The Collectability and Usability of Antique Tools

The Collectability and Usability of Antique Tools

by Patrick Leach
Renowned Connoisseur of Antique Tools, Owner of Supertool.com featuring “Patrick’s Blood and Gore,” and Purveyor of Fine Used Tools

It’s easy to collect tools. They are all over the place. They had to be for America to be settled, farmed, and industrialized to a scale never before seen. Odds are your father or grandfather used tools to ply his trade. If you or your neighbors have a garage/barn, there probably are old tools kept there.

Tool collecting is primarily a guy thing (not to say that women don’t collect, they do, but not nearly in the numbers men do). Tool collecting isn’t just about antique tools. It also manifests itself with modern tools. Just look at a Snap-On catalog to get a sense that tool collecting is probably an uncontrollable urge for a large number of men.
Antique tools have appeal for many as they are a tangible link to the past since every antique we see today was made by a tool of some sort. They are one of the few things that can answer the classic conundrum of which came first, the chicken or egg. It’s inarguable that the tool came before the Monet landscape, the Chippendale tall chest, the Ming vase, and the cabinet of Hummels.

I started collecting them as I’ve always been fascinated with history and because I wanted to use them to restore two period houses I bought. Once I plugged myself into the antique tool world, I was like an addict insatiably driven to have more and more and more. I’m a classic case of coming to antique tools as a user then becoming a collector.

Collecting vs. Using Antique Tools
The difference between a collector’s and a user’s tool only matters when its buyer views it with an eye for collecting it or chooses to flex his muscles by using it. However, I think it’s safe to say that nearly all collectors kindled their interest by first coming at it using tools and then later crossed that invisible line to enter the collector realm.

Many collectors are builders/contractors, that mean shop teacher you had while in junior high, cabinetmakers, restorers of antiques, or people afflicted with the bug simply because they think they are interesting objects with history behind them.

True collectors, those more of a scholarly bent, will become agitated that a rare or early tool is being used by a user, and users bemoan the fact that collectors have driven up the prices and removed tools from the market.

Both sides have their role to play; collectors preserving true artifacts of America’s past and users bringing back to life tools often left for dead. It’s not a Spy vs. Spy (thanks, Mad Magazine) thing here. Each side can respect and understand where the motivation arises and can agree that the tools are being preserved regardless whether they are
collected or used with care.

For the Users
There is little doubt that today’s market is decidedly slanted toward the users. There simply are more people who can spend $100 for a plane to use than there are collectors spending multiple thousands of dollars on a tool to admire.

Chisels and hammers are probably the most numerous of all tools, but planes are the most used today as there are so many functions they perform. A woodworker of yesterday and today could not be productive without planes.

The Stanley Works, a hardware manufacturer in New Britain, CT, acquired its fellow New Britain firm, Stanley Rule and Level to become America’s, if not the world’s, largest woodworking tool manufacturer. Advertising themselves as “The Toolbox of the World,” the firm cranked out millions of tools — many of which only need a cleaning and sharpening to be put back to use.

What to Collect?
Nearly all tool collectors cut their teeth on Stanley tools. They are so plentiful that it’s almost possible to lift a random rock and find a Stanley tool underneath.
Stanley tools are also very easy to understand. They numbered all their products, and with an old catalog or price guide in hand one can be an expert in short order.

When one pulls their nose out of a Stanley price guide, and decides to see what other tools are out there, the collection can go in all sorts of directions — levels, wooden planes, rules, wrenches, gauges, braces, etc. Each of these categories contains some crazy patented designs that are true rarities with visually pleasing and/or mechanically complex designs.

About Price
Tool prices, in general, reached their zenith about a dozen years ago. Since then, the average trend is downward. This is probably more a result of a dreadful economy than it is for lack of interest. And, as with all collectibles, the web has leveled prices since items rare in one location are easy to find in another.

Truly rare tools are still fetching good prices, but the number of collectors willing, or able, to throw thousands of dollars at a wooden plane are few and far between today.
Now is a good time to buy. A collector can amass a fine collection that’s bound to be worth more over the long run than what he paid for it. The key is always to buy the best you can afford, stay away from damaged items or those with replaced parts, choose items that have visual appeal, and buy the uncommon. No matter the collectible, great stuff always outperforms the mediocre and can withstand shocks to the economy.The Collectability and Usability of Antique Tools

To Restore, or Not to Restore
A knowledgeable collector can never do any harm by leaving things exactly as they find them. This is true in many collecting fields, and as stewards of such artifacts, caution should be heeded. Something that is 250 years old and still shows wear on the finish from where it was gripped should be left as is.

Many users and a good number of collectors have a different opinion — there is a mentality today that all tools should be cleaned. People have written books how to do it. It’s many times the case that a multiple thousand dollar tool has been turned into a $100 tool by overzealous users who believe some steel wool and a few layers of polyurethane is the cure-all elixir to put the tool right. A tool whizzed up and sanitized for your protection will always be that and incapable of ever returning to its original state.

Today it seems more caution is practiced as more collectors and users have some knowledge about how originality affects value. Then, there are the English, many of whom relish buffing a tool to within an inch of its life. My recommendation is to stay away from tools created by a Buff Daddy gone mad with wire wheels and polishing compound.

