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TN.01.02 Case study - restoration of a barn-find moulding plane

Assessment and restoration of an old plane, illustrated.

1 Assess and plan

Fig 1 - The plane as found

Fig 2 - As found

Fig 3 - As found

Fig 4 - As found, maker's name barely visible

Fig 5 - As found, iron beyond use

Figures  1 to 5 show the plane as found, laid on the grass amongst trash on a car-boot stall. Note the general dirt, stains, encrusted thick varnish, and rust. Not a pretty sight, but all parts appeared original. My initial view was that it was probably worth restoring. Cost £1. I didn't try pulling the wedge at this stage as breakage is likely until the plane is thoroughly dry (see later).

The objective was, using existing parts, to bring it back to the condition you would expect on the bench of a conscientious craftsman. Failing that, to restore to workbench appearance. Note that the aim was not to bring to original as-new appearance as this would mean destroying evidence of its history.

The initial plan was to lightly wipe clean, dry, dismantle without damaging, and then decide the next stages when the condition was clearer.

2 Initial clean

Fig 6 - Drying crack in end grain

Fig 7 - Tool drying rack

It was wiped with a cloth dampened with a solution of water with a little pure soap. Fig 6 shows the open grain of the wood, caused by poor storage in damp-dry conditions; if you wet the wood too much at this stage the cracks will worsen. (The number "15" is the maker's number of the hollow.)

Before dismantling, the plane needed to be thoroughly dried; "dry" meaning several weeks in a dry atmosphere. Trying to remove the wedge – which has probably not moved for 100 years – was likely to result in breakage. Fig 7 shows it sitting, nice and cosy on the tool-drying rack, aka the kitchen dresser. You need an understanding partner for this.

3 Dismantle

When thoroughly dry, so that the parts were as loose as possible, the wedge came out easily by the usual method of knocking the heel of the plane with a mallet. “if at first you don’t succeed” I’d have persevered, giving it a knock at further intervals, ie leaving it more time to dry out. This usually does the trick (and probably results in the iron falling out and stabbing your foot through the slippers you shouldn’t have been wearing).

If not, I’d have tried holding the wedge in a vice (soft jaws) and tapping the body gently in the opposite direction to the wedge. But, particularly with thin wedges, there’s a significant risk of the wedge snapping.

The next option would have been to try tapping the iron gently into the body; as most irons are tapered in thickness, this slackens the pressure on the wooden wedge. However, this is also a very risky option that is likely to result in the shaft of the iron snapping. So focus on the first option and be patient.
Now that its condition was clear, I could decide the next stage of the plan. This was to carry out a more detailed clean of the wood; repair the crack in the body; apply worm prevention; renovate and sharpen the iron as far as practicable; conserve all parts; test; and finally use.

Fig 8 Wedge and iron

Fig 8 shows the wedge and iron finally removed.

4 Detailed clean

Wedge and body were wiped with “unembalming fluid” (see MN 01.01). It emerged that at some time a thick black varnish had been applied, uncharacteristic of the period. In places, a more conventional surface finish was visible beneath the varnish and it was decided to take the surface back to this. This was achieved using unembalming fluid and various solvents (white spirit, meths) using 0000 wire wool.

This was a debatable decision, as the thick black gooey varnish was part of the plane’s history. The decision to remove it was taken as it was felt that (a) it was unlikely a craftsman would have applied such a finish, and (b) the underlying finish was typical of the period. And, though it should not, I’m sure my personal view of what looks nice would have come into it. In general, maintaining the life-history of an item is important.

Fig 9 After wiping

Fig 10 Names now clear

Figs 9 and 10 illustrate the cleaned surface. Note the earlier owners’ names; the unusual name "GELL" is still fairly common in the north-east.

5 Repair body crack

Fig 11 - Crack by mouth

Fig 12 - Clamped for gluing

The body had a crack where the pressure of iron and wedge tends to blow the body apart. This was repaired with water soluble wood glue (a reversible glue). It was a bit awkward to clamp, but a combination of tapered packers held in place with masking tape, and a credit card worked.

