Stanley tools establishes itself as a new subset of tool collecting

Collecting Stanley tools as a hobby is quite new. The first serious hobbyists started showing up in the early 1970s. But judging from the many old tool boxes and original shops I have visited over the years, the hobbyists of the 1970s were not the first Stanley collectors. Stanley Rule & Level began making rules and other tools in 1857. From day one, Stanley tools were of top quality and certainly the prize of any tradesman. Clearly, many early carpenters felt that adding one more Stanley item to their tool kit was a desirable goal even if they never used the tool. The modern tool collector identifies with that desire, and Stanley has become one of the leading collecting areas in old tools.

Since the early 1970s, Stanley tool collecting and tool collecting of all kinds has exploded. Many books, articles and guides have been published, and today a tremendous amount of information is available. Slowly the collecting focus has grown from wanting one of everything Stanley ever made to wanting specific items. With increased prices, Stanley collecting has changed. Collectors today are putting together smaller collections and choosing each new addition with greater care.

stanley plane
Stanley No. 4 bench plane in Good condition. Worn japanning (paint finish) and some rust and paint spots. Clearly a well-used tool. Note the handles are not damaged, making this tool worth the full value of a good rating. If the handles were broken or cracked, the value would be reduced below that of good.
stanley  plane
Stanley No. 4 bench plane in Good+ condition. This grade is for tools that have been taken care of and stored properly. The japanning will be 75% or better, and the polished surface should not be rusted or pitted. As with all grades, damaged wood and missing or broken parts reduce the value.
stanley plane
Stanley No. 4 bench plane in Fine condition. Finishes 90% or better. Polished surfaces clean and bright or with uniform patina. Damaged or missing parts considerably reduce the value of tools in this condition. Original box adds value and should be kept.

The easiest way to think of values for Stanley tools—and for that matter, all antique tools—is to divide the pricing into categories based on condition. Each type of tool has a basic value. Some items are common and therefore lower in value; others are rarer or in higher demand and therefore more valuable. Once you know the general value of an item, you need only consider its condition to determine its final value.

Pricing any collectible is not easy and can take considerable practice to master. For Stanley tools, however, it is somewhat easier than many other areas. Like coins, the various models can be listed and, in many cases, production periods have been established. Stanley tools can almost be collected by the model number. Once you know the value of a particular tool model, you can buy, sell, and collect by condition.

In Stanley tools, the number refers to the model of the tool. For example, No. 444 is a dovetail plane. The “type” is the year or range of years in which a tool with particular features was manufactured. Thanks to the effort of many people, several models of tools have been identified in detail and type studies have been written.

These type studies have been published in several books and offer extensive information on the design changes and improvements implemented over the years. In some cases, the studies go into great detail and follow a tool from its early years until it was dropped from production. Others studies are more general or cover only a few types.

Type studies are based on collections and old catalogs. The employees at Stanley did not have the studies to go by and often used the parts that were at hand. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find even new condition tools that do not exactly meet the conditions laid out in the study. Often, even on a new plane in the box, a cutter or cap can be a type or two behind or ahead depending on when supplies ran out. So unless you are trying to match a specific type, do not get too concerned about slight variations from the type study.

Type can affect value. Several general rules exist; they are not hard and fast, but can point a collector in the right direction. The earlier the type, the more likely a tool has a higher value. This especially applies to very early types that were made well before the tool model was established. Second, the shorter the time a particular type was manufactured, the more likely its value will be higher. Some types were manufactured for only a year or two and demand a higher value. Finally, the more significant the change, the more likely it impacts the value. Small changes, such as a new cutter logo, often have no effect, but larger changes, such as adding a cutter adjustment mechanism, nearly creates a new model.

From its earliest days, Stanley used trademarks and various logos to designate its products. So when it comes to dating Stanley tools, some of the most reliable information comes from dating these marks.

Research has accurately dated many of the marks, and today we know the range of dates when most marks were used. This information gives us an accurate, not-earlier-than date for the various marks and can be helpful in typing an item.

Stanley used a last-in, first-out inventory system, so occasionally an older part original to the tool can be found on a newer tool. This occurs most often with World War II types.
Trademarks were widely used in catalogs and advertising, and on original boxes. Some trademarks are the same as the cutter logos, but others are different. Many trademarks were used for long periods. The notched trademark is also a blade logo and has been used for the past few decades.

Condition may be the single most important factor in pricing Stanley tools. A plane may be the rarest model or the most eagerly sought-after type, but if its condition is not at least good, the value can be significantly reduced.

Some may think this is a bit overboard, but all you need to do is review a few major tool auctions to see how the tool-buying public is applying a detailed and concise buying strategy. For example, a few years ago, a Stanley 46 dado plane in the box sold for $4,600. A nicer plane could not have been found if you stood next to the Stanley production line in 1926 and had your choice. The finish had that frosty plating known as “Jack Frost plating.” The plane just danced and sparkled like frost on a Maine window pane in January. Boxed Stanley 46 prices went through the roof for a few days but soon dropped back to the $600 to $800 range that existed before this plane sold. The lesson here is not that one plane cannot change the market, but a collector will sometimes go an extra mile or ten for the very best.

The standard for condition in tools has to be “hardware store new.” The more a tool has been used or abused, the further it is from hardware store new, or fine condition. If you are pricing a tool at the top range, it should look like new. Phrases like “tools were meant to be used” or “looks good for its age” do not apply to tool collecting.

Collecting Stanley tools in their original boxes is also popular. Stanley Works originated the idea of the telescoping box for hardware in the early 1800s. The telescoping box was a big success and was one of the many innovations that made Stanley a major player in the hardware business. A. Stanley & Co. was selling its rules in the green telescoping box by 1857. Early boxes are rare, but it is assumed that Stanley Rule & Level adapted the practice from A. Stanley & Co. and sold its products in boxes from the earliest days.

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

From early on, most Stanley tools came in two-piece boxes. Some of the earliest known boxes were made of wood with paste-on labels. In 1890, the green cardboard box became the primary type of container. In 1905, the familiar orange-tan (sweet-potato color) box was introduced with great fanfare. The 1905 catalog even had orange-colored pages to match the new box color. From 1905 into the 1950s, the orange box was the Stanley container of choice and as much a trademark for Stanley tools as the Sweet Hart or notched logos. The light tan color changed slightly over time. With the boxes of the 1950s, it became a bit more of a kraft color. Box labels changed slowly. It is not uncommon to find boxes with labels that are much earlier than the tool in the box.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, depending on the tool, a yellow box with reinforced corners was used. Also about that time, hang tags and pegboard displays were introduced. From the mid-1960s on, fewer boxes were used and plastic-sealed shelf and hang cards became the rule.


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