Cleaning Wooden Planes

Do a search on the net or the hand tool message board of your choice and you’ll find volumes of information on cleaning, restoring or tuning hand planes…metal hand planes. Most of these articles don’t discuss the care and feeding of old wooden planes. In the last few years, I have taken to these old woodies and come to prefer them to my collection of old Stanley bench planes. There’s just something about the wood on wood feel, the ergonomics of the old woodies and the nostalgia of the 18th and early 19th century cabinet shops that these tools have about them.

In order to provide assistance to any one else who has been bitten by the woodie bug, I’m going to present here my method of cleaning and tuning these planes. Keep in mind that I am no expert on this, and I am not a collector so my tools are being set up for use. However, I have cleaned wooden planes this way for several years now and they all continue to look nice and, most importantly, perform very well.

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The demonstration plane that I’m using here is a 19th century molding plane manufactured by Auburn Tool Co. It is stamped #155, which according to the catalog is supposed to be an ovolo profile (called quarter round in the catalog), however, my plane appears to be missing the fence that would provide registration of the plane as well as the outside fillet on the profile. I suppose that it could have been planed off by a previous owner, however, there is no evidence of this on the plane nor the iron as both appear to be in original, unmodified condition. The profile of this plane looks to be more of a thumbnail with fillet like one would find on period drawer edges.

The plane as received is quite dirty and dull, with the remnants of a price sticker stuck to the top. However, there are no end checks, no damaged wood, the wedge is in good condition, and the blade profile looks to be correct. I doubt this plane ever saw much use.

The iron looks to be of the laminated type, which are my favorites. You can barely see in the picture below, but when you look at the bevel, there is a dark band of steel at the top of the bevel on the iron. This is a thin layer of hard cutting tool steel. The hard tool steel is forge welded to the back of the iron body, which is made of a softer wrought iron. This is nice because it makes these types of irons easy to reshape with a chainsaw file if the profile of the iron needs reshaping. This one does not, so I’ll leave it alone. These laminated blades are also nicer to hone and work with. You are really only honing the hard steel at the front which makes it easy to do. I really like old laminated irons.

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The first thing I do when I receive these planes is to take the wedge and iron out and inspect the plane for damage. This one is in great shape, no cracks, full wedge, no major pitting in the iron. Next I take some 0000 steel wool, an old toothbrush, and some warm water and dish soap, and clean the wood and iron. I’m not trying to scrub away the years of patina that have built up, I’m just getting rid of dirt, grease and residue left by stickers and such. If the stock has any paint splatters (they often do) I may try to lightly scrape them off with a cabinet scraper, being careful not to remove any wood.

On thing I never do is sand the plane stock. I don’t know if I’m just paranoid or not but I feel that if you expose fresh wood, you take the chance that the stock will want to move, potentially warping, which ruins the plane as a user. Besides, I don’t want the plane to look new, I like the patina of the old, used tools. It’s part of the history of where the tool has been and the work it has done.

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Once the plane stock and wedge has been cleaned, I usually apply something to the wood to give it a nice sheen and feel. I’m not really applying a finish per se, as any finish will wear away with use. I just like the feel of a nice oiled and waxed wooden plane stock. Watever you do, do not put any kind of film finish on them like laquer or varnish and nothing with silicone oil in it (most furniture polishes have silicone oil).

I have used commercial products in the past, however, most of these products are primarily composed of petroleum distillates of some sort. These harsh solvents aren’t good for the environment, and they really aren’t good for the old wood in these planes, so I no longer use them, or recommend them. Instead, I use plain old boiled linseed oil, followed by a good coat of paste wax.

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While the oil dries, I work on the iron. This is where I usually get a little non-neander. Hey, I said I build furniture with hand tools only, I don’t necessarily do metalworking with hand tools only. When needed, I use a drill press with a soft wire wheel to clean any heavy rust from the iron, or other metal parts. Be careful not to over do it though, even the soft wheel can scratch if used too aggressively.

