Editor’s note: For a short slideshow tour of the collection, download the following pdf file to your computer:
John Sindelar stands in front of a door at the back of his thriving cabinet and millwork shop in Edwardsburg, Mich. The door opens into blackness and Sindelar turns around for a moment before entering.
“This room,” he says with a sly grin, “is like church to me.”
He flips on the light and walks into the small paneled room. The room is filled with antique tools. No, strike that last sentence. The room is filled with tools that you never thought existed or that you would see in person. Tools that you have only heard about, seen in auction catalogs or drooled over in Sandor Nagyszalanczy’s books “The Art of Fine Tools” or “Tools Rare and Ingenious” (Taunton).
And not just a few tools. Hundreds and hundreds of vintage tools lined up on tables, shelves and a display case made from a harness for an elephant. Few of the tools are under glass. In addition to the tools, there are two comfortable chairs against one wall and under a panel of stained glass. And that is a good thing because I have to sit down.
This is just one of the five rooms filled with tools. Sindelar has so many tools (“Probably, tens of thousands,” he guesses) that he keeps a significant number in storage. In one adjoining room there is a wheelbarrow filled with a stack of plow planes. In another room there’s a wall of rare infill miter planes. In the front room – the biggest room – the walls are lined with vintage workbenches. Tools cover the benches, axes cover the walls, the floor is covered in boxes (that are filled with tools).
That this collection exists is remarkable. Getting to see it is something else. And what Sindelar has planned for it just might change your vacation plans someday. Sindelar is actively making plans to build a 30,000-square-foot public museum and woodworking school that will show off his collection and teach woodworking skills.
He has three locations in mind – near Williamsburg, Va., Harrisburg, Pa., or perhaps in North Carolina. He sketched up plans for the building, which would look like a French castle, and turned them over to an architect to develop. He wants the museum open for business by 2010.
Opening a tool museum on this scale sounds like an unlikely feat for anyone. But once you meet Sindelar and hear his story, you are unlikely to doubt that it could happen.
A Trained Farmer and
A Block Plane Into the Drink
Sindelar, who is from that corner of Michigan near Chicago and Indiana, had a father who was a carpenter and contractor. Sindelar himself was helping him set nails by age 5 and built his first apartment building as a teenager.
But it was farming that spoke to him. As a young man Sindelar leased a 350-acre produce farm and then went to college to study agricultural management. He graduated and immediately got approved for a loan for $400,000 to launch his own farm.
That night, he thought, “That was too easy.” He says he started running the numbers and concluded that if he had one bad year on the farm, he could lose everything. He eventually decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a builder, though he still yearns to farm and will occasionally volunteer to plow the fields owned by local farmers just to get his hands dirty.
So Sindelar entered the building trade, and as a young man of about 21, he found himself in Florida building high-end residential homes and working under a French-Canadian carpenter who had a taste for good working tools.
One day the French-Canadian carpenter told Sindelar that it was time for him to start buying his own tools. So Sindelar purchased a new standard-angle Stanley block plane, the kind you’ll find in tool buckets all over the country. He presented the plane to his boss for inspection one day on a job site.
“He studied it for five minutes,” Sindelar says. “He never used it. He threw it into the Intercoastal Waterway and said, ‘You have to start buying good tools and learn to take care of them.’”
Sindelar obeyed. From that point on, he tried to buy a good tool every week, a practice that continues to this day, though now his tastes run more to mint Holtzapffel miter planes than hardware-store tools. And he also takes great pride in tending to his collection. Every evening after finishing work at his business, Sindelar Fine Woodworking Co., he’ll gently clean a tool or two in his collection.
His day job involves woodworking, though not the kind practiced by the tools he collects. Sindelar Fine Woodworking is a modern commercial cabinetshop filled with power equipment and a half-dozen employees. The company tackles jobs that range from outfitting high-end horse trailers, to remodeling the interiors of two state capitol buildings in Michigan and Ohio, to supplying wooden fittings to Georgie Boy RVs in neighboring Elkhart, Ind.
When you walk in the front door of the shop you’re between the company’s spray booth and the sanding area. The machining area spreads out before you; a warehouse beyond that is stacked to the ceiling with bunks of lumber. Sindelar’s office doesn’t even offer many clues as to his tool-collecting passion – there are piles of paperwork, shelves of trade catalogs and modern office furniture. But once you pass through the back door of the office, everything changes. The hum of the machinery disappears and it’s just rooms and rooms of tools.
This tool cache hidden in the back rooms of an industrial park is an apt metaphor for Sindelar’s life as a collector. Though he has been a collector of tools for many years, few people knew of him until about eight years ago. Sindelar tried to keep a low profile in the collector world as he quietly fed the back rooms of his business with vintage tools.
