To Restore a hand plane or to not restore a hand plane.
By Don Wilwol
As I circumvent the oddities of the people we call collectors, I find it intriguing how different the thoughts on what constitutes a restoration, and how evil it really is becomes a religious war fought like a life was at stake. I started in the tool world as a user. I’ve been using tools since before I was allowed to use power. I never really had a woodworking mentor growing up, it just seemed to be in my blood. None of my immediate family or friends really did much woodworking, although being raised on a farm, I saw plenty of what it was like to work with our hands. So let’s dig into “To Restore a hand plane or to not restore a hand plane.”
As Jordan said in “THE PRICE OF IMMORTALITY“ “A knowledge that the things that are here now, “were”, and only are here now because those before us took care and understood the need to carry such things into the future.”
When we talk about tools needing restoration, this next photo is of one I think most will agree can be restored.
I’ve always been a maker/restorer of tools and other things. My mother was sure I’d burn down the cow barn heat treating my new knives, or later bluing the rifles I was restoring. Then a few years ago, the hand plane collecting bug bit and bit hard. My wife was constantly dragging (and I mean kicking and screaming all the way) to antique shops. After a while though, I could hear the old tools crying for help. I had a few hand planes and hand saws and knew how to use them (or thought I did) but now they took on a new life. Pretty soon old tools started following me home in droves. It didn’t take long to discover that I just couldn’t use all the tools I brought home, and although I didn’t mind selling the common ones, the rarer specimens I just couldn’t part with. And pretty soon some of the self-education was paying off and some of the planes turned out to actually be valuable. I started to see this as more than a hobby, but a hobby with an investment possibility. Most of what I brought home were beyond repair according to most. They were rusted beyond recognition in some instances. So the natural thing to do was strip, repaint, restore and make them look good again. I never shot for new, and I always used as much of the original as I could, but that had to do more to my cheapness than some internal conscious decision to do what was right.
Then I started hearing about how you should never ever restore an antique. That seemed to be conflicting with all reason for me, after all, in most cases the tools I brought home were useless. Useless for most intentional purposes, be it woodworking or be it collecting. They looked terrible, they didn’t work and I got them cheap because nobody else wanted them.
So now I pay attention. It seems the saw guys, (those that are interested in hand saws) don’t seem to draw such a firm line in the sand. The plates need to be cleaned, the etch should be maintain if at all possible, and the handles fixed or rebuilt, whatever seems appropriate. There isn’t the uproar over saving the earth by keeping the sins of the past.
The hand plane guys seem to come in different schools. There are those that say “it’s your plane, do what you want with it” and those that say you should never never NEVER strip and paint an antique.
I have to be honest, I still fall in the “use some common sense” school when you have a tool in your possession. If you want my advice as to whether I think you should restore the tool, read on. If my opinion is of no value to you, ………., well, then I’m surprised you made it this far. Feel free to go tear down somebodies electrolysis tank.
My first bit of advice is, always know what the tool is. So what do I mean by that? For an example, when I first started restoring I restored what I thought was a no name #3. It was in really bad shape, and it would have needed restoring anyhow. The bolts were stripped, it was badly rusted and was just in terrible condition. It was missing the knob and tote, so new ones were made. I fixed it up and resold it as a no-name #3. I later learned it was a type 2 Sargent 408. Not an extremely rare or valuable tool, but more so than a normal 1950’s bench plane. And being a bit of a Sargent collector, my ignorance annoyed me. I have acquired several others for my collection, but I will always remember that as a mistake. I should have restored it to original, and put it in my case.
Next, know the current value, just as is and restored. And I don’t mean you need to re-sell it, but what’s it worth in both finicial and historical value. I will restore a type 17 Stanley #5 without pause, a Type 1 Sargent on the other hand would need to be in pretty bad shape.
Another thing I did in the past was I restored a Sargent #15 Shaw Patent. A reasonably valuable plane as they go. It was in terrible terrible shape, so a restoration was a must. My only mistake was making the knob and tote from bloodwood (the originals were gone). It looks great, but someday I may switch them out for Mahogany. It’s a reversible mistake, which makes it not so bad. So the moral of the story is, if you must make a mistake, make it reversible.
And we don’t have to talk re-sale value, but I think we should. Despite the rhetoric heard, some total restores do increase value. If a tool is beyond recognition, if all or most of its original finish is gone, and if rust is the primary color, especially if pitting has occurred, it’s my belief a restoration is in order. I also believe the more modern and available the tool is, the more this is true. The opposite is also true. As the tool gets older and rarer, the condition needs to be worse for a restore to increase the value. Pull up an ancient hand plane from 2000 BC it’s probably best left alone. Hopefully you get the extreme refernce, but its something to always keep in mind.
I understand a restored Type 2 Stanley #8 is worth less than an unrestored Type 2 Stanley #8 in decent shape, but I also know introductory collectors will pay much more for a Stanley Type 2 #8 that has been nicely restored, then a Stanley Type 2 #8 that they believe is possibly unrestorable and unusable. Seriously, who wants a huge pile of rust in their display cabinet or their shop?
Now there are certainly instances of middle ground where possible disagreement can occur. What if the Type 2 Stanley #8 was rusty, but still had 35% of its original japanning? Now what? Should it be restored? Possibly not, a good simple cleaning will suffice, along with de-rusting if required, but I can also understand the need to make it look whole again. But for me, if we change that to a Type 16 Stanley #5 with 35% of its original japanning, then my answer will probably be “go ahead and make it a bit shinier”.
There are also guys (or gals) who would take my Type 1 Sargent 409 and actually use it. I get it, and if I wasn’t so clumsy and somewhat unlucky, I might as well. And maybe if my shop floor wasn’t concrete I’d reconsider, but the thought of dropping it and watching it break in two makes my heart skip several beats.
So I will let the debate live on. And as a closing note, I do not believe a bad restoration is better than no restoration. Dipping a tool in shellac, poly or some other clear finish not only doesn’t constitute preservation, it’s just plain stupid. Not all old tools are collectable or valuable, despite what ebay sellers think. And most of all, it’s a hobby. If you’re not having fun, stop and leave it to us that are.