The Old Tool Collector is a website to promote the collection and restoration of old woodworking tools. Mathieson of Glasgow, Spiers of Ayr, Norris of London and Ed Preston of Birmingham are amongst the names of the British plane making greats. It is hoped that the collection of the old tools and continued use that these tools will last the test of time.
My story:- Alex Wilson – The Old Tool Collector
I was introduced to the world of old tool collecting in the summer of 2000 after my two sons had given up competitive swimming. Theirs was a hobby that had consumed my time for the previous eleven years with countless training sessions, early mornings on weekdays and galas at the weekends. They stopped swimming within a few months of each other, and my job as the taxi driver to support this hobby was over.
My brother, who is a long time collector of tools, asked what I intended to do with all this spare time. I hadn’t given it much thought. He suggested I accompany him on the rounds he did at weekends and start my own tool collection. He would teach me the ropes.
A typical weekend started by scouring the local papers on a Friday to see if there were any garage sales, flea markets or any other events in the area that we could go on Saturday. Sundays were always sorted: an early morning rise at 4.00 am, ready to drive to our nearest city, which has several markets. We always went to the biggest, and what we considered to be the best, first. I learned that we should arrive about 4.35am, as it’s the early collector that catches the tools!
We would do the rounds of all the stalls, quickly scanning each for rich-pickings. My brother explained that if you did a detailed trawl of each seller, it would take far too long and you just couldn’t cover the ground. It would surprise you just how adept you become at scanning a stall. Boxes and on the ground is the favoured place for tools. If you come across a box of tools always dig down to the bottom of the box: where do you think all the depth stops and side fences for 71’s have gone? The number of interesting finds in the bottom of boxes is amazing. Once the initial scan had been carried out it was back to the beginning to do an in-depth check.
After exhausting the first market we would move on to the second, usually by around 6.30 AM, arriving at 7.00 AM. We would do a couple of hours there, then onto the third. We would finish around 11.30 am then drive home for a quick nap. The later on in the day, the less likely we would be to pick up anything of great value, but it did happen from time to time. Always carry a decent amount of cash with you – take coinage as well, and don’t forget to take a torch.
Try to make a contact of stall holders that you’ve purchased tools from in the past. They will often put tools aside, knowing that you will be along at some point, and they will also tell their friends. If you can, get a card made. If you just leave your name and phone number on a piece of scrap paper, it will inevitably get lost.
Another thing that was instilled in me was, to be honest. You can con most people once but you’re unlikely to get the chance to do it again. A bad name goes before you.
Learn the name and purpose of the different tools, you don’t need to be able to use them. There is a fountain of knowledge out there. Listen to people’s stories; old carpenter or cabinet makers will be glad to tell you all about a certain tool and its use. Once you acquire the knowledge, it becomes a bit of a game. When an old-timer asks, “Do you know what this is, son?”. They’re usually delighted when you can tell them!
The valuation of tools is an art in itself. There are so many different tools and a large number of manufacturers. Quality does shine through. The leading manufacturers made quality tools, that’s how they become the leading manufacturers. If the plane or tool that you consider buying has a top makers’ name, then the greater the price can be paid. To the collector, if you get two identical planes, one named the other un-named, the price for the named plane could be more than double. This is not the case for a user.
The main contributor to the value of a tool is its condition. Condition over-rides everything unless you have access to tools and knowledge of refurbishment (which I will touch on later). One thing to remember is that a dog of a tool can be used for spares, many’s the time I’ve regretted not buying a tool I could have later used as a donor tool. Sometimes you have to think ahead to a possible use of a tool at a later date. Of course, this means carrying inventory which, if you’re not careful, can get out of hand. There are many good books on the value of tools out there: the ‘Antique Tool Value Guide’ is excellent for beginners. One thing that I would suggest is that when you first start out don’t buy anything too expensive, as you can get your fingers burned (unless you have loads of money, in which case, fill your boots!).
Be prepared to offer good prices when dealing with sellers. If you have ever gone to a flea market early on you will have noticed ‘the dreaded dealer’ who wants to buy on the cheap and sell for the top dollar (which they have every right to do). To me, a collector is a guy at the end of the rainbow, and you must be prepared to give good prices. You’ve heard the adage, “and don’t forget to floss!”. Don’t cheat anybody, especially an old granny that is selling her late husbands’ carpentry tool. If you give her a decent price she will be delighted. Also, have a look at the online shop, it will give a clear picture of the prices.
