The best advice I can give buy the best tool you can afford, the less you have to do the better, but there are times when price or rarity need to be considered and knowing what to do with a neglected tool can yield surprising results. Let the tool be your guide, each one will require different levels of effort and different techniques to obtain the best outcome. If the following processes don’t provide the results you were looking for you can always take it to the next level and try something else, just remember once you have gone too far you can’t bring it back and you may have ruined the planes value (monetary and historical) so take your time.
The following process is what I have found works well for me when restoring the early combination plow planes that are japanned, Millers Patents, 45’s, 46 & 47’s, 50’s, etc. In most cases these planes unlike bench planes cannot be fully disassembled as the wooden totes are pinned to the frame, not that they cannot be removed with the proper tools but there is an inherent risk in damaging them and the process I use does not require removal. Unless the tote needs physical repair leave it alone. Also you are dealing with mixed metals, cast iron, steel, and possibly gunmetal, all pinned or riveted together, each reacts differently to cleaning processes so being able to control the process on each material is important.
I am not an advocate for immersion methods for cleaning and rust removal, those methods are indiscriminate and remove everything, all the age and patina that has taken decades or a century or more to develop. They also remove the patina that will help improve the overall appearance of your tool, knowing what to preserve and what to remove will enhance the results. The best cleaning or restoration process is one where the observer is left guessing what has been done, it should be transparent. Maintain the integrity of the tool at all times where possible.
When it comes to japanning most of the tools available have lost some with use, where it is missing will typically be some form of rust, oxidation, dirt or combination of all three, which is good, as this will be used to improve the appearance of the tool. The last thing you want to see peaking through black japanning is bright bare metal which sticks out like a sore thumb. Using the proper techniques will help blend these areas in with the japanning and when the other areas such as the brass parts, skates, rods, etc. are enhanced your eye will see them not the missing japanning. This is why immersion cleaning is not a good process to use on these japanned tools, it will remove all the patina and leave all these bare spots glaring out at you.
The process I use requires elbow grease, doing the work by hand gives you control and forces you to take your time and evaluate the results. Whats the hurry anyway? It’s taken a century or more to get into the state its in now, why ruin it in a matter of minutes.
What do I use? Basic stuff, readily available, you can substitute what you want do what works for you, all I can comment on is what has worked for me. I am satisfied with the results so why change.
· I keep all my supplies in a small Tupperware container, the lid doubles as a work surface and tray. Needs to be large enough for the lid to hold a folded newspaper.
· 0000 steel wool
· Several tooth brushes
· Q tips swabs
· A small brass brush and or fine bristle steel brush (handy but not necessary)
· Old newspaper
· Light and dark furniture paste wax (I use Minwax)
· Paper towels (I use white C-fold towels they are more durable and available at Sams club in bulk)
· Masking tape.
· WD-40 (some of you may wince at this but it works really well and is safe to use on everything and does not dry out your hands), I use the aerosol cans, its easy to apply, no spill, spray nozzle can apply it where you need it.
· Klingspor rust erasers, they are awesome, come in three grits, available online, I bought mine through Woodcraft but they are available in numerous outlets. They are solid rubber blocks impregnated all the way through with abrasive grit, as they wear new grit is exposed so they never clog or dull and last a surprisingly long time. They can be cut with a utility knife to any size or shape required. And they are reasonable to purchase.
· Kotten Klenser Regular formula, comes in 16 oz jars, I use this for cleaning and conditioning the rosewood totes, it is non toxic and safe to use. Available at KottonKlenser.com.
· A very soft loose unsewn buffing wheel, I have one mounted in a mandrel for my lathe, I suppose you could use one in a drill but I prefer to hold the tool parts with both hands.
· Some soft cotton rags, old athletic socks work great as you can use the finished outer surface for applying wax and turn them inside out to use the terry surface for buffing.
Start by laying the Tupperware lid upside down on your work table and put a couple layers of newspaper inside to absorb solvents, catch dirt, and change out as needed as work progresses. Fully disassemble your plane and lay all the parts off to the side. I start by cleaning and restoring the main parts of the plane, the main frame, center section (if it has one), and fence. How well these main components of the plane turn out will dictate what you do to the smaller parts, to look appropriate they need to match each other visually in overall age and condition (patina).
First step is removing the dirt and grime to see what you have, spray down the main frame with WD-40 and let it sit a few minutes, then thoroughly scrub it with 0000 steel wool and a toothbrush to get in all the recesses and displace the dirt. Don’t work too hard with the steel wool yet as you are just cleaning at this point, you don’t want to cut through to bare metal. Wet down the tool with WD-40 as you work to help float out the dirt particles, wipe it down with paper towels occasionally to absorb the grime, and when you think you are done spray one more time and wipe down with paper towels to absorb the excess. Repeat the process with the center section and fence. I have not had any issues with WD-40 harming the rosewood handles so don’t fret if some gets on them, there really is no way to avoid it.
