Cleaning, Restoring & Preserving Wooden Tools

There are quite a few companies offering reproductions and new spins on traditional tools or you may even build some of your own tools, nevertheless most traditional woodworkers do end up with a collection of working antique tools. Many of those tools have wooden parts if not all wood. Following a few simple steps, you can ensure that these tools will last the next hundred years.

*Illustrations to be added soon

The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, right? So the first order of business in tool restoration is to do a thorough inspection. After you have looked the tool over make notes, either mental or jot them down, on what you find and what should or shouldn't be addressed. Will the tool be used or simply admired? Are there any missing or broken pieces? Should they be fixed or left as is? This is a good time to clean the tool and inspect closely as we go.

As a general rule, I don't make repairs to tools unless they will be used, otherwise I believe it makes more sense to maintain a tool's integrity and only clean and protect them. For tools to be used I have a bit less concern for integrity and more for usability but I attempt to do as little repair / replacement as possible to bring a tool to dependable user status. The older or more rare the tool the more I am willing to sacrifice a bit of performance for originality. 

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We need to decide just how far we want to go with a repair, as above, will we be using this tool and if so how often? If we are going all the way then we need to consider the steps of the work we want to do. 

At this point the tools parts should already be clean. If we are making repairs we need to do this prior to applying any preservative agents such as waxes or oils as this will have a negative impact upon glue adhesion. 

Cleaning Wooden Parts
A hundred plus years of simply existing can leave wooden tools pretty grimy, add to this the frequent application of Linseed Oil and or tallow and wax plus the oils and soils of the craftsman's hands and you may be looking at planes, saw handles, chisel handles, rules and squares almost black with character. This is ok! There is no need to clean this off of a tool, the tool has had a long noble life and to remove it's character is to rob that distinguished fellow of his honor.There is a very distinct difference between cleaning and cleaning the begeezus out of it. Some cleaners worth considering:

Naptha - you don't need a hazmat suit to clean tools with it but be sure to only use it in a well ventilated area. Apply a small amount to a soft rag and rub the wood pieces lightly. Mineral Spirits can be used in a similar method however I've found that it tends to be absorbed a bit more readily and overall just quite as mild. After cleaning with Naptha put the pieces aside to dry.

Simple Green - Or generic "Green Cleaner" is a very mild cleaner. I love this stuff! I use it for wet sanding between coats of finish, lubrication for sharpening and cleaning tools. This is one you have to be careful with. In general wetting antique tools isn't a great idea. I buy concentrated cleaner by the gallon and mix it in a spray bottle at about 10-15% with the rest distilled bottled water. For cleaning tools I use it the same way as I would the Naptha but limit the exposure time. You need not worry about any harmful effects from the cleaner, it's safe, non-toxic and it disappears when it dries leaving nothing of concern behind. I use this method when there is extreme buildup of waxy or oily crud. Again put the pieces aside and let them dry.

Once the pieces have fully dried repairs can be made. If gluing wooden pieces back together use common sense. Glue only has an effective bond  on long grain to long grain joints. If you have a cracked piece DO NO sand them or abrade the glue surface. This will reduce glue adhesion as well as cause a more a more noticeable glue line. In the case where the broken piece has been previously glued you will need to get creative. Tiny dowels or hidden splines can be employed to give you a strong glue joint without fretting over removing the old glue.

Once your tool has been cleaned and repaired, it time to protect it. There is only one think I recommend for protecting wooden tools - Renaissance Wax.  It is a micro crystalline wax that works tremendously well for protecting wood while not having any harmful effects. I have been told there are some generic waxes out there, usually going under the general name of museum wax - I have not evaluated these so I can not say whether they work as well or are as safe. 

Renaissance Wax last a reasonably long time even with use. How often it must be applied depends upon use and climate. It will have a mild cleaning effect when rubbed on and you can expect to find that some surface contaminants will be lifted and imparted on the rag used to apply it - this is OK. Apply the wax with a soft clean rag and allow to dry prior to buffing out. This wax can also be applied to metal parts.

In some cases you may want to apply linseed oil or boiled linseed oil. It's not uncommon to find wooden planes that have been improperly stored or in unfavorable conditions resulting in extremely dry, bordering on dry rotten, wood. It these cases I will and do recommend applying oil lightly thinned with mineral spirits to allow it to penetrate more deeply. Allow the tool to dry a day or longer and apply a second coat. Once fully dry you may apply the wax. 

I mentioned the buildup of linseed oil and tallow contributing to the patina and darkening of a tool, this is by no means a suggestion not to use it. They've been used for many many years and obviously haven't caused the early demise of tools. On top of that, the use of tallow is quite beneficial. As Underhill once said - a bit of tallow saves a lot of elbow grease. 

Tools should be stored away from excessive moisture for obvious reasons. All tools should be wiped free of dust and grime after each work day and certainly before being put away. Try to make a habit of inspecting your tools on some regular increment to address any issues prior to them becoming a problem.A tight wedge may swell with humidity and crack the body of a plane, for that reason I recommend loosening plane wedges prior to storing them for any extended period of time. 

-Jean Becnel
L'ébénisterie Créole

© Jean Becnel, 2012. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)

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