Sunday, October 4, 2009
Thoughts On Acquiring Old Tools
Some hand tool woodworkers are lucky enough to live in areas with readily available old tools; others are not. I fall into the latter category. I occasionally get questions from others living in similar old tool wastelands about where and how I get my tools. I recently received an email from a reader named Martin that asked about finding old tools. He ended his email with this question:
"So I guess I'm asking, what's your strategy?"
Here's my (slightly edited) reply, which might be of some use to others:
I'm not sure I have a strategy - it's more like an obsession :)
But I'll try to organize my thoughts (might be hard just now - 7th graders are wearing me out - I must be getting old!)
1. eBay! I'd say approximately 50-60% of my old tools have come via eBay. See below for more info.
2. New England. About 40%. I've taken two trips back East and sent home coolers full of old tools each time. The coolers are a cheap, practical way to protect the tools and are then reusable back home. Of course, it is a little hard to explain why I have a shed full of coolers...
3. Various other non-Alaskan settings Oregon, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky. 5%. Basically, anywhere I go I scour the area for any place with old tools - flea markets, junk stores, antique stores, thrift stores etc. Basically, I can't drive past any even remotely potential source without saying "Hey, that looks like they might have old tools in there!" Have I mentioned that my wife is a saint?
4. Local Alaskan sources - 1%. Just not much here at all...but I keep looking!
Here's a nutshell version of my eBay rules:
1. Know what you are looking at. Knowledge is king. Most sellers don't know squat about what they are selling - "complete", "mint", "light use", "great condition" etc. mean nothing. You need to know enough to judge for yourself. There are endless examples of this: dado planes with no nicker iron called "complete"(avoid), #78 duplex rabbet planes "missing the front blade" - it only ever had one iron (not a problem - and could be a deal if others don't know that...), "unique block plane" that is really just a broken #3 etc.etc.
2. The web is your best friend. Use it to help with rule #1. If you haven't found it yet - try Patrick Leach's Blood and Gore for information on Stanley planes, the Disstonian Institute for Disston saws etc.
3. Pictures are key. The more quality pictures, the more you can apply rule #1. Spend time studying the pictures.
4. Feedback is useful - to a point. I've had excellent transactions with sellers with very low ratings - but I stay away from those with numerous negatives, or even one negative that has an unsatisfactory response.
5. Know what you are willing to pay - don't get sucked into the bidding frenzy. I've seen used LN planes go for more than LN charges for the same plane new! And at least one person is regularly selling a book for over twice what Lee Valley (the publisher) charges for it. Crazy.
6. Spend some time doing searches of "completed" auctions - this will let you know what range of prices things have gone for recently - maybe that deal isn't really as good as it looks. See rule #5.
7. Snipe. Bid your maximum price (see rule #5) at the last second. If you get it great - if not, there will be more. In my opinion, bidding early only lets others talk themselves into outbidding you - hence the sillyness mentioned in rule #5.
8. Be ready to learn how to fettle. Sometimes you can score tools ready to go. But mostly you need to work on them a bit. Don't rule this out - it is a tremendous learning opportunity.
9. Be ready to be disappointed once in a while. But really, if you are applying rule #1 and rule #5 this won't be too often. I've bought hundreds of tools on eBay and only been flat-out ripped off once, and extremely disappointed twice, and both of those were because I did not fully appreciate rule #3. My fault really.
10. Completely read the sellers listing - paying particular attention to the shipping section. Probably more important to me, as most sellers don't seem to know that Alaska IS on the continent...
11. Have fun with it. It's an auction - not a store.
Thanks for asking this question - I've never really thought about this in any concrete terms. I might do a blog post on this...
Take care - Dan
And of course, these are just my opinions. I know others may have very different strategies that work great for them.