Frequently Asked Questions about Tools
Tool Cleaning - The most frequently asked question that we receive about antique tools is about how to clean them. The answer is applicable to most fine antiques, not just tools. Many users think that these guidelines are only for collectors. Any fine possession should be properly cared for, whether you intend to use it or not. It often amazes me how people abuse tools, because they see them as "users", when they would never do similar things to other objects that they use. Imagine if you suggested that they clean their car with steel wool. They would be indignant; and yet the same person would assault a tool without reservation. I read one blog recently, where a supposedly respected cabinetmaker bought a plow plane at an auction. It was a nice looking plane, albeit a rather common example. He proceeded to completely ruin it, using emory paper on the iron skate and steel wool on the wood and brass. The end results made me cringe. The orginal owner of this tool, who bought it to use, would have been sickened to see what was done to his cherished plow plane, which was now worth half of what it was before this fellow "cleaned" it. If you follow the guidelines set out below, you nobody will ever cringe when they see your tools, whatever you intend to do with them.
Sophisticated collectors and museums alike share the view that nothing should be done that is not reversible. For example, if something is dirty, clean it, don't refinish it. You can always make it dirty again but you can't bring back the original finish. Unfortunately, tools are still not viewed with the same reverence as many other antiques, and even today, many fine pieces are being ruined by well meaning but misguided people. As can be inferred from many of our descriptions, we abhorr some of the current cleaning practices. We have found this to be especially true in the UK, where antiques dealers routinely polish tools on power buffing wheels. Not to put all the blame on the Brits, a book was published not long ago in this country that discusses techniques like the proper use of a wire wheel.
With tools, we have found a few simple techniques to be very effective. Bear in mind, the fundamental objective is to remove dirt without damaging surface texture or patina. Never should an abrasive be used. Never should a water based cleaner be used on wood. Never should a finish be applied to an antique. Instead, use a good quality museum grade wax, like Behlen's Blue Label Wax, or Rennaissance Wax, both of which we sell. Wax protects the surface but can be easily removed if necessary. If a tool is lightly dirty, like a molding plane that has been stored for many years, the waxing will be enough to also remove any light surface dirt. The solvent in the wax acts as a cleaner that loosens surface dirt. Just look at how black the white rag that you using for the wax will turn. If a tool is particularly dirty, we have found the most effective approach, both on wood and metal surfaces, to use a dry automotive rubbing compound, like the Turtle Wax red rubbing compound, not the finer white polishing compound. It is best used sparingly on an old rag, like a sock. Work it into the fabric until it has a burnished surface and then put more on in tiny dabs when needed. There is a technique to it, but it is easily learned and well worth the effort. If you clean a dirty tool like this, and then wax it, it will look wonderful, without any loss of patina.
What about steel wool you ask. Steel wool is one of the most abused materials associated with antiques and far more antiques are damaged than improved by its use. A very fine steel wool ,0000, very gently applied with a generous lubrication of wax, can be used to clean dirty tools, but it is taking the easy way out and should never be used on anything rare or valuable. The new synthetic steel wools, like the ones that we offer from Norton, are far superior to real steel wool. The finest grade, which comes as a white pad, can be used with wax to clean tools without harming the surface and patina. I always start out with a soft rag, like an old t-shirt, but if you need a bit more cleaning power, then try one of the white synthetic pads.
Linseed oil is another old favorite that has lost favor in recent years. Even museums used to use linseed oil on wood surfaces. Trouble is that it darkens with age and many museum pieces that were periodically oiled for years are now almost black. In general, you should not need any more than wax. Some wooden planes, for example, will be so dry and checked that it does make sense to give them one generous application of linseed oil. Planes found in barns often fit this description. However, if you start out with a nice plane, the kind of thing that you will see on our website, you should not go anywhere near it with linseed oil.
Remember, the most important thing is to use your judgment, don't rush into anything, and don't do anything that can't be undone!
Scraping, a trick taken from gunsmiths. Light Surface rust can often be scraped smooth, without degrading the tools condition, but using a scraper that is made from a softer material than what you are scraping. Gunsmiths have bronze scrapers made for this purpose, which can remove light surface rust without scratching bluing. I have also found that the soft steel used for strap hangers can be used to scrape iron plane bodies. It is amazing how well this works, smoothing out a planes surface, without looking like it was overcleaned.
What if a tool is too rusty to use without the use of abrasives? - Immediately after reading our cleaning philosophy, the question is inevitably asked, what if a tool is too rusty to use without use of abrasives. If a tool is a rare antique in this condition, it should probably be stabilized with a good waxing, and left to a collector. If it is a common tool, like a Stanley bench plane, consider it a user tool and do what you want to it. Our comments on cleaning are focused more on tools that have not been neglected beyond rescue, not on tools that are so far gone that drastic action is required.
