  Even sawdust, which might be considered benign, is apt to hold moisture, which can cause rust.  Additionally, wood is naturally acidic, and over time can be a caustic and corrosive influence on the metal it contacts.  There wasn’t (and isn’t) a tool made that should not be regularly cleaned, both to prevent corrosion and ensure proper functionality.  The fact that vintage tools were at some point abandoned to modern replacements does not, in my mind, justify allowing them to remain filthy today – whether in use or on display.

So, all that said, how should vintage tools be properly cleaned, preserved, and tuned?  To answer that question you have to consider two primary questions:  1. What job was the tool originally designed and intended to do? and 2. Will this tool be restored for use today or display only?  Hand planes, for example, were intended to shave and shape wood surfaces and edges.  Therefore, vintage models intended for renewed use will need to be adequately cleaned, but more important they need to be tuned in order to function as intended.  The focus on those bound for the display shelf will fall more toward the visual aesthetics of proper cleaning.  Tuning may not be necessary or desired.

Archival Cleaning
My philosophy on cleaning begins with the materials I select and ends with the proper application of these materials to prevent damage and minimize any alteration of the tool’s naturally acquired patina and finish.  Applying the less is more concept, I start every restoration using as many all natural, earth based products as possible.  While not completely exclusive or even always feasible, that’s where I start.  I begin with a citrus based cleaner and degreaser and soft bristle toothbrush to remove accumulated dirt and grime.  As a rule, I always use softer metal against harder metal to prevent scratching and surface damage.  So for heavy or difficult crud, I might go to a nylon or brass bristle brush, but only when necessary.  Spots of heavy rust incrustations generally have to be gently scraped off to get back to undamaged metal, otherwise they will continue to corrode.  For flat surfaces, I typically use a cotton cloth or fine nylon finishing pads with the citrus cleanser followed by an all natural blemish cleaner and clarifier made for wood and metal.

For wooden handles and knobs in average to good condition, I use an all natural concoction based on linseed oil, turpentine, and vinegar (LTV), among other secret ingredients.  For wood in poor condition or heavily soiled, I use mineral spirits with a nylon pad or 0000 steel wool to clean it, followed by a couple of applications of the LTV.  Cracks and breaks are repaired using tinted epoxy and clamps.  Carnauba wax can be applied after the LTV dries, but I tend to not to use it as the LTV does such a nice job.

Completely disassembled, I clean all the steel nuts and bolts by hand, with special attention made to removing rust from the threads and crud from the slots.  Using a light penetrating oil, I brush all the threads using a fine brass or steel brush – but again, I do this by hand to maintain control and not over clean.   The oil creates a nice barrier for future rust prevention.  I use the same oil to clean each screw hole.  Contact surfaces on the tool where parts mate together are also cleaned by hand in the same manner.  For the brass parts, I clean them using the penetrating oil and toothbrush or nylon brush, taking great care to remove dirt only and not abrade the patina or surface.  The oil is crucial here as it provides lubrication and a barrier against scratching.  Once the dirt is removed, there is invariably a lovely naturally aged oxidized patina found hiding beneath.

Finally, I rub down the japanned and exposed metal surfaces with the LTV concoction.  This dries to the touch, helps retard rust, and looks better than oil or wax. That’s pretty much it.  Tools cleaned in this way retain all of their patina, blemishes, and character, while losing the rust and dirt.  Best of all, nothing in the process is destructive, and other than removing the dirt and rust, the tool is left in exactly the same physical condition as when you started.

Tuning for Use
Whether purchased in 2010, or 1910, many hand tools (and virtually all planes) required some degree of tuning before use.  While it’s debatable as to whether the average journeyman of the last century took the time to do so, it’s nevertheless highly recommended.  Planes in general, and vintage planes in particular, require some attention in order to get the best out of them.  Soles were cast iron, and while milled flat during manufacturing, had a tendency to change dimensions, twist, or warp over time.  The smaller the plane, the more critical this can become, but again, depending on use.  I’m not going into great detail on all the methods used to flatten soles, or debate what is or isn’t flat enough.  Just keep in mind that folks used tools for a couple thousand years without 0.001″ tolerances, and didn’t seem to have any problem.  Basically, if you’ve got a reasonable flat surface to work against (jointer table, glass, or granite), you just progress from larger to finer grits to achieve a flat sole.

Generally speaking, the critical thing with all cutting tools is keeping the blade securely fastened to the tool at the proper angle, and of course keeping the blade sharp.  In fact, a plane is nothing more than a device for holding a cutting edge at the correct angle to shave wood.  On hand planes and spokeshaves, etc. the blade, or iron as it is properly called, is seated against an angled base.  On a plane this base is called the frog, and its angled surface must be flat and free of burs or obstructions that prevent the iron from seating completely flush.  Tuning the frog includes assessing its face and lapping it flat if there are high spots.  Similarly, the milled seating surfaces must also be free of corrosion and mate perfectly with the bed where it attaches.  Adjustment hardware must move freely but also be secure so there is no slop, or unwanted movement.

