HackSpace magazine

Restoring old tools

By Gareth Branwyn. Posted

There’s something oddly satisfying and therapeutic about taking something old and forgotten, something previously reliable, now seized with time, rust, and neglect, and lovingly restoring it back to productive use. This process can be very rewarding – a fun challenge – and you end up with something useful, something with a history and a renewed purpose that you rescued from the bin.

Here are some tips and tool recommendations for getting started in tool restoration.

Online manuals for your tool  You can find the service/repair manuals to an astonishing number of old tools and machines online. To find one related to your tool, do a web search or look at sites like vintagemachinery.org. They have old service manuals, technical drawings, vintage tool catalogues, and more. These manuals and drawings can be very helpful in understanding an old tool, taking it apart for cleaning and repainting, and putting it all back together.

Lead paint testing  If you’re going to be removing paint from old tools, you’ll want to know if the paint you’re dealing with is lead-based. You can get test swabs relatively inexpensively online that turn a certain colour to alert you to the presence of lead.

Rust-removing formulations  It seems as though Evapo-Rust is the go-to brand of commercial rust remover. It’s a chelation agent, a synthetic iron molecule suspended in water. The chelation process forms a bond with the rust and holds it in solution. Evapo-Rust is popular because it is environmentally safe and is extremely effective. A somewhat cheaper alternative is citric acid. See this TRG Restoration video where they test out a number of commercial and home recipes for rust removal.

The colourful stages of rust removal

Alternatives to WD-40  This penetrating oil does a great job, but has some downsides. It’s not as cheap as home formulations and it’s not so environmentally friendly. One alternative is a mixture of four-parts charcoal lighter fluid, four-parts mineral spirits, and one-part lightweight motor oil. Keep it in an airtight container or it’ll evaporate. Other people swear by a 50/50 mix of acetone and transmission fluid.

Cleaning pitch from blades  If your restoration project involves an old blade covered in a lot of pitch, clean it in a mixture of boiling water and baking soda. 

Cleaning rusted surfaces  If you have rusty metal tables on old machinery, you can remove a lot of the rust by soaking rags in vinegar (or citric acid or Evapo-Rust) and letting the rags saturate overnight before cleaning with a wire wheel, brush, or similar.

Take pictures of your disassembly process  When taking apart a tool or machine for cleaning and restoration, use your phone to record the disassembly process. That way, you’ll have the photos to refer back to if you forget how everything goes back together.

Use tape or Styrofoam to organise and ID parts During disassembly, keep screws and other hardware organised and secure by placing them on a wide piece of masking tape, or poke them into a scrap piece of Styrofoam. You can also write on the tape or Styrofoam what the parts belong to. 

Freeing frozen bolts and screws If you have frozen bolts or screws that you can’t mechanically remove, a blast with a blow-torch will often give them a thaw.

Making your own japanning This black tool finish is commonly found on hand planes, antique sewing machines, and other older tools. There are many different recipes for making your own japanning. On Hand Tool Rescue, Eric tested a number of formulae and ended up recommending a mixture of 50% turpentine, 30% asphaltum/Gilsonite, and 20% boiled linseed oil. See the video description for details on the full recipe.

The wooden bits are clean, the bits that are supposed to be shiny are shiny, the bits that are supposed to be black are black. Success!

Recreating serial number plates  Eric also has a clever way of recreating serial number plates. He first punches the original serial number into metal foil tape using a number punch set. Then, he prints a replica of the original label onto clear adhesive label paper and affixes that over the foil. Cut out and apply.

Make your equipment look as good as new with a serial plate

When to oil, when to grease?  When putting a tool back together that requires lubricant, the question is often what to oil and what to grease. The rule of thumb is to grease hard-to-reach and -maintain places because grease will stay in place longer. Use oil on areas where regular maintenance is not a problem. Grease has a tendency to collect swarf, so oil is better in situations where a lot of material is going to collect. 


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