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Collecting Antique Tools

toolsA Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Antique Tools

Tools are the father of all other antiques. Master paintings, the great statues, the finest pottery, the most decorative furniture, the most colorful tapestries -- all of these would have been nothing more than someone’s momentary idea without the tools needed to create them. Every manmade object depends on the use of tools for its existence, and mankind’s greatest creativity and intelligence is reserved for the creation of newer and better mousetraps to solve the production problems of the day. Tools were the first expression of human cognition.

Collecting antique tools is a little like learning chess -- at first it is a bit confusing as the wide assortment of tools presents itself, then with a small amount of experience you gain confidence in your ability to make the right moves and collect interesting pieces, and as you become more and more the “experienced collector” you begin to realize that there is an ever richer and increasingly interesting realm of knowledge and speciality waiting to be discovered.

Because of this richness, people who seriously begin collecting tools will probably be tool collectors for life, and the friendships made across long distances (and short ones!) in the world of tool collecting are legendary. Once you are a tool collector, you can travel the globe and everywhere find kindred spirits with which to share a hearty meal, a cold mug, and a good-natured debate over the peculiarities of your respective specialties.

Tool Collecting
Categories

Tools, obviously, come in all shapes, sizes, and sorts. Each tool was designed for a different job and so the variety is endless. In fact, even longtime experienced tool collectors
and dealers will often run into something they haven’t seen before (toolies call these unidentified tools “whatsits”). In the face of all this variety, tool collectors have established categories of tools to help them focus their collections. In the broadest categorization, tools are divided into groups by the material they work -- woodworking tools, metalworking tools, basket making tools, leather working tools, etc, etc. Within each of these categories tool types can be further refined. For example, in the woodworking tool category, we have edge tools, boring tools, measuring tools, woodworking machines, and so on. In the machinist tool world, we have calipers, gauges, indicators, etc. With such a wide range of collectables within the broad discipline of collecting ‘tools’, it is advisable to do your research and source the many books and websites that specialize in specific tools that might interest you.

Tools can also be categorized in ways outside their intended purpose - such as tool makers, patented tools, aesthetic tools, tools from a particular era or generation, tools made in a particular geographical area, tools made from a certain material, and miniatures. These categories are definitely not the only ways into which the tool population can be sliced, but
they are among the more common ways. Don’t view this categorization at all as the “right” way to collect, but only as examples of some of the possible ways to collect old tools.

Tool Makers

This is probably the most common way of making sense of the huge world of tool collecting. Find a tool maker you like (Stanley is a popular choice) and gather up all tools by that maker. You can make this hard on yourself (as with the Stanley example, as they made thousands of tools over dozens of years) or easy on yourself (by choosing to collect, say, Windsor beaders -- of which 3 types are known). Often collectors specializing in a specific maker also tend to further cull the crop by adding in another of the categories listed here, for example by collecting Stanley tools with aesthetic qualities like the Miller’s Patent planes (which are also patented tools). Search references to the multitude of tool manufacturers and by combing through these you will be able to find a maker who suits your collecting fancy.

Tool Patents

Patented tools have long been a favorite of tool collectors, and are especially enjoying a renaissance in the tool collecting world now. The popularity of various tools seems
to go in cycles, and currently the primitive tools (rusty broadaxes from Germany, for example) are at a low point and patented tools are at a high point. Patented tools interest collectors because they almost always have a story that goes along with their manufacture. Doing the research to investigate the patentee, the date of patent, whether the patent and the manufactured models match, etc. is a lot of fun and is like traveling back through time to find somebody and relate them to their nearby tool manufacturers, the ironmongers supplying the raw materials for their tools, the local wood supply, and so on.

Type Studies

Type studies are attempts by tool affectionados to track the development of a specific tool through the years of its manufacture. For example, the Stanley #45 combination plane has been subjected to numerous type studies. The type study allows a collector to say that his #45, having a flowered fence but no inscription thereon, must be a Type 1 and was therefore manufactured in either 1884 or 1885. Often, in catalogs of old tools for sale, you will see the tool described as (for example) “Stanley #45, type 13.” Type studies are very handy for identifying a tool’s vintage, for trying to track down missing parts, and for affixing a value to a tool. But they have some limitations and some problems too. The major limitation is that not all tools have had type studies performed on them - recognize type studies for the knowledge they are, but be aware of their limitations also.

