Part 4 – Iron and Wood
This is the final post in a four-part series in which I show all the steps that I took to restore an English Stanley No. 4½ Jumbo Smoothing Plane. You can read the earlier posts here:
- Tool Restoration: Stanley No. 4½ – Part 1 – Tear Down and Cleaning
- Tool Restoration: Stanley No. 4½ – Part 2 – Fettling
- Tool Restoration: Stanley No. 4½ – Part 3 – Painting
I ended the previous post with the body and frog repainted and set aside. The next item that I want to tackle is the cutting iron and the chip breaker. In the first post of this series, these were both cleaned on the wire wheel and polished with the buffing wheel and green compound. I neglected to mention at the time, that when buffing the iron, care has to be take to not overheat the steel. It is surprising just how hot a buffer can make metal. I work on several different parts at once and keep rotating through them so that the others can sit and cool for a while before continuing on.
I’ll start with the iron and the first step is to flatten the back.
I realize that I didn’t photograph the next bit, but after the sandpaper I moved on to my Norton water stones and polished the back and the bevel 1,000 / 4,000 / 8,000. This is just a usual sharpening process, so I don’t think it will adversely affect the post if I skip it. This will have to be done repeatedly (other than flattening the back) in the future. After the iron was sharp, I turned my attention to the chip breaker. This will have to be done only once, so I took the time to get it just right.
I am a complete convert to the belief that a finely tuned chip breaker, set very close to the cutting edge, is the best method for preventing tear out. Much more so than a tightly closed mouth. There is a great video on YouTube that shows a Japanese lab testing various chip breaker angles and distances from the cutting edge. It’s well worth checking out.
In my book, two things are important here. You want a chip breaker that mates very tightly against the back of the cutting iron. If there are any gaps, even 1/1,000th of an inch, shavings will get stuck and will jam the mouth of the plane. Also, you want a smooth polished outer face to the chip breaker that has a fairly steep angle. This forces the shavings to crumple as they leave the cutting edge and stops them from acting as levers, tearing out the fibers in the finished surface.
The good news is that this is fairly easy to do. The steel in the chip breaker is much softer than the steel in the cutting iron and the stones make the job go very quickly. I start by honing the lip on the underside of the chip breaker. Like when sharpening the iron, I go through 1,000 / 4,000 / 8,000 on my water stones.
Using a rocking motion, to avoid creating a flat spot, I polish the leading ¼” of the chip breaker up to 8,000.
Once done, I wiped down the chip breaker and the iron with an oily rag and put them together. I tightened the chip breaker screw and held the assembly up to a bright light to see if there were any gaps. There were none. If there were, you can go back to the stones and apply pressure on the opposite side of the gap, then reassemble and retest.
One little extra step that I take is to repaint the lever cap. Prior to type 13, Stanley lever caps were flat, with no text. Some Type 13’s, and all Type 14’s have “STANLEY” in a relief engraving on the front of the lever cap, but there is no paint on these. With the advent of Type 15 (my favorite), the background engraving around the “STANLEY” text was filled with orange paint. With the change to Type 16, the keyhole shaped opening for the cap screw was changed to the kidney shape you see below. I prefer the keyhole shaped opening. Anyway, enough waffling.
The orange paint on this lever cap was not in great condition. Buffing the lever cap with compound left all kinds of black gunk in the recessed area. You may remember that I removed it with mineral spirits and a toothbrush in the first post. If you want to completely remove the paint before repainting, something like acetone or lacquer thinner will dissolve it. I have done this in the past. After all the scrubbing I had done on this lever cap, I was fairly confident that what paint was left, was well bonded to the metal. I’m comfortable painting over it.
I’ve looked all over the place for a paint that matches the Stanley orange. I’ve searched several model shops and most craft stores carry the Testors model paints. The Testors orange doest not look right, it’s too red. A few years ago, I found a paint color called “Go Mango” by Model Master. It is the closest I have found. It’s not a 100% match, but I’d say it’s probably about 98%. I’ve been using this same tiny pot of paint for 4 years now and I doubt I’ve used a tenth of it.
