As I’ve said before, I love old tools, and there is nothing better than coming across some quality vintage woodworking tools.
But what’s all the hype?
Are they really better than the tools of today?
Where can I look for, and what do I look for in vintage tools?
Beyond the nostalgic value of each vintage woodworking tool being used to create perhaps countless beautiful things by the craftsmen/women who owned them, are they really worth getting up early on your Sunday off to scour the local swap meet?
The answer according to Raff? Yes.
Tools from before the era of CNC machining didn’t have the option of having shortcuts. They were expensive, large, and heavy, simply because they had to be, and the by-product of these qualities? Well, they have inherent longevity. This means you can pick one up for a couple of dollars at a swap meet, clean it up, and likely have it working as well as the day it was produced.
Where to find Vintage Woodworking Tools:
So, you’ve decided to try to augment or perhaps fill your toolbox with some vintage tools. Where do you look?
In Australia, I have found the best luck for vintage tool hunting at local swap meets or Sunday markets. A simple Google search will have you finding dozens of these in any major city, often one in every suburb. Where I reside in Perth there are no less than three Sunday markets within a fifteen-minute drive of my home. The added bonus is that these are fun, and you really never know what you might find. It’s the ultimate treasure hunt!
If you are looking for a specific vintage tool and want to do it from the comfort of your home – eBay is the place to do it. Unfortunately, for those of us on the other side of the world, the .au eBay doesn’t have nearly as large a selection as Ebay.com. Many of the vintage tools you will find on Ebay will be coming from the US, so watch for those sneaky shipping fees that can quickly add up.
I’ve picked up some amazing quality tools from estate sales, with the added bonus of often getting to learn a bit about the history of the tool and the previous owner. It gives me a good deal of pride to know that the tools that were used lovingly in the past will continue to be used lovingly in my own collection.
Gumtree (Craigslist, Kijiji, Facebook marketplace etc)
Gumtree can be hit and miss, but I have found some good deals. Most recently, I purchased an early era Australian made Stanley Bailey No. 5 for $20 dollars. A good tip is to ask if they have anything else to sell as well. The older gentleman who sold me the no. 5 also had some brace and bits for sale that he was willing to part with at a good price given that I was already there. While I wasn’t interested in any more bits, you just might have been!
Is this rusty, dinged up thing a diamond in the rough?
You’ve crawled out of bed well before dawn to get to the local swap meet bright and early, but as you find yourself perusing the various stalls and Ute beds, you realize that you have no idea what you are looking for!
So how do you tell what’s a good buy and what’s a waste of your hard-earned cash?
My biggest advice here is to know what you want and research it beforehand. If you’re reading this, it is likely you have already started that process. Good for you! When I go to a swap meet I usually have a list of tools that I would be interested in picking up in mind. Beforehand, I’ve done a good deal of research on what the ideal brands and models are for each tool – if I’m lucky, one of those models will be lurking in one of the boxes of old, rusty tools, but more often than not they aren’t.
Don’t get too caught up in the brands, after all, we are looking for useability and not collectibility, and many old brands that aren’t as popular today put out surprisingly good quality tools.
I found the above Acorn No. 4 for 25 dollars at a swap meet. While it isn’t a collectible item and the Acorn brand isn’t nearly as popular as Stanley, once cleaned up I’ve found it in fantastic workable condition and much better quality than anything I could have purchased for $25 brand new. You can read about my find and the history of this plane here: Vintage Acorn No. 4 History.
That’s why knowing what to look for in a general tool is so helpful – it means you don’t have to be tied to a specific brand.
In terms of age, pre-war (WWII) is a good rule of thumb for quality, but pre 1970 is generally well thought of as well. It’s oftentimes hard to tell the age when you are looking through a box of tools that all look pretty old, though. After all, it’s amazing how a few years in a damp shed can age a tool. A severely neglected hand plane can look fifty years old and turn out to be five! That’s why I advocate doing your research on what models of a particular age looked like/what features to look out for in order to date a specific tool.
In more general terms here are a few things I look out for:
For vintage tools, many people get hung up on rust, but the reality is that rust can often hide a beautiful, quality tool beneath that many people not knowing any better would have avoided – that means it’s probably cheap for you!
There are two types of corrosion to look for: Surface and pitting
Surface rust is the orange, dusty rust that is easily removed with a good amount of white vinegar and steel wool to get back to bare metal.
Pitting is an aggressive, localized form of rust that leaves small holes in the metal. I generally advise that tools with pitting should be avoided. There are loads of vintage tools to pick and choose from and I find it not worth the effort to pick up a tool with mid to heavy pitting.
Keep an eye out for my specific second-hand buy guides for tools such as the hand plane and chisels, that I will be coming out with, but for now, here is a general guide:
For tools with blades, such as saws, hand planes, and chisels – what you go for depends on how much work you will want to put into your vintage tool before it is usable. However, there are a few things I will generally stay away from.
Check the blade on handsaws to ensure that it isn’t missing several teeth and that the teeth have enough life in them for continued sharpening.
For chisels and hand planes, avoid blades that appear to have been excessively sharpened/ground, this can appear as blades that are significantly shorter than usually seen. In the same vein, but perhaps slightly less common sense is to avoid blades that look like they’ve been machine polished. Both of these aspects (excessive sharpening and machine polish) mean you have a higher risk of getting a blade that has been overheated.
If you find anything marked “cast steel” I would snatch it up.
When looking at the body of the tool look for thick metal casting where rigidity is needed: Ie, on the sole of a hand plane. No cracks should be visible, or obvious repairs. There shouldn’t be any severely misshapen areas – such as bowls on a hand plane sole or bends in a chisel blade. Use your judgment here, because if it looks off, it probably is.
Generally speaking, if I find a good brand of cast steel the condition of the handles/wooden parts won’t be the reason I walk away- as they can generally be replaced for cheaper than a brand new quality steel tool. However, it’s worth mentioning that anything rotted or cracked is going to cost you more money/time in repair – so factor that into the cost to ensure it’s worth it to you.
Are Vintage tools really better than their modern-day counterparts?
We live in the day and age of excessive consumerism.
Products are easy to buy, and just as easy to replace, which ofttimes has me wistful for a time that I never really got to see, a day when things were created to last.
However, this isn’t to say that tools of the past are inherently better than the tools of present-day, it just means that you might not have to pay as much to buy the same quality vintage tool as a new, high-quality tool of today.
For instance, if you are willing to put a lot of money down, the tools of today will run circles around the tools of the past in terms of weight, ergonomics, metal quality and ease of use. However, in the current era of mass production, CNC machining, and big box stores, more people are purchasing a $20 set of cheap chisels, a set which will end up in the garbage in a few years, than those who are purchasing an individual Lie-Nielson chisel ($100+) which will last a lifetime. This inevitably creates an incentive for companies to cut corners with quality in order to produce cheap tools that the average person will buy.
So, if you are like me and don’t want to spend another $500 for a Veritas smoothing plane, but you also don’t want to spend $70 on a new Stanley plane with plastic totes – you can purchase an old Stanley for $100 (often less) which will perform arguably just as well as the Veritas once properly tuned. If that sounds like a good deal, then vintage tools may be your saving grace.