Preservation Beyond Tools – Digital Restoration of Photographs

Tools are not always the only thing restored at Virginia Toolworks. This is a family photo of my mother and her sisters (c. ~1932) that I restored for her 10 years ago. The original photo shown on the left was scanned at a high resolution.  You can see evidence of the silver oxidation and fading, especially around the edges.  Restoration was accomplished through digital manipulation using Adobe Photoshop . The restored image, shown on the right, was then printed on special 100% cotton paper using archival inks.

Pre-Post Comp - Family Photo

Renewed Life for My Dad’s Stanley Level

My dad died when I was still a teenager.  Unlike his father, who was a carpenter, my dad wasn’t much of a woodworker.  The few tools he left behind were mostly garden variety homeowner tools purchased from the local hardware store.  So when my brother gifted me my dad’s old level this summer, I didn’t give it much thought.  It was in horrible condition from decades of neglect.  I brought it home and with barely a glance, set it aside on my workbench to deal with later.

With cooler fall temperatures here on the east coast, I recently pulled it out for a closer look.  Upon closer inspection, I found that it is a Stanley no. 3 level, which was somewhat of a surprise in and of itself.   More interesting, the trademark stamp dates it to the 1890s, approximately 30-35 years before my dad was born.  It could have been my grandfather’s, but even he would have had to have purchased it as a teenager, if acquired new.  Of course there is no way to know where it came from or who originally owned it, but it ended up in my father’s hands, then my brother’s, and thanks to him, it now belongs to me.

As you can see from the quick shot I took before I got started on it, virtually all the original finish is gone and the wood faded from exposure to the elements.  It appears to have spent a good deal of time in a shed or barn.  The primary glass vial was intact and serviceable, but the plumb vial was broken long ago.  Otherwise, all the parts were in place and thankfully, the vial adjustment screws were not frozen.

Level Pre-Restoration

My dad’s 1890s vintage Stanley no. 3 Level, partially disassembled

I disassembled and removed all the hardware to better evaluate what needed to be done in terms of cleanup, and to assess the broken plumb vial.  After cleaning the rust off all the screws and the vial adjustment mechanisms, I cleaned the crud off the brass plates and end caps.  I never polish old brass hardware, but I decided in this case to clean off most of the oxidation in order to better see the center scribe line.

With the hardware cleaned up, I moved on to the wood.  Despite its condition, there were numerous paint specks and splatters from years of use that I wanted to protect.  The wood itself is evidently cherry.  I cleaned it lightly with Kramer’s Blemish Clarifier to remove any loose dirt and crud.  I then applied 6 or 8 applications of Kramer’s Best Antique Improver, which I’ve written about before.  It’s great stuff, all natural (no petrochemicals), and restores life to finished and unfinished wood.

In the meantime, I went to work sourcing a proper replacement vial.  I preferred to keep it as close to original as possible, so new acrylic vials were out of the question.  I found a few glass vials for sale on eBay, but the prices were absurdly high.  So, I started trolling for a suitable “donor” level of approximately the same vintage.  It took 2 or 3 weeks, but I finally found one for under $10 that had the plumb vial intact.  When it arrived, I was surprised to find the condition actually better than the photos reflected.  I actually felt a little guilty stripping it of one of its parts.

Plumb Vial Before Repair

Plumb Assembly Before Vial Replacement

Now if you’ve never replaced a vial in an old Stanley level, you might be surprised to learn that they used Plaster of Paris (or something similar) to cement the glass vial in the tube shaped holder.  This both held it in place and also protected the fragile ends.  Getting the vial out of the old plane was much easier than I anticipated.  Pulling the split holder tube open slightly, the vial and plaster slid right out in one piece.  Once out, the old plaster easily released from the glass vial.  The vial has a paper backing that wraps around the back side, but it isn’t attached.  So carefully removing that paper and setting it aside, a quick cleaning of the glass had it looking very much like new in short order.  Positioning the vial along with the paper backing into the assembly on my dad’s plane, I dabbed some plaster into place at each end and allowed it to dry.

I reattached all the hardware, and calibrated both vials using another level as a guide.  Completed, my dad’s old level is once again accurate and ready for the workshop.  You can just make out the replaced vial in the photo on the left.  Now, as to the donor level I bought, it’s still sitting here in need of a plumb vial.  There’s clearly something wrong with this scenario!

Complete Full ViewComplete Full View 2

Working Within the Limits of Tool Preservation

198 SB3 Type 9 Pre0I spent a long time researching and learning about tool preservation before I ever touched a plane. Even so, it was a couple or three years before I really settled into a comfort zone where the hands on experience I gained began to gel with the “book knowledge” I’d accumulated. For me, the greater appeal has always been geared more toward preservation than restoration (although I use the word restoration more often when casually talking about “cleaning up” a plane or tool). It’s probably a matter of semantics; I think most people equate restoration with refinishing, while preservation, by it’s very definition, speaks to preserving and sustaining. To me, that’s more accurate, and is a key part of my guiding philosophy and approach to tools.

It’s very easy for me to “go too far” when cleaning up a tool, to make it pretty vs. simply making it functional. My underlying intent is to preserve the character, finish, patina, etc. whenever possible. Dirt and rust are not sacred to me (as they are to some collectors), they are destructive elements of neglect. When I’m cleaning up a tool, I try to stay within the same boundaries that a woodworker of 100 years ago would have stayed within. He would have only been interested in preserving his tools, keeping them clean and in good working order, not making them pretty to sell on eBay. I constantly remind myself of that, not because I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but because it’s consistent and true to the values and parameters I defined when I started this venture. It’s my mission statement, if you will.

198 SB3 Type 9 Post7

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Tune Your Block Plane Tonight

Following the popularity of the recent post, Tune Your Hand Plane Tonight, let’s now talk about block planes.  Much of the information will be the same, but block planes are different enough to warrant a dedicated set of instructions.  Besides, since there are probably more block planes owned today and sitting unused in garages and workshops than there are bench planes, they deserve a little love of their own.