That introverted approach – common among collectors – all changed when Sindelar met Roger Phillips, a long-time collector in La Jolla, Calif. Phillips also came up in the trades – his woodworking enterprise had a reputation for outfitting the interiors of banks, corporate offices and casinos. Phillips had been collecting since 1945, and when Sindelar saw his collection, he says he could think only one thing: “Wow. I want this.”
With Phillips’s guidance, Sindelar kicked his collection into high gear. He went from buying $100 tools to $10,000 tools. He sold his collection of Stanley tools and began buying one-of-a-kind tools in Europe.
“It’s an obsession,” he says. “I need to get into an AA program.”
When other tool collectors go to Europe, they have secret spots to hunt for old tools that they share with no one. But when Sindelar told Phillips he was going to Europe, Phillips handed him a list of all his favorite haunts.
“Roger is just so open about everything,” Sindelar says. “It really changed my life.”
He also took a cue from Phillips when he decided to get involved with other tool collectors and open his collection for inspection. In the process, Sindelar has also developed a reputation as a collector who likes unusual tools with an artistic flair. Fellow collectors pull him aside during auctions and say, “Hey, I’ve got something you have to see.”
And as a result, Sindelar’s collection has evolved into something that is filled with some of the most recognizable vintage tools that have appeared in recent books on tool collecting, plus newly made tools, such as a fleet of plow planes made by Jim Leamy, and infill planes made by Bill Carter and Wayne Anderson.
A lot of vintage tools have tall tales behind them – antique collecting is like that – but Sindelar says that he stays focused more on the form of the tool than its particular provenance or the myth behind it.
He shows off a tool chest that is covered in handplanes that look like nothing else that has ever been manufactured. The planes are ornate: brass sides, steel soles, shapely totes and knobs. The level of detail on some of them is outrageous for a working tool.
So where did they come from? The story, Sindelar says, is that they are from Germany. He buys them from a guy who gets them from another guy. And that guy says they came out of a school for blacksmiths and silversmiths. When the students left the school, they would leave one of these example tools behind, where it would be displayed on the wall.
Does Sindelar believe the story? He shrugs. “Tool collectors have a lot of stories,” he says. “I like the planes.” They are attractive tools and have odd labels: A. Stohr & Son, Schuhstopsel, Hildesheim, Durchmesser.
Not all the tools are so mysterious. There’s a shapely French marking hatchet in a leather sheath. The sawyer’s initials are cast into the poll of the hatchet so he could mark the felled tree as his own. There’s a Phillips Plow Plane, patented in 1867, with an ornate cast iron frame. There’s an English stairsaw with a depth stop that works like a depth stop on a fillister or dado plane. There’s even a Stanley jointer plane that’s painted gold. “That’s a private joke I have with another collector,” Sindelar says.
A Place for the Past and Future
And now Sindelar wants to show it all to the public. He envisions a museum that will also have a woodworking school. His initial plan was to build it near Williamsburg, Va., to take advantage of the history-seeking tourists there. Since then, he also started considering the Harrisburg, Pa., area. And since his plans for his museum have gotten out, he’s been contacted by officials in North Carolina who think the museum, the school and the state’s furniture-making history would be a good combination.
Sindelar says he thinks the museum would be a winner because it would appeal to people beyond tool collectors. Many tool museums and collections tend to focus on manufactured tools. Tools that have been patented are hot items these days. Old Stanley tools have always been a popular item for collectors.
But Sindelar’s collection is all about the artistic form of the tool. He’s more interested in buying something that will take your breath away rather than a collection of all the patented tools from 19th-century Connecticut. And that’s why he thinks the museum would succeed.
Sindelar regularly escorts people through his collection and even opens his doors to the public on occasion to benefit a charity. When he shows people around, they are overwhelmed by the tools, no matter if they are woodworkers, collectors, young or old.
“I’ve especially been amazed at how women, in particular, like the tools,” he says. “And it’s because they’re all one-of-a-kind. “They’re …” and Sindelar pauses as he looks for the right word, “just pretty.” PW
To contact John Sindelar to provide ideas or donations for the museum:
Sindelar Fine Woodworking
69953 Section St.
Edwardsburg, MI 49112
If you’re interested in collecting tools, you might want to check out "Warman’s® Tools Field Guide, Values and Identification." It’s written by Clarence Blanchard, the editor of the Fine Tool Journal and the owner of Brown Auction Services (and he’s a good friend of mine). The 512-page book has more than 250 photos and 1,000 listings of tools that will help you assess their rarity and determine a fair price. The book covers tools from the 18th to the 20th century. The softcover book is $12.99 and is available directly from the publisher. Click here for more information.