How to restore a handplane
Words and photos: Richard Vaughan
You may not have the money for a top end handplane but if you’re prepared to spend some time tuning an old plane you will be able to get shavings just as floaty—and you’ll take shavings from the budget as well.
Back in the olden days it was standard practice to set aside castings intended for high quality use for a year or more before they were machined. This allowed the metal to stress relieve so that it would be stable in use (think Rolls Royce engine blocks, micrometers, and quality hand plane bodies). Resurrecting an old plane is one way you can be sure the casting has well and truly settled. Restoring a neglected old plane is really satisfying and your effort will be repaid in the pleasure you get every time you pick up that tool.
Where to start
Almost all my planes were bought secondhand at markets. Although collectors have made the tool market more competitive, increased demand has made it less likely that old planes will be thrown out. Along with the markets that seem to happen just about wherever trestle tables can be set up, you can find planes by prowling the garage sales and the internet, and by spreading the word among family, friends and neighbours who are usually all too glad to see old tools appreciated.
There have been quite a few makes of planes over the last 150 years, and aficionados fervently discuss their relative merits and fine points of difference. My approach is thoroughly pragmatic. Firstly, are all the parts there? Parts for the well known Record and Stanley brands are not too hard to find, but if your primary goal is to have a working plane rather than the challenge of finding parts you’d better make sure the plane is complete before you buy.
The wooden knob and rear handle (or tote) can be repaired fairly easily but cracked, twisted or broken metal parts are usually more bother than I’d recommend (unless you or a mate really have such expertise).
Some surface rust is likely and acceptable but think about how much you’ll have to get rid of to expose clean metal working surfaces without weakening them. The plane in this story looked decidedly unloved but once it was cleaned up the remaining pitting affected appearance rather than performance.
Once all the rust has been removed the aim is to have all the mating surfaces in perfect contact so there is no rocking, twisting or vibration, and so adjustments can be made smoothly. And of course the sole of the plane has to be absolutely flat.
Before you set about dismantling the plane (photo 1) make sure that you are using screwdrivers which fit snugly in the various screw slots, as there’s no need to damage things further. A preparatory squirt of penetrating oil into all the screw threads is a good idea.
With all the parts laid out you can set about removing the rust. You have the choice of elbow grease, acid or electrolysis*. I’ve only ever gone the purely physical route, sanding through the grits, but this time I did give the acid method a little trial.
Photo 2 above shows the blade and the cap iron (or chipbreaker) ready for a bath of citric acid (found in supermarkets). I dissolved two tablespoons in warm water and let the parts soak for a couple of hours (vinegar diluted to 10–20% is also effective). The risk of making the lever cap spring brittle made me decide against putting it in the bath so it joined the hands-on queue.
The frog (and though I’ve heard some interesting speculations I still don’t know how it really got its name) holds the blade
at 45° to the base of the plane. The two frog screws which secure it to the body of the plane go though slots in the frog. You loosen these screws when you set the frog adjusting screw to determine the width of the mouth.
The upper surface of the frog supports the blade and will almost certainly need to be flattened. Remove the cap screw and with deliberate strokes on your sandpaper bring the surface to flat, checking regularly with your straightedge that you aren’t rocking as you push. The blade will slide across it as well as up and down for adjustments so it makes sense for it to offer minimal friction. A 400 grit finish is warranted here.
With the square end of a file scrape off any paint or other lumps from the contact points in the plane. Then, determine whether the frog sits firmly with no hint of movement by holding it in place and trying to rock it. To get an accurate reading of how much contact there is you can use some carbon paper or, as I did, get some of those strips the dentist uses after a filling to check the bite. It’s very effective and I know that my dentist can afford to let me have them.
If you do need to file, scrape or sand proceed very carefully to make sure you don’t cause a worse problem, such as giving the frog a lean to one side. I found an excellent use for my Collins honing jig here (photo 3). It meant I could be certain of an accurate 45° which was square to the sides. I used a diamond stone to flatten the front feet of the frog, but sandpaper glued to glass or ply would do nicely. You could construct a makeshift jig to serve the same function.
Photo 4 shows a ply guide with a slot for the lever clamped to the frog which is then held in the vice for accurate filing. Or you could trust to steady hands and regular checks and use your lapping plate.
Use fine sandpaper to remove any roughness from the lateral adjusting lever so that it will be a pleasure to the fingertips as they feel for tiny adjustments.
Once the frog and its screws are cleaned up you can work on the blade. After about three hours the parts in the acid bath were free of rust. The remaining pitting was slight but under a magnifying lens evident at the tip of the blade. Without a lot of lapping to get back to clean metal this would result in a rough edge when trying to sharpen so it was fortunate that I had already decided to replace it with the far superior Academy Saw HSS blade. It’s a welcome bonus that these blades come with their backs flat so they only need polishing.
If you do use the original blade (or cutting iron) it now needs the back to be flat and polished, so put on the music of your choice and settle into the process (photo 5). When a blade is really wonky I’ll start with diamond then progress through waterstones. If you don’t have a diamond stone you can start with the lapping plate. It is ever so easy to get a slight convex on the back of the blade and that will completely defeat the purpose of this step. Keep pressure on the middle of the blade and work with steady deliberate strokes to prevent rocking. When using a waterstone make sure you use the whole surface of the stone evenly, and check it regularly for hollowing.
