The most important part of assembling a playable set of Woods, is in choosing only the best raw clubs you can find. To be worthy of rehabilitation, they need to have shafts that are free from cracks or dents, and should be tested for any internal damage or dry rot. If you can find any kind of shortcoming in the shaft, it should not be considered for use. Woods with original multi colored face inserts should probably not be considered for playables, as the inserts in these fancy face woods have been weakened from age and will break very easily.
Working on clubs requires some wood-working skills and is not recommended for the inexperienced. To get this right will require a considerable time investment and practice, probably on a couple of throw-away clubs. Choosing clubs for restoration can probably be done without these skills, but they should be shown for approval to the person that will be restoring them.
I recommend using Woods with plain faces. If necessary, have a fiber insert placed in the face. The woods that will probably need an insert installed are most commonly American made. The British made woods used the highest quality aged and dried wood and are consistently harder wood that doesn't seem to require the addition of an insert.
An insert can be very important to the life of the head because of the way it seems to spread the impact from the ball across a wider area of the face. It decentralizes the impact and helps to save the head from prematurely developing cracks. They can be played without the inserts until damage to the face is evident. The faces should be checked after a dozen hits or so and see if there is any compression of the wood. If you can see or feel the dimples impressed into the wood, that club probably needs an insert to survive extended play.
The straightness of the shaft is of significant importance. The shaft needs to be very straight as found. Slight bends (1-2" of deflection) that are easily straightened are not too detrimental to the performance of the club, but notable bending or multiple bends are not advisable in playable clubs. Iron shafts with straightenable bends don't seem to cause the kinds of problems that show up in the longer shafts of the Woods. Even after being straightened, some wood shafts seem to cause quirkiness in shots. When you are looking for a perspective club, only pick the best.
When choosing a club, be sure it sets up correctly for you. Stand with it, as if to hit it and take a close look at the face angle, the perspective of loft, the lie, face progression and the head shape. If it doesn't inspire confidence, then it isn't a club you want to invest time in. The weight of the raw club is another point to consider. The majority of the Woods were made with insufficient weight. The balls in that era tended to vary considerably in size and weight. Today's balls really require clubs with more weight in the head. Some of the clubs that we find in perfect shape, were probably found to be unplayable by their original owners because they were too light and were ultimately never played with. As a way to get more distance, some of the top players of that day used very lightweight clubs in an attempt to get more head speed in relation to the size and weight ball they were using. Not unlike today, this resulted in the public demanding clubs for themselves made with the same characteristics. Unfortunately, they did not have the skill to be able to hit with them. Harry Vardon, in his book The Complete Golfer (1905), said that he had "a strong dislike for Woods that are unusually light and didn't think anyone could get their best results from them". And that they "entailed to much swinging and it was harder to guide the club properly when the weight of the head couldn't be felt". Horace Hutchinson in an article he wrote called Modern Golf Clubs and Modern Methods, talked about how important adequate weight in the head was to the pace of the swing and the distance the ball could be hit. He spoke of being amazed that J.H.Taylor, then the latest English champion, could "hit the ball the kinds of distances that he accomplished with his short, stiff and very light clubs". He went on to say that he had "little doubt that more than a few will copy them," a reference to club pros making similar clubs for their customers. It becomes apparent that these very light weight clubs were produced that way intentionally.
I like to take newly acquired clubs and try to get them into a playable shape before any significant modifications are done. I will do any of the shaft straightening and lengthening that is needed, and then add whipping to the hosel, so that I can test hit the club. If the length of the shaft is going to be changed, do it before any weighting is done. The club can also have it's grip applied at this time as it will help in determining the final swing weight and total weight of the club. The length of the shaft has a profound effect on the swing weight of the club. And likewise, the weight of the head will have a profound effect on the shaft if it's weight is changed.
If it is obvious that the clubhead will need more weight, lead tape can be applied to the back of the head to get it to a playable swingweight. You will need to estimate a target weight based on the shaft length, shaft flex, the head balance, and some basic intuition. My target is between C7 and D5, with D1-2 being optimum. Try to find a Wood that has a sole plate as it will be more convenient to add the weight underneath it. Also, consider adding a couple of degrees of loft to the face of the club. The addition of loft can do wonders, especially if you have a driver that measures out with less than 10 degrees or a fairway club with less than 13 degrees.
