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A 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. It is in this spirit that I offer up this beginner's guide to tool collecting, in the hope that it brings someone else the same fun and excitement it has brought to me.
Tools can also be categorized in ways outside their intended purpose. Here, I will take a brief look at five of these other possible focuses -- 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. I hope you 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. I'm continually surprised at tool meets by people whose imaginations have developed a new way to organize their collections, and often these lead to enlightening insights about tools and their makers.Books section, you will find references to the multitude of tool manufacturers and I'm betting that by combing through these will be able to find a maker who suits your collecting fancy.
Researching patented tools is an art unto itself, but the journey starts at the US patent web site, where you can look up many of the patents applied to tools. For more in-depth research, you may have to visit the actual patent libraries scattered across the U.S. You need to have a basic understanding of how patents are issued, classes, and sub classed to efficiently use these sources. The categorization system does follow some rules, but they are so arcane that it is initially guaranteed to be confusing. Classing information info is outside the scope of this article, but forewarned is forearmed!
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. So, for example, if you want to know about the different types of Cheney hammers -- well, good luck. This is your opportunity to gather a hundred examples, research the patents, and write an article for one of the major tool publications.
The problem with type studies, in my opinion, are twofold:
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.
I still prefer to collect items pre-1900 over those manufactured after that date. Another aspect of this to to collect tools from a company that was later absorbed into another or went bankrupt, such as rules from the Acme Rule Company (no, this has nothing to do with Wile E. Coyote). 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. This kind of comparison is what often results in a type study.
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!
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! Perhaps Stanley's offerings in Miller's patent planes is too wide for your taste or budget, and so you decide to concentrate your collection on the cast iron examples rather than the gunmetal ones.
There are a number of miniaturists making scale models of tools both in the U.S. and England (and probably in other countries, although I haven't had the honor of meeting them yet). 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 fit in a suitcase and travel with to shows. Other tools are just small to begin with, as in small plumb bobs or trammel points.
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 in the last week are 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.
At this point I should also say something about 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 inn 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. Before being able to buy tools on the internet, you might see a couple dozen #20 planes in a year from shows you attended, or from dealer catalogs, etc. Now you see a couple dozen a day on eBay, and this demonstrates to people that if they miss out on one of these sales, another will follow shortly -- you don't lose too much sleep. However, a mint example might come along only two or three times a year and bidding on such an item is furious (especially in the last few seconds).
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.
This system is almost universally used now, and so suggesting a change may seem like some sort of luddite heresy to some, but the FTJ system does have some drawbacks. For one thing, there is not enough flexibility within each grade for my taste -- which explains why you'll often see G++ used to describe a tool that falls in the FTJ's G+ category, but towards the high end. For another, almost all dealers tend to alter the scale with older tools -- "accounting for their age and rarity". Of course, such grading differentials differ with each dealer, making the tool even tougher to evaluate.
Other dealers use a 1-100 rating system for tools, with grades as follows:
In today's tool collecting world, know your scales!
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.
In this section I will list some of the places I find antique tools. For each entry, I will try to give you some idea of how hard it is to find "gems", which I define as either ultra rare and significant tools or more common tools in mint condition. In my opinion, it is not worth collecting anything else.www.turners.org). Since then, many others have created web sites dedicated to antique tools, and I'll touch on some of the more interesting ones here (I could never list all of them, and the list would change daily anyway). These sites are highly recommended as they have interesting content as well as stuff for sale.
Over the years of using eBay, I have determined that if you really want something, you need to snipe to get it at the lowest price (or, if money is no object, then you can simply enter a huge amount as your maximum bid and most likely get the item that way). Sniping is the art of restraining your bidding until the last few seconds of the auction (eBay auctions are designed to stop at predetermined times). You can snipe manually or with automated software programs, and if sniping is going to become your habit I recommend the programs so you can lead an otherwise normal life.
I have written a couple of more detailed articles on eBay buying and selling that were published in the CRAFTS newsletter (see the Clubs and Organizations section for more info on CRAFTS), so if eBay buying is interesting you may want to check them out.