As I’ve written before, I have a particularly strong affinity for block planes.  They are  the sexy two seater sports cars of the hand plane world – quick, nimble, and fun to handle.  But more than that, they are extraordinarily versatile and practical for many handy-man chores around the house, as well as indispensable tools in the wood shop.  Even the most ardent power tool user, and certainly the average homeowner, should have at least one or two block planes in his or her arsenal.

Keeping a block plane in good working order is quite easy.  Tuning one for optimal performance is a simple proposition that can be accomplished in an hour or so, if not less.  As I did with the bench plane instructions, I’m going to assume that your block plane is already in a mechanically functional condition and doesn’t require a full blown restoration.  For that level of detail, I recommend reading the posts under Preservation on the menu bar at the top of the page.  Since there are multiple mechanical styles and configurations of block planes, I’m going to try to keep it fairly generic, so you may need to interpolate for your specific plane.

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

High-West-WhiskeyFor working on block planes, let’s go with something a little more exotic than the bourbon we enjoy with our bench planes.  I recommend Rendezvous Rye from the High West distillery.  It is… complex and superb.  Of course, what you drink is up to you, but moderation is certainly recommended, for while you won’t be working with electrically powered tools, you will be handling very sharp objects.  (5 minutes)

 

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

064 SB9.5 -Type 18 Post8The second step is to completely disassemble your plane and clean all the parts.  Using screwdrivers of the appropriate size, remove all the parts – lever cap, cap bolt, lateral lever, eccentric lever, adjustment screws, knobs, etc.  If you’re not completely familiar with what and where everything goes or are worried you might have trouble putting it all back together, take before pictures or notes.

Once disassembled, brush off all the sawdust and dirt.  If the filth is excessive, use a toothbrush and orange degreaser (available at the hardware or grocery store).  Also take a few minutes to clean the threads and slots on all the screws and bolts.  I use a small wire bristle brush with a little turpentine or light penetrating oil like WD-40. Once cleaned, wipe them down and set them out of the way so they don’t attract grit.  (10 minutes)

Step 3 – Hello Froggy

160 SAR5306 Post7Unlike frogs on bench planes, the frogs on block planes are usually fixed platforms cast into the body of the plane.  The top of the frog provides a small platform for the iron to sit, while the flat area behind the mouth offers support near the cutting edge.  Both surface areas should be clean of dirt and debris.  A toothbrush or brass bristle brush with degreaser works well, although you can also use WD-40 or turpentine.  The face of the frog is one of the more critical surfaces of the plane.  Once clean, fit the iron against the frog and verify that it sits flat and securely with no wobble.   You don’t want any wiggle or movement, so any high spots or irregularities in the casting need to be carefully filed or sanded flat.   (5-15 minutes)

Step 4 – Adjustimability of the Mouth

165 SB9.5 Type 12 Post7Many “premium” models of block planes feature an adjustable mouth opening.  This typically means the front section of plane’s sole is a separate piece than can be positioned toward the toe (thus opening the size of the mouth) or closer to the iron (closing the size of the mouth opening).   It is necessary to periodically remove this piece to clean out sawdust that has accumulated, and to clean and lubricate the tracks upon which the plate rides.  If it doesn’t adjust easily forward and back, it needs attention.

Since you’ve already disassembled the plane, make sure both the plate itself and the receiver in which it sits are both clean of debris.  Brush the edges of the plate and tracks of the receiver with a brass or wire bristle brush lubricated with light oil or turpentine.  Fit the plate in place and verify that it moves fairly freely.  It is not normally necessary (nor desirable) to sand the edges of the plate to make it move more easily, although this is sometimes necessary if the plane is vintage and the plate a replacement.  If you decide metal removal  is absolutely necessary, be careful and go very slow.  You can’t un-sand.  (5-15 minutes)

Step 5 – Inspect the Sole

165 SB9.5 Type 12 Post5Take a look at the sole (bottom) of the plane.  Inspect for dents or dings with raised points around the edges that might dig into your wood surface when planing.  If you find any, carefully file them flat with a mill file, followed by a little 220 grit sandpaper.  Unlike bench planes, which have a lot more surface area, flattening the sole of a block plane is a relatively painless process.  Although not usually a critical requirement, flattening the bottom will often provide superior results in use.

First, temporarily re-install the iron and lever cap and tighten to normal pressure.  This ensures the body will be under the same stress (and any possible distortion) as when in actual use.  Working against a dead flat substrate such as a granite sharpening block or the iron bed of a table saw,  start with 60 grit and go through progressively finer grits until you are satisfied that the toe, heel, and areas just in front of and behind the mouth are all completely flat and smooth.  I usually stop with 320 grit.  Aluminum Oxide sandpaper is my preference. If you don’t want to invest in a granite sharpening block, granite floor tiles from your local home center are just the right size and cost around $5 each.  (30-45 minutes depending)

Step 6 – Time to Sharpen

Sharpening SetupYes, sharpening is the step everyone loves to hate, the step that prevents so many people from ever trying a hand plane.  The trick is not to wait until you need to use the tool.  Make time for sharpening in advance, and make a party out of it!  Okay , so maybe not a party, but there is something truly rewarding about getting an edge you can shave with.  It’s relaxing and I really do enjoy it.  Since this is not a sharpening tutorial, I’ll leave the particulars on methodology to another post or reference.  But if you do nothing else, take the time to put a keen edge on your plane’s iron.  A 25 degree bevel works perfectly on most block planes – both low angle and standard angle models.  The angle of the plane’s bed varies on these models, usually either 12 degrees for low angle planes or 20 degrees for standard angle planes.  Add the 25 degree bevel and you end up with a 37 degree low angle of cut, or a 45 degree standard angle of cut (same as bench planes).  Add a micro bevel if you want, and don’t forget to polish the unbeveled back edge. (30 minutes)

Step 7 – Lubrication

Pure Oil 1Lubrication is a good idea, but should be done sparingly since oil attracts dirt and grit.  I add just a drop of light oil to the threads of all the bolts and screws before re-installing them.  I also add a drop to all the moving/adjustment parts, but wipe them with a rag afterward so that only a light film is left.  They certainly don’t need to be dripping.