Once the back is flat you grind a 25° bevel. Use an aluminium oxide wheel because the standard grey stones will overheat the steel very quickly and destroy the hardness. Sixty or 40 grit do the job but even with this cooler wheel, lightness of touch is the key.
With the honing guide of your choice put a 30° cutting edge on the iron. With the HSS blades I progress from 1000 through 4000, 6000 and finish with 8000. The 8000 grit may not be essential but I have found the extra moment of honing worth doing for these blades.
When honing put pressure only on the pull stroke and glide forward for the next stroke. You’ll probably need only 15 or 20 strokes to get a bare millimetre of polished edge on the 1000 grit stone. As you hone on subsequent grits apply just a little more pressure on the sides alternately, to give a very very slightly convex edge. Then remove the blade from the honing guide and lap the back on the stone you finished the bevel with.
The final stage is the ‘ruler trick’ popularised by David Charlesworth. A steel rule on the finest stone lifts the blade and ten strokes create a very slight back bevel, and an exquisitely fine edge (photo 6).
The chipbreaker or ‘back iron’ serves two vital functions. It supports and stiffens the blade to prevent vibration (or chatter) in use, and it fractures the shavings as they slide up through the mouth and curls them away. If its leading edge doesn’t meet the back of the cutting iron perfectly shavings will jam in the gap and choke the mouth of the plane.
Tuning the chipbreaker involves making the upper surface smooth so the shavings will glide over it (photo 7)...
and then flattening the edge that meets the blade (photo 8).
Once flattened on the lapping plate the chipbreaker was polished to 1000 grit. It is fixed to the blade a millimetre back from the edge (photo 9).
Fortunately neither the knob nor the handle had cracks or bits missing, but they were both a little loose and the lacquer was flakey. With rasp, file and sandpaper the shape of each was modified to be more comfortable for my hands. Surprisingly many tool users don’t think to modify the handles. It’s not as if the factory produced shapes are sacred, and ‘original’ certainly isn’t as important as user comfort. They were then stained black and oiled. The threaded rods were shortened on the grinder and filed clean to allow for the change of dimensions, and ensure a snug fit.
Stage one of flattening the sole was to attach the handles and lap the rust off so I could put the straight edge to it and assess what it needed. It was low on diagonally opposite corners so it called for a file to hurry the process along. Bringing the rest of the bottom in line with the low points also got rid of most of the quite pronounced pitting. The 10” mill smooth is quite aggressive so take great care to not bend it and file the surface convex across its width. Use deliberate strokes, no rushing it, and remember that it only cuts on the forward stroke. Regular checks with the straight edge are essential.
The sides of the body were sanded on the lapping plate until all signs of rust and pitting were removed. I kept both the paper and myself fresh by stopping every 20 strokes to brush the swarf from the sandpaper. If you intend to use the plane in a shooting board flatten the sole first then work on the sides with a guide block clamped to the lapping surface to ensure an accurate right angle between sides and base.
The front and back of the body were pretty much as they came from casting and the edges of the sides were also a bit rough so these were worked with file and sandpaper to be softly rounded.
Don’t rock your sole
The plane was now fully assembled with the cutting iron wound right back in preparation for the flattening of the sole. The thinking here is that having the frog assembly screwed in place helps stiffen the body, and ensures you will be flattening the sole with the plane just as it will be in use. By tearing the paper to the width of the plane you improve the chances of keeping it flat across its width (photo 5).
Despite all my care with the file the edges were slightly lower than the centre. I laid two strips of masking tape side by side on the granite then centred the strip of sandpaper over them and this rectified the flaw very rapidly. Photo 5 shows the masking tape protruding from the middle strip of sandpaper). Then it’s a case of getting into the zone, and perhaps your music, and working at making a truly plane surface. Felt tip pen lines across the sole will identify high spots and show your progress.
Clean your mouth
The shavings need to slip through the mouth with nothing to hinder their flight so work on both front and back to remove paint and roughness from the casting while making sure it is square to the sides. The slender warding file and the small mill file are ideal for this job. Photo 10 shows some ply sawn at 45° and clamped to the plane – this acts as a guide for filing the rear of the mouth.
To file the front of the mouth the plane was held in the vice (photo 11).
And at last you have the makings of a beautifully tuned plane (photo 12). At this stage I put all these components in the sun and let them get almost too hot to touch before rubbing a lanolin based rust preventer into them. Excess oil was buffed off when they cooled, and then it was final assembly and testing time.
And if you’ve done the job right this is when you lose all sense of time spent. I could only hazard a guess that the bouts of time spent on this rewarding process added up to maybe four or five hours. Just a little set up adjustment and then the shavings were floating off like duck down. And I’ve got another friend for life.
Maybe you can think of it as doing your bit for recycling. Maybe you could be honouring the intention of the old toolmaker. Maybe you would be giving yourself an uplifting meditational experience or maybe you’re just looking for a cheap way of having an excellent tool.
In any case whether you start with a new or an old tool it is time well spent, as you’ll realise when your perfectly tuned plane whispers to you the secrets of bliss. There’s nothing like the sound of one plane shaving.
First published in Australian Wood Review, issue 57.
Richard Vaughan is a designer/maker and teacher in Brisbane.