The Essential Oilpot

Little strokes fell great oaks.

Ben Franklin

If set up and maintained properly, the blades of quality chisels and planes will endure many decades of hard daily use. Maintenance is the key. In this article your humble servant will describe a tool that will not only make maintenance easier and more efficient, but will also make Beloved Customer’s tools perform better.

Tool Protection

It is a sad truth that the blades of woodworking tools often receive more damage while they are waiting to be used than when they are actually being used. Thankfully, corrosion of the sort that creates microscopic pits at the cutting edge can be easily avoided with common-sense solutions.

When not in use, store your chisels and planes where they will be protected from dust and large temperature swings. And oil your blades after every use to keep away oxygen, moisture, and chemicals that might make your expensive blades “turn red and go away.”

I suggest you plan ahead to make it as easy as possible to apply good oil to your blades. An oilpot, or aburatsubo (ah/boo/rah/tsu/boh 油壺) as it is called in Japan, is a very useful, inexpensive, easily made, and time-proven tool for this purpose.

Friction Reduction

Oil pots are not just for the important job of keeping corrosion at bay. They help minimize the friction your chisels, saws, planes, and knives generate when cutting wood, as well as the energy you need to expend in cutting. More importantly, the wood being cut will be less able to deflect your tool’s blade away from intended intended line of cut, noticeably increasing the precision of your work. You only need to look back in history a little way to see that these benefits are well established. Don’t believe me? Give it a try.

We know from the archaeological record that tallow, simply rendered animal fat contained in open grease pots was used as a tool lubricant in Europe from medieval times right up until petroleum products became widely available. It was also used in the Americas until the same time.

Vegetable oil was used in Asia, and probably in Europe as well. I am told that the black crust found on many antique plane bodies (wood planes not airplanes) is oxidized and hardened tallow combined with dirt.

Indeed, I can recall my father, uncles, and grandfather using sticks of paraffin caning wax for the exact same purpose when I was a child, and before that my English ancestors probably used beeswax and tallow candle stubs. I haven’t tried soft tallow as a lubricant and probably never will since rancid fat has even less appeal to me than rancid vegetable oil, but I’m confident you will find the solution described below a serious improvement over these ancient methods.

Making the Essential Oilpot

In Japan, an oilpot is traditionally made by cutting a joint of well-dried, large-diameter bamboo into a cup 3 to 4 inches deep. If you don’t have access to bamboo where you live, a hollowed-out piece of some close-grained wood suitable for making water-tight barrels, such as white oak, or a plastic mug, or even a segment of capped PVC pipe will work just as well. The important thing is the container not be made of metal, glass, ceramic or any other material approaching the hardness of a chisel blade.

Shape the bottom or foot of the cup so it will rest on a more-or-less flat surface with perhaps some irregularities. Some people scallop the bottom so it rests on four or five spots at the perimeter. And a piece of sandpaper glued to the bottom will prevent your planes from dragging the oilpot around when you pass their soles over the wick.

If you use bamboo or wood, prime and paint the inside of the cup, and underside of the foot, with a high-solids urethane or polyurethane paint. I used a natural urethane extracted from the cashew tree called “Cashew” on the bamboo joint in these photos. The gaudy orange color makes it easy to differentiate my oilpot from others on a jobsite

Line the inside of the cup with an unbroken sheet of aluminum foil to prevent the oil from soaking through. The paint alone will slow down the oil’s movement through the wood’s fibers, but sure as hogs are made of bacon, without a reliable liner of some sort, it will eventually seep out making a mess. Aluminum foil will fix this.

Next you will need some clean, white, cotton T-shirt fabric. Used clothing is fine. White because you want to be able to tell how dirty the fabric is at any time. T-shirt fabric because it sheds the least fibers. Clean because pixies hate it. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.

Roll the cloth up very tightly into a wick just a hair smaller in diameter than the inside of your container and bind it tightly with string or thread. It will take several tries to judge just the right amount of fabric. You should be able to force this dense cloth wick tightly into the cup with approximately ½” projecting above the lip. It must be a tight enough fit to prevent the wick from falling or pulling out accidentally, but not so tight it breaks the container.

Add Oil

Now that the oilpot is made and wick installed we need to add some oil. Just soak the cloth with your favorite lubricant and you’ll be ready to rock-n’-roll like Zeppelin. It will take some time for the oil to saturate the dense wick, so be patient or it may overflow without saturating the wick. I get impatient and spill a little oil sometimes.

In Japan, I was taught to use vegetable oil and change the wick when it became rancid, which it always did. But I recommend Beloved Customer be smarter than I was back in the mists of time and use a non-organic oil from the start. Stinky wicks are such a waste.

Some people prefer to use straight mineral oil or scented furniture oil, which is just scented mineral oil. The lemony smell is nice. But please avoid any furniture polishes or oils that contain insidious silicon because it will weaken glue bonds.

Some people prefer camellia oil, and while this has a long history of usage as a lubricant and hair oil in Japan, be aware that the so-called camellia oil available commercially for rust protection is actually just mineral oil with a bit of yellow dye and some fragrance added, sold at an inflated price, much like commercial furniture oil. Caveat emptor, baby. Mineral oil sold as lubricant laxative in pharmacies is not only cheaper but performs better than genuine camellia oil because it will not become rancid and gummy.

While it sounds strange, the best lubricant by far in my experience is a lightweight, light-colored synthetic motor oil such as Mobile-1 (5W). I have tried regular motor oil too, but the synthetic variety smells better, lasts longer and seems to perform better.