Some guys believe in waxing the sole.  Nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t use a silicone based wax.  However, I just wipe down all exterior surfaces with a little Jojoba oil for storage.  (5 minutes)

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

187 SB18 Type 14 Post1Time to put it all back together.  Re-attach the eccentric lever and front plate (if it has one), adjustment wheel, lateral lever, knobs, etc. and all related hardware.  Carefully put the iron and cap iron assembly in place being careful not to fould the newly sharpened edge, and install the lever cap.  It should lock down securely, but not so tight as to inhibit raising and lowering the iron.  Adjust the front plate (if it has one) forward or backward as needed for the type of planing you intend to do (again, see open vs closed mouth).  Once set, lower the iron into the mouth to take your first test cut.   All of your hardware and adjustment mechanisms should move freely and smoothly. (10-15 minutes)

Unless you run into an unexpected problem, the entire tuning and sharpening process can be completed in about 1 to 2-1/2 hours, and even quicker if you’re tuning a new plane or re-tuning a plane that has already been tuned or well cared for.  It’s easy, rewarding, and builds both knowledge and confidence in your ability to master hand and block planes.

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Tune Your Hand Plane Tonight

Among the most frequent web searches that lead people to this site come from those looking for information on tuning a hand plane.  Admittedly, for those new to the craft, or at least new to using hand tools, the prospect of setting up and fine tuning a hand plane is daunting.  After all, the nomenclature of parts is bewildering, the functional mechanics are an exercise in geometry and physics, and then there’s that whole issue with sharpening.  It’s no wonder so many people would rather spend an evening prepping for a colonoscopy.

But yea I say unto you, fear not!  Tending to a neglected (or new) hand plane is both relaxing and rewarding, and in most cases takes just an hour or two.  Best of all, the gratification is instant, the rewards immediate.

Now in the interest of keeping things simple, I’m going to assume that your plane is already in a mechanically functional condition and doesn’t require a full blown restoration.  For that level of detail, I recommend reading the posts under Preservation on the menu bar at the top of the page.  I’m also going to focus solely on bench planes.  I’ll cover black planes in a later post.  For simple tuning in one evening, read on…

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

PVW-trio-4What you drink is up to you, and moderation is certainly recommended, for while you won’t be working with powered tools, you will be handling very sharp objects.  I personally prefer a finer bourbon, perhaps Maker’s 46 or Elijiah Craig 18 year, or if I’m in a particularly festive mood, a little Jefferson Presidential Select 17 year or Pappy Van Winkle.  Either way, begin by putting on some relaxing music and have a drink.  (5 minutes)

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

Disassembled Plane, Ready for TuningThe second step is to completely disassemble your plane and clean all the parts.  Using screwdrivers of the appropriate size, remove all the parts, screw, bolts, washers, etc.  If you’re not completely familiar with what and where everything goes or are worried you might have trouble putting it all back together, take pictures or notes.  Or just pay attention; it’s not that complicated for heaven’s sake.

Once disassembled, brush off all the sawdust and dirt.  If the filth is excessive, use a toothbrush and orange degreaser (available at the hardware or grocery store).  Also take a few minutes to clean the threads and slots on all the screws and bolts.  I use a small wire bristle brush with a little turpentine or light penetrating oil like WD-40. Once cleaned, wipe them down and set them out of the way so they don’t attract grit.  (10 minutes)

Step 3 – Inspect the Sole

Stanley No. 7 Jointer PlaneTake a look at the sole (bottom) of the plane.  Put a straight edge against it if it makes you feel better.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that it’s flat enough (which it undoubtedly is), set it aside and have another drink.  Seriously, after owning hundreds and using dozens of planes over the years, I’m convinced it’s rare to come across one with a sole so warped, cupped, or bowed that it’s unusable.  If there are any dents or dings with raised points around the edges that risk digging into your wood surface, carefully file them flat with a mill file, followed by a little 220 grit sandpaper.  You can also use the sandpaper or steel wool to remove any heavy crud – I suggest lubricating it generously with WD-40, Mineral Spirits, or Turpentine.  Working against a dead flat substrate such as a granite or the iron bed of a table saw is recommended.  Go easy.  No need to overdo it; you just want it to be clean and smooth.  (5-30 minutes depending)

Step 4 – Address the Frog

Lap frog face on edge of stone to protect yokeFirst inspect the seat for the frog on the top side of the plane’s base.  This is the area of contact where the frog attaches to the body of the plane.  The mating surfaces must be clean and flat.   Use a toothbrush with the degreaser.  If there is stubborn crud to be removed, use a brass bristle brush.  If the crud is really bad, you can use a small steel brush, but be very careful to to damage the surrounding finish.  Mating surfaces on the frog itself should also be cleaned in the manner described above.

The face of the frog is one of the more critical surfaces of the plane.  It needs to be as flat as you can get it so the iron sits completely flush against.  You don’t want any wiggle or movement, so any high spots or irregularities in the casting need to be filed or sanded flat.  I go back to my granite surface and sandpaper for this.  Taking care not to damage the tip of the yoke that engages the iron and cap/iron, carefully sand the face surface of the frog until it is as flat as possible.  Change directions periodically to keep it even.  You only need to do enough to ensure the iron sits flat against it.  (15-30 minutes)

Step 5 – Polish the Cap Iron

Cap IronThe leading edge of your cap iron (also called the chip breaker) will need a little attention.  Flatten the leading edge of the cap iron where it contacts the iron so that it seats completely flush against it.  You don’t want any gaps that shavings can slip through.  While you’re at it, polish the top side of that leading edge as well (the hump) to make it nice and smooth.  Less friction makes the shavings pass over it more easily, helping to prevent clogs.   The smoother the better, but don’t obsess over this step.  (10 minutes)   

