We’ve chosen a Stanley No. 5 jack plane made in the 1940s for our restoration project. It’s in rough shape, but it’s salvageable – these planes were made to last. The knob and tote are worn but not broken, the sole is covered in caked-on rust, and the blade has seen better days – it’s not square and the edge has several nicks. It’s in serious need of rust removal. Our plane has clearly been neglected over quite some time, but we’re confident that we can bring it back to a useful life in the workshop.
Restoring an old hand plane
Making something old new again can be extremely satisfying – especially if you're lucky enough to find an old hand plane with "good bones" at a garage sale, a flea market or an auction. If you're willing to invest a little time and elbow grease, bringing an old plane back to good working order is a fairly straightforward and inexpensive way to add to your tool kit, even if you’re just starting out.
While there may be as many ways to restore an old plane as there are woodworkers to attempt it, we've had success with relatively simple methods for returning a vintage plane to its former utility and good looks. (By "vintage" we mean a tool made decades ago, not a centuries-old antique that might be historically significant to scholars and collectors. Restoring very old tools often requires a heritage professional's specialized expertise.)
Looking for an old plane to recondition? If the purpose of restoring the plane is to use it for your own woodworking projects, it's important to be sure you like the tool before you start. Is it comfortable to grip? If the tool does not feel comfortable in use, the repetitive motion of planing will be more tiring than if the plane in your hands feels "just right."
Are all the parts intact? Chances are that if the plane still has usable parts, you'll be able to restore it without having to spend money on replacements. Since part of the satisfaction of rejuvenating a vintage tool is making its old parts "as good as new," having to replace missing or damaged pieces with brand new ones may diminish your satisfaction (and your bragging rights) at having completely restored an old tool.
First, we need to take the tool apart so we can thoroughly inspect what we've got. As we suspected, all the metal-to-metal fasteners are rusted together and seized, so lubricant is used on the screws to make their removal easier. (It's important to note whether or not your plane has any brass hardware, so that later, when you're de-rusting the screws, you’ll treat the softer brass more gently than you would the steel hardware.) Tapping lightly with a hammer on the lubricated part also helps to loosen it if it's being stubborn. When the plane is completely dismantled, we lay out all the parts for a good look; we're glad to find there are no broken or missing parts and no unexpected issues to tackle – on the surface of things, at least.
Metal fasteners are rusted together
Applying lubricant to rusted fasteners
Removing rusted screws
Separating the blade and chip breaker
Washing the metal parts in a solution of dishwashing detergent and water is a good way to get the heavy grime off before dealing with the rust. While a brass brush is ideal for cleanup as it won’t scratch the steel, we carefully scrub the parts with whatever brushes we have on hand, from a wire kitchen pot scrubber for areas that are heavily encrusted with gunk to a toothbrush for poking into crevices, dislodging what looks like clumps of old sawdust. A razor works well for scraping off areas of thick, coated-on rust so you can wash the metal beneath.
Scraping rust from the back of the blade
Scouring with a wire scrubber
Scrubbing a rusted steel screw
Scraping rust from the frog
We want to remove as much of the rust as possible, so we start by using our assortment of scrub brushes as well as a commercially available rust eraser to get at as much of it as we can. A kitchen brush with steel bristles proves quite effective at getting into areas where the nylon-bristle brush can't reach. We use wire wheels on the steel screws to remove rust, but not on the threaded brass collar of the depth adjuster or its Bakelite control knob to avoid scratching them.
Using a rust eraser on the frog
Removing caked-on rust with a razor
A wire wheel used to remove rust from steel screws
We’ll need to sand for more aggressive removal of the caked-on rust on the sole, so we use coarse sandpaper clamped to a granite surface plate for this step. Even though we’re simply de-rusting and not flattening the sole at this stage, we take care to apply consistent pressure when pushing the sole across the grit, ensuring the sole contacts the sandpaper evenly. Once we’ve removed as much rust as we can, we let the metal parts sit in a rust bath for 24 hours. We chose a commercial rust remover, but you could just as easily use household white vinegar, which is also effective. After removing the parts from the bath and rinsing them off, we dry them thoroughly and apply machine lubricating oil to those metal parts that won’t be sanded immediately to avoid flash rusting (rapid corrosion – sometimes within minutes – when wet iron is exposed to the air).
To avoid using substantial amounts of rust remover to submerge the bulky plane body in a bath, you can simply wrap the part in a clean cloth that is thoroughly soaked with the chemical. Resting in the bath with the smaller parts, the cloth keeps the liquid in contact with the plane body, letting the rust remover do its work.
Restoring the tote and knob
When inspecting the wooden tote and knob, we look closely for signs of rot that would spell doom for the original parts, since any type of rot is sure to progress over time. We anticipated finding large cracks or nicks that might need to be filled with epoxy or bits that might be broken off, but we're pleasantly surprised to find that both tote and knob are intact. If damage or deterioration of the tote and knob on your plane is extensive, you may choose to make replicas or simply buy replacements.
To scrape the old finish from our tote, we use the side of a chisel because it has a good edge for lifting off the coating without cutting into the wood and leaving deep tool marks. Alternatively, a cabinet scraper would also do the job well. Remaining bits of finish are easily removed by sanding, and we apply finishing oil with a clean cloth. Over the course of the project, we’ll apply two coats of finishing oil and one coat of beeswax to seal and protect the finish on both the knob and tote. (Remember to keep safety in mind when storing or disposing of cloths soaked with flammable liquids such as finishing oils; they can be a fire hazard due to spontaneous combustion.)