Oilpot Storage

Store your oilpot in a metal or plastic container with a lid when not in use to prevent abrasive dirt from contaminating it. Some people make a container from a segment of PVC pipe with a flat end cap glued on one end of their PVC segment to form the bottom of their oil pot and a domed cap on the other end left lose as a lid. I use a tin can with a slip-on lid.

Place some newspaper in the bottom of your container to absorb oil and cushion the pot from rattling around.

Even a plastic bag will do until you find something better.

Using and Maintaining the Essential Oilpot

When you are cutting a mortise with your chisel, make it a habit to occasionally jab its cutting edge into the oil pot, and even wipe the sides and ura (flat) on the wick to lubricate the blade. You will be pleasantly surprised to find that this bit of oil will make your chisel work not only go faster, but more precisely and with cleaner results. The oil will not weaken glue bonds.

Likewise, when using either a metal-bodied or wooden bodied plane, occasionally swipe its sole over the oil pot. This will greatly reduce friction and give you more control. But if you value your public dignity, be forewarned that the first few cuts after doing this the first time will make you grin like a lunatic! (ツ)

The same benefits of reduced friction and increased precision can be found in the case of handsaws too, although the difference may not be as noticeable.

Before you store your tools away for the day, a dab of oil from your ever-present oil pot will prevent rust and frustrate corrosive pixies.

During use, the cloth will naturally become frazzled, coated with sawdust and wood chips, and will discolor accordingly. No problemo.

If you drop the oilpot and it hits the ground, heaven forbid, Murphy’s Law of Buttered Toast dictates it will land oily-cloth down contaminating it with abrasive grit (unless you work in a cleanroom). If ignored, frikin Murphy will smugly use your oilpot to damage your tools and ruin your work. But never fear: simply brush the cloth vigorously with a steel-wire brush and all the sawdust, wood chips, dust and grit will be gone. The sound you will hear while doing this will be Murphy gnashing his teeth in frustration.

Of course you always have a steel-wire brush close at hand to remove embedded grit from boards before planing them, right?

When the wick becomes too dirty for the steel wire brush to clean (difficult to imagine though that may be) you can re-roll or replace the cloth wick to expose a clean surface.

As the cloth wears and stops projecting from the oilpot’s mouth, remove the wick and place some clean rags in the bottom to elevate it thereby restoring the necessary projection of the wick.

The oilpot is an ancient, dirt-cheap tool you will find to be a invaluable addition to your woodworking tool kit. I promise it will make you grin when using handplanes!


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Tool Maintenance: Corrosion Prevention

12 thoughts on “The Essential Oilpot

  1. Hi Stan
    I was wondering if there have been any problems with oil contamination when planing for the preparation of a film finish such as lacquer or polyurethane. Is black lacquer still a tradition furniture finish in Japan?


    1. Randy:

      I have never seen oil create problems with finishes, but there are two points to keep in mind when using an oilpot: First, It doesn’t take much oil to do the job. Certainly less than a film. If you glopped on the oil it could become a problem. Within a dozen passes with your plane you will develop a sense of the Goldilocks Point.

      Second, most woods have oils and resins in their cells that are exposed when planed. Some like teak or keruing have a lot. But finishes are designed to deal with these natural oils and resins.

      Yes, urushi lacquer is still used here. A beautiful finish, but expensive due to the materials being expensive (most raw urushi comes from China nowadays, I am told), and the labor being intensive. And then there’s the reactions. Urushi is tree sap very similar to poison sumac. Some people break out in hives just being around the fumes of drying urushi. Most people get a rash if it touches their skin. It is intensely unpleasant stuff until it cures. After that, it’s wonderful.

      I did a Four Season Hotel in Kyoto some years back. The designers (Canadians) wanted to use urushi panels in the lobby and elevator to promote local crafts (not really a thing in Kyoto). The lobby worked out because the urushi could be applied in a workshop and cured, then installed without creating fumes. But I had to kill the elevator option because of potential damage (not as tough as urethane) and possible allergic reaction from people touching it. Warranty issue.



      1. Just found your web site. Very interesting.

        I’m a chemist and can’t help myself sometimes. The active chemical irritants in poison ivy and related plants are called urushiols. Cool, eh?


      2. Mike: Comments from those with a technical specialty are always welcome! Indeed, I am confident the term comes from the Japanese word “urushi,” which is the sap of the urushi tree. And I can tell you from first-hand experience about rashes and itching and allergic reactions to it. It has been used as a finish material and glue for millennia in Asia. My wife reacts to it without even touching it. She can’t even be in the same room with raw non-cured urushi without a subsequent visit to a hospital emergency room, as I know from my first (and only) experiment with urushi finishing.

        I was involved in the design and construction of a 5-star hotel in Kyoto some years ago. The local politicians insisted the overseas owner employ local crafts in the interior. A fine idea. One suggestion was urushi lacquered panels (probably with gold and silver raised details making pretty pictures) for the lobby walls and the elevator doors. I put an end to using fixed surfaces this way because it would require repairs be made inside the hotel subjecting guests to urushi’s chemical out-gassing and allergic reactions. Instead, all the panels can be removed and repaired in the craftsman’s workshop and then reinstalled after thorough curing. Stan


  2. Hey Stan,

    Glad to see you’re back to posting stuff.
    Thanks for sharing this good info.
    I hope your family is doing well.



  3. As per your suggestion, I rigged up a larger oilpot and have seen the value of lubricating the chisel during mortising, and the plane, especially for tricky finishing. I had previously only used my small one for rust prevention/tool storage. Thanks!!
    Jay Wood


    1. Try wiping both sides of your handsaws with your oilpot (not too much oil mind you). Your precision will improve. I don’t know who came up with the idea back in the blue mists of time, but it’s a genius tool.


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