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02 November 2020

Restoring memories - Grandfather's Wooden Toolbox

 I never met my grandfather. He was a ‘Leading Seaman on HMS Hood’ when he married my grandmother in 1922. He died of TB when my father was just 5 years old. You may recall that HMS Hood was a battleship sunk by the Bismarck in 1941. I hoarded the filthy, oil and paint covered toolbox that I found under mounds of tools in my father’s shed 10 years ago, and finally got around to restoring it during the Coranavirus lockdown. 

In scrounging old furniture and as part of my upholstery hobby, encouraged by a Dad who could fix anything, I had gained the confidence to tackle restoration projects. I unscrewed the little brass knobs from the drawers and the handle and removed the remnants of felt drawer liners.  Stage 1 was the cleaning. I found my aunt’s secret recipe “from the Victoria and Albert Museum”, for cleaning antique furniture “To be taken only if you are antique and made of wood”. 

This is it:

1 part White Spirit

1 part Methylated Spirit

1 part white vinegar

1/2 part Linseed Oil.

As I planned to give a first coat of diluted varnish, rather than wax or oil, I omitted the Linseed oil. I shook the ingredients together in a plastic bottle. I used very, very fine wire wool ‘0000’ grade to apply small amount of the cleaning liquid from a margarine tub, working in the direction of the grain.  As the wads of wire wool became filthy, I replaced them with clean ones. There were small particles of wire wool and concealed dirt left in the box and drawers, so I first brushed the surfaces then vacuumed them. 

I should have brushed on a first coat of clear varnish diluted with white spirit to all surfaces. I had learned from stripping wooden doors that this helps to protect them from stains. Unable to easily find a container, I applied a coat of neat varnish. The coats of wax subsequently applied would have bonded better onto a thinner coat of varnish. 

The box is probably oak. Unable to get to shops during lockdown and wanting to use products that had been in the shed for many years, I used a ‘Mahogany’ coloured wax. I applied the first two coats using a pad of ‘0000’ wire wool, working in circles in a small area at a time, and then finishing in the direction of the grain. I worked at it until there was no hint of wax or red stain, and a shine started to build up. Allowing a day or two between coats, I applied more layers of wax using a ‘rubber’ made of lint-fee material – a wad of fabric from an old tea towel. I applied it to the inside and outside of the drawers and the door of the box too. After eight coats I was happy with the shine and thought my father grandfather would be proud. 


I cleaned the brass knobs from the drawers and their screws. First I soaked them I Coca Cola. It had little effect. They were tarnished but not rusty.  I used brass cleaner and fine wire wool on both knobs and screws. That worked. All that was left of the handle were the steel fixings and a blue metal strap. One of our volunteers suggested that this could be all that was left of an original leather strap. Our volunteer specialising in leather repairs suggested a website for leather straps and I found a suitable replacement.

A wooden door slots into a groove in the bottom of the frame and is held in place only by turning the key in the lock. But I had no key. Seeking help from our antique restorer volunteer again, he had a key made to fit the lock.

It still wasn’t finished. This tool cabinet had held precision tools like calipers and micrometers. I bought some sticky backed green felt (online) and there was just enough to line all the drawers. 

I never met my grandfather but I feel we have got to know each other quite well now, through a shared memory. 

You can watch the videos we made about the restoration here:

Cleaning and waxing grandfather’s wooden toolbox

The restoration of Grandfather’s toolbox is complete!


Ros Dean 


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