6 Apply worm prevention

Although nearly 250 years old, surprisingly there was no evidence of wormholes. Treatment was limited to brushing with a proprietary woodworm fluid, wiping off the surplus after an hour or so, and allowing to dry for a few days.

7 Renovate the iron/cutter

Fig 13 - Back of iron, rust and pits

Fig 14 - Face of iron, more rust and pits

Figs 13 and 14 show the as-found condition. The iron was cleaned using 0000 wire wool and WD40. It was then examined for any maker's marks (there were none).
After cleaning it was clear that the cutter/iron was not in good condition, with quite deep pitting. I decided to try and bring it back to usable condition; critical to this was to be able to obtain a polished band on the back, immediately behind the edge, without thinning to the point that the strength was jeopardized or the wedge action hazarded. (The taper of the iron needs to match that of the wedge.)

Fig 15 Sorby Pro-edge

To attempt to dress out the pits, I used a Sorby Pro-edge belt grinder, a super bit of kit. It's built like a tank and now available with very fine belts.  Fig 16 shows the iron being gently flattened to try and take out the pitting.

Fig 16 - Back of iron, first dressing

Fig 16 shows it after some work, with significant pitting remaining. Decision – how far to go? To remove the pitting from each side entirely would probably thin the cutter to the point where it was weakened, or the wedge might not hold it well.

As often, a compromise was decided ie to flatten to the point where the back of the cutting edge has a thin polished band so that it can be sharpened. It didn't look particularly attractive with pits remaining back from the edge, but I can live with these.

Alternatively, a new iron could have been made from an old moulder cutter (usually available at modest cost from a dealer) and the old pitted one retained and labelled.

Fig 17 - Back decently polished

Fig 17 shows the back of the iron, with an almost complete polished band back from the edge.

The bevel side presented two tasks, ie shaping the edge to match the profile of the sole of the plane; and sharpening.

The profile was scribed on the iron by blacking with marker pen, inserting the iron into the body, and scratching the outline. It was then refined using a Dremel with small grinding head fitted. Sharpening was achieved following practice described in the various sharpening manuals for moulder irons or in-cannell gouges.

Fig 18 - Front with profile and bevel established

Fig 18 shows the bevel side with a little more honing to do, just about ready for action.

8 Conserve and admire

Fig 19 - Final appearance

Fig 19 shows the final appearance.

Fig 20 - Maker's mark

Fig 20 shows the maker's name B DYSON, now clearly visible.

Conservation comprises a coat of non-silicone wax polish for the wooden parts, and a rust preventative spray for the metal components.

Admiration – up to you.

9 Test and use

Fig 21 - First use

The final proof of the pudding—it works! It produces a good finish and feathery shavings. It could now easily be put to work performing its original function. The iron could do with further honing to make it cut more easily, and ideally be replaced with a new one as the shaft has become brittle and prone to snapping if carelessly handled.

Concluding, it goes to show that appearances can be deceiving; I was surprised that such an apparent basket case could be brought back to its current condition. From the ugly duckling has arisen a beautiful white swan Well, in my eyes, anyway.


And finally. A professional and hand-made tool, nearly 250 years old, made by a known maker, probably original parts. Value on eBay – perhaps £15. We don't seek out old tools for their value for money; but nevertheless what comparable "antique" can be found as cheaply?

 Case study - restoration of a barn-find moulding plane
Ref No: TN 01.02
Date: 19-08-2013
Author: Hugh Thompson 
Suggestions for improvement are welcomed, please email: conservation@taths.org.uk
IMPORTANT: The advice in these notes is provided by members and others. It is given in good faith but neither the contributors nor the Society can endorse or guarantee the accuracy or safety of the information. The society does not recommend or guarantee any individual or organisation named.

Treatment techniques described may not be suitable for items of high or historical value. Users should always test first on a small inconspicuous area; observe safety and health guidelines given by suppliers, and dispose of used materials responsibly. The Society does not endorse or guarantee any proprietary products named (and it recognises that other products may be suitable). If in any doubt, expert advice should be obtained.

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