Hand Plane Restoration

by Jeff Hallam

While I still consider myself a novice-level woodworker, I am able to appreciate the importance of quality hand tools in the completion of a project. Modern, quality made handplanes such as those sold by Lie Nielsen or Lee Valley are an excellent product but can be hard on your wallet.

I wanted to start using quality tools now, not suffer through the frustrations of a cheap imitation of a classic tool, like those sold at the local hardware stores.

This article concerns the process I used to clean up and remove rust from these antiques. I'll also share some before and after pics to hopefully inspire you to try this yourself. For a little bit of work you can have a set of quality hand planes without needing to take out a loan.

I won't ramble too much on where older planes are found, suffice to say that Ebay and yard sales are a good starting point. Be an educated buyer! To make sure your efforts will be worth the end product, do some reading about which older planes were known as a superior product. I recommend taking a look at Patrick's Blood and Gore (strange name, but good content).

I also won't be delving into the tuning of your hand plane, but this topic is thoroughly covered elsewhere.

The Process

The test subject is a Stanley #3 smoothing plane purchased it off Ebay.

Ebay can be a bit risky because the seller often doesn't know how to check the condition of the important bits. On this particular plane I had to order a replacement threaded rod. Tools for Working Wood is one source for these types of replacements.

Let's look at some before shots:

rusty old blade and cap iron

This is the blade and cap iron.

there's a logo hidden under that crud

You'll see this picture of the blade logo a little later. What logo, you say? Trust me, it's buried under the rust and grime of age. Just wait…

old handle and tote

The handle and tote were in good shape but needed a good cleaning.

paint seems okay

This plane's japanning (paint) was in good shape so I chose not to strip and re-japan the body.

rust on the parts that we're going to remove

As you can see (and this is typical for these old tools) there is rust on the blade, chip-breaker, and lever cap. We want to remove this rust and then protect the metal to prevent future deterioration.

So just how is this accomplished without spending hours scrubbing or messy sandblasting? I use electrolysis. I won't explain the science of it (I probably couldn't anyhow) but that info is available on the web. What you need to know right now is that electrolysis uses electricity to remove the rust without damaging the metal underneath. The necessary equipment consists of:

  • A DC current source (I use a car battery charger)
  • The piece being cleaned which acts as the negative terminal
  • A sacrificial piece of iron which acts as the positive terminal
  • A non-conducting container to hold the terminals in a conductive solution

While this plane has only light rust on it, electrolysis can likewise be used for heavily rusted pieces. It will not, however, repair the pitting that the rust has caused.

plastic tub or electrolysis vessel

To start, you will need a non-conducting container in which to suspend the rusty piece. I have used coat hanger pieces to suspend the plane body while at the same time being able to conduct current from above the water line.

piece of iron givin' it up for the cause

I use this sacrificial piece of iron (2" square tubing) as the positive terminal. Some other common examples you might have around the house are: rebar, old lawnmower blades, old saw blades etc. Do not use any treated alloys like stainless steel, galvanized material etc., as this will cause the conductive solution to be more toxic. To more efficiently clean a piece, you can chain together these sacrificial pieces in order to surround the object (electrolysis is somewhat of a line-of-sight process). By the same method, you can clean more than one piece at a time by chaining them all to the negative terminal.

old fashioned washing soda

The conductive solution is composed of water and washing soda. This is the washing soda that you should be able to find at your local grocery store. The solution is one tbs of washing soda for every gallon (four liters) of water. Do not use regular salt for the solution.

this is how it starts

This picture shows the initial setup. You can see the positive terminal connected to the sacrificial piece and the negative terminal connected to the coat hanger (and therefore the plane body). It is important to note that the positive alligator clip must remain out of the solution, but the negative clip can be submerged. This is because the positive clip would be eaten away along with the sacrificial piece of iron. The negative clip on the other hand, is being cleaned just like the plane body and will not erode. You still need to rinse your equipment very well after this process as it will rust if put away with residual solution on it.

