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- In Search of Antique Tools
In Search of Antique Tools
An Antiques Roadshow tool expert, collector and dealer offers tips for acquiring old tools.
- Photo: The Best Things
Lee Richmond’s foray into the world of antique tool collecting was simply a young man’s means to an end. As an engineering student, Lee frequented the Philadelphia Museum of Art on weekends where 18th-century Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture caught his eye. “I knew I couldn’t afford such pieces, so I started building period-style furniture in the college shop while everyone else was partying on the weekends,” Lee says.
When Lee began assembling his own workshop after graduation, he focused on hand tools because he didn’t have the space for machinery. Their superior results and relaxed feel soon won him over. He started buying box lots at auctions, taking out the few tools he wanted and selling the rest. That’s when he discovered he liked dealing, too.
Twenty-six years later, Lee still loves period furniture and the tools that made them. He is the founder of The Best Things Corporation, specializing in fine woodworking tools. He is also a 10-year veteran tool expert for the traveling PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, exchanging appraisals for close-up encounters with old tools and the local people who bring them in. One of his favorite assessments was an 1830s drafting set shared by the family member of a surveyor who was sent by the US government to help map the country’s interior.
TOOLS TO COLLECT
Like any collectible, it’s smart to buy what you like or what you will actually use. Woodworkers choose tools for their quality, craftsmanship, and functionality. Collectors who never intend to use an antique tool are more interested in the history, aesthetics, and condition. They generally collect based on the type of tool, the time period, the region, or the patents on the design.
Here are some tool-collecting categories worth checking out:
Planes. Aside from being prevalent and highly useful, many planes are also visually aesthetic and have intriguing histories. Styles and types range, and you can expect to pay anywhere from a few dollars for a scruffy unmarked wooden plane to tens of thousands for one made by a celebrated 18th-century craftsman. Lee groups the category into four types:
1. Molding & other wooden planes. Before factories, individual cabinetmakers owned as many as 30-60 different wooden planes, most of them being molding planes. Sheer number makes them a reasonably accessible collectible with prices beginning around $50 for interesting and usable 19th-century examples.
Lee estimates there were more than a hundred individual pioneering American makers creating 18th-century planes, though some are quite obscure. “One favorite that brings the most money is Cesar Chelor, a freed slave from Massachusetts,” Lee says. “Cesar apprenticed under his master, Francis Nicholson, the first noted American plane maker. When Nicholson died in 1753, he willed Cesar his freedom, some tools, and enough land to establish him as the first independent African-American toolmaker.” Today, any of the estimated 200 planes remaining with a stamp of Cesar’s name tug at emotions, as well as pocketbooks. Last year, Lee appraised one between $6,000 and $8,000; others have gone much higher.
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