Antique Hand Plane Restoration | Acorn No. 4

Fully restored vintage acorn no 4

Little Nut is finally finished and in operational order!

Before photo of an acorn handplane being treated for rust with vinegarFully restored vintage acorn no 4

I purchased this little gem of an Acorn no. 4 hand plane several months ago at a swap meet. He didn’t look great at the time – severely rusty and completely unusable, but I was determined to see what lay under the grime and dirt, and perform a complete hand plane restoration on the little guy. I’m definitely happy with what I found!

You can read more about the research I did and Little Nut’s history here

Taking it apart:

Several of the components of Little Nut were severely rusted in place, and as such, I needed to figure out a way to remove them without damaging the soft metal of the screw heads.

I began by spraying them down with WD-40 in the hopes that it would soften some of the grime and rust and make for easier removal. It took several coats and lots of waiting, but eventually, they did loosen enough to remove without too much damage.

Removing the fitting screws from an acorn no 4 hand plane

Rust Removal

The next step was to remove the rust.
For this hand plane, I decided to try good ol’ fashioned white vinegar. I knew that a rust removing agent like Evaporust would be easier and potentially quicker in the long run, but I had never tried vinegar on a tool this rusted and was curious to see how it would work in comparison.

To remove the rust, I took the components of the hand plane and gave them a good scrub with a wire brush to remove some of the dirt, grime, and the easily removed large flakes of rust. I then soaked them in a plastic container filled with white vinegar. I left them overnight and came back the next morning armed with steel wool, sandpaper, and some wire brushes.

I was pleasantly surprised with the results! While it definitely took more effort (ie. manpower) to remove the rust, it did slough off fairly easily after the vinegar soak.

Vinegar rust removal for an antique hand plane restoration

With the components of the hand plane now more visible, I was able to assess the actual condition of the parts. Again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the frog, chip breaker, cap iron, and plane iron were in a condition that would be easily salvageable. I had been concerned about pitting given the severity of the rust across the plane parts, but I was happy to see that there hadn’t been much corrosion to the metal itself and the pitting was minimal.

You can read more on rust removal and pitting here.

Painting

The Japanning, which is a type of paint often seen on older hand planes,  was in poor condition, with it chipping in sections and being entirely gone in other sections. I knew I would have to remove the remaining japanning and repaint it.

I wanted to remove most of the original jappaning in order to get a good surface for the new paint to adhere to.
I used a chemical paint stripper to help with the process. This stuff was harsh! I ended up having to double up with a pair of surgical gloves as well as rubber kitchen gloves while removing the paint. It did its job though, and I was left with a mostly raw metal surface to add paint to.

Prepping to repaint the body of an acorn no 4 hand plane

While there are ways to re-japan the body of the plane, they often require several thin coats and then weeks of allowing the paint to dry. If this was a hand plane that I wanted to restore as closely as possible to the original, I would be keen on those methods, but I wanted to get this thing working as soon as possible! The reason that jappaning was used on plane bodies in the past was because it was a hard wearing type of covering that protected well from rust. These days we have enamel paint that does much the same thing.

Painting the body of an acorn no 4 handplane

I ended up choosing a black Rust-oleum enamel spray paint for the body.

After taping up everything that I didn’t want to paint, I sprayed several coats onto the body of the handplane. From my research, traditionally the front sole of the handplane is painted, but the back was not. I kept this detail in Little Nut, as I did want it to look as close as possible to what it would have orginally been. I also chose to paint the base of the frog at this point as well.

repainted acorn no 4 hand plane

The sole

For the sole of the plane, I took a known flat surface and used adhesive spray to attach a heavy grit sandpaper to it. I then ran the sole of the plane over the sandpaper several times in order to flatten it.

To check for flatness, I drew a crosshatch pattern on the sole of the hand plane before putting it to the sandpaper. After a few passes on the sandpaper, I could then check to see which areas were registering off the sandpaper and which weren’t. When I drew my last pattern on the base, sanded and checked, no marker should remain. At that point, I could start sanding at higher grits until I got a nice, polished sole for the plane.

Flattening the sole of a hand plane

Since I wasn’t planning to do any shooting with this hand plane I wasn’t too concerned with the sides of the hand plane body being perfectly square or flat. I simply gave them a light sanding on the flat surface until they were sufficiently polished.

Lever Cap

The lever iron on the Little nut was either chromed or nickelled and the remains of that coating were in poor repair. It took me a long time to try to remove what was left of the cracked chrome, but once finished I took 240 grit sandpaper and worked at the metal until I was satisfied that it was sufficiently smooth. I then proceeded to move up in grits until I settled on the last sanding with 600 grit.

Restored Acorn no 4 hand plane lever cap

Chip Breaker

The chip breaker was thankfully in pretty good condition! After the rust had been removed, I worked it through the sandpaper grits to bring it to a shine, and then put a new edge on it.

Restored Acorn no 4 handplane parts

Plane Iron

I was also super thankful that the iron itself seemed to have a lot of life left in it. It did have some pitting at the top, but largely inconsequential. After removing the rust and working at it with sandpaper to bring the shine back, I was able to see the original stamp. “Made in Sheffield Vanadium Steel” – Awesome!

