You don’t have to be a professional carpenter to admire the form and functionality of old woodworking tools. After all, who’s attention at a yard sale hasn’t been captured by the numbered segments of a folding ruler, or by a maker’s ornate medallion set in the wood handle of a fine-toothed hand saw?
Woodworking and carpentry – there’s a great deal of overlap, but they’re not exactly the same (think building a table and building a house) – developed in tandem, sharing the same tools. Over the course of human history, those tools have evolved and been adapted to fulfill both general and specialized functions.
For example, while the hammer is the earliest tool for which there is archaeological evidence, and actually predates carpentry and woodworking – it was used to smash nuts, animal bones, etc. – today, there are several types of hammers used in the trades including the claw, cross-peen pin, framing, and joiner’s mallet. These have been available from any number of makers and manufacturers in differing sizes and materials, so there are a tremendous amount of specimens from which to fashion a collection.
The possibilities are even greater in regards to, arguably, the most popular area of tool collecting, the bench (or hand) plane. Bench planes perform three broad functions: removing wood, smoothing wood, and shaping wood. These operations have been achieved by devices that vary in material (most vintage planes are some combination of metal and wood), design (while most planes are designed to be pushed, Japanese planes, for example, are pulled toward the worker), and size (the majority can be anywhere from five to thirty inches long). The manufacturer is also important, and Stanley is the foremost name among U. S. collectors of this tool. Depending upon rarity and condition, a Stanley plane can sell for several hundred to several thousand dollars at auction.
But, of course, hammers and bench planes are not the only tools you should keep an eye out for. Hand saws, tape measures, levels, and folding rules are just a few of the other hand tools that have many admirers. Recent examples include a Stanley No. 86 folding rule and level combo that garnered multiple online bids and sold for $440; a Disston #77 back saw that fetched $480 (Disston is to saws as Stanley is to planes); and two late 1940s Ruger Corp. hand drills that closed at $225 and $484 respectively. (Yes, before Ruger became a gun company, they made tools.)
Interested in finding out more? Check out the resources listed below, and
(Be sure to see last month’s Collectors Corner column on Mechanic’s Hand Tools.)
Antique Woodworking Tools: Their Craftsmanship from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, by David R. Russell (Amazon)
Dictionary of American Hand Tools: A Pictorial Synopsis, by Alvin Sellens (Amazon)
Mathieson Tools: A Guide to Identification and Value, by Hans Brunner (Amazon)
Vintage Stanley Tools: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide, by Hans Brunner (Amazon)
25 Different Types of Saws and Their Uses (Garage Tool Advisor) – Includes both hand and power saws.
Beginner’s Guide to Tool Collecting – Union Hill Antique Tools (FineTools.com) – Thorough, well-written introduction to the field.
Museum of Woodworking Tools (AntiqueTools.com) – In addition to the Permanent Collection, this invaluable site includes American Levels, a detailed Guide to Honing and Sharpening, dozens of links, and a shop for supplies and parts.
Surprise, Surprise These 20 Old Tools Are Worth Big Bucks (FamilyHandyman.com) – If you’re lucky, you’ll find one of these at a yard or estate sale.