Going it alone
After nine months of learning the ropes, it was time to go it alone. Of course, I would have to choose other markets to frequent. I didn’t want to be in competition with my brother. No room for two fish in the pond! This was relatively easy as there are lots of these types of markets on in most areas at the weekends.
So, here I am. Cash in pocket, and ready to be let loose. I know the function of most carpentry tools. I have a fair idea of prices and know the importance of condition. I ask myself, “What tools will I start collecting?”. The truth was that I started collecting everything: planes, chisels, levels, squares, rules, trammels, everything carpentry related. I even started using the online shop to add to my ever-growing collection. Between 2002 until 2007, I bought 256 lots online. It was like a collector gone mad!
My youngest son went off to university and my wife suggested that I use his room as a display area for my tools. I set up five racks and filled them. Once I had covered the floor and could hardly gain access, it was out to the shed.
My growing collection
My collecting was running riot! I decided enough was enough. The first thing to stop was buying on the internet. My idea of “in good condition” seems to differ greatly from the typical online seller. My worst buy ever from the online shop was three No. 4 type planes, where the seller enclosed a short note saying, “I thought I would do you a favour and polish the planes with a hand grinder”. I just threw them straight into the bin.
I still enjoyed the thrill of the chase, so I carried on going to the flea markets. My collection was still growing. I took a liking to plough planes and dabbled with them, a mistake looking back as at the time prices were very high, they’re only worth a third of the money I paid. Mistakes can be made, even as a seasoned collector. I think the saying is ‘swings and roundabouts’.
A point of fact that proves this is a lucky find I had soon after going it alone. I was doing the rounds of a flea market when I came across a box of moulding planes. I had a quick look at them and noticed that one was a bit different from the rest. Although it didn’t have any blades or wedges I noticed it had three slots to accommodate them. It was three inches wide and by Nelson of London. Hmm, I thought, that’s interesting – and I shoved it back.
When I went over to my brothers soon after, he asked what I had picked up. I showed him one or two things that I had and told him about the moulding plane. He, having a greater knowledge than me, said, “You must be daft! If it’s there next week then you have to buy it!”. He then told me all about wide, multi-blade complex moulding planes.
The following Sunday I arrived back at the flea market and went straight to the stall that I had been at the previous week and, low and behold, it was still there. The stall-holder said, “it’s yours for a fiver”. Ok, I thought, that sounds fine, even though it is a moulding plane that has no blades or wedges. The deal was done. I still had no idea of its value, just that it could be a good addition to my collection. I arrived at my brother’s again the following week and first thing he asked was, “Did you get the moulding plane?”. “Here it is,” I said. “And what about the blades and wedges?” he replied, “Did you check the bottom of the box?”. Back to the flea market the following Sunday, and there they were!
So, don’t forget to floss and always check the bottom of toolboxes!
Now we get to the touchy subject of refurbishment.
My brother asked if I would also like to learn how to restore the tools I was collecting. He had turned one of the rooms in his house into a workshop. He invited me to come round twice a week to work on our newly acquired tools. He had been restoring tools for ten years, and not to be modest, he was the dog’s doodahs!
The purist may say that tools should only be sympathetically restored and that it is cheating to do anything other than fine-tuning. Bollocks! A good tradesman always kept his tools in the best of a condition; sharp and ready for action. Anyway, there is little or no antique value in most old tools. If you were to get a modern-day replacement for many tools (especially planes) it would cost you four or five times the cost of an old one. It is more for rarity value that the older planes are sometimes pricey. Also, the quality of the workmanship that we accomplish is outstanding.
When my brother and I restore a broken handle for a Spier’s infill plane, we hand carve it for sonokeling rosewood which takes hours of work. Try carving that variety of wood… its like bell metal!
I don’t sell on any of my refurbished tools. It’s my preference just to have them on display. If I’m fooling anyone, it’s just myself. Most old tools that I see that are in poor condition. They’ve often been butchered by the offspring of the joiner or carpenter, left to rust or used as a hammer by some kid.
Learning to restore
How do you learn to restore tools? Simple. You get someone with many years of experience and knowledge to teach you. Ok, maybe not so simple. The best way to start out is with inexpensive items like levels and rules. These can be brought back to almost new while causing little damage.
Then its time to move on top bigger and more expensive items!
Of course, mistakes are made and you have to go back to the drawing board and start afresh. Eventually, you find out just the ticket for a certain job, developing a preference for a particular concoction of dyes, stains, varnishes and polish.
Now, after more than a decade of acquiring tools and learning how to refurbish them, I’ve decided to put some of my collection online to share with the world. Please have a browse!