To Restore or Not to Restore

By John Thompson


A hot topic of debate to say the least. You’ve got yourself a Vintage tool and wonder if you should go through the process to make it new again.  Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as the question.

First we need to start with a definition.

Restore : bring back, reinstate, replace, return to a former state (condition, place, or position). Refurbish, remake, return to original condition. So in our case, taking an old tool and returning  it to original condition.  

While we can make it LOOK original….. but will never be original if it’s changed or modified? That being said, the real question at hand is when is it a good idea to restore a tool? Ask a dozen people, you’ll probably get a dozen different answers.  After all, it’s probably more of an opinion than a mathematical formula with one correct answer.  It’s ALWAYS ok to restore a tool if that’s what you want to do.  There are no current laws against restoring Vintage tools (although there are a lot of people that wish there were).  You own the tool, you have the right to restore it, smash it, use it as a door stop, or even throw it away!  All that being said, I feel the real question that should be answered is WHY is the tool being restored.  There seem to be a few common answers I’ve encountered….

1) For use, or to make the tool as functional or better than the original

2) For Sentimental reasons

3) For display

4) To sell for money, the most possible


Let’s take look at them one at a time.


For use:  Obviously, these are tools. Tools have functions. They help us perform tasks we would be otherwise unable to do or have difficulty doing. Tools are one of the things that make our species the most successful on the planet and separates us from the animal kingdom. When tools are made, they SHOULD be at the peak of their usefulness. Being made of metal, wood, and plastic their surfaces are clean, flat, true, and shiny!  Time has a way of making these surfaces less than ideal. If you have ever tried using a hand drill that’s been rusted stuck, or seeing a beautiful piece of Maple get bruised and scratched by a rusty or damaged bottom of a hand plane, then you know what I mean. Let’s face it, no one likes to use a damaged rusty old tool. That clean shiny one is the one most people grab first. So, is it ok to restore a tool for use? Absolutely! After all, that’s why they were made in the first place. Does the tool need to be “mint” condition to work correctly?.... Probably not. I doubt the paint or Jappaning has much to do with function, but a new paint job might make you feel like it works better( LOL). Users often modify tools in order to make them work better for a specific task they need and often mark them with initials to identify their tool. Years ago, all tradesmen/women had similar tools that could be mistaken for a co-worker’s. Some people don’t like these modifications and will attempt to remove them. Personally, I celebrate these adaptations and marks so long as they are done respectfully. I see a lot of stamped initials on tools and when done neatly they add a personal touch to the tool. It gives you a small piece of the tools history. Sometimes you come across tools that have been modified with holes for hanging the tool during storage. These tools I avoid as a collector and a user. In the name of organization, many of these tools have been structurally and cosmetically compromised. To quote a good friend “ hang holes should be repaid with bullet holes”. Obviously a joke, but it speaks to the passion of collectors!


Sentimental reasons:  I’ll explain this one with an example. I had a woman who wanted her Father’s hand plane restored to “new” condition. She sent me a picture prior to having any work done to it. I examined the picture and asked her why she wanted it changed at all. Personally, I would have done very little to the plane before putting it in the collection besides cleaning and preserving it. Her response was surprising but understandable. She wanted to display it on a shelf as a reminder of her Dad, but didn’t want to put an “old rusty tool” on her shelves at home. Normally, I would suggest that if you want a brand new looking plane….buy a new one. In this situation, she wanted the tool her Father used but wanted it to be in a “presentable” condition according to her standards. The monetary value of the tool was insignificant and she had no intentions of selling it or ever parting with it in the future. She simply wanted it to look a certain way and display it as a reminder of her father….which relates to the next reason.

For display:  Seems pretty obvious, but some people just prefer the look of something new. As a society, we are bombarded daily with ads and reminders that NEW is better. SHINY is better. Some people have just accepted these statements as fact. Some people just simply prefer the look of something new. I think it’s fair to say we all can appreciate things that are pleasing to the eye, but in these days where plastic surgery is an accepted and common practice, there is something to be said for natural beauty. At the end of the day, the person who owns it has to look at it. YOU as the owner have to decide what YOU like best. I see guys/gals who post videos of themselves restoring a tool which almost always is followed by hateful comments on how they are destroying a beautiful tool. While you may find yourself agreeing with it or not, the fact is it’s their tool to do whatever they want with. It can be hard to watch someone take a piece of tool history and hack/grind/sand it to death. As hard as it is to watch, it is their right to do. There’s usually a way to respectfully clean and preserve the tool while maintaining its originality. Take the time to look for guidance from an experienced professional before beginning if you are in doubt. If all else fails and you can’t appreciate it, find someone who does!

