Monday, August 10, 2020

Learning to Rehab Planes Gently

Before I went to Spain several years ago, I went crazy on eBay and wound up with a substantial collection of rusty planes. Mostly Ohio, but some others. This is something I occasionally do when I'm bored. I wound up with more number four sized planes than anyone could ever need while I've been in Spain.  Some of those number fours I've cleaned up and have ready to work. A plane-jane Record is in my tool chest as a daily user and wound up being a monster. I love that plane. 

But these number fours are very common, not particularly valuable and not really sought after by collectors. I rehabbed them in a way to make them look and work like brand-new. A pretty aggressive treatment involving sandpaper and other abrasives, wire wheels and acid dips in either citric acid or vinegar.

Collectors hate this treatment. 

I'd like to consider myself more of a user than a collector (but who are we kidding - what user needs eight number four smoothers!). I've never felt that an acid dip does any harm, other than an ugly gray finish that can be polished off.

This does, however, destroy your tool's value to collectors. Apparently vinegar gets deep into the pores of cast iron and permanently affects the integrity of the metal. I've not experienced a tool's performance suffering or breaking due to this reason, so I suspect (but really don't know enough) that the differences are cosmetic, and permanent.

I would like to get rid of some dead weight in my shop, and doing a clean-up that could harm the value of my planes is not desirable.

After. My Record Stay Set #7 with an honest, gentle rehab.
I've found an alternative to my previous method, and it really isn't difficult. In fact, I think this method is much easier.

Before. This plane really was in pretty good shape.

Remember the interview I did with Robert Porter from Union Tools? He has a massive plane collection and has made a pair of amazing videos about this technique (Part I and Part II). He wanted me to make sure not to credit this method to him, but to stress that this method was taught to him by others. He didn't invent this method, but he has made some nice videos about it.

This plane I suspect was last used by someone who was frustrated by it's performance.
To summarize the method, use dish soap, water and Simple Green to degrease and clean the plane. Tools for this method include a toothbrush, a soft wire brush and/or a Scotchbrite pad (I used a gray one), and a razor blade.

Sawdust everywhere!
Disassemble the plane, put all of the small parts in a cup with water and plenty of dish soap, and spray the large parts down with Simple Green. Let everything soak while you start on one of the large parts, although I do the plane body last before starting the small parts giving the Simple Green pleny of time to work.

With this plane, many of the parts needed nothing more aggressive than a toothbrush. Start with that, and gently work up to a scrubby pad or a soft wire brush. Once the rust and dirt is gone, you're done. Using an abrasive to work down to shiny metal not only removes the history of the plane, it can remove some of the metal's ability to resist future rust. The dark brown patina on the sides of old planes is a great rust inhibitor. Plus, it looks cool.

When working on something flat, like the plane body, use a razor blade (or box cutter blade) to scrape away rust, dirt and grime. I've heard of people doing this before, but never have tried it. It works great! It removes active rust efficiently, and leaves that beautiful aged look.

The other very important thing is to oil everything with a heavy coat as soon as it's done being cleaned. All of the scrubbing has removed any rust protection it's had, and cast iron has many pores. Dry each part thoroughly, coat in oil, and set it aside until the plane is ready to be reassembled. I noticed that some parts, especially the plane body, soak up some oil and may need more oil applied.

Once the plane is ready to be reassembled, the parts can be wiped down to a thin coat of oil.

Some planes and stuff that I've rehabbed using this method (except the Gauge smoother).
The only other parts that need to be mentioned here are the wooden totes, knobs and handles. In the past I've removed the lacquer and applied shellac for a durable, brand new look. Here we're trying to protect and beautify. I used the method in the video which worked well: clean the handle gently, and apply Feed 'n' Wax. I just happened to have some Feed 'n' Wax, but if it's not available where you are it is just a relatively liquid-y concoction of beeswax, orange oil, and maybe some carnauba wax and turpentine. In a future post I'll try to make something similar at home. A gentle wax will work on bare wood as well as over another film finish, so using on something with part of the finish missing should be OK.

The #7 and the #12 scraper made flattening and smoothing my bench top easy.

In general, I find this method to be just as easy as any other plane restoration method I've used. To go from crusty and rusty to completely rehabbed takes me about an hour (not including the iron and chipbreaker, because the condition of these can be relatively fast or take a long time depending on the shape they are in). I think if I were to buy another used plane, I would much appreciate someone having used this method rather than the wire-wheel-on-a-grinder method that seems to be so prevalent on eBay. I'll use this method from now on, and save the sandpaper for the parts on the plane that really need to be precision ground (this #7 needed none).

Some of the things I did differently than Robert did in the video:

I used a muddy shoe tray (Baggmuck, from IKEA) to keep dirty water and oil off my bench. It is plenty long, and I think a full size hand saw would fit in it. I also used a bucket of water rather than a utility sink, since my shop has no running water.

I used the same razor blade from start to finish. They can be sharpened on your stones and stropped. I prefer this rather than throwing them away and getting a fresh one out of the box. I suspect they are much more expensive here than in other places.

Simple Green, 3 in 1 oil and Feed 'n' Wax aren't readily available in my area (Germany, as I write this). I found some online, but with shipping it is rather expensive. However, I got some concentrate, and I suspect the one liter bottle will last many years. In the US this product is available in any Wal-Mart for a buck or two. Simple Green is an eco-friendly grease cutting cleaner. I suspect that the whole job could be done with WD-40, which would prevent the need for water and worrying about wet parts rusting. I think pretty much any machine oil will work rather than 3 in 1 (I used Ballistol), and as I mentioned earlier, something similar to Feed 'n' Wax probably can be made relatively easily at home.

Give the videos a watch, and try it. I bet you'll find something there you can use!


  1. This kind of shoe trays are each year proposed by Aldi. They were a few weeks ago. I have 6 of them which I generally use with flower pots on them (collective saucer).
    Unfortunately Aldi-Nord here in Belgium while the Aldi chisels recommended by Paul Sellers were sold by Aldi-Süd.

  2. Aldi north and south?? well, well :-)

    I am thinking that tray could make a suitable container to soak my saw blades in Evaporust. The buttons on the bottom would also keep the blade off the gunk. Must check that out on my next trip South East to the city.

    Jokes asides, good rehab job. The kind I've done for years.


    1. Hey, Bob! I guess I'm a little late to the party. Yes, the thought of using this tray for a full size saw did occur to me. It's plenty big enough.

      Germans take their Aldis very seriously. Apparently, at some point two brothers inherited the Aldi stores, and they are run as separate companies, I think. You can tell the difference with the logo on the sign of the store. Aldi Nord (North) has a blue A on a white background, and Aldi Süd (South) has a yellow A on a blue background.


  3. Very sensible advice: don't strip off what simply needs to be cleaned. Now if only more furniture were handled in the same manner. Your reaction to seeing the buildup of sawdust in crevices where it doesn't belong is one I've had. The plane is in better hands