Rehabbing a Coffin Smoother For Use In My Shop


History, curiosity, performance. Those are the three things that motivated me to add a coffin smoother to my tool kit.

I got this plane at an antique mall in Scottsdale last summer. It had air conditioning and I reasoned that it was a great place to escape Arizona’s 113-degree oven.

One booth caught my eye and soon I held the smoother, noting the New York Tool, CO. maker’s mark plus the Auburn Tools Thistle Brand iron. At first, I was put off that the iron didn’t seat fully nor the wedge. Later, I would attribute this to shrinkage after 150 years, but at the time I was concerned that this was a defect that I couldn’t correct.

Still, I was drawn back to it because of its superb condition. Its surface sported nary a check, crack nor overly nasty ding. Sure it was dirty, but I was optimistic about bringing out the beech grain. The price read $25, but the ill-fitting wedge/iron combination allowed me to haggle the booth owner down to $20.00 via a call from the antique-mall operator. The moment I stepped back into the Arizona sauna, sweat began to bead on my…well everywhere for Pete’s sake.

But you wouldn’t know that from the smile on my face. No doubt it belied the delicious blend of anticipation and excitement I was feeling. A state of emotional intoxication that only woodworking tool restorers and children on Christmas morning can fully comprehend.

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Isn’t she sexy?

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Nice figure huh?

History-The plot thickens-New York Tool, CO.
As it turns out, the New York Took, CO. name was a trade name of Auburn Tool, Co. out of Auburn New York. The parent company operated between 1864-1893, ending its life like so many other fine tool makers when it merged with the Ohio Tool Company of Columbus Ohio.

From what I can tell, Auburn used labor from the local Auburn NY prison in 1864-1865, losing their contract in 1866 to a competitor. They won the contract back circa 1875-1876.

Apparently, there’s an 1867 Catalogue and Price List of Planes, Plane Irons, Rules, Gauges, Hand Screws &c. Manufactured and Sold by Auburn Tool Company, but I’ve had no luck tracking down an electronic copy.

So all I can really say is that this plane was manufactured between 1864-1893. It’s possible that it was made by convicts but given that they were used during only four years of their 29-year run, I’d say it’s statistically unlikely.

Rehabbing the coffin
Being new to rehabbing wood planes, I did a bit of research. Among the best resources were:

–Lumberjock superdav721. A fantastic two-part video series chronicling the steps Dave took to rehab his own coffin smoother.

–Lumberjock legend Don W, who details his transitional plane restoration process here.

–Lumberjock Dan, who showcases restoration finesse with methods on re-soling a wood plane and inserting an inlay to tighten the throat.

Overall, I’ve found that rehabbing woodies is straightforward. However it does require greater attention to detail at critical junctures. For example, flattening the sole is pretty easy, just sand it on a flat surface or run it over a jointer, or run your jointer over the sole.

Still, I’ve found that you have to be meticulously careful to remove only the absolute minimum necessary to make it a user. Otherwise, you risk widening the mouth so much that you have to either resole the bottom or inlay a piece to tighten up the mouth.

Cleaning
I seem to remember reading that Bob Rozaieski of Logan Cabinet Shoppe is a minimalist when it comes to cleaning beech planes. He uses soap and water.

That’s a good idea I think if you’ve got a plane in nice shape. Also, sometimes planes have stuff written on them in the hands of the shop keepers and merchants of the 19th and early 20th century. I’d suggest leaving those historic scribbles alone.

My smoother was pretty dirty, and there was no handwriting that I could see. So I queried some Lumberjocks as to their cleaning techniques and many of them combine beeswax with turpentine, then rub it into the wood using steel wool. Apparently the wax fills the pores while the turpentine removes dirt and grime.

I was too anxious to get started to track down some beeswax, so I cleaned the wood with denatured alcohol, then soaked the plane twice in BLO, letting it sit for 15 minutes each time before wiping it off and letting it dry over night. After that, I waxed the surface. I’m happy with the results because the plane has maintained a lot of the age and patina while showing off the beech grain.

Mouth adjustments
I read somewhere to use an auger bit file to dress the sides of the mouth. This worked very well because the shape of the file easily gets into the tight confines of the side grooves that the iron moves in. There was a bump in the groove near the mouth for some reason. The file took this out along with over a century’s worth of dirt. Note that I used a light hand during this operation, taking off the minimum necessary because I didn’t want to have to put it back on.

