Archival Mindset

7291975588_ff0a28f7c2_zPhilosophy & Approach

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.

(Excerpt from Archival Tool Preservation – Cleaning and Tuning)

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