Tool Aesthetics

In this category tools are, regardless of intended function, pieces of art or sculpture. The definitive examples of this class of tools are found in The Art of Fine Tools by Sandor
Nagyszalanczy and Classic Hand Tools by Garrett Hack. Most assuredly there are other equally nice pieces to be had. Aesthetic tools may include painting in floral or pinstriped design, carving on the tool, fancy castings, striking graphic forms, or exotic materials. Tools in this class you will “know when you see”, and these are usually the tools that bring top-dollar at the big tool events. In this category, it is probably even more important than usual to judge condition fairly harshly -- a lot of the beauty of the tool may be removed in a rusty, broken version, even if you can still make out some pin striping.

Tool Evolution

For many people, especially those with an interest in history, collections are formed by gathering together samples of tools from a specific era in human development. This may be primitive man, and the collection would consist of axes, spear points, and flint knives. Or, this may be Civil War-era man, and may consist of wooden molding planes, early patented marking gauges, etc. Or perhaps tools from the WWII era. Many collectors prefer to collect items pre- 1900 over those manufactured after that date. Another aspect of this is to collect tools from a company that was later absorbed into another or went bankrupt, such as rules from the Acme Rule Company. Several tools from different companies but from the same era set side by side can show interesting design details in common and can spark debates about who thought of something first. It also makes for a fascinating display to show a tool’s evolution over time from the patent model (in the case of patented tools) to a present day example.

Tool Geography

Tools were made all over the world, and tools grouped by specific regions tend to make interesting collections. Makers from a region tended to choose the same materials for their tools, from the availability of specific local trees to a centrally located blacksmith to forge irons for chisels and planes. Once maker’s marks became popular, it is interesting to put together a set of tools from the same locality, or to trace one maker’s career as he (usually it was a he) moved from town to town. Almost always before 1900 these moves were not too far in the scope of today’s world – usually a village or two removed from the original shop’s location. Some collectors prefer the tools of England, others like Japanese tools.
Some like to collect tools made in the area in which they reside, or in which they grew up. With the wide diversity of tools out there, the choice is yours!

Tool Materials

Tools were made from just about anything -- wood, steel, ivory, bone, cast iron, brass, etc. etc. The more tactically conscious breed of tool collector will often attempt to assemble a set of tools showing the great diversity in materials used to make tools. A display exhibiting this diversity can often be a stunning look at how tools were really, at least in the early days, designed to be beautiful things as well as functional ones. Other collectors use the choice of tool materials as a restraining factor in their collections, to help define the boundaries of their interests. Rule collectors, for example, will often concentrate on boxwood or ivory rules, and the grand prize for these collectors is the rare ebony rule!

Miniature Tools

Some tools are large, and others are small. Sometimes the size differentials are a matter of fitting the intended purpose, and other times miniaturists have taken a normal- sized
tool and shrunk it down to a smaller scale both as a demonstration of their toolmaking prowess and because having a large collection of miniature tools takes up a lot less room than having the originals. Collecting miniature tools is a popular way of indulging your love of the creative aspect of tools while limiting your investment in square feet. There are a number of miniaturists making scale models of tools both in the U.S. and England (and probably in other countries). Another interesting angle on this part of the hobby is collecting salesman’s samples or advertising samples. Often companies would make small scale versions of their tools that their salespeople could fi t in a suitcase and travel with to shows. Other tools are just small to begin with, as in small plumb bobs or trammel points

Collecting Tools as an Investment

What makes a collectible tool valuable? In two words, condition and rarity, and these two factors are interrelated. Rare tools increase in value as their condition is better, with the top tool prices going to those tools that combine rarity and condition to the top degree. These tools can exceed $25,000 in value. Condition affects value in all rarity ranges -- even common tools in spectacular condition bring much higher prices than any guide book suggests. Essentially, a common tool can be elevated to the rare tool category when it is mint in the box. A rare level can be worth thousands more than a more common example of a tool that does the same job.

You might see on eBay a Stanley #4 that sold for $350, and wonder “why -- book value is around $25?” Perhaps the $350 #4 was a type 1, which would put that plane in the rare category. Perhaps it was a type 1 in the original box in mint condition, in which case I’d say the buyer got a bargain. Rarity can have this great an effect on value. Now let’s look at an example of how condition effects value -- we’ll take a Stanley #20 circular plane as our focus of attention. The Walter’s price guide shows this plane being worth $50-$125. These are pretty common planes. On eBay you might get a number of examples, one of which was mint (100% jappanning, but no box) and sold for $225 and the other which had all its parts, was well-used, a bit rusty, and with 50% jappanning sold for $41. If the mint #20 had also had its original box, its price may have tripled. A Phillips plow plane with the original pin striping may be worth five times what another example is worth without the paint, but in essentially the same condition otherwise. There are hundreds of examples like this.

