Restoring a Stanley No. 18 Block Plane

Stanley No. 18 Block Plane

Learning how to sharpen, tune, and use hand tools is an important skill for a workshop of any size, particularly a small shop. Hand tools take up less space than power tools. And in some cases, there’s no more accurate tool for the job than a well-tuned hand tool. In this case, I’m talking about a block plane. Every woodworker needs a good block plane (or two…or three…).

As an instructor at the Florida School of Woodwork I teach a week-long class on using hand tools to create joinery. Surprisingly, the class is becoming more popular. One of the students of the school contacted me and mentioned that he is signed up to take one of my classes. Leonard said that he inherited some hand planes from his father-in-law and wanted to know if I could restore them to usable condition. He wants to use them in my class.


As a side note, when I first realized many years ago that learning how to use hand planes (and other hand tools) could improve my woodworking, I was hooked. It started when my father gave me two hand planes he found in his workshop.

Once I figured out how to clean, restore, sharpen, and tune a hand plane, I never looked back. I started looking for old planes to restore. I get as much pleasure out of restoring old tools as I do building projects. I try to imagine the tools in the hands of their original owners.


About the No. 18

The first of three planes of Leonard’s that I worked on was a Stanley No. 18 block plane. This is an unusual plane for a couple of reasons. (You can read more about it on The Superior Works “Blood & Gore” page by Patrick Leach.) First, the No. 18 block plane has an adjustable mouth. That’s not all that unusual, but I think it’s an important feature on any hand plane. Being able to adjust the width of the mouth opening helps prevent tearout when planing.

Stanley No. 18 block plane disassembled
The Stanley No. 18 block plane disassembled. The knuckle-joint lever cap is on the upper left. The lateral adjustment lever is on the upper right. The cam lever on the lower left is used to adjust the opening of the mouth when the plane is assembled.

One of the most unusual features of this plane is the lever cap. Stanley Tools had tried a number of designs for lever caps for block planes. Most involve some sort of cam that tightens the lever cap. The lever cap on the No. 18 works differently. It’s a spring loaded assembly that snaps closed to hold the plane iron secure. It’s often referred to as a knuckle-joint lever cap. The beauty of it is its simplicity and ease of removing and installing it on the plane. To remove it, simply lift up on the back end of the cap and it snaps loose. Slip the keyhole slot over the screw to lift it off.

Another feature that I found a little unusual, at least to the more modern planes I’m familiar with, was the lateral adjustment mechanism. This lever allows you to change the side-to-side angle of the blade to ensure that the cutting edge is parallel to the sole of the plane.

The lateral adjustment lever is made from stamped steel. It’s a complex curve in that it forms a shallow “C” or comma shape when viewed from above but the tail drops down at the back of the plane to form a finger hold to move the lever.

The lateral adjuster has a threaded hole for the lever cap screw. I found it somewhat odd that this hole is threaded since the lever cap screw is also threaded into the base of the plane. I suppose the logic was to allow you to adjust the vertical position of the adjuster. I found this process finicky since you have to guess how far to thread the screw into the adjuster before threading it into the plane body.

A small steel disk riveted onto the adjuster engages the slot in the plane iron. Moving the lever forces the disk to one side of the slot or the other to nudge the plane iron, changing the lateral angle.

Disassembly & Cleaning

Whenever I restore a hand plane, the first thing I do is completely disassemble it. Every screw and every part comes off of the plane. It’s the only way to assess the true condition of the plane.

The next task involves cleaning. Now, there are several schools of thought on this. For collectors, there is such a thing as cleaning a plane too well. The natural, aged patina adds to the value. Others prefer to go for the “like new” look. I will admit that for my own hand planes, I often try to make them look shiny new.

In the case of Leonard’s hand planes, though, I tried to strike a middle ground. Realizing the sentimental value of the planes, I didn’t want to go to the extent of making them look new. I wanted them to retain a well used but well cared-for look. I would simply try to remove the bulk of the rust and grime.

To do this, the first thing I usually do is use an old toothbrush or inexpensive cleaning brushes to remove the years of accumulated sawdust and dirt. I try to use brushes with nylon bristles on the painted and japanned areas to avoid scratching. The brass and steel brushes I reserved for heavy-duty cleaning on bare steel and cast iron.

I will often use mineral spirits, WD-40, or a cleaning agent like Formula 409 (it’s great for removing grease and oil) on a disposable shop rag to remove any residue. Cotton swabs are great for getting into tight areas. I really like the long, wooden swabs you often see in doctor’s offices. They’re durable and their long reach makes cleaning jobs easier. Put a few drops of cleaner or solvent on them for detailed cleaning tasks.