This iron only needed the removal of minor surface rust, which the wire wheel removed in just a minute or two of work. Next I polish the back of the iron. I don’t worry about flattening the entire back of the iron, I just want to get a nice polish at the cutting edge. I really don’t like sandpaper for sharpening, however, for lapping the backs of irons and chisels, it is faster than stones and of course causes less ware on the stones as well. I start with 80 or 100 grit depending on how bad the iron is and work my way up to 600 grit. Then I strop on my leather strop charged with green honing compound.

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The final step is to hone the bevel. If the iron needs reshaping, do this now with a fine chainsaw file, or sandpaper wrapped around a dowel. It is really not as hard as you think. Color the back of the iron with a black magic marker, wedge it in the stock and scribe the sole profile onto the iron. Then just use the file to adjust the profile to the scribed line. This iron needed no reshaping so I went straight to honing. I hold the iron steady in my left hand and move the slip stone up and down over the bevel until I have a nice polish across the entire profile. I start with a soft Arkansas slip, progress to a hard Arkansas slip and then to a shaped strop or a wooden dowel which I have scribbled green honing compound on to act as a strop.

After the bevel is honed and polished, you are done and ready to take your new plane for a test drive. I’m going to wait until the linseed oil on this plane dries before testing it out though.

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11 thoughts on “Cleaning Wooden Planes

  1. Excellent tutorial. My wife found a wooden jack plane for me. You have just saved my plane. Thank you very much.

  2. Got my first wooden plane today. It’s a 75 year old Kana from Japan, in pretty good shape. However I don’t know the first thing about maintaining wooden planes so I poked around the web and found your blog. It’s excellent. Thank you very much for your efforts.

    There is one almost gouge on the sole of the plane and I’m thinking I’ll fill it with a very hard wood filler/epoxy and sand only that tiny area. |It’s roughly 1/16″ wide and deep. The rest of the plane body (kai) looks great. It’s a very good red oak. Blade and cap iron in good shape too. I read your advice to use linseed oil. Would you say that’s a good practice no matter what condition the plane is in or more to restore an older and abused item? I’m not sure what’s on the wood now but it’s very smooth and hard. Can’t tell if that’s just time or something which was put on the plane and don’t know what the linseed oil will do to it.

    Thanks again. Love the site. Watched a few vids and read your takes on this and that. You’re very honest and straightforward

    • Hi Gary,

      Let me preface this reply by saying that I am not all that knowledgable of Japanese planes as my research and personal experience has all been with using traditional Western style planes. Japanese kana are set up differently than a Western style plane because of how they are used. Typically, the sole of a kana is relieved using a card scraper or special scraping plane so that it only makes contact at the toe (the closest part to you when pulling it) and about a 1/4″ or so wide strip immediately in front of the blade. The area behind the blade and the area between these two contact strips is typically relieved a VERY small amount (maybe 1/64″ or less), giving the sole a hollow profile.

      The plane likely did not have any kind of finish on it. Most wooden planes didn’t. I don’t believe Japanese planes typically do. What your plane is likely showing is a combination of burnishing from use and oils from the user’s hands. I would avoid the linseed oil. I don’t typically use it on old planes anymore unless they are EXTREMELY dried out, in which case I typically won’t buy them.

      So with all of that said, I would recommend that you check out my good friend Wilbur Pan’s web site, http://giantcypress.net. Wilbur is a Japanese tool specialist who is much more qualified to give you suggestions on how to restore your kana. I’ll also ask him to chime in here for anyone else who is reading this.

      • Bob,
        Thanks so much for the reply. It’s very generous of you. The plane is well used and the sole has been relieved as you suggested. I’m going to get started using/tinkering anyway, with it today. I don’t have a plane hammer yet but I have some soft mallets so maybe something like that will suffice for the time being.
        I have a friend who studied for a few years in Japan… He is a metalsmith. Some say the best the US has ever produced. And another who studied swordmaking, also in Japan. Anyway, I’ve been so impressed with Japanese craftsmanship and their interesting tools, that I’m always curious. I love the pull saws and the chisels, so I thought it would be interesting to work with a kana. I’ll check out your friend’s site right now. (by the way, for a look at some amazing metalwork by the above mentioned friend, well cloissonette(sp) check out harlanbutt.com It’s incredible)
        I love your site and in fact I was reading more of your posts as your email arrived. Thanks again and have a good day.
        Gary

        P.S. I’m late to woodworking (lamentably) but it’s as if after all these years of not understanding what I love to do, I know now. Too bad it didn’t come with a side of talent. I read your bio and apparently you had a sense of your “soul’s code” early on.