There are other internet auction sites, but in my experience it is hard to find gems there. Because eBay was the first, it generated enough seller interest to get over the critical mass necessary to bring a large pool of sellers and buyers together. Other sites will have an extremely hard time doing this, as sellers don't want to put their best items on an auction site where few people will bother looking. Buyers, then, check these sites and find nothing of interest, and so go back to eBay. It is a cycle that will be very difficult for anyone else to break.
Antique tool auctions today are still much like that, but some of the luster has worn off as the internet auction sites have taken a bite out of the auction consignments. Still, it is a valuable place to hunt for the missing pieces in your collection, and many of the old-time dealers who have not become computer-savvy still trundle their wares exclusively to these shows. In my experience, these events are were you get the most for your tool collecting buck, as waiting for a gem to appear on eBay gets tedious.
The biggest American tool auction is the fall Brown Auction Services auction, run by Clarence Blanchard at 800-248-8114. Other top American auctions are those by Bill Spicer (401-295-0339), Barry Hurchalla (610-323-0333), and Time and Strike Auction Company (603-485-2800). Of course, other more general auctioneers often have old tools in their lineup, but the auctioneers mentioned above have dedicated antique tool auctions which make the likelihood of finding that gem much higher.
There are only three overseas tool auctions of which I am aware, but all of these are every bit as good as the American ones (in fact it sometimes seems like the overseas auctioneers are having a running battle with the big American auctioneers for the record biggest total in one auction). The overseas auctions are David Stanley in the U.K. (U.S. representative at 508-748-1680), Tony Murland also in the U.K. (011-44-1449-722992 or U.S. contact at 800-869-0695), and Hans Brunner in Australia (07 3281 0280). All of these have nicely illustrated catalogs on coated paper so the drool doesn't soak in much.organizations. The former, professional dealers, can also be found in these places, but a handy online list has been created at The Electronic Neanderthal. Allan Fisher created this fantastic resource site early on in the days on web sites (1995), and it is still going strong today. Besides old tool dealers, you can find wood suppliers, new tool dealers, lists of events, books, and much more. Definitely a neat place to park your web browser for awhile.
Dealers often encounter mixed emotions on the part of tool collectors. Some collectors think dealers are their antithesis, bidding against them at auctions and generally "sucking up all the good stuff". I believe that dealers actually are the life blood of the tool world, as it takes great effort to "suck up all the good stuff" and most collectors would never see this good stuff other than on a dealer's table or catalog page. Dealers in the tool world are also nearly universally nice people who will not hesitate to share valuable insights on antique tools -- in short I think they can be your best friend in the tool biz if you warm up to them a bit. But, keep in mind they are also in the business to make money, and they can't give stuff away. I think it is healthy to negotiate with them for the goods you are interested in, and if you think the price too high, feel free to walk away with no hard feelings.
Most dealers acquire tools for resale in several different ways:
Antique tool dealers are for the most part individuals who realized their love for old tools and decided to make hunting for these treasures their main source of income. There are really no large antique tool dealers like you might find in the world of antique art or coins. The largest tool dealers may employ just a half dozen people. The most successful dealers fully realize the long hours and hard work that goes with their passion for finding the rare rust. This is not a profession entered easily by just anyone -- it takes months (years!) of research, continual inventory turnover, and the ability to live on fairly low margins (second incomes seem to be the rule). I don't know any dealers who are making millions from tool sales -- this is an occupation of passion, not of greed.
Dealers sell tools from their inventories by running advertisements in leading tool periodicals such as the national club publications, the Fine Tool Journal, and the like, by issuing printed catalogues and price lists, by sending approval shipments to clients who have submitted want lists, by consigning to auctions, by sending electronic messages, by fax correspondence, and by telephone solicitation.
Prices and profit margins vary. Common items such as Stanley bench planes, Stratton Brothers levels, etc. usually trade at low markups. A dealer may buy a quantity lot of tools for, say, $20,000 and turn it over quickly for $21,000 or even less. On the other hand, for particularly scarce or rare items, or items which are in truly exceptional condition, the markup may be 30% or more. One of the great legends in the tool market is the belief that rare tool dealers can operate their businesses, pay their advertising bills, pay rent, buy airplane tickets, purchase insurance coverage, and borrow money from the bank to use as operating capital, and then buy and sell tools profitably on a margin of just a few percent. It just doesn't happen!
