Rag-in-a-can Oiler

From Journal Tuesday 14th February 2017

I’ve used my rag-in-a-can oiler for over 52 years to date. It’s for adding a super-fine film of oil to my planes and saws and so far as I know it knows no equal. The trouble is it’s prompted questions that come up all too often so hopefully the video we just made will help.

measuring the rag



#1 What kind of oil do you use?

#2 Doesn’t it affect the finish you apply?

#3 Does it affect the glue?

#4 Can you use boiled linseed oil?

fitting the rag in the can


So we made the video to show how I make them and address the questions. I hope it helps.

One thing that people really don’t understand is that plane judder, skipping and jumping (commonly and erroneously referred to by all modern-day plane makers in the industry as plane “chatter”) on the wood is eliminated by using the oiler. Though none of these conditions is the extremely rare phenomenon of actual ‘chatter’, which is an iterant reverberation caused by minute degrees of repeated flex in the blade of a plane that results in a super-fine wash-board effect.

Once you’ve made yours and used it you’ll understand why I’ve never changed it. Allow the 3-IN-ONE oil to soak into the cloth overnight before using it. Top up periodically, about once a month, and definitely avoid any oils that spontaneously ignite, BLO for instance is a good example, because you may find your shop, garage or house burning down. 3-IN-ONE is safe and works perfectly and with regards to affecting finishes and glue, it has never done so for me in my 50-plus years of using it.

53 thoughts on “Rag-in-a-can Oiler”

  1. When I first started following Paul’s example i this, I simply could not believe what a huge difference it made. After learning to sharpen, this is the next step to planing pleasure – work without the toil.

    1. Ditto. Great for protecting saw blades from rust & lubricating them too. All steel tools in fact: chisel & gouges, knives, froes, axes. billhooks & adzes, drawknives, spoke shaves, garden shears, etc.

    1. It does work on wooden planes but mostly people prefer a candle stick (candle wax) for wooden planes.

    2. I was wondering about using wax (bee, candle) instead. How does it compare with the oil?

      Whilst I’m waiting for a suitable rag to turn up I’ve been using a candle. It works but will I see big difference when my can is ready?

      1. Oil in the rag-in-a-can oiler covers the whole sole or saw surface in a second and prevents rust and lubricates. No comparison.

      2. Paul’s rag-in-can oiler is the “tool” I use most. Can’t imagine why anyone would resist making and using one.

        Beeswax is not a lubricant in my experience, in fact it seems to cause drag & tackiness (which can have uses). I recommend making the oiler but if you are set on wax, I would stick with regular, paraffin, candle wax (as the English Woodworker uses) as that is a pretty good lubricant (I use it to on my bike chains – per performance tests in Velo News – very clean, long lasting and fast).

  2. I love this simple tool and have used it for years to protect my planes and other tools. The oil that I use is simple Mineral Oil. I use Howard Cutting Board Oil specifically. It’s used in all sorts of applications and works a treat.

  3. A freshly sharpened plane and a skim of oil from the rag-in-a-can oiler – woodworking bliss!
    Such a simple idea and just so useful. If you haven’t already got one, make one now. Stick to the KISS principle and don’t get complicated, any small can will do – I made mine out of an old plastic vitamin pill tub because it was handy – and don’t worry about fancy oils – any light oil such as 3-in-1 is fine.
    I also use it to coat my plane blades etc. with oil when I sharpen as my workshop is in an unheated garage and I want to make sure they are rust-proofed over winter.

  4. Ordered the brushes from Tools for Working Wood. Just beautiful. Wonderful bristles. Thank you for the referal. Look forward to using them. Once again, Paul you offer the best advice.

  5. I don’t know how many times the rag-in-a-can has saved me from myself. I hit a hard/tough part with the plane/saw and instead of being a brute and trying to force my way through I reach for the can. This simple little pause is enough time to settle myself and do things the right way.

    Many many thanks for that little bit of inner peace!

  6. Richard Villamil

    I am interested in making this useful tool however how does it compare to using paste wax that I have dutifully put on all my metal tools. They slide nicely when using them. Would this 3:1 oil have any benefits ? Convenience sure looks like a major plus. By the way, I attended your workshop in Saratoga, NY many years ago and you kick started me into woodworking and using manual tools – thank you!

  7. At my bench, here in AUS, I have used the same small roll of carpet felt called “Feltex” in a bean can for 35+ years. It really needs a lid! But it’s still in good shape.

    What are the 3 ingredients in 3in1 oil? Is it one and the same as lite oil sold as sewing machine oil?
    Can unused motor oil be thinned down to do the job? If so with what?

    1. The “3 in 1” is a trademark and refers to the oil’s ability to clean, lubricate, and protect. The base product is mineral oil mixed with citronella oil. It’s probably the same as any light-duty household oil you have at your local stores and very likely the same as the sewing machine oil you mention.

  8. Anyone know what oil this is in the Netherlands?

    Tried some silicone spray on my plane as I don’t have 3-1 oil and seemed not very effective.

    So very curious if this is a U.K./US specific product?

  9. I’ve been laid up for over a month. This was the first project I was able to do. I had help, but I’ve got it on my makeshift living room workbench. It was a life saver. I thought I’d never be able to do anything again.

