Tools & Trades History Society

Notes on Tools

Conservation Notes Introduction

Read this first.

Guidance notes for enthusiasts on the restoration and conservation of old tools. What you should do – and what to avoid.

WELCOME to the Tools and Trades History Society Conservation Notes. We hope you find these useful, and will be able to contribute to their development from your own experience (see 7 below). This is a new venture for TATHS, it's experimental, and we expect it to change as it develops. This introduction is to set the scene; the real guts are in the individual notes.

Read on, give us feedback, contribute your own experience, and enjoy.

1 FOREWORD by a novice enthusiast

When I first "got into" old tools and needed to restore cherished finds, I looked for guidance on how to do so. I found several things:

  • lots of books had bits of information, but there seemed to be no comprehensive up-to-date guide on techniques to use; and
  • everybody had their own ideas and recipes, often different; and
  • I did things that I later regretted (buffing wheels, paint stripper, etc).

And I found other novices with similar problems.

These notes are an attempt to address this, and thanks go to the TATHS members and others who have, and continue, to contribute. It also has quite a bit on what not to do, some things that may be controversial, and a prominent health warning to "try it on a small area first – we can't guarantee anything".


The notes comprise 4 folders:

Folder 0 - Introduction which explains the background to the notes and how to use them. (Ie this document.)

Folder 1 – MN's – individual Material Notes.
These provide guidance for conserving various materials. (The first file comprises an index of titles).These describe different techniques (eg ultrasonic rust removel) which may be used to conserve a variety of materials found in old tools. Recognising that different people use different techniques, in some cases more than one approach is described.

Folder 2 – TN's – individual Tool Notes.
These provide guidance for conserving various types of tool. (The first file comprises an index of titles). These describe various approaches to the conservation of different types of tool (eg wooden planes); likewise, in some cases more than one approach is described. For the moment these focus on tools of the woodworking trades, to be extended later to other categories.

Folder 3 – RN's - A simple list of references/contacts/dealers that people have found useful.



The following may seem obvious but are nevertheless worth noting:

  • Workshops are dangerous places; keep them locked and away from children.
  • Tools are by their nature sharp; warn strangers and keep them away from children.
  • Apply particular care with electrics and gas, and get into the habit of switching off all appliances when leaving the workshop.
  • Some of the materials mentioned are toxic and/or flammable, to a greater/lesser degree. Refer to manufacturers' recommendations and pay particular attention to the following:
    • Use personal protective equipment such as gloves, eye protection and breathing protection.
    • Work in a well-ventilated area remote from any sources of ignition.
    • Clean brushes and dispose of any surplus or waste materials safely.
    • Remember that contaminated rags can self-combust.
    • Clean up any spills promptly.
    • Store treatment materials securely with appropriate labelling and out of reach of children.

It must be emphasized that the guidance comprises the personal views of individual human beings, with all their frailties and inadequacies! In consequence we have to remind people of the following:

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 safety or effectiveness of techniques described. Some methods 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. If in any doubt, expert advice should be obtained.


Throughout the notes, contributors mention proprietary products by their trade names; we all have our favorite products and the contributor is simply quoting their own. TATHS wish to emphasise that other equivalent products may be equally suitable. The Society does not endorse or guarantee the safety or effectiveness of the proprietary products described.


The Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) was founded in 1983 to further the knowledge and understanding of hand tools and the trades and people that used them. We see this as including the restoration and conservation of those tools remaining. (The term "conservation" is here used to include restoration).

The guide has been compiled by members of the society with the purpose of sharing experience of techniques for conserving old tools. It is aimed at the amateur enthusiast, rather than professional conservators, but the individual notes include space for reference to more professional advice where this is available.

Users are encouraged to submit comments to TATHS to allow revision of subsequent editions (see section 7). It is intended to be a living compendium, updated as new materials and ideas emerge, and to that end we welcome feedback on the guide. Who decides when conflicting views are given? For the moment, I think that's the Coordinator, but we'll see how it goes; the intention is to amend any notes to reflect conflicting opinion, or reservations. The intention is also to credit the individual authors, and any who suggest changes/reservations, although anonymous contributions will be accepted if they seem useful.

It has been decided to issue only in web-based form. We realize this may be controversial in the eyes of our members who do not yet have internet access. We're sorry about this; and the way we'd ask people to see it is as an extra service being developed by the Society, one that could not be done any other way, rather than as a cost-saving approach that excludes those without access. We also feel that increasingly people will move to such internet-based solutions; and that in society in general people without internet access are increasingly disadvantaged in many ways. Hopefully, any non-internet members will be able to find a "buddy" who can access for them; and – very importantly – allow them to contribute their experience. We recognize that our older members possess a wealth of experience and we'd like to tap into this to improve the notes.


Perhaps a better term for the notes than "conservation" might have been "taking care of old tools", as the word "conserve" implies an approach that may be inappropriate in certain cases. To take two extreme examples:

• An Elizabethan plane removed from a sunken shipwreck. The approach here would probably be to stabilize water sodden wood, remove as much corrosion as practicable, stabilise what remains, and put it in a climate controlled display case. But before doing anything, you'd hand the job over to professional conservators – it's just too important to trust to amateurs.

• A 1960's Stanley no 3 smoother picked up for a fiver that is rusty from having been stored in a damp shed for several years. Here the aim is to restore a basically sound tool to use on your own bench. No historical interest is concerned; replacement of parts is acceptable (perhaps a better quality iron than originally fitted); and the task is well within the ability of any amateur.

... and there are all sorts of situations in between. The point is that what you do depends on the circumstances, and that before doing anything you need to ask yourself the questions "what's the purpose of the restoration?" and "what am I trying to achieve?". (a good question to ask regarding the conduct of your life in general, but that's another matter...).

Our general view is that old tools should wherever possible be restored to a usable condition while retaining their history and age of the tool eg all marks, patina, irons, wedges etc. Only if a tool is restored to a usable condition can we begin to understand and appreciate how it may have been used by the generations of craftsmen who owned it, used it and made their living by it. For example cracked totes might be carefully repaired, irons re-sharpened, faces flattened etc. It should not be the intent to re-create as new unless it is a relative modern tool but merely to make it once again usable. "To preserve the use of the tool is to preserve its history". But it's all a question of judgment and compromise (as anyone reading this probably knows already.)


Table 1 below provides a summary of the main steps in conserving a tool.

Table 1 Summary of steps in restoration/conservation





Ask “how historically important is the tool?”

If in doubt, approach TATHS


What degree of restoration are you seeking to achieve?

Take time to think


Prepare a plan.

This can be a written plan, or simply a clear idea in your mind.


How far should you strip the tool into individual components?

As many as practicable. In practice this generally means ‘all the parts that were intended to come apart’. Beware dismantling further, eg removing rusty screws that don’t need to come out.

5 Decide which techniques to use on the individual components. See Material Notes
6 Is there any tool-specific advice that might be relevant. See Tool Notes
7 Decide on-going care measures. Guidance being prepared

And finally; every rule is made to be broken from time to time. We all do things that, with the benefit of hindsight, we regret. We've all over-restored and regretted it. Don't beat yourself up about it, but do take it as experience for the future.

7 Feedback by users

The plan is for TATHS to provide the framework, so that your own experience can be incorporated for the benefit of others. So let us know if: you have experience you'd like to share in a new Note (if you prefer, just send me the gist of your ideas, I'll do the writing), if you have comments on Notes already issued, if you can see ways to improve the system, or if you'd just like to give me your views!

Hugh Thompson, Coordinator, Conservation Notes