Thursday, June 5, 2008

Back from the Brink

Now, you might think I am crazy after this. I am not sure I can really explain, but I will give it a shot.

For me there is something very powerful and enjoyable about bringing old tools back to a usable state. The interesting part is, that to a large extent the joy is based on the change in status of the tool itself, not in my possession of it. I know it is a little strange (okay, a lot strange!) but I feel like the tool is "happier" somehow. Yup, I knew this was going to be hard to explain, and before you get too worried about my mental state I'll try to clarify. Maybe "happier" isn't the right word - maybe "at peace" is closer to what I mean. Yup. Now that's better isn't it? See, I'm not mental.

Okay, one more try and then I'll let it go for another time. I guess I get satisfaction out of returning some kind of order to chaos. The tool was originally just raw materials, that someone imposed an order into and created a higher ordered state - a usable tool (which, interestingly enough, was used to impose further order on further raw materials...). Over time, and with lack of care, poor environment etc. the order was lost and the tool begins to become unusable. If allowed to continue it would return to raw materials (in this case rust and rotten wood, which I suppose ultimately would just become dirt...). But, if I intervene - with a little elbow grease, mineral oil and beeswax a surprising amount of order is reestablished and the tool lives again!

Here's an example: nosing plane (traditionally used to put a rounded front edge on stair treads) as found with dirt galore and not one but two colors of paint dripped and/or spread on it. Note the incorrect placement of the wedge and iron on the near side. Did someone use it that way?

After a gentle cleaning with rubbing alcohol (not what you will usually see talked about, most people seem to use mineral spirits/paint thinner, but I prefer the less toxic stuff whenever possible, and it seems to work - I use the 99% stuff from Safeway) a good dose of mineral oil and a final application of my own beeswax paste (beeswax melted into mineral oil) the life returns into this old tool.

Foolishly, I didn't take a before and after photo of the other side of the plane, where the transformation was striking. You'll just have to trust me that before the cleaning, the plane looked almost identical to the other old plane in the following picture. None of the beech rays were visible in the uncleaned state - but boy did they jump out after!

I haven't really returned this plane to a fully usable state - the irons are waiting for their turn over at the Scary Sharp bench. I don't really consider the order restored until the first shavings are leaping out. At which time, I always stop and ask, just how long has it been? And what have you been doing all that time? Are you glad to be back?

They haven't answered outloud yet - so I guess I am okay after all.


  1. I completetly get the "happier" you refer to when talking about rehabbing a tool. I like it also because the antiques we restore have a long histoy in other people's hands. It's a connection to tradition and skills that you have to know to really appreciate. I guess it's like being part of a group, of people who know how to use these things.

    Trevor Walsh

  2. Trevor - Thanks for commenting. Yeah, the connection is powerful, but something that not everyone can appreciate. It's kind of like a secret society - "The Benevolent and Fraternal Order of Galoots".

    P.S. - Great blog!


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