There are no hard and fast rules, and the best advice I can give is that you should know your dealer and also gain a familiarity with prices. Whether the dealer makes a 5% profit on a tool he sells you or whether he makes a 35% profit is immaterial. What matters is the actual price you have to pay for the tool, and whether you consider that a good value or not. I once paid $2,000 for a rare Washington state level which the seller, a prominent dealer, had bought an hour before for $400. I did not begrudge him the $1600 profit he made, because I thought the piece to be a good value when I bought it. And I've since had two other collectors offer me twice what I paid if I would sell it to them!
Before you buy anything, learn the following:
It is also a good idea to check out a dealer's reputation before purchasing from him. How can you check on a dealer's reputation? If you are not sure, you can contact the following:
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.
Prices are set on a case-by-case basis, but virtually all old tools trade within a range. For a given double-clawed hammer, prices can often be found ranging from, say, $200 to $350. It will pay to do some research. Is the $200 tool unattractive with a broken handle, or otherwise not as desirable as one priced at $250 or $275? Is the $350 piece an aesthetically pleasing tool which stands as one of the finest of its kind, or is it simply overpriced? There are no hard and fast answers to these questions.
If a tool is common and is traded frequently there is no hurry to buy it, and you can investigate at leisure. In the Stanley Bedrock series about half of the different planes are readily obtainable, therefore you can pick and choose. Continuing the same example, among rarities in the Bedrock series, such as 602-C and 605-1/4, top grade specimens do not come along with frequency, and a purchase decision may have to be made quickly. Still, you want to be sure of paying somewhere within a reasonable price range.
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.
My experience is that if you wanted to find some top examples of a certain tool (for example, a really nice 12" L.L. Davis level) you may have to work through 50 or 100 of these to find 6 with a good amount of gold pinstriping left and no repairs. Of these six, just two would be real beauties, and the other four would be marginal.
It has been said that no great collection was ever formed by anyone who was a slave to published values. 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 (unless you define "great" as in "great numbers").
I recall the case of a well known collector, now well into retirement. A tool connoisseur from the beginning, he chose to buy only top quality rare tools in excellent condition. He was a fixture at the major tool events, and bought for many years at the top national and international auctions, often paying a record price for his acquisitions. People talked, oohed, and aahed.
Recently he has stating selling some things, and it turns out he can double or triple his money on practically all his pieces. Attend a show where he pulls up, and you'll immediately notice as he starts to unpack his things that the savvy tool dealers crowd around his table to get a chance at items that you just can't find otherwise. The point of this story is that quality is expensive, but is worth it. Today's auction record is often tomorrow's bargain. I have seen it happen many times. On the other hand, if you are a slave to published prices and want just bargains, you'll have no trouble buying tools, but selling them may be an entirely different matter.Building Dealer Relationships
I consider it important for you to build an ongoing relationship with one or more dealers. In general, dealers have the tools that you want. If a dealer has two or three customers who need the same tool, the one who has established the best rapport often gets first chance. It will pay you to establish such a fine relationship.
It may strike you as strange to suggest that a buyer of tools such as you should make an effort to establish a relationship with a dealer, for many buyers take this attitude: I have the money, and the dealer can come to me and persuade me to buy something if they like. Why should I go out of my way to be nice to a dealer? I have what he wants (money).
This may be true, and whether a dealer likes you or not, or whether you like the dealer or not, you can still make purchases. However, if a warm relationship of mutual trust and friendship is established, you will enjoy your transactions more, and chances are excellent that you will be given first pick of the dealer's new purchases or the better tools from his inventory. In my opinion, a close relationship with one or more trusted dealers is an absolute must. Often the people with the anti-dealer attitide are the first ones to complain that "they never get the insider deals". Well, if there are such things as "insider deals", then the "insiders" are the ones who have through time, energy, and money worked themselves into a close relationship with the primary dealers in the field.
Often, when a dealer has to make a determination as to whom a newly-purchased tool should be offered, he makes this decision based upon some of these factors:
If you truly want to build a great tool collection, then you should ensure that you are at the top of the list in terms of these considerations.