Step 6 – Sharpen the Iron

Sharpening SetupYes, I know, the step everyone loves to hate.  Even for me, it’s often a task that I procrastinate over, but once I get going, I actually enjoy it.  Since this is not a sharpening tutorial, I’ll leave the particulars on methodology to another post or reference.  But if you do nothing else, take the time to put a keen edge on your plane’s iron.  A 25 degree bevel works perfectly on bench planes; add a micro bevel if you’re into that, and don’t forget to polish the unbeveled back edge. (30 minutes)

Step 7 – Lubrication

Pure Oil 1Lubrication is a good idea, but should be done sparingly since oil attracts dirt and grit.  I add just a drop of light oil to the threads of all the bolts and screws before re-installing them.  I also add a drop to all the moving/adjustment parts, but wipe them with a rag afterward so that only a light film is left.  They certainly don’t need to be dripping.

Some guys believe in waxing the sole.  Nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t use a silicone based wax.  However, I just wipe down all exterior surfaces with a little Jojoba oil for storage.  (5 minutes)

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

Stanley Bailey no. 5, Type 17 - WWII VintageTime to put it all back together.  Re-attach the frog and all its related hardware first, but don’t tighten just yet.   Put the knob and tote back on if you took it off.  Carefully put the iron and cap iron assembly in place and install the lever cap.  It should lock down securely, but not so tight as to inhibit raising and lowering the iron.  Adjust the frog forward or backward as needed until the iron’s cutting edge is positioned appropriately for the type of planing you intend to do (see open vs closed mouth).  Once set, tighten down the frog and lower the iron into the mouth to take your first test cut.   All of your hardware and adjustment mechanisms should move freely and smoothly. (10-15 minutes)

Unless you run into an unexpected problem, the entire tuning and sharpening process can be completed in about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hours, and even quicker if you’re tuning a new plane or re-tuning a plane that has already been tuned or well cared for.  It’s easy, rewarding, and builds both knowledge and confidence in your ability to master hand planes.

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Wait!  What about the tote and knob, you ask?  You can read all about their care and repair right here.

The Restoration of Tools and Refinement of People

The following post was originally published on The Character of Leadership in 2010:

“I have a thing for old tools.  Not the ones with cords and plugs, mind you, but old hand tools that predate electricity.  The ones guided by hand, powered by muscle, carefully honed and meticulously cared for to retain their edge and effectiveness at doing the job for which they were intended.  These are elegant, tactile tools of history, character and quality – tools upon which the livelihood of their owner depended.  These tools didn’t sit collecting dust on shelves in garages, used casually or occasionally and allowed to rust.  These were tools of journeymen and tradesmen, carpenters, cabinet makers, shipbuilders, and carriage makers – tools that were passed down through multiple generations.  Every one has a story to tell; every paint spot, dent, ding, scratch and chip reflects a different point in time and a different job completed.

Sadly, most of these tools eventually fell victim to post-WWII modern industrialization when mass production, cheap technology, and the population explosion shifted consumer culture from quality and durability to speed and ease of use.  Today, we’ll spend $200 on a cordless drill and toss it out when the battery no longer holds a charge.  All the while, the noble tools of iron, steel, and wood that built this country sit quietly idle, rusting away in barns and workshops and garages.  Few know how to use them, fewer still know how to restore them to functional condition, and just about everyone else wonders why bother doing either.  I am one of the relative few who does both.

Opinions on the restoration of old tools vary widely and are frequently debated within their communities of interest.  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.  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.

Refining people is not unlike the restoration and care of vintage tools.  Regardless of age or experience, there are always rough edges to be eased, working mechanisms in need of adjustment, and business implements to be sharpened to produce the desired result.  People in an organization require constant tuning and ongoing maintenance in order to function at their peak capacity.  Good leaders exist, not simply as masters of the tools they wield.  Rather in the manner of fine craftsmen, they are charged with refining, tuning, and honing the tools in their care, through the edification and development of the men and women they lead.

The refinement of these human tools requires a firm but gently touch.  In time, their mettle (pun intended) is reflected in a patina developed through experience, accomplishment, and occasional failure.  Skills develop through hands on instruction and are shaped by practice.  The quality of results improves as the tool is tuned to achieve the task intended.   Adjustments are made, impurities cleaned, and accomplishment is rewarded until eventually the tool attains a confidence, character, and integrity all its own.  Shavings are gossamer thin, lines are cut straight and true, and revealed in every achievement is the precision of the tool and the influence of its custodian.

Without constant care, tools become dulled by use – corrosion slowly creeps in, alignment is eventually lost, and the ability of the tool to perform as expected is compromised.  Just as the journeyman of 100 years ago was personally responsible for the care and maintenance of his tools, so are the business leaders of people today.  In a culture where tools are deemed disposable, easily replaced by a trip to the local home center, leaders of people cannot afford to be so cavalier.  These human tools represent the livelihood of the organization. They are relatively expensive and the companies that employ them rely on them to sustain and grow the business. They must not be allowed to fall idle and rust.”

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Tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

Setting Up and Tuning a Hand Plane

In today’s culture of instant gratification and disposable everything, most of us are conditioned to expect the stuff we buy to just work right out of the box.  Even the caveat “some assembly required” is printed on the packaging of many items, just to make sure there is no misunderstanding.  Published reviews of shop tools invariably dedicate an entire section to the experience of unpacking, cleaning, and setting up the tool for use, before the subject of functionality is even broached.  Whether a realistic expectation or not, once a tool is put together, most people want no further inconvenience beyond plugging it in and turning it on.

It’s no surprise that so many ‘modern’ woodworkers, especially those used to plug-and-play electric tools, eschew anything that requires sharpening, let alone tuning and fettling to make it work properly.  But the fact is, whether 100 years old or brand spanking new, virtually all hand planes benefit from some degree of tuning to bring them to their full potential.  Fortunately, this is not a difficult proposition, and actually aids in better understanding how the tool functions and how to get the most out of it.

