How to Clean Wood Tools

This article originally appeared in the Let’s Talk About feature on the M-WTCA Internet site, July 1997


How to Clean Wood Tools

William Rigler

The following is a summary of data collected for about a three-month period and represents the opinion of many tool collectors.

In General, the consensus was DO NOT OVER CLEAN. There are many approaches to cleaning, some unique, but, in general, it included 0000 steel wool and other soft abrasive materials (non-woven scrubbing pads) and finishing included all of the various types of commercial waxes, tung oil, etc. Much to my surprise I probably have at one time or another used them all on my tool collection.

I am very pleased to say that there was not one suggestion of sanding down the wood tool removing all patina and then sealing it with polyurethane. You don’t see that too much any more; so wood tool collectors are using the methods suggested.



Mel Ring
Sat Jul 5 21:36:51 1997

I know this will open a can of worms but here it is anyway: I clean many of my planes with straight ammonia from the bottle. I take off most of the grime and then rinse with a little water, wiping the piece as dry as possible quickly to avoid overwetting. When dry I spray it with Scott’s Liquid Gold, allowing it to soak for a while and then wipe off the excess. When dry I polish with a dry, course cloth wheel. I clean up the irons to prevent further rust and coat them with wax. Please remember that this is what I do for SOME of my own collection. I am not a museum curator. If I were I would have a different outlook on restoration.


Eric Peterson
Sun Jul 6 15:40:19 1997

Tools can survive many owners. Often tools in collections are “treated” in some manner. If a tool is part of a collection, the current owner should make a record of the “treatment” given the tool. It may be a great help to the next owner to know what was applied in the past or what treatment the tool was subjected to. Is that shiny coat polyurethane or some other material? If this information traveled with the tool, it would be a real help to those who own it later.


Don Bosse
Wed Jul 9 09:32:03 1997

I use a product sold in the antique shops called “Kotten Klenser”, its non-abrasive, biodegradable, non-toxic, and non-flammable. It’s a thick soapy consistency that is easy to use and gentle on the sinus’s and hands. It states that it removes water and heat marks, wax and silicone buildup, tree sap, and smoke damage residue. It doesn’t dry out the wood like many cleansers; afterwards I follow up with a liberal coat of paste furniture wax and hand buff when dry. It’s a procedure that doesn’t harm the patina the wood attains, protects the wood and is completely reversible.


Bill Rigler
Sat Jul 19 19:14:47 1997

In a recent booklet published by the Southwest Tool Collector Association on Cleaning Antique Tools compiled by James Goodson it was suggested that the following process be used to clean finished or unfinished wood:

  • Cleaning minimum grime – wipe item with a clean rag and then with a small cloth soaked in “Kramer’s Best Antique Improver” (“Kramer’s”). Either metal or wood surfaces respond well to this liquid. The Liquid does not appear to harm any of t he common surface coating. Dry wood will take and keep a deep rich color. Wipe again and buff with a soft dry cloth.
  • Cleaning heavier grime – Wipe item with a clean cloth soaked in turpentine. Then scrub lightly with a 3M gray pad soaked in Kramer’s. Remove the excess liquid by rubbing hard with a clean cloth. If the cloth shows much dirt, repeat the process with the 3M pad. This process should not harm the original lacquer finish if still present. (If the original finish is fine and unscratched but dirty use a white kitchen pad similar to the 3M pads. They are less Abrasive and shouldn’t harm a fine finish.)
  • Cleaning very heavy grime – Scrub wooden item with a 3M red pad soaked in paint thinner or turpentine, wiping with a rag occasionally to remove loosened grime and paint splatters. Then proceed as recommended above for heavier grime. Wooden handles of metal tools may be cleaned by spraying with “Simple Green”. Allow to soak, then briefly scrub with bristle brush. Continue as recommended for minimum grime.


