DEDICATION TO RESTORATION
RESCUE HIDDEN TREASURES HIDING UNDER THAT RUSTY PATINA.
Rescue hidden treasures hiding under that rusty patina.
Some people like old firearms; some like old vehicles. I like old tools, especially old bladed tools. I’m not a “bright and shiny” kind of guy. As an outdoorsperson and historian, I like things that tell a story. Tools do just that.
Among most indigenous people, it is believed that a tool holds the spirit of the person who either made it or used it. Believing that, when I pick up an old axe or knife, I feel that spirit and wonder about the stories the tool could tell.
Where I live, I am known for sharpening bladed tools. I also work to restore neglected blades, bringing them back to life. I am really fond of carbon-steel blades and admittedly do not really like stainless steel. Tools made from carbon steel are tools of history; they hold an edge and will last forever ... if they are taken care of.
If there is a drawback to carbon steel it is that it rusts. The good news is that with a little work, in most cases, carbon-steel tools and blades can be brought back to “life.”
Recently, a good friend brought me a knife and asked if I could do something with it. It was in rough shape and badly rusted. It was so bad, in fact, that I almost didn’t take it on. Then, I heard the story behind the blade: My friend’s brother carried this knife in Vietnam. To some, this knife would have been just another badly rusted blade, but for my friend (and for me), it was something special. It was a part of history; his family’s history. Being a veteran myself, I felt this knife deserved to be given whatever attention I could give it.
YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE YOU’LL FIND THEM
I don’t purposely go out looking for rusty tools. Most of the time, they come to me. I don’t collect them, I use them, preferring to use an older tool that is in good shape than some of the newer ones available. Despite the fact that some of them have been neglected, there is a reason they have been around so long: They were made to last. There are other people out there who feel the same way I do,
judging by the number of knives people bring to me to sharpen.
When it comes to finding these tools, it is sometimes just a matter of keeping your eyes open. For example, while hunting, I often come across old, abandoned shacks, barns and sheds. There usually isn’t much left to them, but I poke around in them just the same. You just never know what you will find. People always leave stuff behind. I have actually found a few knives this way, although admittedly, most of the stuff I find is beyond repair or use.
Check out yard sales. Stacked in the back somewhere—behind the baby clothes and grandma’s china—you’ll usually find the “junk.” A friend of mine is notorious for just buying those boxes of rusty stuff outright and then going through it when he gets home. I like to take my time and look. The last thing I need is another box of rusty screws and broken hinges. If I don’t need it, I don’t buy it (unless it is something that screams out to me).
While flea markets are good places to find these “treasures,” I stay away from them. Anything “old” is marked as an antique at a typical flea market, and once that is done, you’ll probably end up paying more than it is worth. Unless you are a collector, flea markets are not always cost effective. Remember, when I purchase a tool, I intend to use it.
Check with your own family. After my parents died, I had the task of cleaning out their home of more than 50 years. Buried deep in the recesses of the garage, among the assorted pieces of scrap metal and cans of old bolts, I found a few items I could use. One was a Dumas machete made in France that dated back to at least the Vietnam War era or even before (they were used in World War II as well).
The bottom line: Keep your eyes open, and don’t overlook the obvious.
When I restore old carbon-steel tools, I don’t use chemicals. Oh, there are chemicals out there that will eat through rust, but I don’t use them. Why? They would certainly make my job easier, but simply put, those chemicals will also eat away at the very things that give the tools character—things such as blood and sweat that, over time, leave their marks in the metal. Just ask someone who restores old firearms. They call it “patina.”
Then there is honoring the “spirit” of the tool. Some of these tools are as old as I am; perhaps even older. If they could talk, what kinds of stories do you think they could tell? My job is not to eliminate their past, but instead, to continue their story. I don’t try to remove or fix the nicks in the blades, because they are part of the story.
The equipment I use is very simple: some 0000 steel wool, steel scrubbing pads, extra-fine sandpaper, a sharpening device of some kind and a great deal of elbow grease. That’s it.
THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT OLDER TOOLS, ESPECIALLY THE BLADED IMPLEMENTS THAT WERE USED IN THE PAST.
Before you get to work—and believe me, it is work—you have to decide what you intend to do with the restored tool. Is your goal to restore it to its original glory; to make it look like new? Are you planning to restore it just enough to use it, leaving some of that age and character and remembering what I said about the “spirit”? Do you plan on cleaning it enough for display purposes? All these considerations need to be decided before you get started, because the process is a little different for each one.
To learn more about true restoration, I made a trip to Key West, Florida, to visit with friend Corey Malcom, the head archaeologist at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Corey took me on a tour so I could see the work a true museum-quality restoration entails. The process is long and painstaking, but you have to remember that the goal is to try to preserve bits and pieces of history. After leaving the museum, I realized that what I am doing, although it is time consuming, is nothing compared to the work being done there.