        • Glad to be of assistance. Wilbur and I co-authored an article for the April 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine that you might find useful as well. It was called “Separated at Birth” and it was about the similarities and differences in Eastern and Western tools and how they may not be all that different as they have sometimes been made out to be over the years. You might be able to get the article online or in a back issue of the magazine.

      • Bob,
        Went to Wilbur’s site and took the link to setting up a Japanese plane. Like manna from heaven. It’s exactly what I was trying to find. Actually, I tried to find a copy of a book by Odate (which Wilbur refers to) but the price was so obsene (340 dollars) on the only site I could find a copy, I ended up ordering something very basic to get started. Anyway, this is the ticket. Wow. Thanks.
        Gary

        • Hi Gary,

          I’m really glad you found my blog to be of some use. Hope you keep reading.

          Odate’s book “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” seems to be available on Amazon for far less than $340. Some people are selling it for nosebleed prices, but others are not.

          On Bob’s information that he wrote above: Bob is right on. Then again, Bob knows everything. Japanese planes sometimes had their bodies soaked in oil, but this was nowhere near universal practice. On eBay, I have seen many more Japanese planes with untreated bodies compared to ones that were oiled. I bought one just to see what it was like, and I would rather use an untreated Japanese plane. And I don’t know of anyone selling new Japanese planes where the bodies are pre-oiled.

          You could fill the gouge on your plane with epoxy, or just leave it alone. I doubt that it will effect the performance of the plane. In addition, using a Japanese plane means that at some point you’ll have to recondition the sole of the plane, and after doing this enough times, the gouge will eventually be scraped out.

          Japanese red oak has become harder to source these days, so if your plane has a red oak body, that’s a good find. Performance-wise, I don’t think there’s much difference between Japanese red oak and Japanese white oak, which is the more common option these days. But the red oak does look cool.

          • Wilbur,
            Thanks for all the additional info. When I looked for the Odate book, all I could find were exorbitant prices, which happens now and then in the used book market. I once saw a version of a book a close friend of mine wrote, for 1,200. You’d have thought it was an illuminated manuscript. And we laughed about it as I doubt he’d made much more than that in profit post advance when the book was in print. I never quite understand these things or how anyone can sell items at that price. The greed is obvious but that’s all.
            So, I’m with you on the treatment of the plane. It’s in otherwise nice shape. I picked it up for 60 dollars on ebay which I thought was a good price. It is signed and seems to have been taken care of and used properly. No damage besides that one gouge which was not noticeable in the photos but which wouldn’t have deterred me anyway. The gouge is in the section of the dai which is relieved and while I’ll fill it with epoxy, just because, I don’t think it’s a factor in use. I’m excited to get to working with it. As it happens, for reasons I never really understand, I’ve long had an affinity for Japanese culture and I would almost say, tempo. There is a respect given to to beauty, to grace, to life itself (notwithstanding the very same barbarity all cultures demonstrate sometimes that I find easy to relate to. So, not surprising that the tools feel good in my hands. I also bought some old chisels on ebay which are en route from Osaka. After overpaying for one from Japan Woodworker (new) I decided to look for some which had been used by craftsmen and which perhaps were better made to begin with. We’ll see.
            I’ll eschew the oil and do nothing but sharpen the blade for now. Not long ago, in another funny moment of realizing I’m always a step late with things, I was reading “The Perfect Edge” by Hoch. In it he suggests that we agree not to ruin Japanese tools with even a wet slow speed grinder (which I have) so I invested in a great combination of sharpening stones from sharpening supplies.com and am finding them to be a huge step up for sharpening planes and chisels so far.
            Thanks for taking the time to write. I am always amazed at how generous woodworkers are with their knowledge and time. A far cry from other realms I’ve wandered in.
            Gary

  3. Bob,

    I know this is an old one, and that you no longer used BLO. Do just lightly clean and then use paste wax?

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