There seems to be something of a trend these days of makers scooping up vintage tools, showing them off online, and then doing restoration videos for them. There is something special about an old tool that gets handed down to you and that you bring back to life.
Old tools are often better made, super-cheap to acquire, and have that patina of age and memory that give them a special quality no new tool can match. And all that is often required to revive them is a little elbow grease, a white vinegar soak, some brushing, sanding, and oiling, maybe a new handle, and the tool is ready to take pride of place in your toolbox and workflow.
TOOLS TO COLLECT
Like any collectible, it’s smart to buy what you like or what you will actually use. Woodworkers choose tools for their quality, craftsmanship, and functionality. Collectors who never intend to use an antique tool are more interested in the history, aesthetics, and condition. They generally collect based on the type of tool, the time period, the region, or the patents on the design.
Here are some tool-collecting categories worth checking out:
Planes. Aside from being prevalent and highly useful, many planes are also visually aesthetic and have intriguing histories. Styles and types range, and you can expect to pay anywhere from a few dollars for a scruffy unmarked wooden plane to tens of thousands for one made by a celebrated 18th-century craftsman. Lee groups the category into four types:
1. Molding & other wooden planes. Before factories, individual cabinetmakers owned as many as 30-60 different wooden planes, most of them being molding planes. Sheer number makes them a reasonably accessible collectible with prices beginning around $50 for interesting and usable 19th-century examples.
There were more than a hundred individual pioneering American makers creating 18th-century planes, though some are quite obscure. “One favorite that brings the most money is Cesar Chelor, a freed slave from Massachusetts,” Lee says. “Cesar apprenticed under his master, Francis Nicholson, the first noted American plane maker. When Nicholson died in 1753, he willed Cesar his freedom, some tools, and enough land to establish him as the first independent African-American toolmaker.” Today, any of the estimated 200 planes remaining with a stamp of Cesar’s name tug at emotions, as well as pocketbooks. Last year, Lee appraised one between $6,000 and $8,000; others have gone much higher.
2. Patented planes. The late 19th century brought the Age of Invention, along with thousands of patents. All kinds of weird planes emerged and they are considered hot for collecting right now.
3. Collecting by Manufacturer. This category often overlaps with patented planes, but collectors view it as focused more on the products of a particular manufacturer than on the patents behind the tools. Stanley planes are by far the most commonly collected (along with all the company’s tools), but other manufacturers, like Sargent, are also collected. Part of Stanley’s appeal is its history. Founded in the 1850s as a manufacturer of rules (now called rulers) and levels, the company made its fortune after buying the rights to the patent for an adjustable metal plane from Leonard Bailey. It was the most successful iron plane design of all time, and Stanley went from an obscure little company to a big name in a relatively small amount of time.
4. Infill planes. Tools of remarkable precision and quality, these British metal planes were made in the early 1900s, a time when industrialization saw many handcrafts disappear. The most widely recognized makers are Thomas Norris and Stewart Spiers, though lesser-known makers proliferated, some of them offering tools of similar quality. These were kind of the last word in smoothing planes, A good one would cost a week’s wages for workmen at the time, and only the best craftsmen would buy them. They were incredibly well made.
Measuring Tools. Collectibles include everything from squares and bevels to gauges and rules. Several books on rules published in the last decade have fueled added interest in this category.
Levels. These common tools were sometimes works of art in themselves. Designs range from the straightforward to cast-iron styles with intricate filigree patterns and gold painted trim.
Saws. Beautifully weathered handles and a patina finish on blades put this category in a nostalgic cut above others. Collectible types include crosscut, rip, back, and coping blades. Disston was the most successful saw maker of all time, and like Stanley, it has a collectors’ following of its own. Many smaller makers flourished in the US and Britain and just like with wooden planes, some collectors strive to have examples of as many makers as possible.
OLD VS. NEW
Under the category of frequently asked questions is whether new or old tools are better. The 19th-century society focused on handwork, and their best tools were state-of-the-art. In the 20th century, things moved toward manufactured goods and mechanization, and the emphasis on making great hand tools was gone. For the most part, I think old tools are better, but there are some small makers out there today making amazing tools. The Blue Spruce Tool Works, for instance, makes chisels that are truly as good as the best antique chisels, with steel that is better than what they could make in the 19th Century. There are others, but this is the exception.
SOURCES AND TIPS
Determining the value of a tool is generally based on its condition, its rarity, its current demand, and its history (provenance). Check a current antique tool price guide, or what online dealers are asking for tools, to get some clue as to fair market value. The Fine Tool Journal publishes a useful grading system, as well. Once you’re ready, these sources can get you started.
CARING FOR OLD TOOLS
Once you’ve made a purchase, protect it. Nothing should be done that is not reversible, For example, if it is dirty, clean it. But don’t refinish it. Likewise, store implements properly. If you keep tools in the same kind of atmosphere you’d be happy to live in—warm and dry—they’ll be fine. And if you never intend to use the tool, The majority of collectors have a dedicated room with shelves. They’ll invite you over and you go in to pay homage to the tools all over the room.