Metal oxidizes over time, we call this patina, and on a 100 year old tool you want to see this (unless your tool is in mint condition but you would not be reading this if it was) and it will enhance the visual appeal of your tool. There are essentially three types of patina, one is a dull gray to brownish cast on the surface of the steel and cast iron, if your plane is mostly this type you may (or should) want to leave it as is. The second is a deep dark brown thin coating that comes from a combination of oxidation of the metals, hand oils from use, applied oils, and some dirt, this is usually very stable and does not harm the tool and is beneficial to this process. The last is severe oxidation of the metals which is rust, it ranges in severity from a light coating to heavy scaling which can leave pits in the iron and steel if completely removed.
The first step after cleaning is to tackle the machined surfaces of the skates, and fence, and if your tool happens to be a Millers Patent or Stanley No 46 or 47 the areas of the main sections with filigree design. I use Klingspor rust erasers to treat these surfaces, they come in three grits, fine, medium, and coarse. They are safe to use on cast iron and steel, will not scratch the surfaces, they cut quickly, do not clog, and if used properly will produce a smooth lustrous surface that will leave the aged color of the metals intact because they do not cut through. They can be cut and shaped to desired size with a utility knife so you can get into tight areas as needed. I start with the medium grit, I find it works well on most tools and works just slow enough for me to control the process. If by chance you are dealing with heavy rust you may need to jump to the coarse grit to speed up the process, but start with the medium grit to test the piece. Always work in the direction of the grind marks in the metal, progress through the grits down to the fine grit which will leave the surface very smooth and lustrous but will not cut through the surface to new metal. Be thorough, get all the edges so the process is consistent. The rust erasers will only go down to the surface, if the rust went deeper oxidation will remain, however the surface will be smooth and those areas will be black in color from reacting with the WD-40 and appear as surface spots.
If you have surface ground filigree (not found on the Stanley 45 and 50) the process of cleaning it is fairly straight forward and easier than it may appear. When cleaned properly the ground surface of the filigree will stand out from the black japanning, your eyes will only see the filigree and the japanning becomes a background color which helps mask missing japanning. To protect the rosewood tote mask it off with masking tape, regular or blue whatever is on hand, you may need to wipe it dry first to get it to stick well. It does not take much, it just needs to be protected from accidental contact with the rust eraser. Lay the plane on its side and using the medium Klingsor eraser work the surface of the filigree where it was ground at factory and if possible work in the direction of the grind mark. Using an eraser with good edges will help clean up the iron surface right up to where it meets the rosewood tote you have masked off. As the eraser works it will remove dirt, oxidation, and slough off compound which will build up in the recesses of the filigree, occasionally dump out the build up. I would change newspapers as you work and avoid having the rosewood tote lay on any of the loose grit to prevent scratching, most times I will hold the tote with one hand and hold the eraser with the other. The entire side of a Millers Patent is ground at the factory, on a 46 and 47 only certain portions of the main frame are ground, generally the forward portions of their frames are fully japanned, cast elements that protruded prevented grinding those areas. Once you have finished cleaning all the machine ground surfaces spray it down with WD-40 to and use a toothbrush remove all the dirt and residue, use Q tips to get into all the threaded holes and clean out any dirt and debris before the next step.
The next step will be to address the oxidation in the areas that are japanned. The goal will be to end up with a deep dark smooth patina that will develop a nice sheen to its surface that when waxed will blend harmoniously with the remaining japanning. If the oxidation you have in the japanned areas is already smooth to the touch and dark in color you’re in luck, you should not have to touch it. If it is rough and scaly you will want to try to convert it to the other type. I have found WD-40 does three things for this part of the process, it penetrates and is absorbed by the surface rust and darkens it to a deep dark brown or black, it stops the oxidizing process and stabilizes it, and enhances the japanning. With the rough type of rust, the WD-40 by now should have soaked in well, wet down the tool again and GENTLY go over the areas that are rough with 0000 steel wool to remove the rough texture being careful not to cut through to bare metal, don’t work it too hard. The steel wool will not harm the japanning unless it is loose so be careful to only work the areas you need to. Once the roughness has been knocked down dry the piece thoroughly with paper towels. The next process will be to lightly burnish it to produce a smooth surface.
Run the buffing wheel at a very slow speed, lightly dress it with just a tinge of brown Tripoli buffing compound, not to much, we are just burnishing the surface of the oxidation and don’t want to cut through. Lightly work just the areas that need burnishing, your buffing wheel should have loose ply’s that conform to the surface of the tool, use just enough pressure to do the job and be careful of sharp points and edges so they do not catch in the buffing wheel. You will have to use your own judgement when to quit, but it should not take much time to complete the process. Spray down the tool with WD-40 one last time and wipe it as completely dry as you can to remove any remaining buffing compound and dirt, I rub the burnished areas with paper towels to give them a secondary light burnish, then set it off to the side to dry.