Once all of the parts are relatively clean, I’ll go to work on removing as much rust as I can. For this plane, there were a few bad spots of rust. But the good news is there was no pitting. It was just surface rust.

For the cast iron parts of the plane body, I like to see how clean I can get the parts with non-woven abrasive pads.

Abrasive Pads

These are made by a number of manufacturers but their color-coding is usually pretty standard. Gray and maroon are coarsest with the green being a finer abrasive and white is used for polishing. I find it relatively easy to remove surface rust with the gray pad.

For broad, flat areas like the sides and sole of a plane body, I’ll often lay a sheet of 220-grit sandpaper face-up on a flat surface like a granite tile, the top of my table saw, or a piece of MDF. Then I’ll rub the plane body on the sandpaper to get an even scratch pattern and help remove any prominent rust, dents, and dings. Then I follow up with a green abrasive pad for final touch-up.

For chromed pieces like the lever cap and brass parts like the knobs, I’ll use  the green pad. A coarser grit would leave noticeable scratches. The green pad is great for removing years of built-up tarnish and dirt without leaving deep scratches. I’ll use a brass- or nylon-bristle brush to remove dirt from knurled areas of the brass knobs.

For screws and threaded parts, I’ll squirt them with WD-40 and clean the threads with a brass or nylon brush. An abrasive pad or fine-grit sandpaper does a great job of cleaning up the heads of the screws. I’ll sometime go to the trouble of folding a small piece of sandpaper to clean out the screw slots.

Sharpening the Iron (Blade)

Before re-assembling the plane, I’ll try to sharpen the plane iron. The first step is to make sure the back of the iron (non-bevel face) is flat, particularly near the cutting edge. To do this, I use a coarse diamond stone. You can also use coarse wet/dry sandpaper on a flat surface. The iron on this No. 18 block plane had a considerable crown, or hump, in the back. It took a lot of effort to remove it. One alternative would have been to purchase a new Hock blade. It might have been easier and better in the long run.

Back of block plane blade
This is part-way through the process of trying to flatten the back of the plane iron. This takes a lot of elbow grease. A flat back is critical to getting a sharp cutting edge.

Once the back is flat, you can turn your attention to sharpening the bevel. I won’t go into detail here on how to sharpen (that’s for another time). Once that’s done, you can use an abrasive pad to remove any remaining rust.

Reassembly

As I mentioned before, this No.18 block plane has an adjustable mouth. This is accomplished with a movable plate at the toe of the plane on the underside.

Adjustable toe piece removed
A sliding toe piece in the sole of the plane is used to adjust the mouth opening. Here, you can see sawdust and rust trapped between the two pieces.

You can see in the photo that there was some cleanup that needed to be done. Once I removed all of the debris, I reinstalled the toe piece into the plane body. But I noticed that it fit a little too tightly. It’s supposed so slide freely. So I removed the toe piece and very carefully rubbed the side edges on some sandpaper to remove any roughness, making sure not to round over the edges. After a few test-fits, it was moving smoothly. I added a drop of oil on each side before reassembly.

Before putting the entire plane back together, I’ll wipe the cast iron and steel parts with a thin coat of a light machine oil, like 3-IN-ONE Oil. Just a few drops on a shop rag are all you need. And I’ll add a drop of oil to all of the screw threads before installing them. I’ve had too many planes with seized screws that I don’t want that to happen again. Be sure to add a drop of oil to any pivot points like the blade adjustment mechanism.

Block plane blade adjustment mechanism
Small cogs, or teeth, engage the slots in the back of the plane iron. The steel lever is moved up or down with a brass knob on a threaded rod to adjust the depth of cut on the blade. On this plane, the teeth appear worn, though they still seem to do the job in securing the position of the iron. 

One a block plane, make sure to install the iron with the bevel up. Then you can install the lever cap and adjust the tension by tightening or loosening the lever cap screw.

Test the function of the depth adjuster, lateral adjuster, and cam for the toe piece. You may have to do some careful filing or additional lubrication to make sure everything operates smoothly.

Chuck a piece of wood in your bench vise and make some cuts. You should be able to get thin, wispy shavings in no time.

Stanley No. 18 block plane
A finely tuned block plane will become one of your most-used tools in the shop. I think Leonard will get a lot of use out of this one.

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