How To Restore A Plane By Lighting It On Fire
What should we say to the guy with the propane torch?
"The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne" - Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?-1400)
Of the dozens of wood plane restoration videos on Youtube, most are fairly benign. Some people love boiled linseed oil; some people hate it. Some people leave the dark aging on their planes while others like to sand or scrape it off.
But then there are the people who take it to the extreme: The guy who spray paints a wood plane bright blue with an orange BOSCH logo on the side. The guy who slices off both sides of a rabbet plane with a table saw and ends up with a plane significantly narrower than the iron. And there's the guy who uses an angle grinder to "sand" down a plane and then burns on a new "patina" with a propane torch.
If you want to start a fight among collectors, ask them how you should clean and restore antique tools. On one side, purists argue that we should alter them as little as possible. In articles with titles like "The Ethics Of Tool Refinishing" they maintain that “Restoration denotes doing the absolute minimum to an artifact — only stabilizing and making it presentable for study and/or exhibit."
On the other side are the self-described "Legion of Realists" who lash out at the "celebrants of faded glory" and their supposed "purist dominance."The most vocal realist was Herb Kean, who championed the maxim that "antique tools should be in the same condition today as they were a hundred or more years ago in the hands of a prideful worker." "Are we any less of a person after a haircut?" Kean asked. "If we must have dentures to function, has our integrity been destroyed? Wouldn't you rather have a complete tool, correct in function and appearance, than one in such a disheveled state that it is hard to determine its purpose?"
It's an argument that goes beyond personal preference. It's wrapped up in ideas about elitism, monetary value, and what makes a tool beautiful. As researcher and writer Michael Humphrey puts it, "Real or imagined, the cleaning of wooden planes takes on a moral tone." On one side are those who feel that an owner has the right to do what they want with the things they own. On the other, Humphrey writes, are owners who "feel a sense of responsibility that plays against their privileges of ownership. They see themselves more as curators than unfettered owners, and are hesitant to make irreversible changes to their planes out of consideration for future owners and for posterity."
When it comes to the cheap, widely available planes that people are restoring on Youtube, I think it comes down to something even more fundamental: Do you see a plane as a piece of wood that needs to be improved, or do you see it as a historical artifact that has intrinsic value because of who made it or when it was made?
Which brings me to the guy with the roasted plane. Youtube is the realm of the Legion of Realists. I'm hesitant to use him as an example of realists gone wrong (I'm intentionally not linking to his video or including his username). But every beginner needs help and there is more value in being a guide than being a gatekeeper. I think we have an obligation to show people like him that there is a community of people who see planes as more than just a piece of wood. Planes don't sit voiceless on the workbench. They represent a genealogy of making, and the creativity and frustration and joy and pride that came with that artisanship.
If you care enough about wooden planes that you want to restore one, the way you choose to do it reflects a deeper set of beliefs. I don't know if I go as far as museologist Susan Pearce goes in calling the things we collect "external souls," but I agree with her that the meaning we project on to them "brings them into the interior of our personal lives." Collectable objects, she writes, "hang before the eyes of the imagination, continuously re-presenting ourselves to ourselves, and telling the stories of our lives in ways which would be impossible otherwise."
After I watched the torch guy's video, I left what I hope was a kind comment letting him know that his restoration had damaged the plane and pointing him in the direction of a Paul Sellers video on cleaning and fettling. He hasn't responded. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. I'm fine either way. In an era where it's easier than ever to buy a wooden plane, where it's easier than ever to learn how to care for them, let's foster a feeling of community, not of competition. Let's hold that door open wide.
If you need a palate cleanser after those photos, I’d recommend this beautiful, meditative essay by Mortise and Tenon Magazine on why people feel strongly about planes.
James M. Koenig. "The Ethics of Tool Refinishing." The Chronicle, vol. 32, no. 1, 1979.
G. L. Gillmore. Letter. The Chronicle, vol. 37, no. 2, 1984.
Herb Kean. "Patina." The Tool Shed, no. 151, 2008.
Herbert P. Kean. "Function and Appearance First." The Chronicle, vol. 36, no. 4, 1983.
Michael R. Humphrey. "Cleaned and Oiled; Description or Judgement?" The Catalog of American Wooden Planes, issue 7, 1993.
Susan Pearce. Museums, Objects, and Collections: A Cultural Study. Smithsonian Books, 2017.