Most of the time, my goal is to restore the tool back to a point at which it can again be used safely. No matter what type of restoration you plan on doing, before you start, you need to know what you are working with—and that means a careful inspection of the item. Whether it is an axe head, knife or a shovel, you need to make sure it is worth the effort. Is the rust just surface rust, or does it go much deeper? Axe and maul heads are thick enough to be rescued, no matter how deep the rust goes, but thinner blades, such as knives, shovels, hoes, chisels and similar tools, are a different matter.
In some cases, the item is too far gone and cannot be safely restored to a usable condition. Maybe it can be cleaned up enough to be displayed as a wall decoration, but more than likely, it will need to go to the scrap pile. In the case of that Vietnam combat knife, I was at least going to bring it back enough so it could be displayed if I couldn’t make it usable again.
The steps I took with the blade my friend asked me to work on are the same steps I take with any project.
I did see that there was still hope for this particular blade. To learn more about the knife, I first took a small piece of extra-fine sandpaper and removed the rust until I could see the blade markings, which are usually found near the hilt. Carefully removing the rust, and without digging into the good metal, I found the following markings: “US Camillus NY.”
With that information in hand, I did some research and found that this knife is a Mark 2 and was produced for the military from 1962 to 1974 (the “NY” marking was dropped in 1974). This same knife design was carried by U. S. forces in World War II and were marked with “USN” or “USMC,” which indicated that this knife was a Vietnam-era blade.
The blade had some nicks, but I could work around that. I have no idea how they got there, but that did not matter to me. They are part of the blade’s story, so they would stay.
Using the sandpaper, I began to slowly remove the rust, just enough to expose the steel beneath. No matter how fine the sandpaper, you will leave marks in the metal, so you need to use it sparingly. When working with axe and maul heads, while I still use the extra-fine sandpaper, I am not as concerned about leaving marks. My goal is to remove the rust and get the tool down to bare metal.
At this point, you must decide how to proceed. If you are going to put the blade on display in its rugged state, you can stop right here. If you plan to use the knife or tool, finish removing the rust so you can move to edge care and sharpening.
When it comes to knives (especially the knife I was working on), I put the sandpaper away and move on to the steel wool and steel pads. Using these, I remove more of the rust, all in an effort to reveal the entire blade. This is a long process and can become arduous if you are restoring a knife that has saw teeth, serrations or other unusual features.
Once the blade is as clean as you want or can get it, it’s time to work on the edge. If a blade is to be brought back to a useable state, it has to be able to keep an edge. Just because it has some nicks doesn’t mean it is a nonfunctional blade, but there could be other damage, such as pitting. If a serious situation is hidden under the surface rust, you will not know if it will take an edge until you try to sharpen it.
During the sharpening process, I use different devices, sometimes even including motorized sharpeners, depending on the blade that is being sharpened and its condition. When it comes to knives, I prefer to use a good, old sharpening stone. The starting grit or coarseness is determined by the condition of the edge as I start and, as it comes back, I adjust to stones that are progressively less coarse until I have the edge where I want it.
When it is all done, I coat the blade with a thin layer of gun oil because, after all this work, I don’t want the rust to come back. Just as with firearms, a little oil goes a long way. There is no need to overdo it.
There is something to be said about older tools, especially the bladed implements that were used in the past. Their carbon-steel blades were made to last. Many of them, especially those that received proper care, are still in use today. Not only did they work, they also formed a part of our history and deserve to be saved, honored and kept in service.
Putting an edge on this old draw knife didn’t remove any of the character from the blade.
Left: It was amazing to see what the restoration experts at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum were able to rescue from the ocean depths and ravages of time.
Below, right: These shipboard artifacts were brought up from the ocean floor and were being prepared for restoration at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.
Above, left: One of the more satisfying parts of reconditioning an old knife is using a whetstone to put an edge on it, as the author does here with his EDC Swiss Army knife.
Left: Later in the process, the author uses a steel scrub pad to remove even more rust from the combat knife’s blade. The pad does less damage to the blade than sandpaper.
Above, right: The author carefully uses fine sandpaper to lightly take the rust off the blade of a combat knife.
Top right: The author puts the final touches on the edge of a “saved” shovel.
Bottom right: The author puts the edge on a Vietnam-era French machete found in his father’s garage.
Far left, bottom: After removing the rust and other signs of age, the author is finally ready to take the final step in putting an edge back on the blade.
Near left: The combat knife looks quite a bit better after the author finished his work. It is usable again, but it also retains some of its original character.
Far left, top: This is an example of the type of building in which the author has had success finding old tools and knives.