The Restoration of Old Hand Planes

Bed Rock 605C Type 7 ComparisonOpinions on the restoration of old hand planes, or virtually any antique item for that matter, vary widely and are frequently debated within their respective communities of interest. Many believe fervently that old tools should not even be cleaned, maintaining every grimy detail of its use and history. Others prefer refinishing them to like new condition. My thoughts on the subject are largely dependent upon the specific attributes of the tool – age, rarity, condition, etc., as well as the intent of the owner. There are rare and quite valuable tools whose value would be destroyed if restored. There are many others in such exceedingly poor condition that their value can only be improved by restoration. Still others have no significant value as an antique, but could be restored to functional condition for renewed use.

I personally believe that less is more when it comes to restoration. I like the idea of retaining a tool’s character – its scars and marks from use, its patina, etc. However, with rare exception, I find no nostalgia in rust and dirt. I believe a tool should be cleaned and maintained in the same manner as the original craftsman who owned it would have done. A hundred years ago, these tools represented the livelihood of the owner. They were relatively expensive and the woodworkers who owned them relied on them to make a living. They would not have allowed rust to accumulate and would have cleaned and oiled them regularly. Many vintage tools were in fact well maintained for generations, yet were eventually replaced by “improved” models (or power tools) and were left unused and abandoned in recent decades. Often, a good cleaning with mineral spirits or light buffing with fine steel wool and a penetrating oil lubricant is all that’s needed to remove light rust, restoring the tool to fully functional condition.

Other tools, particularly hand planes made after about 1935, are abundant, have little historical significance, and are therefore frequently restored solely for renewed use. For these, the extent of restoration depends primarily on the personal preference of the woodworker who intends to use it. Refinishing to like new condition might be important to one person, while others care only about functionality. Further, since the quality of many planes began a slow decline after the mid 1930s and became largely inferior by 1960, restoration of these later planes for use today often necessitates a more radical approach that extends beyond the mere cosmetic.

As is often quoted on the subject of restoration, ‘you can always go back and do more, but you can’t undo what’s already been done’.  Noting that my terminology is somewhat subjective (even to me) I loosely assign tools I come across to one of four categories:

  1. Rare, Exceptional or Near Mint – A broad category that includes tools that saw little to no use, were stored safely, have no rust or corrosion damage, and need nothing in the way of cleaning or restoration.  Also included in this category are the very rare tools sought by serious collectors.  Other than perhaps wiping off any dirt, I tend not to mess with them at all – they are too valuable.
  2. Fine Collector – These tools may have traces of rust but little or no corrosion damage, and have essentially been maintained/stored in ready to use condition.  The metal may be darkened, the tool may be dirty from use, and the wood may be scarred with a worn finish.  Tools in this category show signs of use but are in excellent original condition and need nothing more than a very light cleaning with natural based cleaners or mineral spirits and penetrating oil to remove dirt and accumulated crud that could cause corrosion if left.  Brass may be cleaned but never polished; wood may be lightly cleaned and waxed but never refinished.  These are good collector grade tools for the average person and the common sizes also make very impressive shop tools.
  3. Collectable User – These tools have moderate rust and and areas of corrosion but are restorable to good user or casual collector status with some careful cleaning and rust removal.  Tools in this category often show signs of heavy use but are in overall good condition.  They may need extensive cleaning with mineral spirits and penetrating oil to remove dirt and accumulated crud.  Wood pieces may be cracked, split or chipped and in need of a careful repair.  Broken, severely damaged or missing pieces may need to be replaced with the correct vintage part.  Brass may be cleaned but never polished; wood may be lightly cleaned and waxed but never refinished.   These are handsome shop tools that may also appeal to casual user/collectors.
  4. Shop Grade – These are tools that have no collectable value other than as a general user in the shop.  These tools typically spent most of the last 40 to 60 years in (or under) a barn and are in very poor condition (ready for the landfill).  They are so far gone that it really doesn’t matter what you do to them – anything is an improvement.  Tools in this condition may require extensive and aggressive restoration efforts in order to save them at all.  Castings might be heavily rusted, japanning mostly gone, parts broken or missing, etc.  In some cases they are simply a lost cause and the best you can do is salvage usable parts.  Others can be restored to shop grade condition through electrolytic or chemical rust removal, re-lapping, and/or replacement or refinishing of damaged parts.  Fun to restore, these tools can end up looking and working great again, but are workshop grade only – although still better than most of what you can buy today and at a fraction of the price.

There is something infinitely rewarding about taking an old forgotten bench plane and giving it a second life decades after it was left to rot.  They are elegant, beautiful, tactile tools.  Each has its own history, its own character.  Like people, tools should be allowed to age gracefully and naturally.  And just like old people, old tools have a story to tell – every paint spot, dent, ding, scratch and chip reflects a different point in time and a different job completed.   I believe restoration efforts should be judiciously limited and intended to stabilize these old tools only as necessary to prevent futher decay, and return them to functional working condition.

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About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 15 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).

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