Hand Plane Restoration – Part 3


Vintage Hand Tools / Wednesday, September 4th, 2013
The body of the plane is dirty and has some surface rust, but otherwise in good structural shape
The body of the plane is dirty and has some surface rust, but otherwise in good structural shape

Click here for part 2 of this series

The next step in the process was rust removal of the steel parts, and for that, I chose to setup an electrolysis bath. While there are multiple ways to remove rust, including the low tech method of an abrasive and a heavy dose of elbow grease, this method has a few distinct advantages. First, it removes rust and grime evenly, even in hard to reach places. Second, it preserves the aged patina of the steel. Last but not least, it requires significantly less physical effort.

A note of caution: If you’re interested in preserving the original japanning on the plane body, I would proceed very carefully or choose an alternate way to clean up the japanned parts. Using this method did result in some of the japanning coming off the plane body, but this wasn’t a critical concern for my purposes.

Using an electrolysis bath to remove rust is an interesting topic in it’s own right, and an internet search will reveal a wealth of information. The details tend to vary, so I’ll focus here on just the specifics that I used without going too in depth. If you’re interested in the process or alternate methods, it’s well worth the time to do a little research. The key ingredients are a plastic container large enough to hold the suspended parts, an electrolyte solution, sacrificial metal to use as an anode and a source of current. I started with the plane body, but used the same method on the other steel parts separately.

Additional notes of caution: This isn’t an overly complicated or particularly dangerous process, but there are some potential hazards, so proceed at your own risk and use common sense. The electrolyte solution can be hard on the hands, so gloves are a good idea. There will be small amounts of flammable hydrogen gas released, so don’t set this up near sources of ignition or in areas with a severe lack of ventilation, and lastly (this should go with out saying) don’t put your hands in the water or touch any wiring or metal parts while the electricity is running.

The body of the plane, and later all the metal parts, are suspended in an electrolysis bath.
The body of the plane, and later all the metal parts, are suspended in an electrolysis bath.

For the best results in evenly removing rust, it’s best to surround the plane body with multiple pieces of sacrificial metal rather than a single source, so I set mine up in a reasonably sized plastic storage tote with a piece of rebar in each corner to act as the anode. Iron rebar is cheap and convenient for this purpose, but any scrap iron or steel will potentially work. Just be aware the process eventually destroys the anode, hence the sacrificial label.

The plane body needs to be submerged completely, and ideally shouldn’t touch the bottom or sides of the container. It also cannot touch the anode, so I found it best to suspend the body from a scrap of lumbar using a crude cradle fashioned from heavy duty steel wire, as shown in the picture. To distribute the current, I also connected each of the pieces of rebar to each other via copper electrical wiring around the outside of the container.

To make the electrolyte solution I used luke-warm water and a product called Washing Soda, which you can purchase from places that sell laundry detergent. Baking soda will also work if you can’t find washing soda. Mix this in a ratio of a tablespoon of soda per gallon of water and fill the container enough to completely submerge the part being worked on. The final ingredient is electricity, which in my case was supplied by an inexpensive electric battery charger. You’ll need something more powerful than a “trickle charger” but the exact current isn’t really important. My charger has multiple settings, and I set it to 12 volts, 10 amps.

You can see the body of the plane suspended in the electrolyte solution (water and washing soda) by steel wire. Rebar is also wired in the solution. A battery charger is then connected, with the positive lead connected to the rebar and the negative lead connected to the plane via the hanging wire.
You can see the body of the plane suspended in the electrolyte solution (water and washing soda) by steel wire. Rebar is also wired in the solution. A battery charger is then connected, with the positive lead connected to the rebar and the negative lead connected to the plane via the hanging wire.

Connect the positive lead to one of the pieces of rebar, and the negative lead to the wire suspending the plane body, plug in the battery charger and let it work. You should see the solution immediately start bubbling if it’s working. The amount of time to leave it running depends on the surface area of the part and the amount of rust, and isn’t an exact science. I recommend carefully checking on it periodically. The plane body took between 2 and 3 hours to finish.

That was long enough to remove all the rust, grime, paint and some of the loose japanning. After removing it from the bath, I quickly moved the plane to a tub of warm soapy water and cleaned the residue off using a non-abrasive cleaning pad and a tooth brush. One thing to remember is that the plane will immediately start rusting as soon as it’s removed from the soapy cleaning tub. In fact by the time I had finished drying it with paper towels, it had an even coating of flash rust.

The body is then removed from the solution. Later, the other metal parts go through the same process.
The body is then removed from the solution. Later, the other metal parts go through the same process.

I’m sure there are ways to minimize or prevent this flash rusting, but it was easy enough to remove that I didn’t worry about it any further. Once dried, I brushed of the flash rust with a brass bristled brush. This whole process was repeated with the other steel parts, most of which required no further work.

I decided to repaint the plane body, which may or may not be required depending on the condition of the japanning. From my limited understanding, the original japanning process used on vintage planes is something of a lost art, and for all practical purposes, unnecessary. Instead I used a high gloss enamel paint, the kind sold in spray cans for repainting engine parts, and am more than happy with the results.

A top view of the plane body after the electrolyte bath
A top view of the plane body after the electrolyte bath

You’ll want to carefully mask off any areas that need to remain unpainted, such as the sides and sole of the plan and the portion where the frog is attached. I also similarly touched up the frog with the same spray paint after carefully masking the areas that needed to remain unpainted.

At this point, once the paint was dry, the individual parts were done and set aside. In the next and final installment, I’ll cover preparing the blade, re-assembly and final tuning of the plane, including lapping the sole. All of which are crucial to the ultimate performance of the plane.

All the parts finished. The body of the plane has been repainted with enamel paint.
All the parts finished. The body of the plane has been repainted with enamel paint.