I received a question recently relating to the restoration of an old plane. We’ll focus on the iron bodied bench planes for now. There are times when we find, or are given, an old plane that we’d like to put back into use. How the plane was stored will directly affect the condition and magnitude of work required to ultimately use it as it was intended.
If the plane was stored in a damp environment, without proper precautions, then it is likely to have rust on much of the body and blade. If I find a plane that is very rusty, then I usually try to weigh the importance or uniqueness of the plane. If it is either important or unique, then I’ll likely go forward with the restoration and work that goes along with that. If on the other hand, it is an every day type of ubiquitous plane, I will normally just move on to another plane. While the techniques and processes for restoration are valuable to possess and practice, ultimately a person’s time is worth something as well, and the decision must be made how much time to spend on a basic plane.
Once I’ve decided to go forward with a restoration, I’ll usually start with the sole of the plane. If the sole is rusty, too, then I’ll use some 220 grit sand paper on a known flat surface. This flat surface is usually a granite precision surface, a thick plate of glass or one of my shop surfaces (table saw top, jointer beds, …) When I’m going to flatten a sole, I’ll put all the pieces together as if I was ready to plane wood, then back the blade up so there is no way it will make contact with the sand paper. This keeps the plane body with normal stress, so if there is any flexing, it will be the same as during use. After making a few passes over the sand paper, I’ll check the sole to see the progress. All of the shiny areas are the portions that touched the sand paper. I will continue with this until the complete sole is shiny. I’ll use one of the SandFlex hand blocks to remove rust from the remaining external areas of the body. There are three different grits available, and it just depends on how much rust is present as to which grit level is appropriate. Before moving on, I’ll spray some Camellia Oil or Jojoba Oil onto a rag and wipe a light film over the areas we’ve completed.
Once I get the external body rust under control, I’ll remove the lever cap, blade/chip breaker, tote and knob. Next I’ll remove the screws holding the frog in place. Now the plane body is completely bare, I’ll check to make sure the area where the frog sits is in good condition. It should be flat and make good contact with the frog. If there is any old grunge, clean it up and again apply a light layer of Camellia Oil or Jojoba Oil, and re-install the frog.
Next we’ll take apart the blade and chip breaker. Usually the blade is what requires the most work to restore, but the chip breaker can have problems, too. If the blade is rusty, use sand paper on a flat surface to work it back to shiny steel on the back of the blade. The bevel section of the blade is best worked while it is in a blade holder, so the correct base angle is established. At Lie-Nielsen, we begin with a base angle of 25 degrees on our blades. Depending on the shape of the bevel, and what angle it presently has, use 80 grit to completely re-establish the bevel. If the bevel is in decent shape and is already 25 degrees, you might choose to use 180 or even 220. Follow this with sharpening at 1000 and then 8000 grit at a 30 degree micro bevel. Once the work is complete on both the back and the bevel, apply a light layer of Camellia Oil or Jojoba Oil. Put the chip breaker back onto the blade. Check to make sure the chip breaker has no gaps between it and the blade. If it does, it will likely allow shavings to gather and prevent the plane from working properly. If there is a gap, we can either modify the front edge of the chip breaker or look for a replacement. Many of the new chip breakers are more substantial and do a better job. Still, restoring the original is an option. If you decide to work on the original, make sure material removed is from the inside edge. The important section is the outer most edge, so that the chip breaker compresses and there are no gaps when it is tightened.
The next part is optional, and is primarily cosmetic. This includes cleaning the other interior surfaces of the plane body and the tote and knob. Much of this can be cleaned with regular surface cleaners, assuming their original surface has not been compromised with rust onset. Once clean, just reinstall the tote and knob, making sure they are snug, but don’t tighten to the point of damage.
The remainder of the restoration is setup. Put the blade/chip breaker on the frog with the lever cap. (I set my lever cap so it holds the blade while working, but still allows me to adjust the blade without releasing) Make sure the blade fits through the mouth of the plane, when the blade is advanced. If the blade makes contact with the mouth, and won’t come through, remove the cap, blade/breaker and move the frog rearward (that is unless you have a plane where the frog’s to/fro adjustment can occur while the blade is in place). Tighten down the frog and try again. Once you have the frog set so the blade is through the sole and the opening is appropriate for the shavings, then it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the settings to set the plane for operation.
Keep in mind that this is a how-to relating to bench planes. There can be slight differences in restoration for other types of planes.
I always enjoy seeing an older plane still working like they were intended. Good luck with your restoration and feel free to ask any questions in the comments.
Lee Laird has enjoyed woodworking for over 20 years. He is retired from the U.S.P.S. and works for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks as a show staff member, demonstrating tools and training customers.