    1. Wooden thumbs, your story sent tingles down my spine in AUS. Best wishes to a satisfying recovery.
      I change hands with my tools for a few minutes just before lunch or a cupA so as to develop new muscle memory.
      I haven’t suffered from a stroke. Should I succumb to one that adversely affects one side I may still be able to be an effective woodworker with the other and over time, complete the incomplete projects! – Roger

  10. Any problem using a plant oil, like jojobo? Asking because I prefer this to machine oils for my hand tools. Less toxins to clean off my hands before playing with my baby daughter.

    1. You really don’t have contact with the oil once used in the can and no, veggie oils don’t last long at all and some are prone to spontaneously combust. Oh, and all my kids have grown to adulthood with no health issues at all.

      1. Veg oils go rancid 🙁 In the USA you can get “food grade mineral oil” – what a concept!

  11. I used lock oil. Found out that it contains PTFE (teflon I guess), will that create any problems?

    1. I think it is pretty stable – after all it is used in frying pans and engine additives – and very slippy.

  12. A repeat comment I am afraid, I find the oiler super useful. I find three in one quite smelly and so I use motor oil, either ten forty or five forty, it doesn’t really matter.
    As previousy commented I would avoid silicon which is an enemy of glue, varnish and paint.
    I only need to use the oil on the steel planes, the wood ones glide well without any help.
    If only I could find wood planes with the fully adjustable blade setting gear….

  13. How much oil do you put on the rag? In ml for example. I understand soak the rag but how much oil does that usually take? And how often do you add more oil?

    1. No idea, just fill it and add oil when it doesn’t leave a residue on the tool. No one measures it.

  14. When I started my trade back in 1957 most of the joiners had a small finger dip filled with linseed oil on the bench . These consisted of a metal bottle top let in flush into a block of wood ( just to keep from spilling ).
    You just dip your finger in the oil and onto whatever needed it .

  15. It took me three tries find just the right amount of cloth to stuff in there. The first try I used the screw driver method. After that I used an automotive hose clamp to compress the rag. This made it easy to push in. The down side is I had a lot of screw and unscrewing to do on the clamp as I moved it up 1/2 at a time before pushing in. An oil filter clamp or strap clamp may work better. Once I found the right amount of material, I wrote the dimensions on the bottom of the can.

  16. Edward Ocampo-Gooding

    For the curious, here’s the material safety data sheet on 3-in-1 multipurpose oil: http://www.concept2.com/files/pdf/us/miscellaneous/MISC_MSDS_3-in-1-Oil.pdf

    Looks like there’s no known carcinogens and that you would have to drink a substantial amount to get hospital-grade sick.

    Having said that, I use camellia oil, which is the same plant that tea comes from. It’s a great skin moisturizer and has been used for eras as an extremly effective anti corrosive and lubricating measure. You might also find it marketed as ”tsubaki oil”. It can come with a neat applicator similar to the rag in a can, called an “aburatsubo”.

    1. I just pounded a wrapped up towel into a tin can and poured onto it some mineral oil. I think I’m good to go, for now. Lots of other things I need to do.

  17. I just pounded a wrapped up towel into a tin can and poured onto it some mineral oil. I think I’m good to go, for now. Lots of other things I need to make in the shop though.

    1. {please ignore or delete the double post….computers, can’t live with them, can’t turn them off.}

  18. i’ve watched the video and read this article several times. I must confess to not having read all the posted comments and questions.

    I’d like to know how you settled on the width of the unfolded cloth that you described as being 9 and 3/4 inches. It appears that the cloth on the well used version extends about a half inch beyond the rim. Did you use a multiple of the can’s height to determine the final width? If so, could you explain that process? Cans available to me are not the same as yours.

    When I made my first one from a t-shirt (not as satisfactorily as I’d like), I got the overlap but had extremely uneven ridges at the top. I cut them to approximately the same length with scissors. It made a bit of a mess. I’ve bought a remnant of cotton fabric much like your cotton blanket in weight. Before I make the next one and perhaps ruin the remnant, I’d like to know the general approach to setting the initial width of fabric before any folding.

    Thanks so much for all you do.

  19. Made on out of gel cranberry can. Used the whole can so no hammering was required. Stuffed it with some old rags and it works fantastic. Outstanding idea! Thanks.

  20. Love it! Forwarded it to my family and friends. 52 years ago I was 13 and chasing girls. Better learn late than never!

  21. patrick from france

    hi paul,

    It’s a great idea the “can oil” simply, tight forward with a lot of capacity;i did use 3 in 1 oil. As I am a biker, I use fork oil.It is very fluid and up to I did not found any trouble up to know…. In any case, thanks a lot for this great idea and so simply. think simple, think simple is so hard:)

  22. Hi, a repeat question on oil type: would WD40 be a good & safe alternative to 3-in-one for those not able to source the latter?
    Thanks, waltinwales

  23. By the way sometimes you can find that tin cans will slide quite snugly one-into-another, which means its a simple process to fashion a lid [helps prevent the accumulation of dust and shavings etc on the mop head] by cutting the larger can down to around half the height of the smaller oiler can.

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