In Search of Antique Tools

An Antiques Roadshow tool expert, collector and dealer offers tips for acquiring old tools.

By LuAnn Brandsen | Updated Nov 9, 2013 11:19 PM

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antique wood plane

Classic New England crown molding plane by A. Smith, Rehoboth, MA, valued at $1,999.. 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.

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.

Antique Disston Saw

Rare Henry Disston & Sons 8 brass-backed dovetail saw.. Photo: The Best Things

2. Patented planes. The  late 19th century brought the Age of Invention, along with thousands of patents. “All kinds of weird planes emerged,” Lee says, “and they are considered hot for collecting right now.”

3. Collecting by Manufacturer. This category often overlaps with patented planes, but collectors view it as focused more on the products of a particular manufacturer than on the patents behind the tools. Stanley planes are by far the most commonly collected (along with all the company’s tools), but other manufacturers, like Sargent, are also collected. Part of Stanley’s appeal is its history. Founded in the 1850s as a manufacturer of rules (now called rulers) and levels, the company made its fortune after buying the rights to the patent for an adjustable metal plane from Leonard Bailey. “It was the most successful iron plane design of all time, and Stanley went from an obscure little company to a big name in a relatively small amount of time,” Lee says.

4. Infill planes. Tools of remarkable precision and quality, these British metal planes were made in the early 1900s, a time when industrialization saw many handcrafts disappear. The most widely recognized makers are Thomas Norris and Stewart Spiers, though lesser-known makers proliferated, some of them offering tools of similar quality. “These were kind of the last word in smoothing planes,” Lee says. “A good one would cost a week’s wages for workmen at the time, and only the best craftsmen would buy them. They were incredibly well made.”

Measuring Tools. Collectibles include everything from squares and bevels to gauges and rules. Several books on rules published in the last decade have fueled added interest in this category.

Levels. These common tools were sometimes works of art in themselves. Designs range from the straightforward to cast-iron styles with intricate filigree patterns and gold painted trim.

Saws. Beautifully weathered handles and a patina finish on blades put this category in a nostalgic cut above others. Collectible types include crosscut, rip, back, and coping blades. Disston was the most successful saw maker of all time, and like Stanley, it has a collectors’ following of its own. Many smaller makers flourished in the US and Britain and just like with wooden planes, some collectors strive to have examples of as many makers as possible.

Under the category of frequently asked questions is whether new or old tools are better. Lee explains that 19th-century society focused on handwork, and their best tools were state-of-the-art. In the 20th century, things moved toward manufactured goods and mechanization, and the emphasis on making great hand tools was gone. “For the most part, I think old tools are better, but there are some small makers out there today making amazing tools,” he says. “The Blue Spruce Tool Works, for instance, makes chisels that are truly as good as the best antique chisels, with steel that is better than what they could make in the 19th Century. There are others, but this is the exception.”

Stanley Bailey Number 5 Jack Plane.. Photo: The Best Things

Determining the value of a tool is generally based on its condition, its rarity, its current demand, and its history (provenance). Check a current antique tool price guide, or what online dealers are asking for tools, to get some clue as to fair market value. The Fine Tool Journal publishes a useful grading system, as well. Once you’re ready, these sources can get you started:

Dealers. Expect to pay more for reputable antiques dealers and specialty tool dealers will give an accurate assessment to the tool’s condition and value. Expect to pay more for this expertise, but remember that you’re buying peace of mind, too.

Ebay. Antique tools appear daily, but many are sold by non-users who unknowingly describe them inaccurately, not even realizing that a tool has the wrong blade, is warped, or is missing a part.

Auctions. A few good dealers and collectors remain who only sell at auction. Both Live Free or Die Auctions and the Brown Auction Services in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania offer large antique tool auctions each spring and fall.

Estate and garage sales. You won’t find the tools like you used to. Still, it’s an option if you understand the inefficiencies and simply enjoy the hunt.

Tool collector clubs. “You can go to flea markets until the end of time and not find what you can find being connected to a tool club,” Lee says. The Mid-west Tool Collectors Association claims to be the world’s largest tool collecting organization with a national membership of about 3,500 and several area meetings to get you involved. The Early American Industries Association is a more academic group responsible for research on the history of tools, toolmakers, and tool usage. And then there are several regional groups, such as Potomac Area Tools and Industries Associaton or tool-specific groups like the Missouri Valley Wrench Club.

Once you’ve made a purchase, protect it. “Nothing should be done that is not reversible,” Lee says. “For example, if it is dirty, clean it. But don’t refinish it.” Likewise, store implements properly. “If you keep tools in the same kind of atmosphere you’d be happy to live in—warm and dry—they’ll be fine,” Lee says. And if you never intend to use the tool, Lee has advice on that as well. “The majority of collectors have a dedicated room with shelves,” he says. “They’ll invite you over and you go in to pay homage to the tools all over the room. That’s your next step. It’s kind of like a shrine.”