Below are the basic steps for setting up and tuning a hand plane for use.  Since there are so many variations of planes, both new and used, I’m purposefully keeping it fairly generic, so some interpretation may be necessary when applying the concepts to the tool in front of you.  But don’t worry, there are no tool police surveilling workshops and garages.  Feel free to skip a step if you don’t think it’s relevant or needed.

Step 1 – One Righteous Sole
I’m not a stickler when it comes to flattening the sole of a plane.  After owning hundreds and using dozens over the years, it’s fairly rare to come across a plane with a sole so warped, cupped, or bowed that it’s unusable.  If you happen upon one that is unusable, my advice is to return it, sell it, or throw it away.  The only possible exceptions are block planes, which are pretty easy to flatten due to their smaller size.  Bench planes are far more difficult, especially the larger ones.  You can take them to a machine shop and have them milled or lapped flat, but forget trying to flatten them yourself with sandpaper unless the problem is very minor.

Good luck trying to lap this 22″ bad boy!

If you do decide to lap your plane’s sole flat, you’ll need a dead flat substrate.  The cast iron bed of a table saw or jointer works well, or if you don’t have one of those available and want to keep it on the cheap, a piece of 12” x 12” or larger granite surface plate or a marble tile from your home center will work for block planes, and typically costs less than $5.00.  Just make sure you retract the blade and tension the lever cap as you would in actual use.  This puts the correct stress on the plane body.  I start with 60 grit and progress up to about 320.  Removing high spots (convexity) is more critical than low spots (concavity).  Keep in mind that you don’t even need the entire sole dead flat.  As long as you have smooth contact at the toe, around the mouth, and at the heel, the plane will work just fine.

Vintage planes often have raised dings, especially along the edges, toe or heel.  A flat mill file makes very quick work of these minor problems.  Finally, some woodworkers file a very small 45 degree chamfer along each edge of the sole.  This is completely optional, but helps prevent inadvertent gouges when using the plane should you tip it slightly.  I’ve seen some Stanley planes from the mid 20th century that appear to have been made that way at the factory.

Step 2 – Flat Frogs Make Better Mates
Bench planes have removable frogs.  Block planes do not.  However, the function of the frog is the same – it provides a secure base to support the iron.  In order for the plane to shave wood correctly, there must not be any movement (wobble, play, rocking, etc.) to the iron.  It must be firmly seated against the frog, so the face of the frog must be as flat as possible.

On your bench plane, unscrew and remove the frog and all of its hardware, including the lever cap bolt on the front and the adjustment plate and screw on the rear.  Taking care not to damage the tip of the yoke that engages the iron and cap/iron, carefully sand the face surface of the frog until it is as flat as possible. I use the edge of my granite block for this, and change direction often to ensure I get a surface as flat as possible.  No need to obsess over it, you just need the iron to seat firmly against it.  While your at it, touch up the mating surfaces on the bottom of the frog where it attaches to the plane base.  Also take a moment to touch up the mating surfaces on the plane body too.  You want the frog to seat as firmly as possible to the body.

Lap frog face on edge of stone to protect yoke

On vintage planes, thoroughly clean all the threads of the screws and bolts to remove any crud or rust, and apply a little light oil before reassembly.  This is particularly important for the large brass adjustment knob, which needs to turn freely along the full length of its bolt.

On your block plane, the frog is not removable, so you only need to touch up the seat with a firm sanding block to ensure it is flat.  Since the flat sloped area behind the mouth on the plane’s base provides much of the forward support for the iron, it needs to be flat too.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to get to, and since you don’t want to enlarge the mouth at all, just a touch using a small piece of angled wood with fine sandpaper wrapped around it is about as far as you want to take it.  Thankfully, this is all that is usually needed to remove old crud. A Dremel or quality flexible shaft tool with a wire wheel brush will also work if the problem is limited to dirt and light corrosion.  Finally, as on the bench plane, clean the threads on all the hardware and add a little light oil to help retard moisture and rust.

Step 3 – Chip Breakers, not Deal Breakers
On bench planes, the chip breaker, more accurately referred to as the Cap Iron, serves three important purposes.  1. It adds rigidity to the iron (blade). 2. It provides a small opening through which the depth adjustment mechanism engages the iron.  3. It helps ‘break’ the shavings as they rise off the cutting edge of the iron, thus preventing them from jamming up the throat of the plane.

Most cap irons, even on new planes, benefit from a little tuning to make them more efficient.  The leading contact edge, where it rests upon the edge of the iron, needs to be completely flat so that no light (or shavings) can pass between the two.  This is a simple matter of a couple of passes on a sharpening stone.  I use my 1000 grit stone as anything higher is overkill.  If you don’t have one, use whatever comparable sharpening media you have available.  Ideally, you should undercut it slightly, so just the front edge makes initial contact.  As you tighten the cap iron against the iron, it will flatten out some.  The idea is to make it completely flush so that fine shavings do not slip in between the cap iron and iron.

Cap iron with polished arch

The other tuning point on the cap iron is its forward arch.  For lowered resistance and smooth chip passage, this arch should be polished.  You can do this by hand using your sharpening stone or sandpaper.  Again, 1000 grit or thereabouts is enough.  Smoother is better, and there’s no downside to over-polishing other than the time it takes.  Once complete, you may need to remove any burr that has formed along the front edge.  I run mine edgewise (like cutting with a knife) down a piece of scrap wood.

Note that block planes do not have cap irons.

Step 4 – Pop a Lever Cap on that Sucka
While appearances and designs vary greatly, all planes have some sort of lever cap.  The lever cap provides the tension that holds the iron in place.  There’s not really a whole lot that needs to be done to the lever cap.  Just ensure that the contact edge on its back side is reasonably flat, so it makes flush contact with the cap iron on which it sits.  Wood shavings will find their way through the tiniest of gaps.  If you’re obsessive, you can polish the forward arch a little just as you did with the cap iron.  You might also add a drop of oil to the working joints to ensure smooth operation.

