Confession time: for the vast majority of my time as a woodworker, I stayed far away from most hand tools. Planes and chisels? Just an excuse when you didn’t have a sander and a saw. Then I learned how to sharpen blades and it was a whole new world. That said, I'm late to the party, no real expert and there are plenty of resources out there if you want to get into planes and other classy hand tools.
For new woodworkers, planes are a great addition to any toolbox and excel for cleaning up rough boards, joining, flattening and much more. The problem can be the cost. Several companies build planes that are nearly works of art. They work extremely well, are flat and square, and have blades that hold their edge. If you can’t handle the cost, there are others that are much cheaper which sacrifice quality.
A cheap plane requires extensive cleaning out of the box and can cause extensive frustrations before you make your first cut. I've been there and it’s no fun at all.
Fortunately, there is another way. Manufacturers built quality, high precision planes in the USA back into the 1800s. Every carpenter and handyman had one and many are still around, albeit a little rusty. Personally, I like being able to give new life to something that helped to build America.
For this exercise, I picked up a Stanley #5 off of Ebay for $30. My goal is to refinish all of the metal parts, sharpen the blade and build new handles.
I restored a #3 about a year ago and was frustrated because the handle was too small. Looking for a challenge, I merged a saw handle onto the back to allow more room. I was later instructed that I was simply holding it wrong... oops. Regardless, it was a fun project and a friend of mine called it The Hot Rod; the name stuck. While this new handle changes the hand position, it still works and looks cool and let’s be honest: that’s what really matters.
*Final photographs courtesy of my wife @ Pixl-Photography
-Completed Hot Rod #5
-Hot Rod #3 prototype alongside my grandfather's #5
-Subject fresh from the box
Step 1: Disassembly and Cleaning
So here’s Charlie Brown’s old #5. It’s in pretty rough shape but we’ll see what’s going on underneath. Start by removing the cap and blade, then unscrew the metal block beneath it (the frog) and finish with the remaining screws. Break down the parts and continue with the brass nuts which are holding the wood handles in place.
From here, we’ll tackle the rust.
I’ve had good luck with Evaporust which is a safe-to-handle rust remover. Drop all the iron parts into a small tub, fill with the cleaner, cover and wait a day or so for the solution to work. Once complete, brush off any loose material and return the solution to its container (it can be reused several times).
Alternatively, you could try electrolysis which is basically the inverse of active plating. Although I’ve not attempted it before, there are great resources online to show you how.
Once the bulk of the rust and old paint are gone, you can clean the rest with a Dremel or wire brush. If the sides and base are torn up, lay some sandpaper on a flat surface and polish them down. For mine, I used the joiner bed and went from 220 to 2000 grit paper. At the beginning, I also used a random orbit sander with 400 grit paper to polish the last of the dirt off the sides.
Mask off the sides, base and contact points and repaint with engine enamel spray paint which will match the original japanning finish. Seal the bare metal sides and bottom with some wax to keep rust from reforming.
For the hardware, use a polishing compound to shine up the brass nuts and some chrome spray paint for the heads of the remaining screws.
-Disassembled blade carrier
-Metal after de-rusting
-Re-lacquered blades and painted screws
-Shined-up depth knob
Step 2: Sharpening the Blade
Apparently the previous owner had a grand old time with the plane, between installing the blade upside down and attempting to use it to smooth out a cinder block. The adjustment screw was also missing and replaced with a hex bolt... I can't complain; it worked.
Again, there are many good resources for sharpening plane blades. I use a Lee Valley bevel guide and a Pinnacle aluminum bed for holding sandpaper. Because of the extensive damage, I used my disc sander to even out the edge before going to the sharpener. Sharpen the blade to ~25 degrees and add a small micro bevel on the end to aid sharpening later on.
If the blade is beyond repair or overly weak, replacements can be found fairly easily. I’ve upgraded the irons in several of my planes to models from Lee Valley/Veritas. I’ve been very happy with the performance but be warned, the metal they use is thicker than the original blade. I had to take a mill file and scrape away some of the iron on the forward edge of the mouth to make room for the cutting edge to protrude.
-Damaged blade from the box
-Sharpening on the angle gauge
-Comparison to LV's PVM-11 blade
Step 3: Replacement Handles
The front tote is fairly straightforward. Use a set of calipers to measure the old handle and mill a turning blank to match. I used a wenge turning blank mounted on a pen mandrel and got the size close to what I was looking for. Once complete, sand and finish.
For the rear, I started with the template for a Stanley #5 handle from Lee Valley and a hand-drawn picture of my backsaw’s handle. I merged them together in Powerpoint and connected the lines in a printout.
After a previous experiment with a #3, I knew I wanted to keep the handle farther forward and farther down so as to not ruin the center of gravity. To keep things interesting, I used figured walnut for the handle along with a bit of wenge on the top.
Cut the body first, then remove the template and replace it on the contrasting piece of wood. Cut along the line you used before and match the two pieces against each other. Because the wenge is so hard, I needed to do some trimming at the end to make them fit together. Use polyurethane glue to attach the halves together, and add epoxy on the outside for any remaining divots.
You'll also notice I added a small foot on the trailing edge. I was concerned with the #3 that there would be excessive pressure off the rear of the plane and possibly strip the bolt. To reduce this, I shaped the foot to land on the rear edge and give a little more stability to the handle.
To mimic the look of retaining nuts, bore 3-4 holes at the front and fill with dowels or pegs. I had some 7/8” blackwood turning blanks on hand so I used one for the large cap. Once the blank is assembled and dry, use a router to round over the areas your hand will hit. Continue to shape the block with a Dremel and sandpaper until you’re satisfied with the result.
I had included a small decorative bit of wenge on the bottom but decided against adding it to the finished product. It would have gotten in the way of my hand position and although I liked the idea, it'll take some more thought to make it work.
Reassembly is straightforward. Use the three screws to reattach the wood handles and tighten. The small secondary screw in the rear is now obscured by the wood above but I was able to start it with my fingers and finish it with a long screwdriver held at an angle.
-Procession from plan to shaping and finishing
-Measurements for profiles of drilled holesfi
Step 4: Evaluation
Once your plane is ready, reassemble the parts and check for proper fit. The blade can be extended as much or as little as you'd like, depending on how deep of a cut you'd like to take. With it properly sharpened, I try to make the plane feel as it's hitting steady resistance from the surface. It won't be to the point of feeling tacky, but more like it being held back by a magnet.
Like I said at the beginning, I'm not an expert at hand tools but I'm definitely a convert. Plus, there's something magical about taking something from the scrap heap and putting it back to work for another generation or two.
Good luck with your own and I hope it brings a new dimension to your workshop!
- First few cuts on a sample board
- Finished product alongside my grandfather's #5
- Parting shot