Some Names to Look For
As mentioned earlier, Stanley. Stanley is the name in antique tools. Some of the major
competitors to Stanley were Millers Falls, Sargent & Co, and Ohio Tool Co. These four companies were giants in their day, but are now shadows of their former selves with two now extinct.

Specialty tool makers were top dogs in their field: Disston, Atkins, Bishop, and Simonds in the saw world; The North Bros in the drill world; Coes in the wrench world; etc. Each of these has dedicated collectors. The tool collecting field is an equal opportunity fraternity — if it’s a tool, someone out there collects it.

Some collectors will amass certain brand names as supplied by the largest hardware houses: Keen Kutter by H.C. Simmons; OVB by Hubbard, Bartlett and Spencer; Bluegrass by Belknap Hardware; etc. These houses contracted with tool manufacturers to brand tools with their names and logos on them.

It’s next to impossible to list all the top names of tools as so many pre-World War II manufacturers made tools of impeccable quality. The northeast of America, particularly the area from Hartford to New Haven, Connecticut, was the epicenter of American tool manufacture, with New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin all playing a large role. Manufacturers often specialized in a particular kind of tool to fulfill demand from local industries (like automotive) with the tools they needed.

A Word of Caution
There is a lot of junk out there, much of it made after World War II. Not every tool maker made good stuff and many tools made were of such dubious design that they
shouldn’t have been manufactured in the first place. Some companies made picnic baskets and then decided to make tools. Adding more confusion, even Stanley, Millers Falls, and Sargent & Co. started to lower the quality of their tools to the point that they function better as dog chew toys than they do useful tools. Starting ca. 1930 these companies initiated their death spiral by offering second quality tools for the low rent tradesmen and the home handyman.

There is no doubt that there are collectors of items from the Land of Misfit Tools, but one thing is certain — any tool made by Shelton Plane Co., maker of picnic baskets, is the fruitcake of tools. No one wants them. Should you ever find yourself in a Yankee Swap with one of them as a gift, come up with a clever excuse why you don’t want one, like you’re allergic to cast iron or you gave them up for Lent. Forewarned is fore-armed — You Do Not Want A Shelton Plane! I’m deadly serious here.

What to Look For
Plastic is never good on a tool. Parts made of flimsy steel that you can easily bend should be avoided. Tools that are uncomfortable to hold in the hand are often late production. Visible and coarse grinding marks on a casting are normally a sign of recent manufacture. As in most modern businesses, bean counters find ways to lower the cost of production to increase profits which ultimately leads to a poorly made tool of pitiful quality.

Tools made of exotic materials indicate a better quality. Rosewood, ebony, boxwood, similar exotic woods, lots of brass, decoration for nothing but decoration’s sake, ivory (gasp!), etc. were used on premium tools. The status of its owner could often be determined, in a subtle way, by the tools and materials used on them. Combinations of the above enumerated materials are usually, but not always, an indication that the tool is a quantum leap over the same object used by Joe Meatball carpenter of the era.

The Collectability and Usability of Antique ToolsWhere to Buy?
It now seems that many prefer to buy their stuff online rather than hunting it down in the field. It takes much less time and energy to buy like this. I find it a very sterile way of collecting as much of the fun is stalking and capturing something in the wild is much more pleasurable.

And where is the wild? The usual spots — flea markets, estate sales, yard sales, scrap yards, auctions, and now less often antiques or thrift shops (the web has really impacted the volume available at shops).

Prior to the web/internet, tool collector groups/ clubs were a great resource for buying and selling rare and common antique tools. However, the web has changed that method and groups now suffer lower memberships and attendance at their meet-ups. It is still possible to find gems at club meets, but now sellers who know who wants what email, with a few images attached, and have a seller in Bugtussle, TN exchange dollars for rubles to by from a buyer from Kamchatka, Russia in picoseconds.

Auctions can also be a good source for tools. Some great stuff can be found at estate auctions where “barn contents” are listed in the offerings. There are specialist auction houses for tools. Two kinds prevail — those featuring a smaller number of items, and those selling thousands of items per auction. It’s up to the buyer to determine which is the better/safer place to load up on stuff.

Online
Collectors can use any search engine to find numerous resources for nearly any item they collect. This proves beneficial as anyone with a smartphone can find information at their fingertips; an immediate benefit when stalking collectible tools at markets offering Beanie Babies and foodstuffs long past their use-by dates.

A resource I use a lot, and not just for tools, is the US Patent Office. It can help identify a tool, but using it can be difficult due to all the different ways to search it. Compounding this is the transcription of the records as done by non-Americans reading handwritten descriptions inked during the 19th century. The Patent Office records won’t give you any idea of rarity or value, but it is a glimpse into the minds of geniuses and madmen alike.

A person needs to admit whether they are or are not a collector despite the fact he may own several hundred items. Many vehemently deny any collecting tendencies, instead resolute they own them for use, not collecting. This mentality is fairly common in the antique tool world.

Patrick Leach is considered by many collectors to be the authority on antique tools with over 12 thousand who have signed up for his ever-evolving business emails. His
well-known “Patrick’s Blood and Gore” documents his foray into tool collecting and meticulously lays out information and commentary on every Stanley plane ever created. Supertool.com is where you can sign up for his monthly list of tools for sale (he is actively buying and selling and ships around the world). You can reach Patrick at leach@supertool.com.

The Collectability and Usability of Antique Tools