How to Restore Early American Lumber and Carpentry Tools

It’s Time to Get Those Antiques Off the Walls and Back into Our Hands

Believe it or not, there was a time with no power tools.  Everything was done by hand and the only power was muscle and intelligent leverage.  It was the only way to get things done at a time when off-the-grid meant the way you lived.  And that’s something to think about if we’re ever faced with an off-grid environment due to a natural or man-made disaster.  In fact, those times will probably require significant repairs and improvised construction and somehow, we’re going to have to find the tools to do it.

Finding Old-World Tools

Finding antique tools is not as hard as you might think if you know where to look.  The other thing you need to do is to sharpen your focus on finding them in the first place. 

  • Antique stores are a good place to start and the tools are often somewhat inexpensive.  They have usually been restored to some degree, but the restoration is most likely cosmetic rather than functional.
  • Flea markets are another good source and can often be bought for a very fair price after a little bit of haggling.
  • Garage sales, yard sales and estate sales can hold some hidden treasures held in grandpa’s old tool box or tucked into a rusting corner of neglected tools.
  • You may have noticed a friend or family member who had a unique old tool tucked away that they may be willing to give you or sell you.
  • eBay and Craigslist are another source and can give you a sense for what tools like this are selling for at fair-market-value.
  • You can also buy new versions of many of these tools from sources like Lehman’s  Hardware which sells to the Amish community and other like minded people who pursue a more traditional lifestyle.

Old-World Lumbering and Carpentry

We’re going to cover a range of tools designed for the entire process from lumbering to initial carpentry and finishing.  We’ll then explore various ways to restore them and store them to preserve for future use.  This first set of tools define two saw categories that lumberjacks and timber carpenters or “wood-butchers” as they were called, used on a daily basis.

Back Saw and Bucksaw

While it’s true that axes were often used to fell timber, it was the bucksaws that were the saw of choice for felling trees.  The one featured at the bottom of the picture has large teeth for cutting through thick trees and a handle on the tip so that two men could work together to fell a tree.  Longer lengths were also used, and the handle could be removed allowing one man to trim thick branches from the trunk. 

The Back Saw at the top of the photo held a flat blade with smaller teeth and was used to cut finished timber for furniture making, fence posts, doors and windows, and anything else a homestead would need that was made from wood.  A turnbuckle at the top allowed two curves of wood to pivot on a wooden cross beam to hold the blade and keep it straight.

Log Hauler with Cant Hooks

Whenever logs were meant for finishing into beams or timber they had to be transported to the carpenter’s shed.  Log haulers were made from two curved “Cant hooks” that swung freely from a length of wood that would allow two men to grip the log and lift it.  Usually, teams of men worked together to lift and transport logs of all sizes and weights using these log haulers.

Broadax, Wedge and Adze

As the timbering process continued, new tools came into play to begin finishing the logs.  A Broadax was not meant to cut down a tree but was used to trim the wood from the side of a log to create a beam.  A lumberman would straddle the log and swing the Broadax down between his legs to chip the wood from one side of the log to make it flat.  Once one side was done the log was flipped and the process continued until a squared beam was made.

The wedge in the center of the photo was used to split a log or beam into rails or rough boards.  A sledge hammer was used to drive the wedge and other wedges of larger and smaller sizes were often used in tandem to finish the split.

The Adze at the bottom of the photo is essentially an axe turned on its side.  The blade is flat and parallel to the ground and was used to further smooth the side of the beam.  It was used in the same way as a Broadax with a lumberman swinging the adze down between his legs to cut finer chips from the beam.

Drawshave and Machete

As timber continued to be finished another tool came into play called the drawshave.  The drawshave is pictured at the top of the photo and the two handles were gripped and the sharp edge drawn towards the carpenter as he sat on a beam or log.  The draw shave was sometimes used to smooth out the finish of a beam or in other cases, was used to strip the bark from logs for log construction.  You may have seen log cabins with logs that appeared to be shaved of their bark and this was the result of a drawshave.

Another tool that showed up in the woods and in carpentry sheds was the machete.  It originated in South America to cut through jungle brush but was used by lumberjacks and carpenters to trim the small branches from larger limbs or to quickly hack a cut into a rough piece of timber.

Wood Borers

Wood borers were often used for furniture making but also had an important function for post and beam or timber-frame construction.  They were mostly used to drill large holes in posts or beams to allow a peg to be driven to hold the timber-frame joint together. The wood borer had a handle on a long screw that spiraled up.  A pilot screw at the tip started into the log or timber and guided the larger spirals into the wood.  As the borer was turned the wood shavings traveled up the spiral keeping the bored hole clean. 

Hand Drills and an Offset Drill

Hand drills were also used to bore holes on a smaller scale for furniture making and finish construction like doors, windows and trim. Larger hand drills had a back brace that allowed a carpenter to brace the drill against his thigh, shoulder or body to add force to the drilling process. 

Larger bits were placed into an offset drill pictured in the center of the photograph that had a handle in the center offset from the bit and a free moving wooden pad at the top.  Downward pressure was applied to the pad as the offset handle was spun around the axis of the drill bit.


Chisels were used for a variety of finish work including precision cuts for notches during timber-frame construction; cutting indents for hinges and latches on doors and windows, furniture finishing and any other action that required precision cuts.  The chisels came in various sizes and configurations allowing for a wide range of cuts and shapes.