A higher grit (220) is used to clean up the knob to avoid any scratching when sanding across the grain. If you’re having a tough time getting the old finish off with the scrape-and-sand method, you can always use a commercial stripper to remove the stubborn patches.
Scraping away old finish with the side of a chisel
Sanding off the remaining finish
Applying finishing oil
By laying the sole on a flat surface plate, you can sometimes tell by eye how skewed the sole is. Our plane's sole is surprisingly flat – we can't see much daylight through the gaps between the bottom of the sole and the plate, and there's almost no play when we try to rock the sole back and forth on the surface of the workbench.
After clamping a strip of coarse (80 grit) sandpaper to the plate, we mark the bottom of the sole with a permanent marker so that areas of the sole that are uneven will be revealed as the sanding progresses. Even though our plane's sole is relatively flat, you can tell the right side is lower because the marked lines in that area remain after several passes over the grit, while the lines on the rest of the sole have disappeared. A few more passes across the grit focusing on that specific area solves the problem.
Marking the bottom of the sole
Sanding the sole on a coarse-grit sandpaper strip
Remaining marked lines show sole is not perfectly flat
The Frog and the Cap Iron (Chip Breaker)
At this point, we want to flatten the frog so that the blade will lie flat on it, touching at all points so there is no play between the frog and the blade in use. Our frog is nearly flat, so we're using 120 grit just to even it out.
We also want to flatten the bevelled edge of the cap iron or chip breaker so it always contacts the face of the blade without a gap, reducing the potential for blade chatter and the possibility of shavings piling up in the gap, choking the throat.
A close inspection of the blade reveals that it is in fairly rough shape. We use a precision square to determine just how out of square it is – and how chewed up the cutting edge is. Plenty of rust build-up is evident as well as nicks possibly caused by the blade hitting nails or being dropped, or perhaps simply from neglect.
We flatten the back of the blade using the permanent marker method we used on the sole, and sand (80-120) until all the marks are gone. As the rust is scraped off, however, considerable pitting (small holes or indentations caused by corrosion) is revealed on the underside, and stubbornly refuses to be sanded away. Even after several minutes of vigorous sanding, some of the pitting remains – a big problem, as these small indentations will result in a cutting edge that is scalloped instead of straight and square.
At this point, we’re faced with a decision. We can carry on sanding and hope to manually remove the pitting (which is likely to take hours) or we can give in and buy a new blade. Purchasing a blade is certainly the easier move, but we want to see it through, so we choose to sand on. Using 80- and 120-grit sandpaper, we sand out the pitting in about three hours (with occasional refreshment breaks). We manage to remove about 90% and, most important, clear the cutting edge of any pitting. As long as you can clear about a half-inch from the cutting edge, the rest is relatively inconsequential.
Visible lines reveal back is uneven after sanding
Pitting revealed after initial sanding
Hours of sanding removes most of the pitting
On to honing. Big smiles all around when we find that the extensive sanding we did earlier to treat the pitting has taken care of the flattening as well, saving us from going right back to sanding. We do the permanent marker routine anyway, just to make sure.
Once we know the back is flat, we establish our primary bevel at the commonly-used angle of 25°. While some practiced woodworkers may be able to sharpen blades to a chosen angle by eye, there's no shame in using a honing guide to set the angle and hold the blade square. After a few passes over a coarse grit, we find we'd removed rust from only about one-quarter of the bevel, leaving a lot of corrosion still to be removed. This is going to take some time.
Marked lines to check for flatness
Setting the bevel angle
Corrosion present on bevel after initial honing
There are multiple ways to sharpen blades, and no specific progression of grits that's "correct" for honing, other than the general principle of moving to progressively finer grits to get a good finish. At times, whatever grits are available in the shop are what we use. With the blade still in the guide, we start honing the primary bevel with a 220-grit diamond stone and progress through 1000- to 4000-grit water stones. Finally, to create a micro-bevel, the tiny ultra-sharp edge that’s actually doing the cutting, we set the honing guide to increase the angle ever so slightly and make about 10 to 20 passes over an 8000-grit wet stone. Our blade edge is now satisfactorily sharp and we're good to go.
Honing on a 220-grit diamond stone
Honing the micro-bevel on a fine-grit wet stone
Edge with primary and micro-bevel
Before reassembling the plane, we apply metal polish to all the large metal parts – mainly for appearance. Then, just as we did at the beginning of the project, we lay out all the parts and inspect them, this time admiring the look and feel of the clean tool components we've restored.
Restored parts of the old plane
Lubricating oil applied to movable parts
The restored tote
Reassembled hand plane
At last, we put the plane back together, applying machine lubricating oil to any moving parts to keep them from rusting and seizing. After taking some moments to admire our rejuvenated plane, we take it for a spin in the shop. We use it on pine, cherry, walnut and finally, on white oak, a good test as oak is a hard wood that will give us a good sense of the tool’s performance. After making a few minor depth and lateral adjustments to get the feel just right, we contentedly make shavings, simply for the pleasure of it.
Some people say that old tools are fascinating because they carry stories with them along their journey through time. From their original makers to the craftspeople whose hands have used them to make practical and beautiful things, these old tools evoke memories and echoes of the past. Made in the first half of the previous century, our refurbished plane continues its journey into the future, restored and fit for use by another generation of woodworkers. We’ve given it a new lease on life – and another chapter in its story. How rewarding is that?