For sale:  This one is the one that gets people worked up.  Nothing worse to a collector than seeing a rare tool that has been “restored” in the name of making a few extra dollars more. Most collectors would probably refer it to more as vandalism than restoration. There are many out there who think finding a rare tool and making it look new/newer than it is to make more money is a good thing…..for them. Understand that cleaning a tool is far different than completely removing and/or altering the original surfaces and finishes. Properly cleaning a tool and removing the rust that will eventually result in the destruction of the tool can be performed in such a way that doesn’t destroy the originality. In my opinion, it’s much harder to properly clean and condition a tool properly than it is to remove its original finishes and surfaces to re- apply new ones.   

Some tools can be too far gone, but someone will grind and sand away at it to make it look like it has never seen rust before. Some people are REALLY good at making something look correct and original and will go as far as to turn a smoothing plane into a corrugated plane, or weld cracks and breaks so they are very difficult to detect. So why do collectors get so steamed about it? Because it’s dishonest for starters. The reason some of these tools are so valuable is because they are rare, and even rarer to find in “like new” condition. Tools were meant to be used! The people who used them weren’t thinking about how much money they would be worth in the future, they were thinking about getting a job completed. Tools were dropped, thrown, kicked left in the rain, and worse. Very few people who bought tools put them in a climate controlled display case to preserve them. They would most likely be looked at as insane! Very few tools that are over 100 years old will look like they were just made today. When they are found in “mint” condition, they are valuable…..in some cases VERY valuable. Trying to take something that is in poor condition and make it look like it’s perfect for the purpose of selling is one of the unfortunate results of items (especially old) having value to collectors. As long as people are willing to collect anything and pay large sums of money for the things they collect, there will be dishonest thieves taking advantage of it. On the brighter side of restoration, there is a market for fully restored tools, because people buy are naturally drawn to new and shiny. There are a lot of people who make a living restoring just about anything as long as people pay them for it. There are some of these people who buy tools that are far from perfect and completely restore them WITH EVERY INTENTION of letting people know the process of restoration has been performed. What’s wrong with taking something from the junk pile, making it new and breathing new life into it?  Nothing at all. In a lot of cases it is a good thing….. the big difference is the intention behind it. The gray area that gets people debating and arguing is a little more tricky to determine right and wrong. Example: A collector who wants the tools in original condition spots a tool they have been searching for and happens to see that it is for sale. Problem is that it has been unintentionally but significantly altered, destroying the value to a collector. Who’s right in this situation? No matter how I, you, or anyone feel about it, it’s simply a matter of opinion. The hope and intention of this article is less about opinion but more to help shed some light from all sides on the restoration of tools.

So when should you restore a tool? What tools are ok to restore and which aren’t? Wish it was as simple as making a list and have everyone agree….. The main thing to understand from all this is why we restore. Most collectors want the tools in original condition. Why?  The value of the tool is based off its rarity and condition….its TRUE condition. Truly “mint” vintage tools are hard to come by, thus increasing their value. Opinion alert!  For me, the history of a tool is its soul.  Every scratch, every ding, every paint chip tells the story of its life. When someone takes a piece of sand paper to an old tool they essentially erase that history. Most collectors collect tools because they have a passion not only for the tool, but also its history and natural beauty.  It’s hard to learn the true history of how a tool was constructed or why it was constructed in a particular way when it has been painted over or sanded off. It’s not easy for people who have been programmed their whole lives to believe that new and shiny is better to suddenly see the beauty in some patina or the worn down handle of a tool. Like the scars and imperfections we all acquire over a lifetime should be celebrated, the same should be for tools. 

All those imperfections make them what they are. It says something about a tool that has lasted, in many cases, over 100 years or more to be on display in a collection or to be used today as effectively today as the day it was made. No one will tell you that leaving a bunch of rust on a tool for it to slowly eat away at it until it rots to scrap metal is a good thing, but once you can tell the difference between Patina and rust you most likely have reached a higher appreciation for these incredible tools. These tools were built with pride, care, and craftsmanship….. something that has become rarer than the tools themselves. So at the end of the day, tool restoration will continue to be a matter of debate. If you are thinking about restoring a tool and aren’t sure why you are restoring it or how to restore it PLEASE ask someone who can provide you with professional information. Robert Porter (Oldhandtool.com) is a fantastic source of tool knowledge and tool restoration. Contact him  before you begin and he will be able to help you understand the Pros and Cons of restoring the tool you have and guide you in the process of correctly going about restoring it. Properly restoring an old hand tool takes a great deal of knowledge and experience. Robert has tremendous knowledge of these tools, their history, and how to restore and maintain them so they continue to provide use and joy. The last thing you want to do is ruin a tool that you intend to restore and display.
 

Before you take a piece of sandpaper or some chemical stripper to an old tool….. Please…. Take a long look at its natural beauty and history. Let the dings and scrapes help you imagine all the things it helped build and of the people who used them on a day to day basis. Enjoy  and celebrate all of its imperfections. Most of all, make sure you know WHY you are about erase the story it has to tell.