Notes on Tool Restoration

by Rick Rubin

(Webmaster's note: This article was scanned from a 1984 issue of ToolTalk)

The antique tool collector or user has an obligation to preserve an artifact that was once a functioning object. This obligation can take various routes, but it is my wish to express my own philosophy. My occupation is the repair and/or restoration of musical instruments, and my approach has been colored by my experiences in this field. My approach is this: At one time this artifact was an object of good function and also an object which was finely finished, a thing of beauty. This being so, the object is to restore it to as near original condition without compromising it.

A tool presents a very special problem because it is not simply an object created for observation, such as a painting or sculpture, a tool is meant to be used as well as preserved. The tools that we all collect are deemed obsolete by an attitude that no longer reveres quality above mere quantity. The planes manufactured by Stanley, Ohio Tool Co., Sandusky, Chapin, etc. are still as good as they ever were. The results obtained by them can be just as accurate as ever if they are well cleaned and tuned up. These tools are a pleasure to use and, therefore, in my mind, worthy of restoration. It appears that the pendulum is swinging back toward the cultivation of work with hand tools, as evidenced in publications such as "Fine Wood Working," Fine Home Building, II and many, many others. None of us will live forever. Then do we not have the obligation to hand these tools down as functioning tools that are also still beautiful?


Stanley 45, patented 1884, Floral casting, no logo on the fence--earliest type. I acquired this plane in a trade with a very good friend, thanks Charlie! It was in a very sad state. Nearly all the Japanning was gone: the brass screws were oxidized; the rosewood knob and handle were very dry and colorless. I was faced with a problem. Do I simply clean it as best as I can or really do it well? In my trade it simply isn't enough to correct the worst problems and leave it at that. If the finish on a violin or really fine guitar is in poor shape, it is restored. Why should this not apply to tools? I've never really understood the attitude that a rusted, chipped and tarnished tool is somehow more valuable than another that is carefully restored. I suppose part of the problem in many people's minds is botched restorations. I've seen many on instruments as well as tools. If a tool is in very good or fine condition, then by no means should it be tampered with, but another that is really rough ...why should it remain so? Anyway I chose to restore it to new condition. I stripped the iron parts of what vestiges of Japan remained. I took all the brass hardware and placed it in a bath of dilute white vinegar. I took the knob and stripped it, glued a tight crack and linseed oiled it to restore some moisture to the wood. I did the same to the handle in place. The arms were very rusted, but not badly pitted. I used a bench motor that we use in woodwind repair to clean them. It has a 3-jaw chuck and a hollow shaft. I chucked the arms (one at a time of course) in it and used 220 grit wet or dry to sand off the rust. I advanced the arm a few inches at a time until half was cleaned, then reversed it and did the other half. I finished them while turning with 360 then 400 grit. They look good, but not overly done at all. I cleaned the threads with a brass wired brush. Please for- give me, but I want to harp about a pet peeve of mine. I feel it is deplorable that the buffing wheel is used so much on the brass fittings of antique tools. Very few of the originals ever show signs of having been buffed. Buffing can do real harm. It can destroy the definition of a piece; in this example the delicately knurled screws. It removes a lot of brass if applied strenuously, and in my opinion, gives the tool a very unnatural appearance. Give up your buffing wheels except where they apply. What is my solution? The brass wired brush. They chuck it into a bench motor or drill and leave a clean brass patina. Since the bristles are the same material as that which you are cleaning, they don't scratch it. Try it once and you'll agree, I am certain. The brass brushes and the bench motor can be obtained from Ferrees Band Instrument Tools and Supplies, 1477 E. Michigan Ave., Battle Creek, Mich. 49017.

The iron parts I refinished with Japan paint. This paint, as far as I can tell and research, is close to the same product used originally. It is a flat drying paint and is mixed with varnish to add elasticity and gloss. Japan colors are very heavy bodied pigments and are compatible with nearly any other finish. The venerable '45' was beginning to look good. The knob and handle I French-polished. This technique is perfect for the early Stanley's. Mix a thin shellac (water thin), dip the corner of a clean piece of cloth in it and squeeze the cloth to distribute it. Take a dab of olive oil and wipe it on the cloth. Then, with quick circular strokes, apply to the rosewood. When the cloth starts to get dry, use straight strokes to polish out the circular ones. Repeat until you've got what you like. You can use this "polish" on any of your wood, it looks very mellow and natural. Don't stop the pad on your work, though, or you will get an imprint of your cloth. I cleaned the skates and depth stops with a rust remover distributed by Do-All Tool Co. in Los Angeles. This product is simply the best I've ever used. It cleans without harming, and leaves a phosphate coating on the parts which inhibits rust formation. Most times steel wool with a rust remover will get it off. Really stubborn rust works off well with kero- sene and wet and dry sandpaper, then steel wool and rust remover. That is how I cleaned the Stanley 45. I'm looking at it as I write and have the following observations. It looks mint. The Japan color and varnish have the same look as originals. It does not look sprayed or painted. The brass has that rich patina and not a mirror finish. I would never try to pass it off as original, but it looks real close and in 20 years should look like an old mint Stanley 45. I don't feel that I harmed it in any way. I used it on a project today, and it worked well. When my collection is dispersed some day, this plane will, I hope, get into the hands of a craftsman and I think he will be thankful that someone took the trouble to restore an old battered tool to its rightful place.