Tool-shopping tips for flea market fanatics
The prospect of finding inexpensive tools from long-forgotten toolmakers lured me to the Brimfield (Mass.) Antique show last Saturday afternoon.
The show is essentially a massive flea market that attracts hundreds of dealers who set up tents on wide swaths of open fields just north of the Connecticut border. It’s open three times a summer, for one week in May, July and September, and attracts thousands of shoppers. I’ve found that it’s big enough to be difficult, if not impossible, to visit every single booth in a day. In my 18 years of going there, I never have.
Given all that old stuff, it’s fertile ground for vintage tool-buyers.
I headed up on a mission for chisels, preferably thinner-widths. I find flea markets and garage sales are particularly great spots for these tools since chisels are fairly common. And since they lack moving parts, it’s easy to size chisels up quickly to see if they are intact. With more complicated tools–power tools, for instance, and in some cases handplanes–it’s difficult to do so in a booth.
When I go tool-shopping at garage sales and flea markets, I like to bring along a few items with me.
- A good, 12-inch combination square, which I use to measure lengths and widths of chisels and check the squareness or flatness of plane soles and other surfaces. I also use it to check whether other squares are in fact square.
- A sheet or two of 320-grit sandpaper, which I use to remove surface rust from items. This is especially handy for checking for makers’ marks on chisels, planes, axes, or other metal tools. Quick tip: Ask a dealer if it’s OK to sand something before buying it. In my own experience, they don’t care, as long as I ask.
- A smartphone. I use this all the time to quickly look up information-and pricing-for items that I am interested in. I check online auctions and try to estimate a market value for tools I know little about. It helps to know whether you’re getting a deal.
- Hand wipes. This sounds silly, but picking through bins of tools and sanding rusted surfaces can leave your hands greasy, dirty and in rare instances bloody. Bring a few wipes along just in case.
- A plan. I find it more fruitful to narrow my focus, rather than plan to look for tools. If I want thinner-width chisels, for instance, that’s all I look for. I’ll even ask dealers if they have those items, and point me to them if they do. If I see other tools along the way, I’ll look. But I try to avoid mission creep in these instances.
- A budget. I only bring along the cash that I’ve budgeted. There’s less chance of losing it, and less chance of succumbing to the temptation to buy unneccessary tools.
This last trip, I spent about five hours wandering along the aisles and fields and found at least three or four dozen dealers with some hand tools, and about six or seven that specializes in vintage woodworking tools and related items. In all, I spent about $150, including the about $20 for lunch and parking, which was my budget. I bought seven chisels, two gouges, a spokeshave, 6-inch double-square, steel protractor, three 6 in. rules, a marking knife, carpenter’s axe and several small files. Clearly there was some mission creep from my stated goal, but in all, I was pleased with the deals I found.
I was especially happy because several of the chisels were of the harder to find variety-Stanley 750 and Everlasting chisels, and two thinner chisels by T.H. Witherby. Although these will require a little elbow grease and tuning, I enjoy the look and feel of these older chisels and enjoy refurbishing them.
Plus, the hunt is fun. There’s something romantic about unearthing and repurposing a good, long-forgotten chisel or hand-tool found at the bottom of a box. And scratching away the rust from the top of dirty steel to reveal the toolmakers whose names are lost to antiquity offers a glimpse into woodworking history that many woodworkers, myself included, find fascinating.
When I get back to my shop, I first sand down rust spots, or in the case of very rusty tools, soak them in a rust remover such as Evapo-Rust. When they’re done, I wipe them down with a rag, hone the back, regrind and polish the bevels and the new chisels are ready to go.
I bought quite a few tools for about $130.
Sometimes there's just a little rust on the surface, such as with this 1/8 in. Witherby chisel.
I find that a quick sanding is usually enough to rid light surface rust on a chisel.
I used my own combination square to check that this Starrett double-square was in fact square.
This gouge had a lot of surface rust when I bought it at a garage sale for $2.
I sanded down the inside of the gouge to find the maker's mark. Sometimes they are hard to decipher. In this case, it was a Greenlee.
Other maker's mark, like this one, are much harder to identify. I'm, not sure who made this chisel, but I generally find chisels made of "cast" or "warranted" steel perform well for my needs.
Remember to check the handles. A chisel with a handle that has been glued to the steel can be a lot of work to get apart.
Back at my shop, I soak very rusty chisels or plane blades in a rust remover. Here I used Evapo-Rust.