Bench plane and block plane lever caps

On block planes, since there is no cap iron, the lever cap plays a more important role.  Take a fine file to the back side and remove any rough spots, giving close attention to the leading contact edge.  This is most important on block planes with cast iron hooded style lever caps, such as the old Stanley 9-1/2.  The back sides of these caps are notoriously rough and unfortunately japanned. You don’t need to remove all the japanning, but you do want to get a smooth line of contact down front where it touches the iron.  File it smooth and give it a couple of swipes across your 1000 grit stone.  I like to touch up the top front edge as well, but this isn’t critical.

Step 5 – I Pity the Fool Who Don’t Sharpen His Tool!
The simply fact is, even with brand new planes, the irons require final honing before use.  This is not due to some lack of attention on the part of manufacturers.  Irons are provided this way on purpose, since the manufacturer has no way of knowing what you will be using the plane for, and subsequently how the iron would need to be honed.  If you do nothing else in the way of tuning your plane, at least take the time to properly sharpen it.  Do not skip this step!  Sharpen the iron.  Again, sharpen the iron!  Sharpen it!

Basic sharpening setup using a waterstone

Since sharpening is such an expansive topic in and of itself, I will leave the specific details for other posts.  What you need to know in the context of tuning, however, is that any plane, new or old, requires initial sharpening and honing.  At a minimum, new plane irons need to have their un-beveled side honed flat and polished to at least 4000 grit and preferably 8000 grit.  You don’t need to fuss with the entire surface; just the first 1/8” to 1/4” along the cutting edge will do.  You also need to put a final honing on the bevel edge itself.  It may look sharp, but it needs to be honed, again, to at least 8000 grit.  The goal is to get your cutting edge to as close as possible to a zero degree radius.

Sharpening is too often the deal breaker that dissuades woodworkers from trying hand tools.  This in unfortunate, for it requires little monetary investment to get started, is not particularly difficult to learn, and can be accomplished rather quickly with surprisingly good results.  For detailed information on sharpening, I recommend investing in one of the outstanding books on the subject by Ron Hock or Leonard Lee.   Chris Schwarz has also written a number of fantastic articles on sharpening plane irons. Sharpen the iron.  Again, sharpen the iron!  Sharpen it!

Step 6 – Final Adjustments
Now that you’ve finished tuning and sharpening your plane, it’s time to put it all back together and adjust it for use.  Hopefully, you have a better understanding of what each part does and how they all function together.  This will make adjusting it for use, and while in use, more intuitive and fluid.

A few points of consideration…

While the frog’s position on bench planes is adjustable, meaning you can shift if forward to decrease the size of the mouth opening or backward to increase the size of the opening, it needs to be firmly attached in whatever position you decide so that it doesn’t move when in use.  In other words, to adjust its position, you will have to loosen the screws that attach it to the base.  Without getting into detail, use a larger mouth opening for thicker cuts, and a smaller mouth opening for fine shavings.  Set the position of the frog where you want it and screw it down tight, understanding you may need to do this a couple of times before you get to just the right position.

The cap iron should be firmly screwed to the iron, leaving just a tiny edge of the iron protruding forward.  This should generally be as small as possible – 1/64” for fine shavings to 1/16” or more for heavier cuts, depending on the amount of camber on the iron. The iron/cap iron in place, the lever cap bolt should be tightened just enough to hold the iron firmly so it doesn’t slip in use, but not so tight that you can’t adjust it’s depth of cut using the large brass or steel wheel at the rear of the frog.  If that knob won’t turn, the bolt holding the lever cap is too tight.  This too, may take a couple of tries before you get the feel of it.

Holding the plane upside down, and looking down the sole at a low angle, lower the iron until it just begins to appear through the mouth – just a whisper.  Note that it’s not unusual for there to be quite a bit of slop in the wheel that lowers and raises the iron, as much as ½ to ¾ of a turn.  Just turn it until you begin to feel resistance.  Make any lateral adjustments necessary using the lateral adjustment lever that extends from the top of the frog.  Turn it upright and make a test pass on a piece of scrap wood.  If the plane digs in, back off the depth just a bit.  If it misses entirely, lower the iron a little.  You will quickly get a feel for when it’s ‘right,’ as evidenced by the rewarding ‘thwack’ sound a plane makes when it cuts a perfect curl.

On block planes, adjustments for use are a simple matter of properly tensioning the lever cap and setting the throat opening via the front adjustment plate (if the plane has one).  The same principles apply that you use in adjusting your bench planes.

Tuning a hand plane is not a difficult endeavor.  Once practiced, the whole process can be accomplished in about a half hour, even less depending on the tool.  Rather than view it as an unpleasant chore, I actually enjoy it, especially later in the evening when the dust has settled and the world is quiet.  Pour yourself a measure of Kentucky’s best brown, put on your music of choice, and saddle up to your work bench.

Stanley no. 5 Jack Plane, c. 1940s

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Tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

Stanley No. 7 Reflects Secret History

Some months back I purchased a particularly beautiful old Stanley no. 7 jointer plane dating from the late 1880s with the intention of reselling it. It was sharp, clean from decades of proper care, and looked like it was still being used a week ago – absolutely amazing condition for its age. The original owner’s initials were neatly stamped on one side and it came from his family’s estate, which was sadly being liquidated. The plane was remarkably perfect by all accounts – except one…

At some point, almost certainly early in its life, the plane was dropped, breaking off the top quarter of the frog. In a classic reflection of those parsimonious times and testament to the care the owner gave to his tools, he went to unusual lengths to repair that frog, fabricating a perfectly fitting replacement section out of brass, secured with handmade copper rivets. Normally I shy away from tools with such repairs, but the complexity and care given to this one fascinated me. It was extremely well executed, having no doubt taken the better part of a day (perhaps even two) to complete, with an aesthetic effect that was detectable only upon close inspection. More important, it also returned the plane to perfect working order.

