TLC for Hand Tools
Words and photos: Robert Howard
If you depend on your woodworking tools to earn a living and therefore use them every day, you have more opportunity to look after them. For the hobby woodworker, tools may be used haphazardly and infrequently. They may not be stored in an ideal place, so when you do come to use them you may be confronted by rusty, blunt, dirty, neglected tools.
You have a major job in front of you before you can even put blade to wood, so it will be no wonder if you turn around and head back to the television. Or you might decide to simply plough on despite the obstacles and hope you can turn out some decent work with poorly prepared tools and an inadequate workplace, but by doing so you are missing out on the greatest pleasures that your hobby can give you.
Cutting wood with a properly prepared tool is a world away from doing it with a bad one, and the results are equally different.
What I am saying then, is that looking after your tools is intimately connected to the mindset you have towards your woodworking. For me, my work and my tools are one in that I have the same attitude to both. I want the best tools I can afford, tuned to do the best work they are capable of, to enable me to do the best work I am capable of. I want this because I love woodworking, and I want to maximize the pleasure I get from it.
I am not a masochist. I believe in making things as easy for myself as possible—especially unpleasant things. Like most woodworkers, I would rather use a tool than maintain it, so I have worked at making the maintenance easy.
I have a dedicated sharpening area, with all the stones set out for immediate use. I have specially constructed homes for most of my tools. This keeps them safe from random damage and makes it almost a pleasure to tidy up. I am particularly careful to protect all my sharp edges, having done all the hard work to produce them. This applies also to tools that I do not resharpen, such as my precious rasps and my files. Simply throwing these into a drawer or box where they rattle around on top of one another is a certain way to shorten their useful lives.
Rust is the enemy
Rust is probably the biggest problem most woodworkers have with their tools, but there are only partial answers—coat your tools with oil or wax, wrap them in foil, keep water absorbing materials (dessicants) with the tools, and so on—but no single, easy answer.
Rust is, as we all know, caused by water coming into contact with tool surfaces. This happens under certain conditions of humidity, temperature and pressure. If your tools are stored in an area where they are prone to rust—and most home workshops located in the garage seem to be—then you have two options: leave them there and take some preventative measure; or store them somewhere else where the conditions do not produce rust—for example, inside your house.
If you have to keep them in your workshop, or if you also have machinery that you want to protect as well, then you need to either change the ambient conditions to more or less mimic the inside of your home, or do something to the tool (and machine) surfaces to directly combat the rust there.
The most common preventative measure is to coat the tools with oil or rust inhibitor, but unless this is done properly, it might not work all that well anyway. I would be more inclined to consider this for long term storage, rather than for short periods between use. Then it would be worth doing properly, probably with grease, and the downside of having to give the tools an extensive clean before use would not matter so much.
Changing the ambient conditions is more difficult, probably more expensive, but in the long run the easier and most successful way. If you can’t store your tools inside your house, I would try to create a mini environment for them that discourages rust. A traditional tool chest with a good seal around the lid might be enough, though it might also need time out in dry, warm air every now and then to rid it of moisture that it will have been busily absorbing if the workshop is always damp.
Changing the ambient conditions for the entire workshop would be the best solution, but also the most expensive. First of all, the space must be properly enclosed so there can be a real separation between the conditions inside and those outside. A slatted outside wall, such as often encloses the area underneath old Queenslander houses, will not keep any moisture out. Nor will an unlined tin wall, such as those found on the typical farm shed. But good enclosure does not seem to be enough on its own, as many car garages are enclosed but do not prevent rust.
Above: A simple gauge tracks humidity changes in the workshop.
Frequent use is one of the best ways to keep tools rust free. In addition to the use itself, there will also be the heat from whatever lights you use to help dry the air and keep the moisture level down. Air conditioning can also help. In an enclosed space under a house that is dark and cool when not in use, improving the ventilation might help as well. If you can exhaust the cool, damp air and replace it with warmer, drier air from outside you will obviously reduce the chances of rust. Whether it will be enough on its own to beat the problem only experience will tell.
Some tools—old planes for example—have to be extensively fettled before they can be used. What I am concerned about here is work that does not make the tool work better, but makes the tool easier or nicer to use.
You might use some sandpaper to soften the sharp edges of a new, hardware store, wooden marking or cutting gauge, for example, so that it feels more comfortable in your hand.
I used to scrape the lacquer off the handles of my Pfeil carving tools, then sand and oil them (I must not have been the only one because these tools now come without any lacquer on their handles). After some 30 years of use, my carving tool handles now have a wonderful patina, and feel beautifully smooth in my hand. I still sand and oil any new carving tool handles, as well as the handles of the Pfeil cabinet chisels I have bought.
I regrind the tips of any old screwdrivers I buy so that they fit screw slots correctly. I repair old saw handles, or recut hideous new handles to look more like the beautiful handles on the old saws. I resurface old carving tool mallets so they don’t damage the handles of my carving tools.
You can make new handles from beautiful, exotic woods, to replace the broken handles on old chisels, planes or saws. These are some of the ways to make your tools better to use, better to look at, and nicer to own.
By far the most important part of properly maintaining woodworking hand tools is keeping them sharp. Next is to protect them from random damage, which is best done by taking care to store them in custom made homes.
I sometimes find rust on my plane blades and chipbreakers because they were not properly dried after being sharpened on the Japanese waterstones. I always take the trouble to remove it, using the German Schleiffix abrasive blocks, available at Carba-Tec. Wet and dry sandpaper also works.
I check my squares from time to time for any burrs on the ends of the blades, or on the corners of the stocks (in the case of all-steel engineers squares). A small burr might not throw the reading out on wood, but it can make a critical difference on steel—if you were trying to check the squareness of a saw or jointer fence, for example. These burrs can be carefully removed using a fine file or some sandpaper. The soles of metal planes can also be scratched, dinged or burred, and these need to be fixed in the same way.
The workbench is one of the most important tools in a workshop, and needs to be maintained like any other tool. Bench tops need to be periodically resurfaced to clean them up and to ensure that they are flat. Wooden vice jaws also need to be resurfaced so they remain clean and have good top edges that can grip small pieces of wood securely. And if you have an old Record vice you will probably need to plane the wooden jaws to some sort of taper so the work, when gripped, is square to the benchtop surface.
I also like my wooden vice jaws to completely cover the metal jaws they are attached to, so that my tools are not able to accidentally hit any exposed metal. I make these wooden jaws out of 50mm thick hardwood (jarrah, for example), and rather than routing out the cavity to take the metal vice jaw, I rip the wood into two wide boards, cut the cavity out of one with my bandsaw, then reglue the boards back together.
A set of woodworking tools sufficient to make a range of furniture, and tuned to do good work, will represent a significant investment of time or money or both. For this reason alone it makes sense to look after them. Far more important than that, however, is the simple fact that if you want to be able to fully enjoy using them, you need to be able to use them without it being a struggle. If you can create a workspace you enjoy being in, and can keep your tools well maintained and ready to work, then you will be much more likely to do good work. Get all or most of these positives lined up and they will become self-perpetuating. If you don’t, it is more likely that your woodworking will become a hard struggle, doomed to fail.
Robert Howard is a contributing editor to Australian Wood Review magazine. This story is reprinted from issue 74.