Of work horses and show ponies…

I make no bones about it… I love old woodworking hand tools.

Give me a classic chisel, slick, plane, saw or other woodworking implement, and I’m as happy as a clam. My jack plane dates from the early 1910’s, my wooden fore plane from the 1880’s and my sash mortising chisel from approximately 1845.  Each of these classic tools sits ready to accomplish the task needed.

Since I have confessed my love for hand tools of bygone days, many  readers have asked  where I find the old iron.  I have gone to flea markets and I do cruise neighborhood garage sales, but the majority of my old tool scores have been found on eBay.  When I really need a tool to do something specific – such as my recent Scrub Plane purchase – I’ll go to this online flea market and find what I need there.

Recently, a reader named Charlie Morgan e-mailed me asking my opinion about a chisel that was up for auction.  It was a beautiful 1/4″ Lakeside socket mortising chisel with just a little bit of rust and an intact hardwood handle.  I wrote back to Charlie saying that it looked to be in very good condition and could serve as a great user tool.

The only problem was that Charlie had never heard the term ‘user’ before. And, that leads to an interesting discussion of why people collect old tools and what their intended purpose is.

When I hit the flea markets or eBay, I’m typically looking for a user. Those are tools which were the most frequently manufactured – and used – tools in carpentry and woodworking.  For instance, when it comes to hand planes, a Stanley Bailey No. 4 smoothing plane, a No. 5 jack plane and a No. 7 jointer plane are going to be the three most frequently seen of the bench planes.  They were made en masse and were the true workhorses of the day.  In fact, it was the rare carpenter or woodworker who didn’t have one of each – if not Stanley’s models, then perhaps ones from a competitor.

When you go to eBay, you will see plenty of these models out there.  Take a look in the buy/collectibles/tools, hardware & locks/tools/carpentry& woodworking section and see just how many are out there.  Knowing that there will be many of a particular model offered will prevent you from inadvertently  jumping into a bidding war over one offering when there may be dozens of others in similar condition.

And, when it comes to that condition, expect to see most of these user tools pretty well beat up.  Since they were used so frequently, they will have the black paint (Japanning) worn off of them.  Planes used in warmer climes may also have a lot of rust on them, a process accelerated by the salt content of their user’s sweat.  Old hand saws may be kinked, and old chisels may chips out of the edge. While they may look rusty and crusty, they can be brought back into usable shape in very short order.  With an upgraded iron for a plane or some regrinding for a chisel, they can work circles around many of the cheaply banged out offerings at the local home improvement store.

On the other hand, some tools have a greater collectible value.  Moving back to our example of the Stanley Bailey pattern planes, the No. 1 smoother jumps to mind.  This diminutive plane was not made in tremendous numbers during it’s production run, thus making it very scarce.  And, when specimens of this variety are offered for sale, they frequently fetch several hundred – if not one thousand plus dollars.

A plane such as that doesn’t belong in your shop.  Something with such a value should be displayed on the fireplace mantle, enclosed in Plexiglas to keep the wandering fingers of your jealous woodworking friends away from it.  In years to come, you may want to will this gem to your kids or grand kids.  Be sure they understand it’s value before they try to throw it away or sell it for a few bucks…

Unfortunately, in the old tool world, it’s always buyer beware.  Some sellers hear that old tools can become a gold mine and they may try to up their price for the unwary shopper.  Don’t fall into that trap.  You can always do a quick eBay search for that particular kind of plane model to get an idea of what it might really be worth.  From there, be prepared to haggle and to walk away if there is no flexibility in the pricing.

Can ‘user’ planes make ‘show pony’ status?  You bet they can.  If that old No. 4 plane was owned by your great grandfather and rode in his toolbox as he went off to work, then by all means, make it a showpiece.  But, also understand that if you do decide to hone that iron to see what it can do, don’t be surprised if it finds its way out to your shop on a full time basis.

That’s where these work horses like to gallop…

2 thoughts on “Of work horses and show ponies…”

  1. There is nothing that can match the quietness of working with hand tools. No dust collectors…kick the plane curls aside and pick them up later. A little noise from the mallet on the chisel. Paring with the chisel for final fit. Scraper for the finish (sandpaper???!) Total satisfaction, time for reflection and enjoying the final results.

    I do own and use all of the power tools…but when I want to just kick back and enjoy…gimme a plane, chisel, etc.

    P.S. the curls from the plane can decorate an ol’ fashion Christmas Tree along with popcorn & cranberries on a string and other goodies.

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