The first step is to strip the old finish using your favorite stripper. Then wash the tote and allow it to thoroughly dry. Then sand lightly with #320P or #400P paper. Sanding too much will take off the “age” and that is not my intent.
The next step is to apply a coat of boiled linseed oil. The wood in this tote is about 80 years old and it is very dry. I want some oil in the surface of the wood to make it less brittle and less likely to crack. The oil also accentuates the color and patina of the vintage wood. Wet a rag with a little oil and begin to rub it into the wood adding more oil to the rag as needed. Rub the oil hard into the wood. Let the tote set about 15 minutes and wipe off the oil. Continue to rub the wood with a clean rag until the rag takes off almost no oil. The idea here is to use just enough oil to acomplish your goals. More than this is a waste. You need not saturate the wood and let the oil set, keeping the surface wet for 15 to 20 minutes as some suggest. This just makes a mess and acomplishes nothing more than a light coat does. I have been doing this for many years and have used the saturation method many times. My method works just as well and is quicker and cleaner. WARNING LINSEED OIL SOAKED RAGS CAN SPONTANEUOSLY IGNITE! TAKE THE RAGS OUTSIDE. LAY THEM OUT IN A SINGLE LAYER UNTIL THOROUGHLY DRY BEFORE THROWING THEM IN THE TRASH. Let this oil coat dry for at least 5 to 7 days before the next step.
Sealing the oil coat is next. I use a 5/8″ diameter dowel as a handle. Put the dowel in the counterbore for the medalion and drive a screw with a washer from the nut side of the tote to hold the dowel in place. Drilling a pilot hole in the center of the dowel will make driving the screw easier. This handle gives you something to hold on to as you brush the finish coats on. To seal the oil I use dewaxed shellac. Zinser Sealcoat works very well. Don’t use it straight from the can. If you do you will get lap marks. Thin the Sealcoat 50/50 or a bit more with alcohol. Brush this on quickly and neatly and you will not get lap marks. Let the shellac dry over night. I hang the tote on a wire hook through the endmost screw hole.
After lightly scuffing the surface with 0000 steel wool you can begin to apply the finish coats. I use Min Wax fast drying polyurethane in satin, but you can use your favorite varnish if you wish. I thin the Min Wax poly 50/50 with mineral spirits and apply thin coats with a brush. Mix only a small amount. This material will begin to jell in the jar in just several days. It cannot be kept for more than a week. A build of three to four coats scuffing lightly with 0000 steel wool between coats produces a durable finish that does not have that “plastic” look. For tool handles I have found nothing better than satin polyurethane. It is beautiful, rich looking and durable. Avoid that “plastic” look by keeping the build to a minimum. It takes this finish 10 days or more to fully cure. At that time you may lightly scuff the surface with 0000 steel wool and apply your favorite wax, or better yet apply the wax using 0000 steel wool and buff to a beautiful satin glow.
Above is the finished tote ready to be put back into service for another 80 years.