Plane Iron Pitting

All that was left then was to grind it down to remove the single chip at the blade, and then give it a nice, sharp, new edge.

Now he really ZINGS!

Polishing

Another use for my little Ozito rotary tool! I used the soft cotton wheel with a polishing compound to really buff up the brass rear tote nut and the depth adjuster. They were so shiny you could barely look at them in the Australian sun after I was finished!

Totes

There were luckily no severe cracks or repairs in the front and rear totes. All that was needed was a good sand and several coats of boiled linseed oil to bring the life back into them.

Acorn no 4 hand plane totes being refinished

Finished!

As I mentioned at the start, I am super stoked with how this project turned out! It’s hard to believe that Little Nut started out so filled with rust that I could barely remove the fixtures or see any markings, and now he really shines.

Fully restored acorn no 4 hand plane

And he works too! Little Nut is light in the hand and really works in every way a little number 4 hand plane should.
Not a bad $25 spent at the swap meet I would say!

Restored acorn no 4 hand plane

If you want to read more about the advantages of old tools and where I personally find my vintage tools, you can read about it here.

Fully restored vintage acorn no 4

Thanks for following along on Little Nut’s adventures! If you have any questions or just want to complement Little Nut on his glow up, leave a note in the comments 🙂

Vintage Hand Planes | Acorn No. 4

Blade adjustment knob and rear sole of an acorn no 4 handplane. Displaying flaking rust and paint.

I discovered a love of old tools early on in life. There was something about the worn wooden handles, marked with the years of sweat from its prior owners, or the rusted metal that inevitably could hide the most beautiful body beneath, or the jammed up moving parts that one almost couldn’t imagine ever coming back to life again – that hooked me. That’s why whenever I am perusing the antique shop’s aisles, or meandering through the stalls at the local swap meet, I’m keeping a sharp eye out for what I refer to as “the king among antique tools”- the vintage hand planes.

“what happens when you hold a tool – your fingers form an intimate bond between you and the tool. It is a marriage of intellect and an inanimate object. Suddenly the tool becomes alive and performs…” R.J. DeCristoforo – Handtool Handbook for Woodworking (USA 1977)

Recently, I found an old Acorn No. 4 hand plane at a swap meet, which I promptly picked up for $25. Before this purchase, I had never seen an Acorn hand plane before, and I do confess to not knowing too much about the brand or company in general. This is surprising given how popular their parent company Chapman Ltd’s braces are.

Acorn no. 4

However, after much in-depth research, I was able to dig up a bit of information on the history of the company and a few pictures that helped me nail down what I believe to be a relatively accurate ballpark age for this specific plane I had come into possession of. If anyone has a better understanding of the age and history, I would be absolutely happy to hear of it!

History of Chapman Ltd

The Acorn brand name was first used by James Arscott Chapman who is simply listed as a “tool and metal plane maker” from 1924-1939 in Goodman’s guide. Chapman Ltd was located in Sheffield England and was known for its range of steel braces, but later started making hand planes under the “Acorn” name in 1934.  Around 1936 Stanley Works Ltd (Yes, THE Stanley) bought out Chapman Ltd and used the factory as its base for moving into the UK market.

After its take over, Stanley kept the Acorn line, some say as a second, cheaper version of their own Stanley line.

Early Acorn Hand Plane Design

In terms of early design, the Chapman Acorns were made with black japanning on the body, no frog adjustment screws, a brass blade adjustment nob, and from some reports a dark red colour on the rear and fore handles. As for the fixtures, the front handle was attached with a single plain bolt with a slotted head, and the rear was attached with a threaded rod and brass nut. Later models, under Stanley Works, had burgundy japanning with even later models moving to what I see as a ghastly firetruck red. Both the front and back handles on the later models were attached with threaded rods and nuts.

These are all details that I took into account when trying to accurately date my hand plane.

I’ve got a new hand plane, now what?

Upon getting this hand plane, which I have affectionately dubbed “little nut,” home, I was able to get a much closer look at the components. The initial ‘once over’ gave me most of the info that I was looking for – there are clearly no frog adjustment screws and the front handle is attached with a single slotted bolt, both good signs if I’m hoping for a plane on the older side of vintage!

The japanning itself is a bit difficult to tell. I thought it to be black, but it perhaps could be a dark burgundy. Further cleaning of the tool will be needed to give a better assessment.

The handles, though well worn, definitely appear to have a dark cherry colour to them! Another good sign, if what I dug up during my research is correct.

Dating

Given all the above info, including the potentially black japanning, red handles, no frog adjustment screws, and a single plane bolt for the front nob I would initially date this Acorn hand plane to be from the era of Chapman Ltd or shortly after the Stanley took over – somewhere from 1934-1945 perhaps.  During the restoration, I may come across some aftermarket parts, or other indicators that could change this assessment. But, part of the fun in any restoration process is doing the research to know what to look for and proceeding to make an ‘educated guess.’ Now to see if that educated guess is correct!

Stay tuned for my restoration of this Little Nut!