When I think of antiques, tools aren’t the first thing to come to mind. Stoneware, country furniture, Victorian porcelain and old quilts yes, but tools? No. Then, I think back to my grandmother’s farm. My strongest memories of the farm center around the barn and, therefore, tools. I can remember grandfather’s old workbench, covered with long forgotten wrenches and sharpeners. Just across from it was the old feed bin. My grandfather passed away before I was born, but I could feel him in that place. He’d been there. He’d used those tools. I could picture him scooping feed out of the bin every morning for the chickens. It was as if a part of him was still there. When the farm was sold at auction, the old feed bin was at the top of my wish list. It was the one piece that held the most memories for me. It now sits on the porch of my log cabin.
More than any other antique or collectible, vintage tools are a connection to life as it once was. What could be more nostalgic than the very items used to create the past? When I hold a pole axe, broad axe or adze, I think of all the work these tools performed in making a log cabin. The trees were chopped down by hand with the pole axe, squared off with the pole and broad axe, then finally leveled off with the adze. Having tried this process myself with vintage tools, I can attest to the difficulty of the task. I squared off a single log and it took me hours. Our ancestors were no doubt far more adept at such tasks, but one can imagine the time involved in building an entire cabin!
My favorite tool is a simple draw knife once owned and used by my grandfather. Yes, it was one of the tools that sat on his old tool bench. When I hold it, and more so when I use it, I think of all the times he held it in his hands.
Most vintage tools are mere decorations now, but many are still as useful today as they were when they were made. I remember a local dealer who marveled that a customer was willing to pay over $150 each for a pair of planes she was selling on commission. The buyer explained that they were planes made to cut the tongues and grooves for flooring. By creating his own flooring in his home, he’d save hundreds of dollars. Talk about useful collectibles!
If axes and planes don’t excite you, worry not, they are only the beginning. Just a few of the items available for collectors include: tool chests, wagons, tobacco carriers, ox yokes, ice tongs, mallets, cross-cut saws, barrels, tubs, anvils, spuds, augers, tobacco cutters, stitching horses, shoe lasts, grindstones, cradle scythes, hay forks, wooden rakes and more. Still not in the tool collecting mood? Look around at the local antique mall and something is sure to catch your eye.
Vintage tools are not rare (for the most part) and are not difficult to locate. They tend to pop up at antique malls, shops and shows. They can also be found at auctions, yard sales and flea markets. Auctions offer the best, and the worst, deals. I’ve run across some real tool bargains at auction, while at other times the prices are sky high. This can be said about almost any antique or collectible, but it holds especially true for old tools. Tool collectors face competition from those interested in tools, not as collectibles, but as tools. New tools can be quite expensive and this makes the old ones appealing to those who couldn’t care less about nostalgia.
I’ve noticed the best prices at flea markets. This is the most likely source for vintage tools to be considered merely “used” rather than collectible. Don’t expect every tool at flea markets to be a bargain, but this source seems to have the lion’s share.
EBay offers quite a few tools, but size is a factor. If you’re trying to locate a large or heavy tool, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. Even with smaller tools such as planes, measuring tapes and squares, shipping can increase the cost considerably. That said, don’t shy away from eBay when searching for tools, but be aware of the drawbacks.
I hesitate to write much about the values of tools because they are all over the map. There are so many variations on each individual tool that general price ranges are almost useless. There are good price guides that give values for specific tools and I recommend that tool enthusiasts take a look at these.
The vast majority of tools are available for under $50 and many are under $25. I’ve picked up old wooden mauls at auction for around $5, buck saws for $25, and adzes for $15. I run across all kinds of planes for $15 to $25. Old wooden planes are some of the most attractive tools available. One could easily collect nothing but planes, even if one searched them out for a lifetime – there are that many variations. Some vintage tools can get quite expensive, but there are plenty of pieces out there for those who don’t wish to spend a fortune. Chances are that there are a few vintage tools in your basement, attic or garage. Old tools have a habit of sticking around, so many are available for free!
Displaying tools can be a problem. A great many of them just don’t display all that well. There are exceptions of course. Buck saws look great hanging on the wall, as do cross-cut saws if the wall is big enough. Planes display well on shelves and small tools like wrenches can be hung together on walls. Displaying vintage tools takes a little more thought than displaying more traditional collectibles. They take a little more work, too.
Vintage tools are rarely fragile. Storing them is not a problem – they can stand up to almost anything. The one great danger to avoid is moisture. Many old tools are metal and are prone to rust. Even wooden tools can fall victim to excess moisture. If vintage tools are stored in a dry location, there is little to worry about.
One nice thing about old tools is that they look good displayed in locations one normally would not use to show off antiques. Garages, storage sheds and even basements are good places to display vintage tools. I find they add a nostalgic touch to otherwise drab, modern spaces.
Wherever they are displayed, vintage tools are a nostalgic link to a distant past. They are part of a world that was. Touching them, and using them, brings us a little closer to those who came before us and mingles the present with the past. What better way to remember our ancestors, than to use the very tools that were a part of their everyday lives?
Antique Tools: Our American Heritage by Kathryn McNerney. Originally published in 1997, this book was updated in 2006 with new values. This 152-page book features more tools than I thought existed. The volume is filled with photos and prices. Paperback, $9.95 ($3 s/h) Collector Books, P.O. Box 3009, Paducah, KY 42002. Phone: 800-626-5420. Internet orders: www.collectorbooks.com.
Primitives, 2002: Our American Heritage by Kathryn McNerney. This volume is filled with all sorts of beautiful primitives, including tools. Looking through these pages is like visiting a museum. Paperback, 192 pages, $9.95. Can be found on Amazon.com.
Town-Country Old Tools and Locks, Keys, and Closures with prices by Jane Wood. Drawings, photos and old catalog illustrations, along with prices make this a valuable guide. Paperback, 290 pages, $16.95 ($3 s/h) Collector Books.