Using magnifying glasses and a fine brush, I dab paint into the recessed background area. If a little bit gets on the letters, don’t worry, it scratches of easily enough with a fingernail once partially dry. Remove the excess before it fully cures though.
Ok, I installed the iron, chip breaker, and lever cap into the plane and set it aside once more.
Time to talk about wood refinishing. Most Stanley planes (at least the collectible/desirable ones) have nice Rosewood handles. Sometime around World War II, Stanley switched from Rosewood to stained or painted Beech handles. These aren’t as nice. Since I’m refinishing a completely different wood (i.e. not Rosewood), I’m going to have to change my usual refinishing process. I’ll talk about these differences along the way.
The first thing needed is an improvised tool. I take an old square drive bit (but Philips would work fine too) and wrap the end in masking tape. The masking tape needs to be thick enough that the front knob of the plane will just barely push on to the driver. It needs to be snug. With the knob on the driver bit, you can mount the assembly in your drill and sand the knob while it’s spinning. I make a second bit for the tote, but obviously you can’t sand this while it’s spinning as it’s asymmetrical. This bit is simply for holding the tote and standing it upright while allowing it to dry. A shorter bit works well for turning the knob on the drill, but a longer bit works well as a handle when applying finish.
I sand the wood back to bare and smooth, but I’m not concerned with removing every trace of stain. If you were so inclined, this would be a good time to reshape the tote with a rasp. I did ease some of the curves of the tote with sandpaper, but didn’t go too extreme. I sand up to 320 grit.
Now is where the first big difference between Rosewood handles and Beech handles appears. On Rosewood handles, I do not apply an oil finish first. In my experience, oil (like Watco Danish Oil, even the clear one) makes Rosewood turn very dark almost like ebony. Much of the beautiful Rosewood grain is lost. Instead, I start with 2-3 coats of shellac. I’ve found that this preserves the appearance and I can easily top coat with poly afterwards. If you’re finishing Rosewood, skip the first two steps below.
Since in this case I’m working with Beech (at least I think so), I’ll take a different path. As a first step, I use Watco Danish Oil and really let it soak into the wood. Watco can be found in “Natural” (sort of yellowish clear) or in various other colors. These other colors have some stain mixed in with the finish. I’m not fond of these others except for one. The “Red Mahogany” color is fantastic. Of course, since I like it, it is nearly impossible to find. I don’t know if the color has been discontinued, but there are several places near me that sell the complete line of Watco products and none of them have Red Mahogany. I’ve even asked them to contact their suppliers to get some for me, with no luck. Instead, I bought a few very expensive cans on amazon a couple of years ago and have been hoarding them.
I apply the oil very heavily and let the wood soak up as much as it can. Keep applying it until it will absorb no more. Then, wipe of all the excess and leave it to dry for at least a day. More is better. I drilled holes in a scrap block of wood to serve as a stand while letting the parts dry.
The wood has taken on a nicer color now, but still just looks like stained Beech. This can be improved with the application of a gel stain. These types of stain sit on the surface of the wood and don’t really penetrate. That’s why I started with the Watco. This can be over done, if applied too heavily, the gel stain will just look like brown paint. I used Minwax Mahogany Gel Stain.
I brush it on with a disposable chip brush and then lightly brush it back off. Using a crappy brush really helps as bristles are so sparse that they tend to create a wood-grain look. The surface will look awful, but don’t let that bother you for now. It gets fixed later.
The picture below, the lighter red areas are the stained Beech showing through from underneath and the darker brown areas are the gel stain on the surface. Cool, huh?
Let the gel stain dry for at least a day. Again, more is better. You are probably figuring out by now that this is not a quick process. Each step only takes about 10 minutes and then you set it aside to cure for a day. I’m usually working on other things in the shop while this is going on.
Once the gel stain is dry, I start applying shellac. I buy Zinser Seal Coat and thin it 50/50 with denatured alcohol (methylated spirits for those of you back home in England). I use a natural bristle acid brush bought from Harbor Freight. These are the same brushes that I use to apply glue. I really need to get a nicer brush for shellac, but don’t know what to get. It’s on my future shopping list. The great thing about shellac is that you can apply a follow-up coat about every 20 minutes. The shellac creates a nice film finish that goes in between the stains and the polyurethane topcoats.
