Buying Old Tools
A user's guide to quality hand tools at affordable prices.
Synopsis: The used-tool market is a fertile place to find quality hand tools for affordable prices. Furniture maker Matthew Teague offers a road map to those just dipping a toe into the used-tool market, where everyday tools such as basic bench planes, chisels, spokeshaves, and marking and measuring devices can be found in abundance. You may have to remove a little rust and do some tuning up on old tools, but dollar for dollar, they are hard to beat if you know what to look for and what to avoid.
If you’re in the market for decent hand tools, you have two options: Pay high prices for top-of-the-line new tools (such as those made by Clifton, Lie-Nielsen, or Veritas), or start searching the used-tools market. You may have to remove a little rust and do some tuning up on old tools, but dollar for dollar, they’re hard to beat.
Everyday tools such as basic bench planes, chisels, spokeshaves, and marking and measuring devices were made in abundance during the first half of the 20th century. While the antiques market looks for expensive collectors’ tools to trade, a woodworker more concerned with a tool’s usability than its historical value can choose from a wide variety.
I’ve been to auctions, bought tools online, and dug through boxes of rust at antiques stores in about every town I’ve visited. After finding some good deals and being dealt a few disappointments, I’ve learned what to look for and what to avoid. I’ve also talked to well-known furniture makers—Garrett Hack, Lonnie Bird, Phil Lowe, and Chris Gochnour among them—who rely on vintage tools in their everyday work to find out what they look for when buying old tools.
Get to know styles and prices before you pay up
Before you go hunting old tools, it pays to know a bit about what you’re looking for. You can buy reprints of old tool catalogs and browse the Internet to become familiar with what is available and what it is worth (see “Where to find old tools,” p. 85). If you register on the online auction site eBay, you can view past auctions of tools and the prices they sold for. For instance, if you’re in the market for a Stanley-Bailey No. 3 bench plane, simply run a search on “Stanley Bailey No. 3,” select “show completed listings,” and you can scroll through old auctions. If you see one that sold for $125, chances are it is an impeccable model with all original parts, full japanning (the black enamel finish), and little or no use under its belt. A model for $25, on the other hand, may have missing or replacement parts, a pitted sole, or worse. While you will want tools that aren’t pitted from extensive rust, a little surface rust wipes off with only steel wool and wax. If a handle has been replaced, collectors will stay away from the tool, but it will work just as well in your shop.
Handplanes need a flat sole and all of their adjusters
Buying a basic set of used bench planes is a good way to get started. Your first plane should be a No. 4 smoothing plane or a No. 5 jack plane. After that, you’ll want to look for a good block plane. As for the rest of the bench planes, fill out your collection as you find them.
If you are buying at a store, an auction, or a flea market, use a straightedge to check the sole for flatness. Be sure that all the adjusters are present and in working order because there is a good chance that they are nonstandard and hard to replace. The lever cap should be in decent shape, as replacing it will mean tracking down spare parts. Don’t worry if the sole is a little rusted or even pitted, but the blade
and chipbreaker (or cap iron) shouldn’t be, unless you plan to replace them with new ones. Good-quality replacement blades made by Hock or Lie-Nielsen are available in various sizes and thicknesses, but you should factor their cost into the overall price.
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