What about restoration? - When to restore items and when to leave them alone is a more contentious issue, even among museum people. Some museums will only replace parts with pieces that stand out as obviously being replaced. For collectors, this approach is often not satisfying because of the obvious disadvantages of displaying items with unsightly repairs. Another approach is to have make replacement parts match as carefully as possible, but then mark them as reproductions in some unobtrusive spot. This approach sounds good, but in practice can be hard to achieve. For example, I have in my own collection an early Wedgwood basalt vase that has a very subtle repair to the finial of the lid. The replaced piece is about 3/16" in diameter. There is no subtle way to mark it as replaced. If I ever sell it, I will tell the buyer, but eventually this information will likely be lost. In most cases, the things that most collectors own, as opposed to museums, are not that rare that it matters, and I would argue that repairs should be made to follow as closely as possible the original form, and matched to the piece as closely as possible. I know that I will take flack from some quarters for this opinion, but this is a no win question.
Why should I buy from a dealer and not an auction? - It used to be, in most areas of antiques, that auctions were wholesale venues where savvy buyers might get a bargain, and buying from dealers was more expensive but offered much greater protections. Today, most auctions are so well attended that there are no bargains, and if anything, prices go above what a good dealer would charge, but without the protection of buying from a reputable dealer. We certainly see prices at tool auctions going well above our prices for similar items, including ones that are fundamentally flawed in some way that is not obvious.
With a good dealer, you can always return a purchase that turns out to not be what you expected. Not so with an auction. Of course, you can be rooked by a dealer, even we have been, but that will not happen with a reputable dealer. Good dealers can not afford to blemish their reputations by alienating customers. The tool world is too small for that. Word gets around quickly. That is why dealers often put the pieces that they don't want to be associated with in auctions.
Why do pairs of sash planes appear to be identical? - This question comes up all the time. It is one of those things that will become obvious when you use them. Sash planes were almost always sold in matched pairs. The planes appear identical except that the #2 will often have a steeper pitch on the iron. The #1 is set rank and works the stock to near the finished profile and the #2 is set fine to finish the job. If you only had one plane, you would literally take three times as long, always setting the blade back and forth, and the wedge would be worn out in no time.Are Fakes a problem in antique tool buying? - There is a lot of chicanery in the antiques world. The more expensive the items, the more careful one must be. Tools are generally not that expensive, so the faking is not that sophisticated. What we see a lot of is enhancement, or marriages. For example, I see a lot of genuine tools, that are marked with spurious marks, to make them appear to be a more desirable item. They start out as genuine objects, just not as valuable as a similar item made by a particular manufacturer. For example, I have seen a spurious Robert Wooding marked used on genuine 18th Century molding planes that were clearly not made by Robert Wooding. The Mathieson mark is also similarly used. Marriages are another common trick. For example, I have seen saws sold as rare examples, that were just common gent's saws, with fancy handleds added to them, which had started life as cast brass fire place tool handles. Suddenly a $50 investment in two common items can be sold unethically as one for $500. This happens a lot. When you buy from us, you are protected from this sort of thing. We have our finger on the pulse of the tool world. We know what is right and what is not, and who is doing what. The tools that we sell can be bought without any fear of falling victim to the crooks who prowl the antiques world. What is boxing? - The term boxing refers to the use of hardwood wear strips to protect the wear points on the sole of a plane. This hardwood is typically boxwood, but it can occasionally be other hard woods, lignum being the most common of these alternatives. There are other terms associated with desribing boxing, such as fully boxed, to imply that the entire sole is boxed, or slip boxing to desribe a thin strip of boxing. Slip boxing is the most common type of boxing by far. What does slip sided mean? - Molding planes, most commonly beads, sometimes had a removable side. This side would be what acts as the depth stop on a molding plane. The purpose of this removable side is to avoid the depth stop interfering with the work when creating a compound molding. Moldings are often created using more than one plane. Most commonly, this is done with separate pieces of wood for each molding plane, but with beads it is common to add these to a profile already cut with another plane. Before you get excited and think that you want slip sided beads, be warned. Wood screws that have not been disturbed in many years, usually more than a hundred in the case of molding planes, do not often turn easily. Sometimes things will be fine, but if a screw is stuck, don't force it. Old screws are brittle and break easily. So, don't count on the slip side of your molding plane actually coming off like you expect it to. I personally recommend just leaving them alone and finding another way to do it What is a removable fillet? - British molding planes, particularly ogees, often have a strip of wood, square in cross-section, screwed along the edge of the fence, effectively reducing the working width of the cut. If you remove this fillet, you get a wider profile. I have never seen any period documentary evidence to describe the intended use of this feature, but I believe that it was to put a flat area on the edge of your molding, that could then be further molded with another narrow plane, like a small bead. The same caveat applies to this fillet as applies to a slip-side. Old screws do not come out easily and it is best to leave it alone if it has been undisturbed for many years Is this plane complete? Are there any cracks or chips? - If there is one question that really irritates me, it is this. Well, really two questions. You can't imagine how often people will write and ask if a 45 has all the blades, or if it is missing some other part. Or, I will get a question as to whether a Stanley bench plane is cracked or chipped. I don't understand how anyone reading our website could get the impression that we would offer a broken Stanley plane or list a plane with missing parts and not mention it. If there is a nick on the tote or if the original instructions are missing from a 45, I mention it; how could I overlook missing parts?