Saw and tool sharpening: 5 deadly sins of tool restoration.

Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

By the looks of tools coming to me to be overhauled or sharpened lately, it looks like it’s time for the list of what NOT to do when restoring or refurbing a tool!

1. Undercleaning

There’s nothing wrong with a vintage tool with a nicely burnished looking finish or a bit of simple age darkening. The problem is that what most people (even those who should know better) leave on tools in the name of “patina” is some unholy combination of rust and pitch. There’s no excuse ever for leaving active rust or pitch on a tool, especially one that’s supposed to be restored.

I had a nice Disston “Henry No. 47” 2 man crosscut saw come in this week to be overhauled. The coating on the blade was at least a 50/50 mix of rust and pitch making the blade look awful, not to mention work awful.

This also includes declaring a handsaw “restored” without ever removing the handle. A LOT of rust can hide in that handle slot!

2. Overcleaning

Yup, overcleaning is just as bad as undercleaning. This isn’t a new tool. If you want a new tool, buy a new tool, don’t clean all the character out of the old one.

I had a Disston crosscut handsaw (identifiable from the medallion) come in a couple of weeks ago to be sharpened. The saw had a nice bright shiny blade. Unfortunately, whoever polished the blade also polished the etch right off the blade, ruining (in my opinion) the character of a nice vintage quality tool and at least part of the reason for owning one.

3. Handle horrors

A nice old tool handle with most of its finish is fine. So is a handle that’s lost all its finish but is clean and smooth from wear. A handle that’s grungy and dirty isn’t, period. Bad handles don’t add to the value of the tool, even if they are original.

Ditto for damaged or loose handles. Splits, missing pieces, loose handle hardware, it’s all a hazard to the user of the tool.

4. “Tweaking”

I’ve always thought there was something a bit OCD with people who insist on trying to turn quality vintage woodworking tools into ultra accurate wood machining devices (“fettling”). It doesn’t matter if your plane sole is accurate to .001″ or you can take .002″ thick shavings. You simply can’t “machine” most types of wood to anywhere near that accuracy and certainly not with a handheld tool.

This doesn’t mean you don’t take care of any REAL condition issues with the tool, just relax and stop fussing about super duper accuracy. The old timers who used these tools when they were new did just fine work without this obsession, you can too.

5. Harping on historical accuracy

Unless the tool is a real collector’s item, it’s better to get a reasonable restore to make sure the tool is useful than it is to agonize over whether things done to restore it are perfectly historically accurate. I’d far rather see a nice gloss black paint job on a plane body than see one missing most of its finish because doing the original japanning is difficult (not to mention toxic).


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