As your interest in tools grows, you will find that certain tools needed to complete your collection or set will be difficult to locate. Try as you might, you may not be able to find an Irwin patent plane, Bradford level, Stearns ivory rule, Israel White plow, or other tools in the condition and price range you want. An effective way to facilitate purchases of scarce and rare pieces is to make up a want list of the items you are seeking and send it to one or more dealers. Be careful in this though -- if you send your want list to too many dealers, and the piece you are after shows up at an auction, the dealers may soon be outbidding each other to get you the item. You'll end up paying much more for it than if you had advertised more discreetly.
I suggest that you accompany your want list with a personal letter, or introduce it by making a telephone call to the dealer. A Xerox or fax copy of a want list that looks as if it has been sent indiscriminately to a hundred dealers is less apt to produce results than a want list which looks personal and which is accompanied by a message directed specifically to the dealer recipient. A good compromise is to reproduce your want list on a copying machine and accompany it with a personal cover letter. If you can, you could also make a written promise to the dealer that you are willing to pay x amount for a Good+ or better example. Without this guarantee of salability, the dealer may be hesitant to commit personal funds for something.
There are two major national U.S. tool groups, the Midwest Tool Collectors Association (MWTCA) and the Early American Industries Association (EAIA). The MWTCA tends to favor tool trading at their gatherings, while the EAIA favors educational programs about old tools, although some of each happens at both organization's meetings. The nationals put out nice periodical publications, sell tool collecting books at a discount, and usually have the best meetings.
There are also several regional clubs in the U.S. Allan Fisher's site at the The Electronic Neanderthal lists most of the national and regional tool club events. There are also tool collecting groups outside the U.S. (such as the Tools and Trades Historical Society (TATHS) in England), but I don't know much about these, never having been to a meeting.
Attending these shows is one of the best ways to learn more about old tools. Not only will you see a wide variety of tools, you will also meet very knowledgeable tool dealers and collectors who can point out why one tool is more valuable than another that looks (to the lay person) just like it. If you have tools to sell, you can also bring them to these meetings and find a good market for them. It is at these meetings that you will hear all the tool scuttlebutt and gossip that will help "tune you into" the marketplace for old tools. You'll also learn who to avoid in the tool world (maybe because they doctor up tools or they have failed to complete an agreed upon transaction). These are things that set the real world marketplaces apart from virtual ones like eBay. If you are serious about collecting old tools, you owe it to yourself to attend as many of these meetings as you can.
That said, let me offer some pointers for those who still want to hunt for tools this way. While the inefficiencies exist, the big advantage is tools can often be had fairly cheaply and if you are knowledgeable you can score in a big way. So, in the garage sale marketplace, knowledge is power! You can't rely on the seller to explain all the advantages or shortcomings of a particular tool -- they probably don't know themselves or they wouldn't have marked the Lowentraut patent brace at $1.50. Travel with your reference materials, and remember that condition is king when you are tempted by another Union jack plane. Get up early and be the first in line at the opening. Go with a partner (or two) so you can canvass more territory quicker, or if your partners are not knowledgeable about tools, to hold stuff while you dig through piles. Head for most likely tool locations first -- basements, garages, workshops, kitchen drawers. Leave the Tiffany lamps at $5 for the lamp collectors.national tool organizations publish excellent periodicals. The web is growing every day with new and interesting sites to find out about antique tools. Major tool dealers publish tool sale and auction catalogs. There is plenty of information out there if you are only wiling to look for it and learn from it.
Besides the printed information, tool shows, meetings, auctions, and other collectors are vast sources of information. All the printed materials have stemmed from attending shows and tool events long enough to have gathered enough information to condense into a book, catalog, or web site. I've said this before, but it really bears repeating -- there is no substitute!book list for some of the more popular titles, but do your own searches on Amazon and eBay as well. If you find there is no book on your favorite subject area, start attending shows, talking to people, looking for examples, and then write your won book! interesting antique tool sites above. These are sites created by long-time tool collectors who have done serious study. The one thing to be careful of with web sites is that these days almost anyone can make one. Don't believe everything you read on the web, especially on sites that seem to be solely for selling tools without any educational material.
Well, that's it! I hope this information helps the beginning collector get started in the right direction. 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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