Guide to Collecting Antique Hand Tools

antique wooden plane

From planes and saws to levels, wrenches, and rules, antique hand tools are the pride and joy of many a collectors' possessions. Depending on the condition of the tool and its type, a good tool can be worth a few hundred dollars. Whether you are a novice collector or are looking to add specific pieces to your collection, this handy guide will give you the basics of collecting antique hand tools.

Planes

Wood planes are one of the most popular collectible hand tools around. They are used to hold a chisel stationary so that the woodworker can thin or shape boards of wood.

What to Look For

Until planes were mass produced, many carpenters made their planes themselves, bought blades from blacksmiths, and carved decorations or initials into the plane. These are especially valuable. In addition, collectors may want to watch for these details as well:

  • Brazilian rosewood, beech, or birch used on the plane's tote and knob
  • Metal surfaces made of brass and nickel embellished with exquisite details
  • Antique wood planes made by the Stanley Company
  • Name and town of the planemaker on the front of the plane
  • Victor block planes

Saws

keyhole saw
Keyhole saw

There are numerous styles of vintage saws that may be of interest to collectors. Disston is a noted manufacturer of antique handsaws, and you can tell a Disston saw by the stamped name on the spine and a gold medallion on the handle bearing a small insignia. Collectors may also want to look for these details:

  • Saws made by Simonds and Atkins (in addition to Disston)
  • Handles made from Apple or Beech (Applewood was reserved for the higher quality saws)
  • Split nut screws on the handles that are in tact (avoid saws with split nut screws that are damaged or missing as these are hard to replace)
  • Blades that are (ideally) rust free, and straight
  • Unique types of saws such as a keyhole saw

Hand Drills

antique hand drill
Vintage Hand Drill

Hand drills came in many different shapes, styles and varieties. Some of them are very valuable in the world of antique tools both because of their rarity and the type of materials that were used on them. Any of the following may be of special interest to collectors:

  • Hand drills with hollow wooden handles made to hold bits
  • Drills made entirely out of wood with ivory used on the ends of the bit
  • Long tools that have a brace with an auger or twisted bit
  • Drills with precious metal or ivory inlays
  • Drills with the manufacturer stamp so that the drill can be dated

Plumb Bobs

antique plumb bob

A plumb bob is a weight that is suspended from a line. It hangs absolutely true, so it was always possible for workmen to find a true vertical. Antique plumb bobs often were shaped like common staples such as pears, carrots or turnips. Plumb bobs that are of special interest to collectors include:

  • Bobs crafted out of precious metals or inlaid with ivory or stones
  • Bobs crafted out of exotic woods
  • Bobs crafted out of brass or other metals that have been intricately worked with designs

Wrenches

antique wrench

Wrenches and adjustable wrenches haven't changed in function much over the years, but the style of some older wrenches can make them very valuable to collectors. Look for wrenches that:

  • Have rare cutout designs on the handles
  • Include multiple wrench heads on one handle - a precursor to the adjustable wrench
  • Adjustable wrenches that have wooden handles

Clamps

antique clamp

Antique clamps come in a wide variety, including those used for sewing - called "birds" - that include a pincushion right on top of the clamp. Other types of collectable clamps include:

  • Vise clamps
  • Blacksmith bench clamps
  • Jeweler clamps
  • Picture framing vises

Rules

antique rule

Before the measuring tape, rulers were extremely important to carpenters and builders. These long rules frequently were made to fold in on themselves and store in unique ways that makes them collectable now. Some to watch for include:

  • Stanley's zig-zag rule that folds in 15 places
  • Rulers that combined other tools such as compasses, levels or squares
  • Cruising sticks with a brass tab at one end

Hammers

antique hammer

While the use of hammers hasn't changed much over the years, the material and shape of the hammers has. There are many rare, unique and collectable types of hammers on the market today. Some to keep an eye out for include:

  • Hammers made of different materials like copper, lead, brass and wood
  • Three-piece hammers that have a handle that comes apart for easier storage
  • Hammers with moveable heads
  • Hammers with different, unique heads that combined a separate tool on the other end

Axes

antique broad axe

Edge tools like axes are one of the oldest known hand tools still in existence. There are numerous types of antique axes that may interest collectors; broad categories to look for axes in include:

  • Single bit felling axes
  • Double bit felling axes
  • Broad axes
  • Goosewing axes
  • Cooper's axes
  • Coachmaker's axes
  • Mast axes

Chisels

antique chisels

Antique chisels are available in three broad types:

  • Woodworking
  • Carpenters
  • Lathe

Look for chisels with wooden handles or with specialty, curved blades.

Buying Antique Tools

Ideally, you'll be able to find hand tools in person. The quality of a tool, and its usability is difficult to determine remotely. However, there are several reputble antique dealers where you may find just the thing you were looking for:

  • Bob Kaune - An incredibly easy-to-navigate site that sells many types of antique tools including saws, chisels and planes. The site organizes most tools by their manufacturer, making it easy to pick out something specific.
  • Falcon-Wood - Falcon Wood sells a variety of tools for woodworking and other trades. They are also a helpful resource, stocking books and inviting patrons to email with questions.
  • Martin J. Donnelly's Antique Tools - Tools have to be bought at an auction, but the site lists the times and dates of upcoming auctions.
  • The Best Things - An online antiques and collectibles store. Known for a broad collection, it's a good place for a novice to start.

Tips for Shopping in Person

If you're just beginning your tool collection, follow these tips to ensure you get what you're after:

  • Bring a 12-inch carpenter's square with you when you go antiquing to measure the prospective tool. Getting the tool's measurement will help you identify if it is authentic or not, and may also help you identify the manufacturer if unknown.
  • Keep a list of tools you are looking for and their identifying marks on you at all times. When you see a tool you think might be what you are looking for, check it against your list.
  • Consider getting a book that lists collectable tools by year and model number. Only purchase tools that you can verify as antiques by their number.
  • Make sure you're getting your money's worth. A rare tool is worth a lot less if it's in poor condition. Double check current pricing with other vendors or lists before purchasing.

Resources for Collectors

Fortunately, there's no shortage of resources for both the new collector and the well-seasoned collector. In addition to a well-respected antique tool price guide, a wealth of information can be found on these sites, most of which are written by experienced collectors, hobbyists, and dealers.

  • Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents - Very helpful resource for collectors who want to know more about the history of the tools they own (or are looking to buy).
  • Brown Tool Auctions - Publishers of the Fine Tool Journal, Brown Tool auctions are known well by antique tool collectors. Find information about the locations and times of upcoming auctions, join their mailing list, or order a catalog to see what's at the next auction.
  • Early American Industries Association - A wealth of information on tools and their histories.
  • Union Hill Antique Tools: Union Hill is a site dedicated to antique tools and collectors. They have articles on specific tools as well as information on buying.
  • Old Tool Photos: Visit Old Tool Photos to get an idea of what may be out there, or to see a photo of a rare tool you may be wondering about.
  • Larry and Carole Meeker are a couple who run a website entitled, 'Tools of a Mechanical Nature.' They are highly specialized in their collections and while they do sell tools, they can also help you appraise something you own, buy something you're willing to sell or generally offer you helpful information via their websites.

Start Collecting

Antique tools are very collectable for those with the desire and knowledge. From flea markets to online shops, it's possible to find enough antique and vintage hand tools to satisfy even a niche collector. Educate yourself, make your purchases wisely and amass a tool collection worthy of any tool museum.

Guide to Collecting Antique Hand Tools