Mallets were the primary tool used to drive chisels.  The mallets were made of wood to protect the wooden handles on the chisels.  A metal mallet or hammer would cause the wooden handles to split. 


Planers were the final finishing tools for many carpentry projects.  The earliest planers were made entirely of wood with the exception of the metal cutting blade.  Planers made of iron and steel soon followed.  The idea of a planer was to shave thin shavings of wood from a piece of wood to achieve not only a smooth and flat surface, but to adjust the size of a piece of wood for final fitting.  The blade was adjustable allowing for deeper or shallower cuts or shavings.

Restoring Old-World Tools

Tools for lumbering and carpentry typically have three components that need restoration, treatment and care.  They include metal components, wooden components and blades.  Each is subject to damage from various conditions, usage and neglect.  Iron rusts, wood rots, and blades get dull.  We’re going to cover tools and supplies to restore these components and then recommend best practices for storage.

Basic Rust Restoration Supplies

1. Rust

Rust is the most common cause of deterioration on most tools new and old.  With time, rust can not only corrode and pit iron and steel but eventually cause it to disintegrate.  Hopefully you’ve found a tool that’s not too far gone and can restore it.  Basic supplies for removing and treating rust include various grades of sandpaper, paper or cloth shop towels, and oil.  You can use 3-in-1 oil, lubricating oil, or motor oil.  There are also specialized paints used to treat rusted areas and prevent rust formation in the future.  In a true off-grid environment where oils are a luxury you could use pig fat or bear fat or the fat of any other animal to treat and protect a rusted surface.

Sanding Rust on a Broadax

The first step for treating a rusted tool is to sand the rust from the surface.  Wear a face mask or a swath of cloth over your nose and mouth while sanding.  You’ll create a lot of rust dust and you don’t want to inhale it.  You should also sand rust in a separate location from where you’ll be doing the next step which is treating the rusted surface.

Oiled Tools

The net step in iron and steel restoration after sanding is to brush off the rust with a paintbrush.  This is best done outside and upwind to allow the rust dust to move away from you.  The iron or steel is then oiled using a cloth or paper towel and the oil is rubbed dry.  If you have a rust resistant paint coating, you can apply that instead of the oil.  If you have a tool with gears like a drill make sure all of the gear axles and the rest of the drill is also well oiled.

2. Wood

Wood Restoration with Tung Oil

Wood parts of a tool are subject to both dry rot and wet rot.  Oiling the wood components of any tool should be done with Tung Oil.  It’s an old-world form of polyurethane that imparts moisture to the wood and seals and protects it.  Dispose of any cloths or towels impregnated with Tung oil carefully.  It’s known to spontaneously combust, so it should be soaked in water before discarding or burnt outdoors.

Replacement Axe Handle

In some instances, wood is so rotted and deteriorated that it’s best to simply replace the wooden component.  You can buy axe handles to do this.  There is a groove at the end that inserts into the Axe head and a wedge is driven into the groove to expand as the Axe head is driven or pounded down onto the handle.  If you can’t find wooden components, they can be carved from Oak or other hardwoods to fit the tool.

3. Sharp Edges

Chisels Protected in Leather

Sharp edges on any tool should be protected with a leather sheath or in the case of chisels, fit into leather pockets in a chisel vest that can be rolled up and tied with two lengths of buckskin cord.  The leather will protect the metal from moisture and protect the edge from getting chipped or dulled.

Sharpening Files

Any tool that requires a sharp edge should be re-sharpened after every use.  Files and wet-stones are the standard sharpening tools.  To sharpen any edge, it should be locked into a vise or any other way you can improvise to hold the tool edge upright and steady.  There are two strokes you should use when sharpening any tool.

Sharpening Downstroke

The sharpening downstroke feathers the edges and removes any bits or burrs that cause an edge to be dull.  Rubbing your finger sideways across the edge will give you a sense of its sharpness.  It should lightly tug at your thumb or fingers to tell you it’s sharp.  If your thumb or fingers simply slide across the edge without resistance, the edge is dull.  Repeat the downstroke with the file until you start to notice some pull and tugging on your thumb or fingers when you rub them across the blade.  Never run your fingers straight down the edge of the blade or you have a good chance of getting cut.

Sharpening Upstroke

To finish the sharpening, you want to file the edge with an upstroke.  This aligns the microscopic metal flanges on the edge to increase sharpness.  If you want to give the edge extra sharpness, immerse a wet-stone in water and repeat the upstroke sharpening for 5 to 6 strokes.

4. Storage

Tool Storage

Keep them off the floor!  That’s the telegram when it comes to tool storage.  How often do we stack tools in a corner of a shed or garage with the intention of putting them away “later?”  Water can pool on any floor and moisture in the air tends to sink to ground level because the water molecules are heavier and tend to drift down.  Hang your tools from the walls.  The area for storage should also be a dry environment as much as possible.  That can be difficult in a shed, barn or garage so fairly frequent oiling is a good idea. 

Use Your New Old Tools

Collecting and restoring Old-World tools can be fun, don’t leave it as only a hobby.  Learn how to use the tools.  Maybe buy a book on timber-frame construction and learn how to cut a few joints for post and beam construction.  Build a piece of furniture using nothing but old hand tools.  If the day comes when all you have are hand tools for projects, it’ll be nice to know that you can use and preserve them with skill.



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