I got my start with hand tool woodworking restoring old tools. Depending on the quality, condition and value of the tool, some warrant a full restoration complete with bead blasting and re-japanning. Others just need to be cleaned up, sharpened and put back into use in the shop. I’ve found a great way to do this using common household items.
Follow along to learn how to clean tools!
1. Evaluate the tool
Look for brand names, patent dates and other information that might help you identify the tool. Do a little Internet research. If it is a common hand plane or chisel, chances are you aren’t going to ruin a historical relic by cleaning it up a bit.
Look closely at the tool. How much rust is on it? Are there any broken or missing pieces? If the tool is deeply rusted, pitted or has broken parts, it is not likely worth the time it would take to fix it.
For the purposes of this article, I chose two tools that needed no soaking in coke or vinegar so I could skip a step in the process. If you spend a couple extra dollars buying tools that have only minor surface rust, you will save a lot of time, effort and mess in the end.
Since time is money, I’ve chosen to start buying tools that need less work from the start because we are usually only talking about the difference of a few dollars in price between a really rusty and an easily salvageable tool. If a tool is horribly pitted and rusted, there is a good chance I won’t be able to restore it to working order without a time investment that massively outweighs the value of the tool.
2. Take the tool apart
After you’ve determined that this tool is not a historical relic and is indeed worthy of putting it back to work, take it apart. Remove all wooden components and set them aside. Be sure you keep track of all small parts and how the tool is supposed to go back together when you are finished. If you are afraid you might forget how to reassemble the tool, take photographs as you disassemble it.
3. Scrub, soak or both?
If the metal components of the tool are heavily rusted, a 24-hour soak in white vinegar or Coke will remove a majority of the rust. If the rust isn’t gone after 24 hours, put it back in the solution and check it again in 24 hours.
If the tool is covered in oil or grime, wash it off using a sink scrubby and dish soap with warm water before you submerge it in the vinegar or coke bath. Be advised that you will want to submerge the tool in the vinegar or coke immediately after washing the tool, or the water on the tool will cause the tool to begin to rust again.
The same problem, called “flash rusting” can occur immediately after you remove the tool from the vinegar or coke, so be sure you are ready to go to work on the tool immediately after you remove it from the de-rusting solution. Dry it off thoroughly, and move on to the next step.
If the tool is not heavily rusted, the vinegar or coke bath can be avoided and you can skip straight to the cleanup process.
4. The magic of Scrubbing Bubbles
I used to use citrus cleaner for this part. My friend Chris Kuehn told me about using Scrubbing Bubbles, and I will never go back. I like to wear gloves during this part, and I would recommend that you do as well. Cover your work surface with newspaper or magazine pages to protect your table and make for an easy cleanup when the project is finished.
Spray all the metal components with a generous dose of Scrubbing Bubbles. Let them stand for several minutes as the bubbles work their magic.
Then, using 0000 steel wool, brass brushes and toothbrushes, scrub off as much of the grime and rust as you can. Every now and then, wipe things off with a paper towel to check your progress. If more scrubbing bubbles are needed, spray on more, let stand for a few minutes, and go back to work.
You can do as little or as much cleaning as you want here. This is, after all, your tool. I like to remove rust and grime while still keeping the patina that shows the tool’s age. There is something insanely cool to me knowing that I’m using tools that are over a hundred years old in my shop.
5. Wax on, wax off
Once you are satisfied that your metal parts are clean, add a coat of paste wax. Turtle car wax works great. Wipe it on, let it stand for a bit, then wipe the tool clean with a paper towel.
6. Finish it up
If there are any screws or moving parts, take a moment to lubricate them with 3-In-One oil. Sharpen any blades, then reassemble the tool and use a dust cloth soaked in mineral oil to wipe down the entire tool. This will add a little luster to any wooden parts as well as coat and protect the tool from further rust.
If you want to go a bit further on the wood parts, you can use furniture-grade wood wax or conditioner and a clean piece of steel wool to apply it liberally. The steel wool will help to polish and clean the wood as well, and the longer you spend on it, the higher the sheen will get. Another trick of the trade is to mount rounded wood parts in a drill motor and spin while you simply hold the steel wool with wood wax or conditioner against the wood.
So there you have it, a clean tool that is out of danger for further rust damage. It’s not perfectly clean or showroom ready, but it’s ready to go back to work in your shop for another 100 years.
7. One final note on wooden components
If there are missing or broken wood parts, you can make new ones. I’ve had a lot of success turning new tool handles for chisels on the lathe as well as replacing plane totes by roughing out the shape on the bandsaw and shaping them with rasps and sandpaper.