Your DC source should be away from any possible spills or tip over. In addition, most battery chargers have a built in thermal breaker that will trip when overheated and reset itself once cooled down. I was not comfortable with the possibility of something shifting in the bucket and causing a short while I was asleep overnight. Simple solution: I use an automotive inline fuse holder with a 3 amp fuse. I have found that normal use stays well below 3 amps, but in the event of a short during overnight operations, the fuse burns out and opens the circuit. The current drawn will depend on the size of your positive and negative terminals that are submerged and their proximity to each other. I typically operate below 1 amp.

Any DC source will work. The things you need to look for are the amps that your charger can put out and what voltage it is. If it is a low amp unit (1 or 2 amps) the problem you might be faced with is your zap bucket trying to draw more current than the charger is meant to provide. Protect your low amp charger by putting an inline fuse as I described above (with a fuse just above your normal operating amps, but below the max). A charger is typically 12 volt, but models are available that allow switching between 6 and 12 volts. This is a useful 'gross' adjustment method for current control. Start out at 6V, if you are only drawing 100 mA or so, just switch to 12V and you have just doubled to 200 mA!

If your charger doesn't have a built in ammeter then you will want to check the current with a multimeter after you have it hooked up to ensure it is drawing something. You can also look for bubbles forming on your rusty plane. You want to ensure the circuit is drawing current before leaving it, otherwise your piece will simply be sitting in what is effectively a “salty” solution. This means rust!

So how long do you leave it? The beauty of this process is that you can't over clean an item, and it will depend on how badly rusted it was. I have found the most I need to leave it for is 48 hours. Once you think the piece is done, you will need to clean it immediately to remove the black residue that develops where the rust used to be, and then dry it right away. This black residue is easily removed with some gentle scrubbing. For drying, a hair dryer will work, or 15 minutes in the kitchen oven (for non japanned items) at around 200° F. For pieces with japanning on them I don't exceed 175° F. This heated drying helps evaporate the water from all the nooks and crannies.

The scrub pads I use are the green ones from 3M or scotchbrite that you find at your grocery store. Probably the same ones you use in the kitchen. I wouldn't give them back to your wife after, though—they will be pretty gross.

after a while we get to this

Here is a picture of the process three hours after initial power on:

can you believe this is the same one as above?

After the zap bucket, a scotchbrite pad was used to remove the black coating that electrolysis leaves. All of the metal screws and other small components were also cleaned by hanging them in a steel mesh basket in the solution. The brass pieces were done using "BrassO"® cleaner. Pictured at left is the same blade promised earlier, but look at the difference!

all cleaned up and ready for some assembly

Some additional 'after' photos:

For the knob and tote, I stripped off the decaying lacquer and used furniture paste wax on them, but feel free to experiment. The handles will see a lot of use, so perhaps something I will try a more durable finish next time.

all together now

And finally, re-assembled:

flattening, sharpening, smoothing

Now, what remains is to actually prep for use. That includes flattening the sole, sharpening the blade and ensuring all mating, machined surfaces are smooth enough to make solid contact while in use.

checking the high spots

I use sandpaper glued to a granite slab to flatten the sole, here you can see the obvious wear spots after five minutes of sanding.

Before and After Pics:

before and after plane that needs re-japanning

4½ Smooth Plane

The following are pictures of a Stanley 4½ smooth plane that was to be my first attempt at re-japanning.

4˝ before and after body, blade, and cap iron

The japanning product was Liberty On the Hudson–Pontypool Asphaltum.

before and after knob and tote

The knob and tote were stripped down and now have three coats of shellac on them. I still have to flatten the sole on this one and hone the blade.

two coats ought to do it

I found two coats of japanning to be adequate. The representative I spoke with recommended that full paint hardness would be achieved after 30 days.

no. 6 from ebay really needed some work

No. 6 bench plane

This one needed the most work out of the few I have done so far. I purchased a Hock blade and chip-breaker for it, as well as replacement handles. The Hock blade set works fantastic. The replacement handles were from Plane Wood and are a fine set with beautiful grain.

Anyhow, here is what I started with (purchased off Ebay):

finished product

And here is where I ended up:

another view

Another view.

I hope you give this process a try; it can be a rewarding experience. Best of all, you're left with a tool that just might last another 100 years.

. . . Jeff Hallam

© 2005 by Jeff Hallam. All rights reserved.
No parts of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means
without the written permission of the publisher and the author.