Across the nation, yard-sale season is in full swing. Led by the Boomer generation (and inspired by Marie Kondo, who has been applying her organizational skills to helping the less tidy), residents everywhere are downsizing their possessions. Everything from clothes to toys, books to knickknacks, and bicycles to blenders is headed to rummage sales, church sales, and garage sales. If an item is not being used and/or does not bring “joy” into one’s life, it’s gone.
For collectors, the situation is ideal: as everyone else is discarding “stuff,” all sorts of desirable items are surfacing. Even if you’re not a collector, you would want to take advantage of the situation to upgrade your possessions. Hand tools are one group that can have it both ways.
Hand tools – both woodworking and mechanic – have long had a presence at yard-sales. Most sales we’ve attended have had at least a few old screwdrivers (some of which had obviously seen use as chisels or mini crowbars), one or two heavily-worn pliers or wrenches, rusty rasps, hammers with chipped wood handles and/or loose heads, and, oftentimes, an old cigar box containing an odd assortment of drill bits, hex keys, sockets, screws, bolts, metal washers, and wing nuts.
Even in today’s markets, chances are that you won’t find a high-end, professional brand of mechanic’s tools like Snap-on, Matco, or MAC except, possibly, at an estate sale. But you might come across a nice set of tools from Craftsman. Established by Sears in 1927, the Craftsman brand attracted both professionals and do-it-yourselfers who found the quality, price, and lifetime warranties very appealing. Stanley, Husky (Home Depot), and Kobalt (Loew’s) have also been recognizable mid-level brands you probably would not want to pass up.
Note that “brand” and “manufacturer” are not necessarily the same thing. For example, Kobalt used to be manufactured (1998-2003) by a subsidiary (J.H. Williams) of Snap-on, while MAC Tools, Proto (an industrial-grade brand), and, now, Craftsman all fall under the umbrella of tool conglomerate Stanley Black & Decker. It’s also true that some tools originally made in the USA have been outsourced to manufacturers overseas, and more than a few customers have complained that quality has suffered as a result. This is why many tool enthusiasts are critical of post-1999 Craftsman tools, a problem Stanley hopes to ameliorate with its new manufacturing facility that is planned to open in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2020.
So, how do you know when, where, and by whom a tool was manufactured? Most quality tools will be forged with a brand name and/or a manufacturer’s code. There are a number of existing websites (some are listed below) that can be of immense help in identifying tools via patents or manufacturers’ catalogs and with deciphering the markings, but just know that it can take a bit of digging.
Finally, how much can you expect to pay for an old or vintage, name-brand tool? If you’re stopping at a yard sale, you would hope to acquire a specimen for as little as possible, but if you’re selling on an online auction site, you may expect to fetch returns comparable to the Craftsman V Series 3/8 Ratchet Wrench that recently sold for $103.50; the 1930s Williams #100 Drain/Fill Plug Service Set that saw a final bid of $181.86; and a 1950s 17-piece J. H. Williams Ribbed OE Super Wrench Set (1/4 to 1 1/4″) that garnered a final bid of $287.00.
So, picking up a tool to sell, save, or use? It doesn’t really matter: you’re a winner no matter what you decide.
For more information on this most practical collectible, check out the resources below, and
Alloy Artifacts (Museum of Tool History) – Wonderful site with a focus on 20th century mechanic’s tools. Includes timelines, patents, trademarks, logo images for identification, links, and much more.
Collecting Snap-on (CollectingSnapOn.com) – Comprehensive site includes date chart, catalogs, forum, more.
International Tool Catalog Library (Internet Archive) – Major resource allows anyone to search hundreds of catalogs, brochures, and advertisements.
Stanley Black & Decker Announces Opening of New CRAFTSMAN Plant in Fort Worth, Texas (Stanley Black and Decker press release) – Craftsman manufacture returns to the US.
Who Makes What Tools (Bricklin.org) – Anecdotal piece regarding the somewhat muddied relationship between brands of tools.