How To Restore An Old Hand Drill

You can buy a hand drill in the store, of course, but what if you get one at a flea market or maybe inherit one from your grandfather? Maybe it needs to be restored. There is nothing like having a traditional, vintage tool in your toolbox that works better than any modern tool out there.

Perusing flea markets and estate sales is a great way to find some fantastic woodworking hand tools.  It always helps to have a foundation of knowledge before purchasing an original tool. Often you’ll hear a dedicated traditional tool user talk about “pre-war” handplanes and saws.  This is in reference to tools designed and manufactured prior to the early 1940s.  It is generally accepted that American tools manufactured prior to the Second World War are built of higher quality steel and have a finer fit and finish than tools built during the Baby Boomer generation and beyond.  This is due to multiple factors.

In the first half of the 20th century, the traditional journeyman-level craftsman was held in high esteem and high demand so tool manufacturers catered specifically to their professional needs.  Portable power tools were still in their infancy and were rarely seen on the construction site.  There was a massive increase in industrial capacity during and immediately after the war so many small scale tool manufacturers took advantage of this trend and began to mass produce their tools for the returning GIs.  Yes, tools became cheaper and more widely available, but they were no longer hand built or hand finished.  They lost some of their bespoke character in the process.  The steel and wood used in their construction was of a lesser quality due to the fact that the finest steel and walnut was reserved for rifle stocks and gun barrels.

When purchasing a vintage tool, it is wise to disassemble it if the seller allows.  I’ve often encountered Bailey pattern hand planes that have parts from three different hand planes. Sometimes these frankenplanes work just fine, other times, they don’t.  It is worth bringing a steel straightedge with you when shopping so that you may check the flatness of the sole.  A very, very slight twist or bend in the sole is acceptable but anything beyond that will result in a plane that never quite works right.

When looking at hand saws, sight down the length of the blade to check for kinks or twists.  Remember to inspect the handle for rot or loose rivets.  These can be repaired, but will detract somewhat from the originality of the tool.  The Disston brand of hand saws is still the gold standard for a rugged, workhorse saw that you can use every day.  Be sure to check for missing or cracked teeth.  A damaged tooth at the very tip or end of the saw is ok, but a saw with a bad tooth near the middle of the blade should be avoided.

When restoring a tool, try to take care to not sand or scrub too aggressively.  Old tool steel develops a lustrous patina from years of sweat, wax and exposure that adds tremendously to its character.  Instead of fully stripping and repainting a component, you can apply light coat of clear lacquer to consolidate and protect the original paint and patina.


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