The Essential Oilpot

If set up and maintained properly, the blades of quality chisels and planes will endure many decades of hard daily use. Maintenance is the hard part. This blog is about a tool that will not only make the chore of constant maintenance easier and more efficient, but will also make your other tools work better.

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 (油壺)as it is called in Japan, is a very useful, inexpensive, easily made, and time-proven tool for this purpose.

But oil pots are not just for the important job of keeping away corrosion. An oilpot close at hand will help to minimize the friction your chisels, saws, planes, and knives generate when cutting wood. The most striking benefit of this is that you won’t need to expend as much energy when working wood and your apparent strength and endurance will increase.  Perhaps more importantly, the wood being cut will be less able to deflect your tool’s blade away from the intended line of cut, increasing the precision of your work.

Besides chisels, planes and knives, the oilpot can be used to lubricate drill bits and augers.

You only need to look back in history a little way to see that these benefits are well established.

We know from the archaeological record that tallow, just rendered animal fat, was placed in grease pots and 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 aeroplanes) is oxidized and hardened tallow combined with dirt.

Indeed, I can recall my father, uncles, and grandfather using sticks of caning wax (a petroleum product) 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 the method I will describe in this post is a serious improvement over the ancient methods, in my opinion.

In Japan, an oilpot is made by cutting a joint of well-dried bamboo into a cup 3 to 4 inches deep. If you do not have bamboo where you live, a hollowed-out piece of close-grained barrel-making wood like 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 or ceramic or any other material approaching the hardness of a chisel blade.

Shape the cup so the bottom is very stable. Some people scallop the bottom so it essential 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 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

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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.

Next you will need 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 it up very tightly, and bind it 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  ¼” to ½” projecting above the lip. It must be a tight fit to prevent the wick from falling or pulling out accidently. Then, 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.

In Japan, I was told to use vegetable oil and change the wick when it became rancid.  But I recommend you save yourself some trouble and at least one stinky wick and use a non-organic oil from the start.

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

Some people prefer camellia oil, but 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 ridiculously high price tag, much like commercial furniture oil. Caveat emptor, baby. But in truth, mineral oil is not only cheaper (sold as lubricant laxative in pharmacies), but performs better than genuine camellia oil because it will not become rancid and gummy.

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

Store your oil pot 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 to make the bottom and domed one left lose as a lid. Place some newspaper in the bottom of your container to absorb oil and stop the rattling noise.

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

When you are cutting a mortise with your chisel, make it a habit to occasionally jab the cutting edge of your chisel 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 will make you smile like a lunatic.

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 quick bit of oil from your ever-present oil pot will prevent rust and frustrate corrosive pixies.

During use, the cloth will naturally become frazzled and covered 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. If ignored, frikin Murphy will smugly use your oilpot to damage your tools and ruin your work. But never fear: If you simply brush the cloth vigorously with a steel-wire brush, sawdust, wood chips, dust and grit are easily removed.

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

When necessary, 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.

The oilpot is an ancient, dirt-cheap tool you will find to be a invaluable addition to your woodworking tool kit.

YMHOS

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5 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?
    Regards
    Randy

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    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.

      Stan

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