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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.