I was so conflicted I let the plane sit in my shop for weeks as I tried to decide what to do with it. Obviously treasured by its original owner, whether through necessity or nostalgia, it was used and handed down within his family for numerous generations. I hated to think of it being sold for scrap or parts after 130 years, especially given its impeccable working condition. Eventually reason and practicality prevailed, and I reluctantly decided to just list it at a fixed price on eBay, hoping I would find a buyer who could appreciate it as it was. And find a buyer I did… one with a surprising affinity for this particular plane.

Turns out the guy who bought it already had at least one other plane from the same estate with the same owner’s initials stamped on the side. He wrote and told me he was so intrigued at the care the owner had given his tools, he felt compelled to own this no. 7 just for the repair it featured. For him, the repair reflected the respect and value afforded the tool, and that little bit of history made it all the more desirable. He was excited to get it and I was thrilled to have found it a home with a new owner who ‘gets it’ – who appreciates that tool for the secret history it carries in an exceptionally well executed repair. You have to love that!

What to Look for When Buying Vintage Hand Planes

c. 1940s Stanley No. 5 Jack Plane

When I first started buying and collecting vintage hand planes, much of the available information I read online included ominous warnings about warped, twisted soles, unstable frogs, and mangled throats. Sounded more like a Stephen King movie than a discussion about tools! With recommendations for evaluation that involved engineering squares and feeler gauges. I was convinced that no vintage plane I purchased could ever possibly work correctly until I lapped the sole and re-machined every contact surface. It only took me suffering through flattening one or two planes to come to my senses and question just what the heck I was trying to accomplish.

Once I actually started sharpening, tuning, and using hand planes, I realized that most of these warnings were just a lot of unwarranted hooey. The vast majority of vintage planes I’ve owned and used over the years were actually just fine. Naturally, using a nice new Lie Nielsen or Veritas plane provides a noticeably different experience, but at a substantial cost premium. I’m just not there yet, and may never be. Here’s why…

The quality of the tool doesn’t contribute nearly as much to the end result as does the skill of the user. Craftsmen of 100 or so years ago made do just fine with the planes that were available. The average woodworker at the turn of the century didn’t own a micrometer or a machined straight edge. Many didn’t even use a measuring device, instead relying on dividers, marking gauges, and geometry. They used the tools and technology of the day, and produced some of the finest furniture in the world.

That’s not to say that tool quality isn’t important. Or more precisely, it’s not even so much the quality of the tool itself, but the quality of the tool’s tuning combined with proper technique that produces the desired result. As many others have pointed out before, a plane is really nothing more than a jig for holding a cutting implement at a consistent angle. With the appropriate ‘jig-o-metrics’ (tuning) applied, a properly sharpened cutting edge, and skillful application by the user, even the cheapest home center hand plane can competently get the job done. What quality of design, machining, and related workmanship gets you is ease of use and greater versatility. With tighter tolerances you get less slop and greater precision. While a high quality tool won’t improve the results of an unskilled user, it can certainly improve the results of one who has mastered its use.

All that said, there are some red flags to look for when shopping for hand planes, and with the abundance of vintage planes available on eBay, yard sales, and tool swaps across the country, there’s no reason to settle for a tool with serious problems. The challenge is knowing what is serious, and what isn’t. So let’s take it part by part. I’ll try to keep it simple.

Stanley No. 7, Lever Cap & Iron/Cap Iron

Body & Sole
Also sometimes referred to as the ‘base’ or ‘shoe,’ the body of the plane, as the name implies, is the main frame. The sole is the surface that comes in contact with the wood when using the plane. The main thing to look for on the body is cracks and/or repairs. Planes with this sort of damage are best avoided. Small chips along the top edges (cheeks) don’t affect usability, but are cosmetically undesirable. With so many planes available, why settle? The other thing to inspect on the body is the opening where the iron (blade) protrudes. It’s important that the opening, called the mouth or throat, isn’t chipped and hasn’t been repaired or enlarged through filing. The throat opening affects your ability to properly set the iron, and is one area of the plane where precision is extremely important.

Pitting is usually high on the list of problems to avoid. Again, with so many planes available, there’s no reason to settle for a tool with heavy pitting. Pitting is damage from rust that has eaten into the metal. In my experience, unless the pitting is very heavy, it doesn’t usually have much effect on a plane’s performance. Like all the normal scratches, scars, and dings from use that you’ll see, very light areas of pitting are not uncommon and are of little concern with regards to practical usability.

Some folks might disagree, but I don’t worry too much about the flatness of the sole. Having owned more than 250 vintage planes over the course of the time, I’ve only had a few that were unusable, and each of them had other issues more critical than the flatness of the bottom. Slap a ruler or straightedge against it if it makes you feel better or if you’re spending more than $75-$100 on a standard bench plane to use. However, if your need for critical tolerances is that great, I recommend you invest in a modern Lie-Nielsen or Veritas plane. They are machined to engineering grade tolerances, but you’ll pay a premium for them.

Knobs and Totes
The wooden knobs and totes (handle) on planes are frequently found with chips, cracks, and breaks. Aside from the obvious preference that they be perfect, minor damage is usually just cosmetic. Functionality is only compromised when the damage is so bad that they are unstable or inhibiting a proper grip on the plane. Breaks and cracks can often be repaired, even if the damage is severe, and replacements are abundant. If the tool is in otherwise good condition, a damaged or missing knob or tote isn’t a deal breaker for me. For more information check my post on repairing knobs and totes.

Stanley #7 Frog

Frog
The frog is the part of the plane that attaches to the top side of the base and provides an angled seat for the iron (blade), as well as a mechanism to adjust the depth and lateral positioning of the iron. I have no idea why it’s called a frog. Damage to look for is a missing lateral adjustment lever, which was a feature on the frogs of most Stanley (and other) bench planes manufactured after the mid 1880s. The lateral lever sticks up from the top of the frog and enables lateral (side to side) positioning of the iron. Every now and then this lever is missing. Ideally it should be straight and tight, although bends can be straightened and if it’s wobbly, it can be tightened by carefully tapping its rivet with a small ball peen hammer.

