Tools of the Trades: If you can’t inherit them, buy them

Without a doubt, the best way to get tools is to inherit them. Not because it means you lost a loved one, but because inherited tools usually (hopefully?) come to you after years of tutelage in how to use and take care of them. Which is also to say that tools inherited tend to be in better shape than antique tools tend to be when you find them for sale somewhere.

A sad old Bailey No 5 awaiting rebirth as a usable tool. Rescued yesterday
for $12.00 from the shelf of an antique store.

I really feel you should mourn and doff your cap when you find a pile of old tools in a state of disrepair at a thrift store or in a flea market. It is the sign of a craftsman who failed to pass on his craft to the next generation. Rusted tools given away are the spoor of a dead craft lineage.

Then put your cap back on and buy them.

Apply some elbow grease to rejuvenating these treasures and apply them to keeping the craft alive in new hands that will appreciate them.

For me, this has been especially true with hammers and hand planes.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following along for awhile (or will find out shortly if you’re new here) I am something of a tool addict. From the antique stores, thrift shops, and flea markets, I have added to the hoard of 19th century tools I inherited. Or as I see it, I have given new life to tools that were destined for premature retirement on the walls of some kitschy restaurant or the shelves of some “Flea Market Chic” home.

Nothing annoys me more than to see tools used as bric-a-brac except maybe books abused in the same way and for the same reasons. I think tools are beautiful too, but as functional art, not inert sculpture to molder on your shelves. Use them or by God, give them to someone who will.

If you are a crafter, I hope you feel the same way when you see elements of your craft on the shelves at the local Goodwill. My wife supplements her inherited sewing implements with the same fervor I apply to woodworking and leather tools.

As always, the fall of one noble line gives room for new houses to rise and replace them. A quick tour of woodworking blogs will tell you beyond the shadow of doubt that the pursuit of handcraft is alive and thriving. While an increasingly mechanized world has undoubtedly managed to drive many to set aside the love of good tools meant to last generations in favor of ease and speed, the rise of the internet has also brought together communities of those who are fighting to keep their handcraft alive.

I mentioned Ravelry the other day as a gathering place for knitters both historical and modern. For the carpenter and joiner, there is LumberJocks and Sawmill Creek, for leathercrafters there is Leatherworker.net and for other crafts there are many more besides that I’ve forgotten or just haven’t found yet. One of the great elements of these places is the sharing of resources and advice on rejuvenating these thrift store finds.

The wood body hand plane you see to the left is one of many that I’ve rescued from oblivion. The seller didn’t know what they had. They’d duct taped the throat of the thing for some reason (without actually covering the protruding blade, so I’ve no idea what it was supposed to accomplish) and jamed the blade in backwards with enough force that it took some doing for me to remove it.

Because I do my research before heading out to go looking, I identified by its maker’s marks right away as an English-made mid-nineteenth century Varvill & Sons plane. The plane iron (that’s the blade) was original and in decent shape with plenty of good steel under all the rust. The tote (that’s the handle) is solid with no cracks, a common flaw with antique planes, and just needs to be tightened a bit. It’s a bit rough, but where weren’t any cracks or splits that went deeper than a quarter inch, which meant I could fill them during the restoration and have a perfectly sound tool to leave to my heirs and they to theirs.

All of which ends with me buying it for $14.00.

If you look hard enough, these things are out there. Even though I really do live out in the middle of nowhere, I can drive less than thirty minutes and find a trove of antique tools. In fact, the closer to the middle of nowhere you get, it seems, the more likely you are to find these things. I’ve done this all over the United States, and I can tell you that these tools are to be found everywhere if you’re looking for them.

I think it’s definitely worth noting that if you don’t want to restore antiques you can buy new ones that are being lovingly handmade by modern toolmakers. Specialty retailers like Lee Valley and Woodcraft are filled to the rafters with historically-inspired tools. If you want to talk to people making their own, there’s St Thomas Guild, and if you want to buy them, there’s even a group in England called Daegrad Tools that has begun reproducing museum-quality tools for the reenactor market, based on archaeological finds. I don’t have any of their tools yet, but I’m hearing great things about them.

The toolmakers are really the unsung heroes of the craft guilds and the modern crafts movement.

One of the “projects in the background” for this blog has been to procure and restore almost all of the tools I haven’t built myself.  At some point I’ll do a full series of posts on ‘how to evaluate antique tools you intend to use’ but I haven’t the time to devote to really doing it right at the moment. So you have that to look forward to.

Two important notes, however, that I do want to mention:

  1. Antique blacksmith hammers are best avoided. While I do use antique hammers in wood and leatherworking, a hammer intended to use metal-against-metal can be over-hardened by years of use, and thus prone to chip or crack and throw the broken bits in your direction. You’ll note as we go forward that all of the metal and forge work I do will be using new hammers.
  2. I tend to avoid buying planes that don’t have blades unless I’m ready to add $40-$50 (or more) to the purchase price to get a decent replacement that will fit.  When we get to the Worshipful Company of Joiners, we’ll discuss what goes into making our own plane blades, and you’ll get a better idea of why they’re so expensive.

In the meantime, the sun is out and my workshop is calling. I’ve a tankard that needs hooping and some horns that need to be cut and shaped into useful items. Not to mention a workshop in dreadful need of clearing-out before I can hope to do any joinery worthy of the tools I inherited.

~ Scott

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