Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cleaning Old Tools

Hey guys, this is out as a reminder to the Type A in me, and for any new galoots or collectors. I know alot of folks, me included, probably did a bit of over-cleaning to antique tools when we started. Then you find Lee Richmonds site, and feel small and stupid and like a old british tool dealer with a wire brush and a heavy hand. Luckily, I didn't ruin anything too valuable in pursuit for shiny, but you may not be so lucky...

I also know that attempting to enter the 'clean vs. restore vs. argon chamber' debate a few posts in to my very first blog is a reflection of great intelligence. So without delay.

First question: Is it absolutely, irrevocably, unassailably a common product or item? No special marking, patent, tag, cave drawing, double stamp, upside down bi-plane, FDR bitemark, rare earth metal or stone? If you are not 100% sure, my humble suggestion would be you treat it as valuable. There are lots of variations in some common older tools that can take them from ho-hum to special. This is especially true as you get into pre-1900 items. Do your research, and proceed slowly.
If its common tool destined for your bench (and god forbid, within your Queens reach too) - have at ye. My personal favorite is electrolysis to remove rust from larger ferrous items, its painless and completely foolproof when setup properly, and also has the side benefit of softenting old japanning if you're stripping a metal bench plane. Do read the safety info online, do it outside, do use a GFC on the circuit, don't use stainless steel, don't lick the damn thing while its on - basically, dont be an a-hole and get Sawstop involved with my water bucket.

For these projects, Sandflex blocks, made by Klingspor are outstanding for smaller items and light spot rust. Use only the fine and medium, coarse is for restoring 1/2 ton truck panels. I almost always start with the fine, and work up to Med if I have issues, then back down. Very very light rust can be resolved or at least stopped with a proper coating of Rennaisance Wax, which you should use on everything but your dog and mother. All of these methods are abrasive to some extent (even R. wax has polishing compounds), so proceed carefully.

Electrolysis is more gentle, but requires more setup, and can be challenging where un-removable parts exist that would not fare well with the waterboarding shock treatment. You can coat those parts in wax, but are you here to work the wood or fully restore old tools we've already established are not worth bird farts? Your Call.

OK, so we've covered what you can do with the gloves off - what about for the prime stuff? Lee Richmond of The Best Things rule is the best I've heard, due to its simplicity.
'Do nothing you can't un-do' 
Essentially, wipe down lightly with clean cotton or soft microfiber, wax with a musuem quality wax, lightly buff. Done.
Boiled Linseed Oil should really only be used as a last resort, and I struggle with this one. When dealing with wood planes, especially coming from some regions of the midwest (tragically - Sanduksy planes) - these things can be like the desert. Some valuable tools are so parched that an oiling is required to keep them from checking/splitting into oblivion. But it can greatly darken the wood over time, and has been avoided by dealers, collectors and museums for some time now.

So the question becomes, is the tool more valuable in its current parched state, than it will be after the oiling and potential darkening? It alot of cases, its best to just leave it for the shelf, give it a good coat of wax, and protect it from the environment as best as possible. You cant undo BLO - you can undo wax. If you guys know of any museum quality 'reconditioning' type solutions being used other than a BLO/Tung oil, please let me know.

What about rust on the blade, you say? You want to use it? Well - remember, its the patina that makes collectors and dealers tingle like schoolgirls at a winter formal. Big rust should probably be addressed I cover a piece of paper in duct tape, cut out a hole the size of the rust spoty, tape over the item. Hit it with the rust sponge. Most of the rust removed, without destroying all the patina. flat a bit of the back, hone the edge, wax the rest. Don't lap the sides, bottom, top, strippers, santa or anything else.

Thats about it - the best advice I can give you is the 'ounce of prevention'. Try to search multiple online antique dealers before you buy a rust-bucket. There's so many good users out there for cheap, I just wouldn't split hairs and buy a real dog. And I say this as a humble man who proudly snapped up a real bruiser bedrock off ebay and then watched Patrick Leach sell a near-mint one for $22 bucks more.

As its been said; not in my house. Anymore.


1 comment:

  1. Restoration or consecration has long been a sticking point for many who toil in the rusty field of hand tools. I have found a few gems in my years of making users out of losers. You have made a very good explanation of what to look for.
    Over the past 50 some years of tool use and gathering I have come to the conclusion that there is just no way to know what will be collectible a year from now. As an example I bought a 1946 Ford Three Ton straight truck in nasty shape. I intended to use it for hauling tractors to and from shows. The original idea was that with a historical plate and minimal insurance it would cost less to own than a double axle car hauling trailer and the truck to pull it.
    1946 Ford trucks were definitely not collectable at the time. The lines and grill work on the truck were inelegant and gave it the name of Jailbird in the magazines. Because I intended to drive it I rebuild the truck from the ground up. New brakes, body work, new bed, tires, everything to make sure it would haul 3 tons safely back and forth. I had $500.00 invested in the truck because parts were cheap. Nobody wanted them. I did spend a lot of time but that's the fun part.
    After 5 years it was complete and ready to use. About that time the idea of rat rods got popular. The 32 Fords which were the hot ones had been sold or collected years ago and mostly were off the market. Needing an old truck to be cool the guys started buying anything that would roll. 1942 through 1945 Ford didn't make trucks. 1948 the body style changed. 1946 turned desirable.
    Since I had a specific purpose for my truck I never worried if I had devalued the truck even after the prices went up.
    So getting back to planes. Stanley Bedrock Planes were hot when I first got into wood working hand tools. I had a couple that had wandered into the shop over the years and when I learned that they had potential I set them aside. The prices have risen and fell over the past 20 years. Never high enough to make me want to get rid of two planes from my drawer. I still haven't cleaned them further than knocking off the dust and sharpening the blades.
    I relied on post 1950 planes as my workhorses. If it needed to be flattened or even brazed I didn't hold back. Now the 1950's planes are becoming "collectable". For me the moral of the story is if the plane needed to be cleaned and flattened in 1950 it was cleaned and flattened. No one worried if their great grandson would think less of their inheritance. They needed the tool to work.
    If you want to use a tool by all means check to see if someone will give you a better deal in trade or cash but if you don't find a buyer go ahead and make it usable.
    Just don't ever cover the whole thing in polyurethane. That is hideous. If you mount a light in it for a table lamp or paint a farm scene on 1880's Disston saw plate with a readable etch you will be a social pariah at the Midwestern Tool Collectors Association meetings.