After about three or fours coats, I lightly sand with 320 grit paper and then apply 2-3 coats of Watco Wipe-On Poly.
Polyurethanes are glossy by default. To make them semi-gloss, satin, or mate, flatteners have to be added to the mix. Don’t believe me? Take a bottle of satin poly that has sat on the shelf for a couple of months. Carefully pick it up and don’t mix it. Dip a brush in the finish at the top of the can and apply it to something. It will dry glossy. Now mix the can thoroughly and apply some more in a different spot. It will dry satin.
So, why am I saying this? Here is another important tip. Only use Hi-Gloss poly when building up your finish. I know… it has that wet, dipped look and will look totally out of place on a finished plane. Don’t worry it isn’t going to stay like this.
Here’s why I do it this way. The flatteners in the poly are somewhat opaque and stop you from seeing all on the nice detail of the wood underneath. On a single coat this doesn’t matter, but if you add four coats of poly that all have flatteners in them, the wood starts to get a bit muddy and dull. Hi-gloss poly doesn’t have these flatteners and builds up a nice clear coat. You can top coat with semi-gloss or satin later.
I find that polyurethane wants about 8 to 12 hours to dry. I usually apply one coat in the morning and one in the evening. After about three coats, I sand the finish back with 320 grit sandpaper. This helps to get rid of any unevenness in the surface or any runs. Depending upon how far back you have to sand the finish, you can decide whether you want to apply another 2-3 coats of high-gloss poly or proceed to the semi-gloss top coat. In this case, I applied two more coats, and then sanded back once more.
I went back to my paint storage cupboard and got out my can of Watco semi-gloss poly. I opened it and discovered that it had gone completely hard. Luckily, I found a can of Minwax wipe on poly in satin finish. I normally use the Watco, but I might as well use what I have on hand.
A nice even coat of the satin poly finished the job. As you can see, with all of these steps, refinishing the wooden parts takes about a week. After the initial sanding, it only takes about 10 minutes per day, but 24-hour dry times, tend to drag the process out.
I reinstalled the knob and tote on the plane… and the job was done.
I won’t go so far as to say that the oil stain/gel stain combination makes the knob and tote look exactly like Rosewood, but it is close enough that when you see this plane side-by-side with a Rosewood handled plane, the difference is not glaringly obvious. In other words, it’s sufficient camouflage for blending in with the rest of my plane collection.
What good is a beautiful tool if it doesn’t work? Time to set it up and test it out. I managed to get translucent shavings from a scrap piece of douglas fir. I couldn’t ask for a better result than that.
So, here’s a quick side-by-side before-and-after.
I’m very happy with how this tuned out.
I only briefly mentioned this at the start of the first post, but I bought this plane on eBay.co.uk. My winning bid was £7.37 and shipping (to a UK address) cost me £8.00. I can’t remember what the currency exchange rate was at the time, but at today’s exchange rate, that works out to $19.94. Of course, countless hours of labor went into the project, but it sure has yielded a fantastic tool.
I know that serious tool collectors would be aghast at completely stripping and refinishing an old plane. (Well, not this one since it is an English Stanley and not really collectible). But I don’t care. I’m not trying to create a tool museum, I’m trying to put together a set of good quality functional tools, that also look nice. I wanted a No. 4 ½ plane for my set, And now I have one. Best of all, I didn’t have to break the bank to get one. I’d still love a Lie-Nielsen 4½, but until that is in the budget, I’ll be very happy making do with this. I have a sneaking suspicion that this plane looks better now than it did when it left the factory. Well, with the exception of the chip breaker, as no amount of polishing will restore the flaked chrome.
Thanks for sticking with me. I hope you have enjoyed this series. I’m not sure what took longer restoring the tool, or writing these posts. Thanks to all of you who have commented on the previous posts. Your tips and suggestions will only make my future tool restorations better still.
All the best,