Provenance

Provenance is the history of a tool’s ownership, and I consider provenance the accelerant of tool value. If it is known who owned the tool previously, especially if that person was considered to have a good tool collecting eye and was not a refinisher/repairer, the tool’s value may be even higher than another equally rare example in similar condition. Some of this has to do with the fact that certain collectors are known for preserving the state of the tool, which makes the tool more valuable for historical research. Some of it also has to do with the “buddy factor”, which is that an old tool collector’s friends will want to try and collect a memento from his estate to remember him/her by. You frequently see in auction
catalogs that the tool being offered is “from the so- and-so collection”. If you buy a tool with known provenance, keep that information with the tool as its value will continue to
be enhanced when you get around to selling it. One point the advent of the internet has made abundantly clear is that the top condition items are soaring way over book values, while the midrange to low- end examples are falling at the low end or under book values.

So, how do you tell when something is in excellent condition? For starters, you can refer to the Fine Tool Journal rating system. This system takes several factors into account including finish remaining, wear, repairs, and rust. However, there are also other things to consider. Are the parts original, or at least the proper type? Are there stains or other
discolorations in the wood or metal? Is the finish original, or a modern job? Is the original box present, and if so what is its condition (a box can more than double the value of rarer tools, and can add significantly to the value of almost all tools). Disassemble the tool as much as possible to determine condition of all parts whether externally visible or not. Check to see if owner’s initials or other modifications have happened to the tool -- some owners would add paint or scratches to mark their tools for easier identification. Also consider the previous owner’s cleanliness habits -- has the tool been over cleaned, removing the valuable patina of age? A bright and shiny tool may catch the eye quicker, but for serious collectors a tool a hundred and fifty years old is NOT bright and shiny. Any and all of these non- factory changes detract from the value of the tool, some more than others

tools2Where to Buy Antique Tools

Finding antique tools is really not difficult, unless you restrict the inquiry to just finding historically significant, truly rare or unique antique tools. At one time, from the 1930s through the 1980s, the main way thousands of people became involved in tool collecting was to build sets of planes, levels, axes, rules, and other specialties by looking through garage sales. Today in the 2000s few older pieces are seen in everyday bargain hunting, therefore this is no longer a viable option except for relatively modern tools.

Dealers

Antique tool dealers can be divided into two categories -- those that advertise themselves as dealers and all other tool collectors who also sell stuff out of their collections - individuals who realized their love for old tools and decided to make hunting for these treasures their main source of income. Two large antique dealers overseas, Martin J. Donnelly in the States and Tony Murland in the UK, have auctions which just deal in specialist antique tools.

Before you buy anything, learn the following: What is the tool’s true condition? Considering its condition, rarity, and aesthetic appeal, is it an outstanding example of its kind?
What have comparable pieces sold for recently?

Once you have this information, you are an informed buyer and will be able to make a decision you won’t later regret. You should have a general idea of what to pay and how rare a tool is before you take out your wallet. Take all the time you need to check a seller’s references carefully. With relatively few exceptions, tools available today will still be available at the same price next month. Don’t buy in haste, and if you are just beginning your interest in rare tools, by all means don’t buy anything on someone’s investment recommendation unless you independently verify the price, condition, and market potential. On the positive side, once you have found someone with which you want to do business you have the opportunity to build a fine relationship which can last many, many years.

Quality Pays

If you consider yourself a tool collector, I recommend that you always purchase premium quality pieces. Time and again it has been demonstrated that the finer quality pieces retain and increase their value better than run-of- the-mill pieces. If you are a user, you still want to find complete tools with most of their finishes remaining. Tools of special quality often sell for special prices, and scarce and rare tools typically bring over market prices. No great collection was ever formed by someone who tried to buy the most tools for the cheapest prices.

Collecting tools can be one of the most rewarding pastimes. If you spend some time researching the line of old tools you are interested in, you can avoid some mistakes and you’ll make your tool collecting hobby much more fun. Remember, tool collecting knowledge is something to gain before you start buying tools, not afterwards.

 

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