Antique tool collecting gets down to brass tacks

Long about six years ago, when the first edition of Antique Trader Tools Price Guide was printed, the world record for a tool at auction was $32,900. When the second edition was published in 2007, the record had jumped to $114,400.

I wish I could say the record was broken again since, but it has not happened yet. That doesn’t mean, however, that a lot has not happened. Today it is not uncommon for a tool to sell for more than $10,000 and often much more. In fact, auctions routinely have several tools that sell for low- to mid-five figures. These higher prices are no longer the exceptions they were just 10 years ago.

antique tools
Condition Grades

The following criteria are used to determine condition grades of tools:

New: Tool is completely usable; metal is 100% with no rust; wood is as manufactured with smooth, sharp surfaces, no wear or repair. Fine: Tool is completely usable; metal is 90%-100% and may have a trace of rust and some dark patina; wood 80% original or old finish, smooth surface and edges slightly rounded; minimal wear and no repair; maker’s marks, if present, are clear and easily legible.

Good+: Tool is usable, but may need some tuning; metal is 75%-90% and may have light rust; wood has a well-patinated appearance, but may have minor surface stress, edges are good; wear is normal with minor or no repair; may have a few dings and scratches.

Tool is usable, but may need significant tuning; metal is 50%-75% and may have light rust or minor pitting; wood has pleasing patination but possibly some stains, and may have minor chips or shrinkage cracks; wear is normal to moderate and any repairs are minor but correct; represents average, as-found condition.

Good-: Tool is probably usable; metal 30%-50% with moderate rust and moderate pitting; wood is refinished or has warping, chips, minor splitting, and some patination, with prominent staining or discoloration; wear is moderate to heavy and repairs are correct; although the tool has problems, the general integrity is okay.

Tool is probably not usable; metal is 0%-30% with moderate to heavy rust and serious pitting; wood shows poor refinishing, or if original finish, shows extreme discoloration with warping, splits, major cracks, or large chunks missing; wear is excessive and repairs are major with improper or missing parts; normally not suitable to add to a collection, but may be good for parts.

Poor: Tool is not usable; metal has heavy rust and major pitting; wood has rot, rough surface, or glued splits; wear is excessive and tool is damaged and missing major parts; only useful for parts or raw materials for repair of tools in better condition.

Which tools bring the big money today? Two trends lead the way. First, patented items in general, and planes in particular, consistently bring big bucks. If you can trace an item to a patent, it adds history and value.

The second hot area is more general. Condition by itself can add or take away more value than any other single factor. It has become so important that collectors now use the term “dead mint” for those items in the top two percent of condition. In our fall 2008 sale, a Stanley No. 1 plane in good+ condition brought $880; the same plane in fine+ condition brought $2,090. That’s a big difference, and the plane in fine+ was still not in the “dead mint” category.

One area just now regaining interest is wooden planes and molders. Once the backbone of tool collecting, wooden planes have been a bit soft in the market for a while. Recently I have seen signs of reviving interest and an upward trend in prices. Complex molders and rare makers have just started to go up in value, and we could see some excitement over the next few years.

Here is some background on the antique tool collecting hobby, how you can enjoy your collection on a different level and what to look for when seeking new pieces.

Focusing a Collection

So many tools exist in today’s world that many tool collectors usually focus on one category:

Function – Focusing on finding tools with a particular function is a popular way to specialize a collection. Some collectors seek out wooden planes, for example, while others hunt down wrenches, some look only for hammers.

Craft or Trade – Others collect tools of a certain craft or trade: cooper, tinsmith, and wheelwright tools are popular examples of that type of collection. Many collectors in this group can be seen at demonstrations and craft fairs showing how their tools are used and demonstrating the methods used by the old-time trade person.

Personal Connection – Many look for tools with certain names or connected to certain locations. Among these subcategories are particular family names or groups of names with historical connections, and hometowns, states, counties, or other special places. This group of collectors is quite large, with many having a “hometown” or “my name” collection in addition to their other areas of interest.

Company or Brand – Collecting tools made by a particular company or maker is common, too. Stanley products make up one of the most sought-after company brands, and collections consisting of thousands of tools have been assembled around the Stanley name alone (CLICK HERE to learn more about collecting Stanley tools).

antique trader tools price guide
This feature is an excerpt from the new book Antique Trader Tools Price Guide, Third Edition, by Clarence Blanchard, Krause Publications, $16.49 (special discount). Find it at

Patents – Yankee ingenuity thrived in the 19th century, and thousands of tool patents were issued. Some were successful, while others were never manufactured. A large group of collectors seek only patented tools.

Complete collections have been made up of only patented braces, for example, or just patented planes. Other collectors will only collect tools patented before a certain date. Others are only interested in the patents of one company or individual.

Investment – Historically, tool collectors have not been primarily interested in making money from their hobby. With an educated eye, miles of travel and hours of searching, some collectors have reaped excellent returns on their tool investments. As collecting continues to grow and monetary values increase, the investment side of the hobby must be considered. Over the past few years, values have been steadily rising.

Today tool collectors are more aware of condition than at any time in the past. Even an older common tool in “hardware-store new” shape has more value today than it did a few years ago. Today the fastest growing area of collecting is patented tools. Planes lead the way, with several selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Braces and wrenches are probably tied for second place.


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