Tools of the trade: hands-on collectibles

A diminutive Southern blanket chest containing wood planes and tools sold for $450 at Leland Little Auctions in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Antique tools are not as glamorous or high profile as contemporary artworks that sell for millions of dollars but are highly sought after by collectors. Carpentry tools especially are utilitarian yet have strong aesthetic appeal. Used to build everything from furniture to houses, these tools have a rich history that prompts many people to buy them to use in woodworking projects today, continuing a long tradition. Some buy them only for their look and display them as decorative objects, but the main collecting drive seems to be to actively use these well-made tools that were made to stand the test of time.

Rick Hansen of St. Paul, Minn., who runs the website Vintage Woodworking Tools, noted that over the last 10 or so years there has been a  renaissance in hand tool woodworking, so many people are buying old tools for use. “Tools made after 1950 are generally not in high demand,” he said. “Quite a few makers of new hand tools of all types have sprung up in the last 20 years; some are boutique makers and some are more mass-market. They make excellent tools, but are quite expensive, so most users turn to the used tool market.”

Jim Bode of Elizaville, N.Y., has been a longtime collector of tools and lifelong woodworker. When he was 6, his bedroom dresser had a vise clamped on it to hold a drawer open. He was given many tools over the years by his father and grandfather, bought many more but still has that vise. Today, he trades in tools on his website www.JimBodeTools.com and notes “people tend to collect what is readily available, so 1850-1950 vintage tools are the most collected. Earlier items are more desirable but more difficult to come by.” Bode said collectors look for tools in a certain condition and age but also beauty and charisma.

This No. 112 center wheel plow plane manufactured by the Ohio Tool Co. is one of only three known. It is made of solid ebony. Photo courtesy of Jim Bode Tools

When it comes to old tools, Stanley and Disston are probably the most popular brands, Hansen said. “Stanley was the largest tool maker of things like hand planes, levels, rules, etc., and Disston was the largest saw manufacturer in the world,” he said, adding that the popularity of Stanley and Disston is due to their availability and the wide range of items made.

“I would say that most collectors are looking for items prior to World War II,” he said. “After that quality declined and many lines of tools were discontinued due to the economy in the 1930s and to increased use of electric power tools. Serious collectors want tools in good condition, the nicer the better. If a tool is in the original packaging, i.e. box, it will sell at a premium.”

A Disston saw, inscribed ‘John Maple / Crossed Plains in May 1867 / 7 Months on Road 56 Wagons / in Train,’ brought $250 in June 2018 at Cowan’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bode suggests buyers new to this field join a club. “They are the ultimate resource,” he said, adding, “You have to collect what you love. The type of tool doesn’t matter.”

From planes and levels to rules, saws and braces, carpentry tools come in all shapes and sizes and were made for different jobs. Even veteran collectors will occasionally come across a tool previously unknown to them, often dubbed as a “whatsit.” Tool collectors have endless ways to organize their tools … by their use, maker, those that are patented, by period or location made, or even by what the tool is made of. “In the face of all this variety, tool collectors have established categories of tools to help them focus their collections,” according to Union Hill Antique Tools. “For example, in the woodworking tool category, we have edge tools, boring tools, measuring tools, woodworking machines, and so on.”

A 10-piece collection of antique Stanley tools, including levels and planes, went for $250 in October 2018 at J. James Auctioneers & Appraisers. Photo courtesy of J. James Auctioneers & Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers

While antique tools are often bought to be used, retaining the original patina is of key importance to many collectors. The Mid-West Tool Collectors Association notes that many novice collectors or people interested in selling an old tool will ask what is the best way to clean an old tool. While many methods exist, some are more invasive than others. A common technique is to wipe the tool down with mineral spirits and use a fine grit steel wool (#0000) to remove layers of dirt and then apply a fine quality paste wax to preserve the tool.  If the goal is to sell a tool, it’s best to merely wipe off the dust with a soft cloth or brush and leave the restoration to its next owner. Those planning to keep the tool will then choose a restoration technique after considering factors like the condition, value, and rarity of a tool.

This painted pine six-board tool chest with a large assortment of hand planes and other carpentry tools earned $700 in February 2013 at Skinner Inc. Photo courtesy of Skinner Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

“Every tool restoration is different, before proceeding be sure what you’re doing will not compromise the integrity of the piece. The patina a tool acquires from decades of use and aging is impossible to restore once removed,” writes the association on its FAQ page.

Whether one is a woodworker or just collects for visual appeal, carpentry tools blend heritage with function. They are a key slice of history from a time before mass-produced tools were made.