Basic care – Tools

Tools can be made from a wide variety of materials, the most common being wood, steel and brass. Wood is used for the bodies and handles of many tools; steel is used for the working parts that take all the force; and brass is used for decorative or supportive hardware. Metals and woods are treated very differently so, for stabilization and cleaning, tools should be categorized by what they are made of rather than what they are used for.

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Basic cleaning

All old tools that have lain unused for a period of time will need superficial cleaning. Simple dusting with a soft brush used along with a vacuum cleaner will remove most dust. For wood components that have a varnish or other finish, more resistant dirt can be removed with a damp cloth. This method is not suitable for wood that does not appear to have a finish because the dampness could allow the dirt to penetrate the surface. Metal parts can be degreased with mineral spirits rubbed on with a soft cloth.


It is always a good idea to take a tool apart as much as possible before attempting any treatment that might adversely affect some parts. For example, before removing rust from the steel blades of old planes, the blades should be removed from the wooden wedges that hold them in place. As the condition of the wood in the wedges of old planes is often difficult to assess, only light pressure should be used to remove a blade. Try to ease the wedges off using just finger pressure. If finger pressure is not adequate, light tapping with a soft-headed mallet might free a wedge.

Sometimes disassembly can be damaging. Make sure that the parts can be detached safely without using too much force. Always use the correct tool for the job; a gunsmith's screwdriver set and a can of penetrating oil will be very useful. When undoing old screws, always choose a screwdriver that fits the slot of the screw exactly. Use moderate force. Be very careful that the screwdriver blade does not slip out of the screw slot. Be especially careful with brass screws because they can be very soft.

Wood parts

Linseed oil is traditionally used to keep the wooden parts of planes, chisels and screwdrivers in good condition. It provides a good barrier against moisture and hardens to form a protective coating. During use, a lot of the oil rubs off, so there is rarely the risk of the linseed oil building up and darkening and disfiguring the wood. However, for tools that have been retired from use, linseed oil can build up. Therefore, avoid it and use white paste wax instead. After that, the wood should not need any other preservative treatment.

Metal parts

Treat the steel, iron and brass parts of old tools in the way suggested in the section on iron, found in the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Note 9/6 – Care and Cleaning of Iron. If a steel component had a bright finish, try to return it to that state; if it was black when new, try to retain the black colour. Some steel parts were hardened by heating, and the resulting blue or brown colouration is sometimes still visible after long use. Be careful not to damage this appearance during cleaning because it is highly prized by collectors.

Brass often develops a stable surface with long use. This patina can be dull yellow to almost chocolate brown and, again, is highly regarded by collectors. It may not be brightly finished, but it is stable and requires no further treatment. Try to avoid polishing brass parts because they will soon re-tarnish and need further polishing. Also, once polished, they may not look as attractive as hoped, and in some cases they were never intended to be brightly finished.


All sharp edges of tools should be protected. Lay tools neatly and avoid piling them in a toolbox or other closed space. Avoid rolling or bumping when drawers are opened and closed. A layer of soft, stable foam plastic, or a gripper mat made specifically for tool boxes, should be used below the tools.

Original tool kits often come with fabric or leather pouches made to fit the tools. These provide excellent protection for the edges and surfaces of tools, but the items should be removed and checked periodically to ensure that no corrosion or mould growth is taking place.

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These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.

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