Wood Tool Q. (slightly o.t.)

Since this is the repository of All Knowledge and a lot of you have worked with wood…

I don’t know if it’s the extended heat or mix of higher than norm humidity in summer followed by single digit humidity periods, global warming, too much cell phone transmissions, or just age of my equipment, but I’m having problems with wooden tool handles warping and whatever was put on them (varnish?) peeling off. These are handles for shovels, rakes, hoes…that kind of thing. Some are several decades old and some are just a couple of years old…but they seem to be on the same deterioration schedule right now.

I’m curious about why, but also hoping for suggestions for maintaining or restoring the handles. I assume the badly warped ones are shot, which are mostly newer tools, but the old ones have been nearly bombproof and I’d like to hang onto them. Any help would be appreciated.


While I can’t exactly give it a cause…

If it’s peeling like that, chances are it’s a shellac or something similar, though who knows what they’re using of late. Shellac dries fast, reasonably cheap, it’s what a factory would prolly use. If it came off the tools unevenly in a humid area ( like most garden sheds ) that may be a big part of the warping.

To replace it? Boiled linseed oil, 10 parts. Turpentine or mineral spirits paint thinner -8 parts or less and Japan Drier ( a boron compound available at a good hardware or paint store ) 1 part or less. Use pine tar ( 1 part) if you have it, mix well and apply with a rag after removing old finish and straightening ( if needed). You can start with a very thin mix ( more thinner or turps in the ratio ) so it’ll penetrate and add more linseed oil to the batch as you go along with the next few coats. Eventually it’ll build up to a semi-gloss or matt finish.

I kinda like using it with a little pine tar mixed in, acts as a wood preservative. This is likely the finish that good old tools were shipped with 50 years ago. Skip the pine tar, it makes a nice furniture finish. Without the Japan Drier, it will harden, but it can take a long time.

Word of warning: the rags you use to apply the stuff can spontaneously combust. The mix gives off heat ( like resin ) as it goes off. So, spread your rags flat on the ground outside to dry, don’t wad them up inside someplace. Also, don’t leave the tools outside in direct sun to dry, they may warp further.

Restoring - okay, shovel handles used to be made of steamed ash, which can be steamed back if need be, at least to a certain point, give or take the original grain of the wood and other stuff. Though that involves rigging a steamer:

Bad schematic shown below- unusually cobby even for me

Your burner should be capable of putting out lots of heat. I have used plumbers furnaces in the past with good results, but the inexpensive burners you can now get for deep frying turkeys and similar purposes are even better and cheap. Not shown, the propane tank, as you’d find on a gas grill or something.

Gas can, no more than half full of water. No gasoline, of course, unless you are tired of this world. Your steam box ( mine is simply pine boards nailed together and sealed with tar, pvc pipe will work in a pinch ) should be inclined a little so steam rises and condensate runs back down and into your gas can rather than escaping to the wild. Not shown, the cap on the low end with a pipe set through it and some sort of door at the high end that seals close but not absolutely airtight.

Steam for roughly 1 hour per square inch of cross section and be ready to clamp your wood to something to hold it when it comes out, tough ash may steam faster than the oak I’m used to.

Though first, try dampening the wood with some towels soaked in hot water and gently weighting things in the right direction - it’s a whole lot easier. But wet heat in any event.

that help any?

doc…sometime furniture and boat guy


that help any?

doc…sometime furniture and boat guy

Yessir doc, that’s what I’m looking for. The best of the tools probably are close to 50 years old; so am I. Maybe older (as I am)…my dad worked for Sears in the hardware department back in the early 1950’s back when Santa Barbara was a sleepy town with more retirees than young people. Tools I grew up with, the steel of the shovel blades shiny and worn down while the recent shovels are as rusty as a real 49ers gold pan…despite my best Martha Stewart quality blade care. One of the old handles has warping, so I’ll try to salvage that. The other stuff practically looks like nothing was put on them, and maybe that means it’s time to cull some of the flotsam.

Guess I’m just a sucker for this kind of stuff. The time it takes to make and apply a couple of coats of that linseed oil mix probably exceeds the cost of a new tool or some new FEMA-quality pressboard handle; but it’s more about time than money.



Are you storing any harsh chemicals in the vicinity of the tools?

I had some muriatic acid on the shelf in my shop, sealed. While it

was in the room it caused a myriad of problems with everything

from chisels to latex gloves.

Apparently even a trace amount of the fumes over time can

really wreak havoc.

Ah yes… shovels, spades, a good rake even. It’s just starting to be spring here, on a sandspit that noses out into the Atlantic and gets the end of a cold current from the Maritimes. And it’s getting time to dig the garden, turn over the flower beds, that sort of thing.

And you remind me of looking at a Sears catalog, back when. A good lot of hardware, different shovels and different grades of shovels, the worst of which is still better than you can find now in Home Despot or the like. Garden spades of real honest to gawd steel, heavy so they won’t flex like tin foil and bend and break in general use and get chucked out 'cos the shine was off them anyhow.

But I’ve…shall we say… accumulated quite a few of the old good things. And on those rare occasions they make something new and good, scoring some of those. . I have a garden spade I got once in the fall, now it’s old enough to vote and a wee touch on the blade with a file will have it good to go.

Something like this: http://www.spear-and-jackson.com http://www.gardenhardware.com/spj1150hr.html may be on my list - before they’re no longer available.

dig it!



Are you storing any harsh chemicals in the vicinity of the tools?

No chemicals. I would say this has happened over the past two years…two summers maybe and this winter. Tools stored in two different garages having the same issues. Stored to be sure near (but not on against) walls that get sun, so they both get heat, but the same heat. Like I wrote, the old tools and the new tools seem to have about the same rate of decay. On one of the properties the 2" x 10" wood trim boards warped last year where they met in kind of a butt joint, nailed in the rafter tails. Those boards have been there since 1964, and last year they warped out in a most funky manner. Sometimes things like that happen, but that and the tools means…? A bit spooky. This is coastal southern California but inland enough to be out of the most stubborn fog belt.

I have had local chem or heat exposure turn a nearly new box of latex gloves into a crumbly brownish box of crap…was never sure which did it. Adapted by keeping a pile of touchy crap in center of garage away from heat sources.

doc, that was a nice spade…nothing like wicked tool porn!