Take the club out and hit some balls with it. If you can hit the ball in a similar direction and trajectory to your modern clubs, then most of the battle is over. If not, try to find out what might be causing the problem, make a change and hit it again. Changing the weight has a considerable effect on these clubs. Having a roll of lead tape with you when you're out test hitting the club is strong advised. Try some significant changes to the weight and see what kinds of results it produces. If the club hits best at an unusually high or low swing weight, so be it. A target swing weight, in regards to the modification of hickory clubs, should never be held as a absolute.
When you have your candidate for restoration, the next step is to decide on the finish. The stripe top clubs seem to be very popular amongst the better players. The use of a stripe on top seems to be very common amongst the clubs we find. It seems to improve players perceptions of the way a club sets up.
Sand and stain the head along with the shaft, or coarse steel wool it if you are keeping the original finish. After the stain has dried, I will then go over the head and shaft with an extra fine steel wool. Next, I coat the head and shaft with Zinsser Bullseye Shellac (2-3 coats), and then whip the hosel after the varnish has dried. I generally whip about an 1.5", making sure to cover where the whipping had previously been. The whipping to use is a type of pitched linen tread. The waxed tread is preferable, but the unwaxed can be used. Whipping is generally available at leather craft stores (Leatherfactory) as sewing thread for leather. Whipping pullers are available, please reference the Grips page.
Now you can weight the club as necessary and try hitting it to see what types of problems the club might have. The results should help you plan for further modifications that might need to be done. Lead tape can be indispensable for establishing the proper swing weight of each particular club. If you are hitting it straight with your normal swing, the hardest part is over and you're all set to proceed with cutting the line scoring into the face and putting another couple of coats of varnish on the shaft and head. My target is to have a minimum of five coats of varnish on the clubs.
If you are not hitting the ball on the correct line and trajectory, then you have to figure out which corrective measures to use in trying to correct the problems. The actions for correcting a club are not something that can be described easily. Each club is completely unique and the methods for correcting a clubs problems are specific to that particular club. How you act depends on the shaft length, flex and torque, the head shape and weight, the face progression and loft, the lie of the sole, the grip size, and most important, the balance of the head. Where the weight is being placed to maintain or help restore the head to a correct balance is of vital importance. The size, depth, and direction of the hole(s) that you drill into the head for lead weight, will decide the balance of the head and the trajectory of the shot. Also, adding or reducing the weight of the clubhead will effectively change the flex of the shaft. Some clubs can't be fixed, usually it is some flex characteristic of the shaft that cannot be changed. It just takes experience learning what to choose in clubs to be restored. You will have a failure rate.
To help verify the correct weighting and feel, I keep a couple of woods that have proven to be my best hitting clubs as references for comparison. I will usually take one of them along with me when I swing test the new clubs and see how they compare to the reference standard. The performance results are always the most important consideration so if I am hitting a new club well and it feels different from the reference, I will not change it. If a club doesn't hit well, you can use the reference club to feel what the differences are between the two to give you an idea of how to change the new club to make it hit properly. A club that you can use as a reference is going to prove invaluable. It requires experience at working on them to be able to figure out how the balance of the head relates to the overall weight, face angles, shaft flex and torque characteristics. After investing time working on hickory shaft clubs, you will come to realize what an art there was in making them, and why some club makers were so highly revered for their skill and knowledge.
Removing a shaft from a Wood head, so that it might be reset with a modern wood glue, is a problem that does not as yet have a solution. The only thing you can do is to hold the head in one hand and the shaft in the other, give the shaft a twist each way and see if the old glue has deteriorated to the degree to allow the head to break loose. If it comes loose, it can be reset with a modern adhesive, and if it doesn't, the original glue is probably solid enough to use. Most of the wood heads that have come loose did so during the play tests. If the head should come off while swinging it, the whipping on the hosel should keep the head from breaking. An un-nerving part is that if the head does come loose, it will probably go bounding down the fairway with the whipping unspooling behind it.
To reiterate, to double check my work, I play test all the clubs that I restore. Ideally, this is done by hitting balls with each club at various stages during the restoration. Following that, I will try to take them out for a round of golf. If the clubs have a flaw that was otherwise missed during assembly, it will usually show up during these testing sessions.