Plane Cleaning

From the OldTools FAQ

IV. Should I restore my tools? How?

Old tools are a piece of history, and the marks of use can be a charming insight into the previous owner(s) and their work habits. But in many cases, years of improper storage and other neglect will leave a tool in a state which prevents it from functioning properly. Restoration is often needed, but how much is too much?

The vogue in past years was to restore a tool to as-new condition. Many good tools were subjected to abrasion and chemical cleaning to make the tool shiny and new. Japanned parts were stripped and repainted, and brass was shined to a mirror finish. While this may have made the tool pretty, it all but eliminated the historical significance.

More recently, collectors have become much more conservative with their restoration efforts. Typically, tools are now cleaned instead of refinished, which maintains the wonderful patina which can only be acquired from years of use.

In general, restoration should be done sparingly. It is very easy to do a little more later, but impossible to do a little less. Cleaning and enough tuning to make the tool usable are usually all that is needed. Generally acceptable procedures are:
  • Removal of rust with a razor blade scraper
  • Using penetrating oil to loosen stuck parts and remove surface rust
  • Cleaning parts with mineral spirits and fine steel wool
  • Removing oxidation with a brass cleaner
  • Sharpening cutting edges
  • Regluing tight cracks in wooden parts
Things to be done only occasionally and with good reason:
  • Using electrolytic cleaning for rust removal
  • Replacing/repairing wooden parts
  • Reshaping cutting edges
Things severely frowned upon:
  • Sanding to remove rust
  • Chemical rust removers (naval jelly, acids, et al.)
  • Wire wheels
  • Chemical strippers
  • Polishing

General Methods (& Observations)

Note: All Archive numbers referred to below are archived message numbers from the OldTools mail group archives.

Common steps for plane cleaning. More information may be found in the links on this page located here. Methods I've used personally include Mineral Spirits with steel wool, lapping the sides & sole, and the Salt/Vinegar trick.
  • Take the Plane apart.
  • Clean the parts.
    • Metal parts can be cleaned in hot soapy water with a stiff nylon brush/toothbrush, or using mineral spirits or other alternate method(s).
    • Rust in the japanning can be cleaned using a billo pad (lightly) or fine steel wool. Wooden parts can be cleaned with mineral spirits & 0000 fine steel wool, wax & 0000 fine steel wool, Murphy's oil soap, or other alternative method(s).
    • Light sanding on the sides and sole - either with a sanding stick wrapped in 400 grit sandpaper following the mill marks, or lapping (sandpaper on glass/flat surface).
    • Protect the metal surfaces - a good wax, WD-40, or some gun oil (on the sides) are most commonly used.
    • Wooden parts should be waxed. Reassemble the plane.
Archive: 73680
Posted By: Todd Hughes



These seem to involve two main styles: water, and as far from water as you can get. These two camps do not seem to often agree. Water is harmful to steel, and should be avoided. It can also cause swelling of the wood, and raising of the grain. However, as some chemicals are non-water soluble [IE. Mineral Spirits] these don’t seem to work well to clean some water soluble grunge. Water use, especially on wood, should be done carefully.

I have also seen a rubbing compound such as Turtlewax RED polish (not the white) for removing dirt and leaving the patina mostly unaffected as an alternative for the commonly used mineral spirits and 0000 steel wool.

Involving Water:

Hot water and dish soap. Together with a soft nylon bristle brush will clean a lot of dirt and gunge off. The danger is of course having any water left in threads, small crevices, etc. Several ways of dealing with removing the excess water is to toss your disassembles plane into a toaster oven after cleaning and wiping the accessible water off. Other suggestions include the use of Alcohol to help pull the water out and assist in evaporation and removal. I have heard suggestions to use WD-40 to help remove water, but commonsense and general consensus seems to indicate that this solvent based silicone formula will coat over the water and seal it in rather than removing it. I have not tested this theory, but as WD-40 is designed to remove and prevent rust, and is not water based (and therefore non-water soluble) it makes sense to me at least.
Archive: 4697
Posted By: Don Berry

Hand cleaner ( or Nonabrasive Cleaner): The waterless type used with a toothbrush - brand names vary - such as GoJo, lustersheen, etc. Nonabrasive types are excellent for Japanned surfaces, the ones that contain ground pumice are good for ‘a little stiffer action’ on are metal. Other suggested types/brands include: Wesley’s Clear Magic, Simple Green, Citrus based degreaser(s), and liquid laundry detergent. Rinse in a utility sink with water as hot as you can stand and dry thoroughly [hair dryer or toaster oven depending on your SWMBO].
Archive: 61788, 33860 , 34247, 34369
Posted By: Tom Holloway, Tom Price, Garrett Spitzer, Esther Heller

Electrolysis: Used for items that are really rusty, or hard to get clean. A little base solution and some electricity. I have not used this yet, but have heard of much success from others. May lift japanning if there is rust underneath it, and may leave the metal surfaces of the tool a sort of dull uniform grey. There are many resources on the web such as this one:, or Wikipedia. Also some information in Archive message 8081.
Archive 8081, 11367, 11370, 108427, 108433
Posted By: Trevor Robinson, Jim Cook, Paul Pedersen, Tom Holloway, Scott Grandstaff

Citric Acid: This was a somewhat new idea of derusting that seemed to be introduced to the group around October 2004, and again in November 2005. Citric Acid is used as a food additive, and can usually be found available at a wine making store, or from a bulk food distributor.

James Thompson (the Old Millrat) has posted a nice tutorial here and Larry Holland has posted information on how citric acid works.

