“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
How often have you heard an older craftsman say that about modern hardware? Or, how about this one:
“Your grandfather gave me this. It’s been in the family for generations. Now it’s yours.”
There’s a nostalgic quality that rises to the surface when you work with tools or hold on to collectibles that have been around for several lifetimes. That feeling you get in your soul when you’re building a bookshelf with the same hammer your great-grandfather used to build an entire cabin is indescribable.
Even beyond tools, you get that same sense of awe when you’re given anything special from a different time and place. A pair of cufflinks from the 1800s. A pocketwatch carried by your ancestors, helping them make the train on time. Or maybe even a book that’s been sitting, waiting for over a hundred years to be read.
Restoration of tools and collectibles is more than just a hobby, it’s a gateway to history—a connection with our past. It’s caring for something that’s experienced more, seen more, and maybe even traveled more than anyone could in one lifetime. Restoration reminds us of where we came from and helps us in where we’re going. When it comes to restoring tools specifically, it can be a practical skill as well, giving you something reliable to use instead of a characterless, modern equivalent—because it’s true: they really don’t make ‘em like they used to.
What is Restoration?
In general, restoration is taking old, damaged items, and using a combination of various skills to bring them back to their original state. For tools, this often means making them functional again.
Humans have been around for a while, and the industrial age of steel and iron is slowly being replaced by today’s culture of cheap, high production plastics and lower quality goods with a planned obsolescence. Few things are built to last—newer models and quick degradation are how companies stay in business.
Luckily for us, however, that old world of quality over quantity and solid metals over cheap plastics are not that far behind us. Traces of it still exist in antique shops, junkyards, and other forgotten monuments to man’s past. Rust and wear might make them look like trash on the surface, but a little spit and polish can bring them back to a brand new state. You’d be surprised to find that a lot of tools and goods produced nearly a hundred years ago still have a lot of life left in them. In fact, after restoration, these old artifacts might still outlast modern-made equipment. That’s how well things were built back then.
How to Get Started
Restoration is a useful skill that anyone with an interest and enough patience can learn. Beyond the practical benefits of re-using old tools and owning valuable collectibles, restoration is a relaxing and methodical practice, too.
Getting started only requires a few inexpensive things that are geared towards fixing the most common aging issues that plague historic items.
In general, you will need chemicals and solvents that can remove rust, lubricants such as WD-40, sanding materials, varnishes, stains, and paints to restore colors, files to bring sharpness back to dulled edges, and, finally, and workspace to store it all.
Depending on what item exactly you are trying to restore, you may need some specialty equipment as well, but the materials listed above will give you solid foundation to tackle the three big factors of restoration: rust, corrosion, and faded colors.
The most important item to have in your tool kit, however, is patience. Restoration is meticulous, methodical, and doesn’t happen overnight.
The Skills Needed
Working your way through a restoration project will teach you a plethora of useful skills, but having some foundational know-how will help you get started on the right foot.
Wood and metalworking skills are a huge boon that will enable you to undertake larger projects that may require carpentry or reshaping of metal parts. Fabrication experience will be useful as well, but none of these are required to get your start in the craft.
If engineering interests you, then you are at an extra advantage. Electrical engineering experience will make it easier for you to restore old powered components such as lights and appliances. Even knowing how to read a wiring diagram will help. Meanwhile, mechanical engineering skills will prove useful in restoring items that have many complex, moving parts ranging from watches to cars.
Having any of these skills will immediately boost your restoration game from restoring simple things like hammers and saws to master-worthy projects like old motorcycles and retro computers.
The Past and The Future: Both are in Your Hands
Few things in the world are more satisfying than working with your hands. Putting in the elbow grease, the attention to detail, the complex thought and creativity required to accomplish a project—then looking at the finished product with pride thinking, “I made this,” gives you a near unmatchable feeling of success.
Combining a craftsman’s pride with the soul of history and the mental transportation that takes place when bringing the past back to life—that’s what restoration is all about.
Berendsohn, Roy; How to Restore Your Rusted Old Tools; Popular Mechanics; 9 March 2018; Accessed 12 October 2019; https://www.popularmechanics.com/home/tools/how-to/a14313/how-to-restore-rusted-old-hand-tools/
Branwyn, Gareth; The Joys of Restoring Vintage Tools; Make Zine; 21 June 2016; Accessed 12 October 2019; https://makezine.com/2016/06/21/vintage-tools-appreciation/
Briggs, Anne; Restoring Old Tools; Anne of All Trades; 1 July 2014; Accessed 12 October 2019; http://www.anneofalltrades.com/blog/2014/7/1/restoring-old-tools
The Post Apocalyptic Inventor; Accessed 12 October 2019; https://www.youtube.com/channelUCDbWmfrwmzn1ZsGgrYRUxoA/featured
Tool Restoration; Instructables; Accessed 12 October 2019; https://www.instructables.com/id/Tool-Restoration-1/
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