Iron and Cap
After a night in Evaporust, I scrubbed off the remaining rust then sanded the surfaces from 220-320 grits. Next, I flattened the iron bottom to a mirror finish through 2000 grit and reestablished a consistent 25 degree bevel. I polished the bevel too, to 2000, and then stropped the bevel and back a few times on bare leather (no compound).

Then I flattened the underside of the cap iron to 400 grit to mate tightly with the iron. After affixing the cap iron to the iron I noticed that the sides of both did not line up fully. The cap iron was hanging over one side about 32nd of an inch and was shy of the other side of the iron by the same amount. Using a file, I filed off the excess (cap iron on one side and excess iron on the other) so that the cap and irons were flush. The edges were still a bit rough so I sanded the side edges together on the 150, 220, 320 grits affixed to marble slabs.

Flattening the sole
To finish the rehab, I drew a crosshatch pattern on the bottom of the sole with chalk and then sanded it on 150 grit paper affixed to marble. After about 20 total strokes, the sole was pretty flat according to my steel ruler. Then I finished with a few strokes on 220, and 320 followed by some paste wax.

The reveal

Here’s the after restoration shots.

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Setting the iron
OK. I’ll be up front here. I had trouble getting a feel for this. In fact, I’m still learning the nuances of getting that iron tight, at the correct depth and at a perpendicular angle. But I have the new hickory plane mallet that I built to help me.

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Here’s what I’ve figured out so far.

Figured-out Item #1: To advance the iron a very little, I tap the top of the wood wedge. This tightens the wedge-iron grip against the bed while simultaneously deepening the iron ever so slightly.

Figured-out Item #2: To advance the iron more, I tap the iron directly.

Figured-out Item #3: To back out the iron, I tap the heel of the plane

Figured-out Item #4: It’s easy for me to muck up the above adjustments and have to back out the iron and start all over.

Curiosity-How does it feel?
The coffin smoother fills my hands making for a beefy/stocky feel to my grip. It also feels quite secure without worries about slipping.

Performance-How does it finish?
This smoother definitely takes some nice shavings.

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But will it replace my others? Probably not. At least, not yet. I’m going to have to fettle with it some more before I approach the glassy finish my LN #4 can sheer on cherry, or the gossamer, cloud-like shavings my SB #3 floats out. Those are my two, go-to smoothers. The LN for first passes and light planing work, then the SB (set for very-fine shavings) for the final goings-over.

Still, when it comes to history, those two fade in comparison to the rich life this 19th-century plane has lived. Welcome to the family my Auburn Thistle Lady!

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About The Write Biz

By day, I'm a mild-mannered copywriter who harnesses frontal-lobe creativity (right brain) to help B2B marketers generate leads and sales. By night I pick up hand tools to create wooden masterpieces...and give my black lab Bella the "red dot" laser to chase after.
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2 Responses to Rehabbing a Coffin Smoother For Use In My Shop

  1. Thanks so much for this story! I just bought a #12 fore plane at a thrift store in Abbotsford, British Columbia and (being a novice in woodworking) had so far no idea what it was, just fell in love with the antiquity of it. The slightly concave sole and knife on such a big plane, was a new sight to me. I am also curious about the little tapers on the top of the block. Do they have a function or is that just design?

    Google taught me a bit about the manufacturer. It seems that your coffin smoother was an earlier plane, as seen on the ‘O’ in CO. The later models (like mine) have the uppercast and underlined ‘O’. I didn’t know that the contract with the prison was only short and I was surprised to read that these planes were made by prisoners under a quite harsh regime, while my plane actually has a name stamped in there (A. Pullybank). I would doubt if prisoners would get that much honour of their labour.
    Thanks again for your story, it was very valuable to me!

  2. A very nice job on the restoration! I just picked up this exact plane on ebay, and tuned it up yesterday. I had most of the same work to do, especially the iron had a lot of corrosion and pitting on the back, but with patience I ended up with a gleaming blade that did not belie the rusty hunk of metal I started with. The sole was convex front to back but a few fast (and nail-biting) reps on my belt sander easily leveled it (I was mostly worried the iron would fall onto the belt or I’d go too far but everything went fine. I don’t know what your experience is with woodies, this is my first and I was having trouble setting the wedge properly yesterday. This morning I picked up a tip from Paul Sellers (tap the wedge until the sound changes- ahhhhhh) and had shavings thin enough to read print through in minutes. That piece of birdseye/flame maple I tore up yesterday afternoon is smoother than silk now. Anyway, enjoy your new tool and best wishes in your work!
    Giselle

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