Next comes the rods and any miscellaneous steel or iron parts, yes the rust erasers work well with these too, I hold screws with my fingers and rub the heads against the erasers, same with the threads, the erasers as flexible enough to work down into the threads. If need be use some steel wool lubricated with WD-40 to get into the tight spots. Keep in mind your small parts may not need the eraser treatment, 0000 steel wool may be enough, the condition of your tool will dictate what needs to be done.
When it comes to the brass parts (thumb screws, washers, and depth stops) I am very particular, all too often well meaning restorers take them too far by removing all the patina and polish the heck out of them which (in my viewpoint) ruins the vintage look of the tool and the observer will know it has been worked over. The goal here is to bring out the color and leave some patina to make the tool look gently used rather than neglected. Many times the brass is oxidized to a dull or dark color and does not show any of the yellow gold color which is needed to provide color contrast and to catch the viewers eye. I spray these parts with WD-40 as a cleaner and lubricant and gently work them over with 0000 steel wool. I remove just enough oxidation to bring out the color, however I strive to leave some on the surfaces and in the recesses of the knurling which is important because on a tool that was gently used, to look natural, there would build up in the recesses and wear on the outer surfaces. You can always take off more if you want but you cannot put it back so take your time and if need be wait till you assemble the tool to see if you think it needs more.
Lastly comes the wood, I use Kotton Klenser which is a gentle product that cleans well, will not harm any remaining finish and adds color back to the rosewood. Its consistency is that of hair gel, I go over totes and knobs using it with 0000 steel wool to remove surface grime and then wipe down the wood thoroughly with paper towels to dry it. It will not remove paint spatters which many tools have, and in some cases if tiny and of a inconspicuous color I will leave them intact to maintain that gently used appearance (It’s an owner preference here).
After everything has dried I run over all the parts with paper towels one last time. The last step is to treat all the parts with a good quality paste wax, I use dark wax on all the japanned pieces and rosewood, light wax on all the brass. If you removed too much patina from the brass thumb screws you could use dark wax and leave a little in the recesses of the knurling to make it look more natural. I use a cotton athletic sock and a clean soft toothbrush to apply the wax, the toothbrush will insure you get wax into all the recessed areas. Let the wax dry thoroughly and the buff the parts by hand, I turn a sock inside out so the terry cloth is exposed for buffing.
Assemble your tool and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
You can of course use any method you want and employ any tools or process you are comfortable with, it is your tool do as you please, this what works for me and I have achieved excellent results with minimal cost. It is heavily dependent on hand work, depending on the tool it may take 4 to 6 hours of work start to finish, maybe more, I turn on the radio and forget about the time. The benefits are an enhancing of the appearance of the tool while leaving just enough of the original patina to give it a gently used appearance. Some parts of your tool may be badly worn, it is very common for brass thumb screws to be badly damaged from pliers, modifications, or heavy wear, they are easily replaced and doing so can bring up the level of the tool, just be mindful when replacing parts to use the proper replacement parts to maintain correctness of its vintage.
When buying tools I look at the brass parts, they are a good indicator of the wear and tear a tool has received over its life time. Some tools will have thin japanning rather than missing japanning such as the Type 1 46’s, the above process lessens the impact of thin japanning by enhancing the parts and areas that are not japanned. If you are fortunate enough to obtain a gunmetal bronze version of the Millers Patent plane use care with the gunmetal, these planes typically have developed a rich mellow color with age, removing that patina or polishing them will ruin the tool. WD-40 and 0000 steel wool will not harm the gunmetal nor remove any lacquer that was applied at the factory that may remain. If it has a fair amount of verdigris (dark green oxidation) in the recesses I have had good success using a soft brass brush, which is softer than the gunmetal bronze and will not scratch the tool. The very early Millers Patent planes have thumb screws that are made up of a steel inner screw threaded into a brass knurled thumb screw. The steel screw head is recessed into the brass thumb screw and difficult to clean, I have found a ¼ inch straight bristle wire brush (think fine paint brush) chucked into a Dremel tool works well at getting into this tight space and cleaning the screw head.
Don Bosse’s bio:
I started out as a power tool woodworker who loved tools and in 1991 while attending a local woodworking show I ran into a group of guys with a display table advertising their organization, the “Mid-West Tool Collectors Association”. They were displaying and demonstrating antique tools, I had not seen before and that was all it took, I was hooked. As most do I started by picking up a Stanley bench plane here and there and before I knew it I had a growing collection of planes, and in short order I was running out of space to keep them. That is when I decided to focus my interest on the planes I really desired, the Millers Patent planes, I traded much of what I had to acquire a couple different planes and focused on collecting quality and not quantity. Twenty six year later I am still a member of M-WTCA, still love the Millers Patents and have branched out to include the early Stanley combination planes. Along the way I’ve established a process for restoring these tools that brings out their beauty while preserving much of the warmth that a hundred or more years of use imparts. I thought others would benefit from what I have learned and wrote up the accompanying article describing the various techniques I use.