Broken and chipped frogs are the main concern and should be avoided. Look close at the bolt hole in the front center of the frog to make sure there are no chips around the edge. Once again, replacement frogs are fairly plentiful, but you will need to find one from the same period of manufacture to ensure proper fit since the design changed over the years.

Iron and Cap Iron
The iron, also referred to as the ‘cutter’ or ‘blade,’ is the tool’s cutting implement. The main things to look for are how much usable length remains and the condition of the surface metal. Pitted irons are not necessarily a lost cause (see my post on salvaging irons), but are problematic. Again, period irons are abundant, but if you’re buying the plane to use, you’ll want to invest in a modern replacement from somewhere like Hock, Lie-Nielsen, or Lee Valley Tools. They are far superior and will make a significant difference in the plane’s performance.

The cap iron, which is sometimes called the chipbreaker or double iron, attaches to the top of the iron and provides both stability and a raised surface to literally break the shaving as it’s cut from the wood. Other than very heavy pitting or a hack grinding job, I’ve rarely seen one of these that wasn’t usable.

Lever Cap
The lever cap sits on top of the iron/cap iron assembly and provides tension to hold them against the frog. Lever caps are sometimes found with chips along the bottom edge, either from having been dropped or used as a screwdriver to loosen the wide screw that attaches the iron and cap iron. While unsightly, a chip along the bottom edge doesn’t really affect its functionality. Again replacements are plentiful. Of greater concern is if it’s missing the tab lever at the top, which acts as a cam that locks the lever cap against the frog. It’s rare that this is missing, but the lever cap cannot function without it.

Frog Adjustment Hardware

Hardware
I’ve covered all the major functional parts, so all that remains is the miscellaneous hardware on the plane – screws, bolts, brass knob, etc. You will want to make sure all the parts are there in order for the plane to function, unless you’re willing to buy replacements on eBay. Since Stanley and others used a very unusual threading on their hardware, you won’t find replacements in your hardware store.

The knob and tote are attached to the plane with a bolt that is threaded on both ends, topped with a brass nut that is visible from the top. Models made during WWII may have single piece steel bolts.

The frog should have a bolt sticking out of the front of it that holds the iron/cap iron via the lever cap. The frog itself is attached to the base with two smaller bolts with washers. At the rear of the frog should be a large brass knob that is used to raise and lower the iron through the throat. It’s important that this knob turn freely across the full length of its bolt, although it’s not unusual to have to clean this area thoroughly before it will work as intended.

On Stanley bench planes made after 1907, there will be an adjustment bolt that engages a small plate attached to the bottom rear of the frog. This enables fine forward/backward adjustments to the frog, which has an effect similar to closing the throat of the plane for fine cuts. Since most bench planes did not have an adjustable throat as found on some of the better block planes, this frog adjustment allowed movement of the entire frog, which accomplished the same thing. Moving the frog back opens the throat for thicker cuts, while moving it forward closes the throat for very fine shavings. It’s actually pretty rare to find this feature permanently frozen due to rust and corrosion, but it’s something to look out for. While it may take a few days of soaking in penetrating oil, they almost always free up.

That’s pretty much it. Very few vintage hand planes are in perfect condition, so it’s important to have realistic expectations. Almost all show the effects of age and use. This is what gives them character. Perhaps most important for new buyers shopping for a first hand plane is to first understand how they function and how they are used. That will make evaluating condition much easier and the assessment more relevant. Additionally, all new hand plane purchasers need to understand that no tool they buy, whether 100 years old or manufactured yesterday, is going to function effectively without proper tuning. That discussion I will save for another post.

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Tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

Condition – The Eye of the Seller

026 SB4-T19 ebay
When it comes to vintage tools, condition, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder… or more specifically, the eye of the seller. So many online tool sellers throw around vague, undefined terms like ‘great condition’, ‘mint condition’ etc., it’s hard to get a good sense of exactly what you’re buying, especially on Ebay. I use such terms sparingly, and only as a complement to a much more specific description of condition and features. That’s why I write my listings using specific descriptives, not subjective adjectives.

Unless they were hermetically sealed soon after they were made, all vintage tools show some degree of age, whether through loss of finish, dents, dings, and scratches from use, transport, and storage, rust damage, or simply darkening from age and environment. It’s also healthy to keep in mind that relatively speaking, these were not precision made tools in the way we think of precision made tools today. Quality control was more subjective, and let’s face it, these were tools of tradesmen who carried them around in wooden boxes on horse drawn carriages. It’s a wonder any of them even survived! Customers of the day were not likely too concerned with cosmetics. They were not the disposable, ‘throw it away and buy a new one’ culture we are today. They used things until they were worn out, then they fixed them up as best they could, and used them some more.

For me, mint condition means brand new, unused, just as it was when it was sold. Anything less is near mint, very fine, fine, good, or user grade. For tools that are 50 to 150 years old to be in mint condition, they would have to not only have never been used, but kept in climate controlled storage so as not to sustain permanent rust or corrosion damage. I’ve seen very few tools that meet this criteria. Near mint to me means the tools was never used or used very lightly. It may well show some evidence of age, but overall looks like something akin to a floor sample. I think far less than 5% of vintage tools fall into this range. The vast majority of tools fall somewhere between Very Fine (maybe 5-10%), Fine (10%), Good and User (45%), and Poor (30%). All of these are, of course, very rough estimates based on my own observations and experience.

I guess the takeaway is, when you’re shopping for vintage tools, whether to use or display, ignore the subjective descriptors and adjectives such as ‘Good’ or ‘Mint’ or ‘Perfect.’ Don’t make assumptions about features, condition, or whether the tool is in working condition. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request additional photos (if the tool is being sold online). And always be wary of tools that have been over-cleaned or ‘restored.’ To some, restored simply means sharpened. To others, it means completely refinished.

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