It is an important requirement of any person wanting to become involved in saving and restoring ‘artefacts’, whatever their genre, that they are happy to get their hands dirty. In my case it also means I have to love ferrous oxide; most, if not all of my items of past farming, have a metal part and that metal was usually iron or steel. Abandoning anything with FE in its DNA ensures rust will soon cover it. Not only does it cover it, the dreaded rust begins to eat it, consume its very body and soul until nothing worth preserving is left. Good old fashioned iron has a built in resistance to the dreaded ‘steel worm’ but it too will acquire a rather good covering of rust.
Luckily for me a ‘rusty’ item is usually a discarded item and therefore not regarded as of much value by its owner. Even in antique shops and junk yards such artefacts are normally priced way below their true value. Many are the smaller tools in my collection that have been retrieved from scrap heaps in the corner of farm yards or even in hedgerows. The older the item the better chance there is of it being in a salvageable state, most blacksmith made tools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were made of iron and are substantial in the thickness and quality of the metal. Twentieth century mass produced tools are normally of steel and the later into the century they were made the poorer the quality of the steel used. As a rule, tools of the inter war years are pretty sound but after the Second World War, especially in the nineteen fifties when raw materials were scarce, the quality declines drastically. On the other hand it is really only artefacts from prior to that time which interests me.
The first action on getting the’new’ item back to the shed is to give it a good wash. This is an essential job and has several purposes; firstly it reveals what lies under years of accumulated crud and may even expose a manufacturer’s name or a stamp of initials or serial number, secondly it reveals the true extent of such issues as woodworm or rust worm but as importantly, it performs a kind of ‘bio-security’ cleansing. Farms have all kinds of dangerous chemicals and the longer the artefact has lingered the more lethal might be the residues. I once bought an orchard sprayer, the type that was strapped across the front of the chest with a handle to turn to blow the herbicide up into the trees (and at the same time, into your face !) and when I got it home I discovered the container was full of DDT… not at all the sort of thing you want blowing in your face or indeed blowing anywhere. It is essential that bio-security is carefully addressed, don’t go pouring such washed off chemicals down the drain or go pouring it over the lawn ! A friend of mine who deals in antiques and has a particular liking for old pine, uses caustic soda to strip the paint and varnish residues off old pieces of furniture. I was horrified to visit one day and find it was all being washed down the drain and not the sewer but the storm drain which effectively meant that within a very few minutes it was in the river. In fairness she had no idea of its effects and what damage she was doing and has now stopped that practise, although where it now ends up I cannot say. I have a large old metal drum into which I place the item for a good soaking and scrub off the crud into it. That is then filtered out and any solid residues taken to the local amenity site and disposed of in the correct waste recycling bin. The water gets re-used many times and eventually I use it when I am mixing concrete.
The most harmful of the chemicals that were once used on farms, such as DDT and the organo-phosphates used in animal medicines, rarely occur in or on hand tools nor wheeled items such as carts and machinery but it is worth taking care. The most important protection relates to your lungs. Cleaning anything off an old rusty or dusty tool produces airborne particles which you will inevitably breathe in if a mask is not worn. In my experience women are much better at safeguarding their lungs (and skin for that matter) than are we men. The dust of rust is a real danger if it gets into the lungs so take care ! As for the skin, it too needs careful protection especially when dealing with unknown chemicals such as OP. Gloves should always be worn as should eye protection which means, in essence, look like you are preparing for a nuclear or biological attack, protect yourself and the environment around you.
Once the item is washed and thoroughly degreased and all the muck scraped off, then the real restoration can begin. I am not going to get into the sand-blasting (or any other type of blasting) issue in this article though I do occasionally get items cleaned in that way, a tractor for instance! My focus is primarily on small tools and man-handleable smaller pieces of machinery such as stationery engines and ploughs. The easiest and most efficient rust removing tool is the four inch angle grinder. I tend to use only wire brushes on the grinder but an actual grinding disc can sometimes be appropriate. An angle grinder is somewhat scary in untrained hands and even after years of using one I still treat it with care and attention. I never use just one hand, a practise which I see more proficient and less careful ‘professionals’ use prolifically. That means the item needs to be fixed to a bench of some sort and I use a workmate, outside generally. It is a very dusty process and whilst the ferrous oxide is harmless if it lands onto a patch of bare soil or even grass, it certainly does not want to end up in your fish pond or blowing onto the days washing hanging in the sunshine – especially if its your neighbours washing ! The grinder is noisy in use so be aware of that, it also does not immediately stop when switched off so care needs to be taken when putting it down. Loose sleeves are not a good idea nor long dangling cords from waterproofs or anoraks.
The worst thing about using a rotary wire brush on a grinder is that small pieces of the wire will break off and fly straight into your thighs – assuming you are using it at that height – and strangely they penetrate through your trousers and into the skin often un-noticed. Not until a few days later when a red puss filled sore starts to appear will it become apparent you have been speared, and more than once! I wear a thick suede apron which seems to do the trick.
So, P.P.E. should always include eye protection, hand protection, long secure sleeves and a mask. Lastly, be aware of the electrical nature of such a tool and take the necessary precautions in relation to safe cables and circuit breakers.
There is a method of cleaning off rust which is very effective especially for smaller items. It involves using some caustic soda solution (2 tablespoons to 10 litres of water), a battery-charger and a tub of water. The rusty item is immersed in the solution and connected to the negative and a stainless steel spoon or knife is connected to the positive and put in the solution. Turn on and watch the magic. The process is slow – a good 12 hours and possibly longer – but gradually the rust jumps to the positive and a black sludge is seen floating on the surface and on the item. Dispose of it all appropriately and wash the item clean. Care of skin and eyes is hugely important, caustic soda is a nasty substance and is not for bathing the dog in !
Once woodwork has been scrubbed clean and given a light sanding, I always but always treat with a five star timber protecting fluid. Woodworm and rot is a real problem and tool handles are particularly susceptible. Also, treat the wooden items every two to three years as the protection wears off. This is particularly important if, like my collection, they are stored in an old building which has active worm – easily seen by fine sawdust on the floor under beams. Again, timber treatment requires care especially against breathing in the fumes – mask, gloves and goggles people !
As for the metal parts, I use a coating of wax mixed with linseed oil, this gives a nice protection and a dark sheen to the iron or steel. I rarely paint the metal parts unless they are part of the decoration of an item such as a cart or wheeled wooden implement.
There is great satisfaction in restoring an old wooden handled, iron tool that has lain rusting for decades. Such small items are a touchstone to people and ages past. In most cases they represent many hours and days of hard toil by the user and care and craftsmanship by the maker. I get a sense of doing right by those folk as well as preserving the ways of the past; for the investment of a few hours and some small expenditure a part of our heritage is saved from obscurity and preserved for future generations to hold and understand. Or maybe I’m just a sentimental old collector !
The blades cleaned and given a coating of wax and oil, the shafts washed, treated, sanded and polished and the two very old peat cutting skanes which spent their lives in use at Cwm Brefi in the upper Teifi valley in Cardiganshire, are ready to take their place in the ‘collection’.
Preserving age-old relics is what this blog is about; I’ll try to identify all of them for you but by all means, feel free to add to my knowledge and correct me if I get something wrong. Just use the ‘Leave a comment’ link. I hope you enjoy coming along with me on this long journey. See you all soon.
‘Percy the bad Chick’