Suggested/Possible Mixtures:
  • One TBSP per pint (suggested at Wood Central)
  • I mixed up a 10% solution of acid in hot water, added a squirt of denatured alcohol to act as a surfactant and a squirt of dish detergent to act as a degreaser and sequestrant. I can't take credit for this formulation as I read it on Wood Central last week.
  • One heaping tablespoon of citric acid, 10 tablespoons of water, one drop of dishwashing liquid, and a teaspoon of denatured alcohol. I was shooting for around a 10% citric acid solution by volume
  • About a cup of citric acid to a gallon of water.
  • About a quart of water in it and a tablespoon or so of citric acid.
  • If you have grease and dirt on the rustling it will act as a mask sso clean the schmutz ('Murrican slang for dirt, Jeff) off prior to the bath.
  • I've noticed something interesting and maybe useful that I don't think has been mentioned before: hardened steel responds differently than soft steel or iron.
  • When I use it, it doesn't hurt japanning. But then the japanning on the stuff I have put into CA has been sound. Your mileage may vary.
  • The speed of the rust removal is directly related to the strength of the acid solution. So the question is, how long do you want to wait? I don't want to wait at all. I make the solution strong, and I stand and watch it working. I stir it now and then. (This is called agitating the solution.) I even scrub really rusty places with a fine wire brush while it it soaking. The CA won't hurt your hands, although it does sting in a fresh cut. When the piece looks like I want it to look, I remove it and wash and dry and then oil it. It will rust very quickly if you don't.
  • I haven't noticed any damage to nickel. Again, your mileage may vary.
  • A hot/warm solution works faster than the same strength of solution cold(er).
  • One further comment on this technique - do NOT use it on Record planes, the paint falls off. Luckily the plane in question only had about 10% of its original paint left.
Archive 137522, 137357, 137527, 137532, 137675, 137721, 137845
Posted By: Steven Longley, Mark Marsay, Jim Thompson, Bill Kasper, Andy Seaman, Pete Mueller

Salt & Vinegar: Take some white vinegar and dissolve a lot of salt in it (easier to do if the vinegar is warm). Dip paper towels in the solution and place/wrap them on the rusty areas. Wait overnight, then go at the previous rusted areas with a scotchbrite pad. The salt/vinegar converts the solution to an easily removed substance. Neutralize with a solution of baking soda and water, dry it, and coat to prevent rusting. And a warning: "but I managed to etch the pattern of a sheet of Bounty (brand of Murican towling paper, Jeff) into the lever cap of a Stanley No. 4. with plain, old white vinegar."
Archive: 116574, 137204
Posted By: Andy Barrs, Aurther Bailey

  • Murphy’s Oil Soap: for light dust & thin grease on wooden parts.
  • Fantastick: (or equivalent) for heavy grime & grease. Good for cleaning painted type japanning.
  • Tilex: to strip off just about everything.
  • Comet/water: (fairly dry - like toothpaste) for light rust & heavy grime on nickled tools.
Archive: 4225, 4258, 4597
Posted By: Alan N Graham, Karl Sanger, Gary Roberts


Non-Water based methods:

Kitty Litter: A pre-cleaning using kitty litter (clay based) that is crushed finely will remove an oily or greasy coating. Clean sand will also do the job.
Archive: 61795
Posted By: Tom Thornton

Easy-Off oven cleaner: Has been reported to work removing latex paint & pitch by preheating the oven to the lowest setting, spraying the plane, then letting the plane cool inside the oven. I’ll let you make up your own mind.
Archive: 61797, 108430
Posted By: Peter H, Gary Roberts

Mineral Spirits, WD-40, Kerosene: Mineral spirits is probably the most commonly used of these. Used with paper towels and a toothbrush or stiff nylon brush. There is the possibility of dulling japanned surfaces. Scotchbrite pads, fine SIA wet-dry sandpaper, or 0000 steel wool to help remove rust from bare surfaces. Mineral spirits and 0000 steel wool are also used to clean wooden parts, followed by waxing (can also be done with wax - as the base for most paste waxes includes mineral spirits).
Archive: 61810, 61900, 4247, 4769, 9013, 2438
Posted By: Bill Bohl, Nuno Souto, Randy Roeder, Karl Sanger, Paul Pedersen, Luke Johnson

Alcohol: For gunk such as shellac. Good to try when mineral spirits and soap & water don’t seem to work.
Archive 9013
Posted By: Paul Pedersen

Dow Foaming Cleanser: effective for cleaning japanned surfaces, with the possibility of dulling the surface (more likely if painted type).
Archive: 4597
Posted By: Gary Roberts

Sandpaper: Used to lap the sole and sides to remove rust. Razor blades can be used for any large rust scabs. “3M 9093A Small Area Drywall Sanding Sponge” has also been suggested - medium face and edge work on unplated parts, fine face and edge work on plated parts. Soles and sides are generally lapped, grits depending on the amount of rust involved. Light rust would start with some higher grits, heavy rust would start with lower grit and work up to higher grits. Refer to the links on flat soles.
Archive 61788, 61798, 73684
Posted By: Tom Holloway, ep, Peter H

Wax: Butchers bowling alley and 0000 steel wool to polish the wood.
Archive 4769
Posted By: Karl Sanger


Corrugated Soles

Mineral Sprits used with a ScotchBrite/Green 3M pad, or steel wool. Archive: 11353 Posted By: Tom Holloway
Fine Wire Wheel mounted on a bench grinder. Archive: 11372 Posted By: Tim Nagle


(Last checked May 2008)

All Materials not credited to other authors is (c)2003 - 2008 Paul R. Morin.