Why old wooden planes look the way they do
My friend, Roald Renmælmo, and I were discussing why old wooden planes look the way they do. Roald is researching and duplicating old hand planes used in Scandinavia. In fact he has posted several galleries showing how he is making the reproduction planes. It’s well worth taking a look at. Here’s a link to his blog.
Anyone who has an interest in old wooden handplanes is usually struck by the fact that many of the planes that are in reasonably good shape are disgustingly dirty. This fact, alone, would make one curious about the finishing methods employed by plane makers and users. And, the most important question is what were they trying to do with the finishes. That question drives every other consideration.
It’s a question of moisture control. Planes made out of wood are subject to variations in moisture, just like anything else made from a tree. So the goal of finish on a wooden plane is not just to make it pretty, but to minimize the effects of moisture.
For commercial plane makers in Europe and North America, soaking the plane bodies and wedges in linseed oil, prior to assembly was normal. Linseed oil is a drying oil that leaves a film and has long been used as a water-proofing product. It’s altogether possible that the linseed oil may have been thinned with turpentine, effectively making a crude spar varnish. Prior to the introduction of metallic driers, boiled linseed oil was manufactured by heating the oil to the point that polymerization would begin. This may have been a something less than perfect process and some BLO might have taken longer to harden than others. As the protective film on new planes might stay plastic (soft) for some time, soil and grime would form on the surface. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is, in effect, creating a impermeable membrane (to a greater or lesser degree).
Here’s an example of a jack plane in pretty common condition, grime and the standard paint spattering:
The same plane, after being “scrubbed up” with a little lacquer thinner and receiving a couple coats of BLO.
The surface of oiled (or varnished) wooden products needs to be re-coated from time to time, due to the effects of use, oxidation, etc. Carpenters and joiners would many times use other products to protect their tools. Flaxseed/linseed oil would certainly have been readily available and inexpensive in many parts of the world. It’s continued use would likely increase the “grime/oil” membrane phenomena. Wax would certainly have been used by some conscientious craftsmen. But craftsmen are practical people and when a product that will serve their purpose is plentiful and available at low cost, they’ll seize on it. Enter Lard. Grease, fat, call it what you will. But, rest assured, many old working planes saw plenty of animal fat used as a protective coating. If a plane is exceptionally grimey, it’s probably been given the “lard treatment”.
Here’s a badger plane made by Malloch in Perth. I have to believe that if a scraping from the surface of this plane were analyzed, the “oink” would still be present.
Same plane with some of the grime removed:
Some planes were treated a little differently. The jointer below is my favorite user. While not the longest plane I use, at 28″ it’s a very steady tool. It has been well cared for over its lifetime and I would guess that it came from a professional shop or was owned by a careful hobbyist. It appears to have been finished with shellac and wax. It is pretty much flawless.
In my experience, the use of shellac or other spirit varnishes on wooden planes was not that common. Although, I would guess that it might be found on presentation tools, such as plough planes and on other tools owned by “persnickety” folks.
Many collectors balk at the notion of removing finishes from antiques. That said, I’m not a collector, I’m a user and I like to maintain my tools as best I can. That includes keeping them clean and well protected.
I’m going to throw out a big caveat here. If you are a wooden plane user and you decide to clean up your old tools, be prepared to recoat them with some protective product, immediately, lest you find your favorite little plane taking on a new twist or crack.
While I own many iron planes, my daily users, my favorites are made out of wood. There is something almost spiritual, that takes place, when you’re working with a wooden plane. It just seems right.