Chris Schwarz's Blog

Nothing Magic About My Rag

Sometime back in 1996 I took a piece of cloth that was cast off from my wardrobe. I cannot remember what the garment was. A sweatshirt perhaps? Long underwear? It’s a bit stretchy. And I soaked the sucker in WD-40.

Since that day, I have soaked that rag with every kind of oily substance you can imagine. Here’s the short lubricant list: Camellia, 3-in-1, Jojoba, mineral spirits, thread-cutting oil, spray-on “dry” shop lubricant and oil from various recesses of my personhood (yes, it’s true, and historically correct. Ask me over a beer sometime).

I use this rag to wipe down every tool after I use it. I lubricate my plane soles with it while working. I use it to wipe off the sharpening slurry from my tools after honing them.

And what I’m about to say will upset people who know anything about chemistry: I have never suffered any ill effects from this nefarious mixture when finishing my projects using any of the known finishing compounds: shellac, lacquer, oil, varnish, wax and all of their wacky combinations. No fish-eye has ever appeared in my finish. No orange peel. No silicone contamination.

So what gives? How have I cheated the finishing gods for 12 full years?

Probably because of the cutting action of all tools. When I wipe down a tool , a sawblade or a handplane , I leave the thinnest coat possible behind. This thin film is all I need to protect the tool from rusting. Then, when I apply the tool to the work, there is little doubt that some of this lubricant winds up on my work.

This first cut removes the lubricant from the tool. Then my next pass with the tool removes the wood that has the lubricant on it. Problem solved.

In addition to my magic rag (Lucy, my wife, calls it my “woobie”), I also am very fond of the Sandflex blocks from Klingspor to remove rare and errant spots of rust or staining that show up on my tools. These spongy “rust erasers” are like rubber that has been impregnated by a mild abrasive. The blocks will abrade your tools, but only slightly , in most cases less than steel wool. One block (I like the “medium” and “fine”) will last for decades of normal use.

As a result, I have had few problems with rust on my tools, despite the fact that I live outside a humid river city (Cincinnati) and my home shop is in a basement.

The bottom line is that diligence is far more important than the brand of lubricant.

- Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Below is my latest project with a shellac and lacquer finish with no finishing problems. Maybe next project….

14 thoughts on “Nothing Magic About My Rag

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    David,

    The part about the body grease will be the subject of another blog post. I actually use it on my burnishers — not my woobie.

    Chris

  2. David

    Chris – While you’re quite right about the historical context for skin oil on rags used on tools, as a chemical engineer I wouldn’t recommend it. Unlike mineral or vegetable oils, human skin oil is composed of a lot of things, but a major component is fatty acids. The key word is "acid" and while not nearly as acidic as vinegar or the mineral acids (such as hydrochloric), it’s still not good for tools.

    This is one reason why fingerprints left on steel surfaces for a period of days often develops into a "rust print", and why carvers are usually advised to wipe down their gouges after each use with a rag impregnated with silicone or mineral oil.

  3. Alan

    "It’s walnut with a dyed shellac topcoat. And it’s about 37" high. Fairly large and correctly sized for a dining room."

    Good idea, storing tools in the dining room. That is a tool cabinet, isn’t it? *gd&r*

  4. Neil

    Chris…..That’s a pretty one, works great with the previous design post. When do we get a peek inside??? Curious about what sits behind the intermediate rail. Like the perspective on the picture with the mantle. COOL!!

    Neil

  5. J.C. Collier

    I inherited an old shaving brush from my father which he used on his tools and weapons. A few drops of lube and the brush puts on a super thin coat like your woobie but is a much more manly apparatus. HA!

    I still use it and have another waiting for this one to fall apart. My son will probably have to do the honors as I don’t believe I will wear it out in my lifetime either.

    always,
    J.C.

  6. Karl Rookey

    Thanks for the post, Chris. I’ve been wondering about how to keep things good for the tools in my basement shop, and this leads me to worry less.

    And I already have a "woobie" started without realizing what it was. You can bet I’ll start using it on my tools now: sounds easier than the waxing I’ve been doing.

  7. Michael Rogen

    Chris,
    I too love those ‘erasers’ and yes one needs to be careful because as you state they will abrade metal. Like a spotless Disston No. 4 backsaw that is now slightly spotted due to overzealousness with erasers.

    Will we be seeing the pictured project in more detail? I certainly hope so. Nice cat too.

    Take care,
    Michael

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    It’s walnut with a dyed shellac topcoat. And it’s about 37" high. Fairly large and correctly sized for a dining room.

    Chris

  9. Chris C

    Interesting: in the black and white picture of the
    project from a couple of posts ago I thought the
    cabinet was quite small. Obviously it is fairly large.

    What wood is it? It’s hard to tell, maybe cherry with
    a stain?

    Anyway, back to rust protection… my conclusion is
    pretty much the same: as long as you don’t leave a thick
    drippy coating on your tools, even oily protectants are
    pretty harmless. Now if only last summer I had remembered
    to turn the shop A/C on before I left for vacation
    I would not have been de-rusting all my chisels! Ouch.

    Chris

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