Matt Kujawa
Thu Jul 31 09:29:27 1997

I don’t know if I’m cleaning/preserving my wooden tools correctly (if there is such a way) or not. I simply use a very fine steel wool (#0000) to take off the grime as best I can being very careful not to remove any markings or to round any sharp corners (if any remain). I would rather not take off enough vs. take off too much. I then soak in a mixture of 2/3 boiled linseed oil & 1/3 thinner (more or less). Wipe it dry and let it sit for about 48 hrs. And redo as many times as desired. I think the boiled linseed oil soak method has been used for centuries to keep tools resistant to moisture and from drying & cracking. It also enables (or continues to enable) the process of darkening of the wood to a deep dark patina found in old, well cared for tools. I figure if it was good enough for great-great-grandpa, it is good enough for me. Enough soaking and enough coats, you can’t tell the difference between some of my wooden tools and ones that others have waxed. I usually use this method on wooden tools that have never been varnished. NOTE: this method might excessively darken some wood tools (but it is typically less cared for items). I will then use a much more coarse steel wool on plane blades to remove the rust (sometimes using a knife to scrape off the tough spots) and coat the blades with the same boiled linseed oil mixture. They also turn out great. One mixture does it all for me.


Gary Roberts
Thu Aug 7 10:15:36 1997

Now a days I am leaning more towards the conservationist viewpoint and further away from the “all tools need cleaning” camp. I find that when looking at tools that I have cleaned in the past with solvents (and to which I have applied oils of various sorts), they all have a similar brownish look (wood) or a polished look (metal). Than I look at tools that I have minimally cleaned and I see… discernable hand marks from previous users, price marks, wear marks that indicate usage patterns, etc. If a tool is destined solely for use, than I may clean it to the point where it is fully usable. If I don’t plan on using the tool, then I choose other methods. If the tool is dirt laden or greasy, than I’ll use either mineral spirits or naphtha to remove the material. I’ll use either 0000 steel wool or a cloth, allowing the solvent to do most of the work. Paint spots can be removed by applying a dab of paint remover to the paint, waiting for it to soften and removing it with a blunt (!) knife. I follow up with a protective coating similar to the original… or last finish on the tool. If possible, I just use a hard paste wax. If the tool was oiled, I may use a drying oil (I could use linseed, but I don’t like the smell and it is not a very good vapor barrier). In many cases, I do nothing more than wipe off dirt with a cloth slightly dampened with mineral spirits… or nothing at all. If old hand marks are evident, I’ll likely do nothing at all beyond dusting. As for rust, I remove it with mechanical means. Steel wool or 3M non-woven abrasives. You do have to get all the rust off to prevent further corrosion. Although I hate to remove metal, some metal removal is inevitable along with the rust removal. Anyhow, these are a few thoughts of mine on cleaning. If nothing else, I get to spend more time enjoying the tools and less time up to my ears in solvents and dust.


Bill Albert
Wed Aug 27 14:58:43 1997

This technique is useful for cleaning tools where wood and metal parts are in permanent close association, as with monkey wrenches and try squares, and which are real basket cases. Polish off grime, paint spatter, and light corrosion using a muslin wheel loaded with polishing compound (red rouge) or stropping compound (green chrome rouge). These compounds are wax impregnated with fine (700-1200 grit) and relatively soft abrasives. If used judiciously, they will not cut through any remaining finish or patina. Coarser and harder polishing compounds like emery (black) or Tripoli (brown) will cut right through. The residual wax forms a protective coating but also gives a rather high luster, which some may find objectionable. If the wood is op en grained, as with oak or ash, and the pores have not been filled with a previous finish, or if there are cracks in the wood, the compound will accumulate there and is not easily removed. Tip: The proper way to load a muslin wheel with these compounds is to bring the grinder to speed, then turn it off and feed the bar of compound into the spinning wheel. The wax first melts and then solidifies on the muslin as the wheel slows. Trying to load the wheel at speed generally throws most of the compound around the shop.