Finer points of tuning include providing proper flow for shavings.  The leading surface of cap irons should ideally be polished smooth to reduce friction as the shavings pass across it.  The mating edge of the cap iron should also sit completely flush against the iron to prevent shavings from jamming between the two.  Additionally, the lower end of the lever cap should rest flat against the cap iron in order to hold it securely and minimize shavings getting caught underneath.  All other knobs, wheels, and adjustments should be refined and lubricated to work smoothly and easily.

Finally, the single most important aspect of tuning is sharpening.  I would go so far as to say a poorly tuned but very sharp tool will consistently outperform a finely tuned but poorly sharpened tool.  Rather than try to go through the basics of sharpening, I highly recommend you get a good book and invest in a sharpening system that matches your needs and preferences.  Excellent references include the books by Lie-Nielson, Leonard Lee, and Ron Hock.  I will say that unlike most woodworkers who view sharpening as a necessary evil, I actually enjoy it and find it to be quite therapeutic and relaxing.

I realize this guide is by no means comprehensive, but it should provide a good start for anyone looking to restore, preserve, and care for vintage tools.


About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 20 years’ experience focused on financial and operational efficiencies, talent development and optimization, improved employee engagement, and cultural alignment of teams within the organization. He has diverse experience in successful financial and strategic planning, brand management, leadership analysis and talent development, as well as designing and executing improvements to teams’ cultural efficacy and organizational alignment. Bryant has experience in both International Public S&P 500 Corporate and Non-Profit Sectors, and also runs his own entrepreneurial business venture, a consulting company specializing in helping small businesses and organizations improve operational efficiency, leadership development, and employee engagement . Bryant holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA).

4 Responses to Archival Tool Preservation – Cleaning and Tuning

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for sharing some of your techniques for restoring old tools. I’ve started out restoring some of my own, but I think I was trying to hard to make them look like new. The results didn’t look very good. I agree with “more is less” way of doing things now. On the planes, I put most of my effort into tuning the plane and making sure it functions as it was designed. I do have a habit of picking up the worst, nastiest plane I can find and trying to bring it back to life. My latest find, a 5 buck wreck nobody wanted turned out to be a Stanley Bailey #3 type 4. I’ll never get to where I like, but it’s been interesting trying to get it there.
    I don’t suppose you would care to share your LTV recipe?


    • Bryant Rice says:

      Finding that “right” balance between just enough and too much restoration is a matter of perspective and experience. There are so many variables from tool to tool, that it’s impossible to fully detail a step by step process that will apply to all of them. I’m glad to hear that you’re thinking about the end result, and making adjustments accordingly.

      The recipe for the LTV (originally known as Alburnum’s Elixir) is simply in theory, but difficult in execution. First, you have to find RAW linseed oil, which is not the easiest thing to do. Try an art supply store. Once you find it, then you have to boil it yourself.

      1 part home-boiled raw linseed oil (not BLO).
      1 part genuine turpentine (mineral spirits is NOT a substitute).
      1 part ordinary household vinegar (either distilled or cider from the grocery store).

      To boil linseed oil: First buy raw linseed oil. Do this outdoors in a small crock pot – it’s a serious fire hazard. Fill the pot with the raw linseed oil, place the lid on top, turn temperature to high, let cook at least 24 hours. Cool. pour it into a glass jar with a sealable top (ex. old mayonnaise jar).

      I did it once and it was a lot of trouble. I pretty much exclusively use Kramer’s Best Antique Improver now, which is based on the original recipe. It’s great stuff.


  2. Steve says:

    I think I’ll pass on cooking my own linseed oil, my wife might have an issue with seeing her crockpot outside concocting a strange brew. I’ll give Kramer’s a try instead.
    Preserving, as opposed to restoring is still a battle for me. I can’t seem to leave mangled screw heads alone, I have to get the file out and clear the burrs and twisted metal off them. Rosewood totes and knobs are just to beautiful when brought to their former beauty for me to simply clean. I have an old #3 Union on the way that looks to be a perfect candidate for your technique, so I’ll give it a try.
    Great site by the way, a lot of interesting information and of course the tool porn section is great to look at.


    • Bryant Rice says:

      The Kramer’s is a good choice. Make sure you get the Antique Improver, not the Clarifier.

      Regarding mangled screw heads, etc., let me clarify something that might help. I approach restoration in a similar manner to what I think a tradesman would have 100 years ago when caring for his tools. I’m sure if he had a mangled screw head, he would have filed it smooth to keep it functional. I view all the nuts and bolts sort of like consumables. Replacements are plentiful and they serve an important function on the tool. As such, each one needs to be serviceable. I go out of my way to protect the original finishes (where appropriate), but when putting a plane back into usable condition, missing screws have to be replaced, and mangled screws need to be repaired (or replaced).

      Unless they happen to be particularly rare or owned by someone famous, tools are not sacred cows. Dirt and rust, missing and mangled parts are all bad. Patina, finish, paint specks, carved initials, dings and dents, etc., all the characteristics that reflect the tool’s use and history are worth saving.

      The mere fact that you’re proceeding cautiously and respectfully indicates you’re on the right track. Keep at it!

      Glad you like the tool porn! Make sure you visit the Virginia Toolworks facebook page for a lot broader content on woodworking and “tools” of all kinds.


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