Japanning a plane

Ah, is there any more controversial topic in antique tool collecting than whether or not a tool should be re-japanned? Well I really don’t care, because I’m not really a tool collector for tool collecting sake, I’m more of a woodworker who buys old tools to put them back to work. Plus I consider it an honor to bring an old tool from the graveyard of Grandpa’s garage into my shop. So the last thing I want is to have a perfectly usable tool with only 5 -10% japanning remaining on it. It simply looks like crap. So I’m going to show you how to properly re-japan a tool.

I bought an old No 7 off Ebay for about $30.00 a few weeks ago. While the plane was in good condition, most of the japanning had flaked off. I really didn’t want to keep the plane looking like that so I decided to japan it. The first I did was to take the bed and scrape away as much of the original paint as possible with dental picks. In order to have a nice finish with japan paint, you need to have the surface as clean as possible.

Next I take advantage of the summer months and place the bed and frog in the sun to bake for a few hours. Back in the day, old black japan paint was baked on in an oven to seal the surface. There’s no way I’m sticking tools in my wife’s oven so I let mother nature heat the tool up for me.

I buy Pontypool black japan asphaltum paint from a company called Liberty of the Hudson and use artist brushes to apply a very thin coat on the bed. Apply the paint as thin as possible and don’t try to use glue brushes as their bristles are too thick. If you do, you’ll have thick brush strokes all over the plane’s surface and it’ll look terrible. I apply four coats while the bed is in the sun, waiting about two hours between coats. The japan paint will go on really oily and it will look strange, but it levels out as it dries. It’s important not to apply the paint too thick. Four thin coats is much better than two thick ones.

If you plan on japanning a plane bed, japan the frog as well so that the colors match.

After the paint dries I let it sit for two weeks to cure. You have to make sure that the japanning is completely cured before you attempt to finalize it, otherwise you will rub off the paint. Once the paint is cured, I rub 0000 steel wool on the body to knock off the glossy sheen. I also rub off some of the paint from the high spots of the bed like the plane number and patent dates. It just makes the tool look more authentic. Then I use a product called Kramers Antique Improver and wipe it all over the plane to bring out a satin shine and protect it from rust.

  

You may ask, why not just use engine enamel spray paint? Well I have seen tools that have repainted but they never look like real japanning. Japanning gives you the texture of a thick coating that can not be duplicated by simply grabbing a can of Krylon and spraying it with several coats of spray paint.

When the plane is done it looks fantastic. So much so that some people may never be able to tell that the tools has been re-japanned. That’s where it gets hairy. If you re-japan a tool and plan on selling it, you need to disclose the fact that the tool has been enhanced, otherwise that’s a form of fraud. The value of an old tool often depends on how much of the original japanning remains and some tool collectors will pay big bucks for tools that are in mint condition. So bare in mind, it’s your tool, do with what you want with it, but if your knowingly misrepresent the conditions of the tools you sell, then you will be considered a fraud.

17 thoughts on “Japanning a plane

  1. Excellent article. I think I’ll apply this technique to the Singer treadle I’m restoring ~ perhaps without the dental pick, though.

    Would you have objections to using a wire wheel on a Dremel?

  2. Reginald Knowles

    I am going to give this a go. Only I am going to buy a small bench top domestic oven and bake my plane in it.
    So we shall see.

      1. Lawerence Mann

        Pontypool says “DO NOT STOVE under any circumstances”. FYI, I looked up their site and that comes directly from the item info. No other details were given though.

    1. Karl

      I’d be interested to hear if the oven was worth the investment. I love to restore old tools but don’t have a lot of expendable income.

  3. TerryMc

    Excellent explanation. Thank you for taking the time to educate me. I looked this up just to define “japaning”, now I know what it is AND how to do it. 👍🏻

  4. Dale Forguson

    A citric acid bath has been recommended for rust removal. I’m wondering if paint remover would dissolve the old japanning. removing the old finish from all the nooks and crannies with a dental pick would be very time consuming. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, I use Soy Gel to remove old japanning from planes now. I don’t do it too often as I figure a plane with 50% original japanning is better than a plane that has been refinished. The place I get my japan paint is libertyonthehudson.com, but it is not cheap. I haven’t bought a can in years, but expect to pay $80 when factoring shipping costs.

      As far as citric acid goes, I love it! I buy 15lb bags of it on eBay from DudaDiesel. I use about 30lbs a year and I clean a lot of tools.

  5. Great article. I was wondering if japanning can be sprayed on or does it have to be brushed? I have a lot of spray equipment for finishing furniture and thought it might be easier/faster to tape and spray the japanning. Thank you.

    1. Larry Mann

      It’s a process. Bitumen is thinned with mineral spirits and brushed on in very thin coats, baking between each coat. I don’t know that it could be, or is wise to try, spraying it. Each coat is very thin and will self level.

  6. Janos Rendy

    Sensational writing, very helpful – thank you.
    Can you get Japan Black’s recipe?
    Could someone help me?
    I am Hungarian. I was looking for that Japanese Black ink everywhere in Europe, but it’s impossible to buy one. I do not dare to order, because I am afraid the transport would be more expensive than the paint itself – which is quite expensive anyway.
    Any idea, solution interested if someone could help …
    Thank you in advance –JR –from Hungary

  7. Tim Linnan

    As far as removing rust and paint I have had great success with using electrolysis. It will easily remove both while not altering the metal or removing metal. Easy to do as well. The tricky part is that it will remove all the japanning if you do it too long. But if that is what you want its perfect for the tools that have most gone already.

    Great article I may need to give it a go.

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