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Buying Tools on eBay

eBay is an online (as in world-wide web) auction house. eBay has a huge assortment of tools for sale every day, and the selection is constantly changing. If you like, you can start and finish a tool collection just buying from eBay, but I don't recommend that. I think you're missing out on a little bit of life if that's the only place you buy tools. There is still a lot to be said for being able to talk to other collectors, users, and dealers, to make the trips to local (or distant) tool gatherings, and to see and inspect tools you buy in person. But, for those interested in trying eBay buying, I will lay out a basic primer here.

Auctions on eBay happen on a per-lot basis, and each lot is kept open for bidding a predetermined amount of time, typically 5 or 7 days, from the moment the item is entered by the seller. The seller can be any registered eBay user, as is the buyer. Using your web browser, you enter the web address and you are presented with a cluttered page filled with links to different areas of the eBay web site. The most valuable links are at the top of the page - navigation for getting you to the lot listings, buyer and seller tools, and the all-important Search page. EBay sells much more than tools, in fact their company motto is "We help people trade practically anything on earth". And it's true, you can find just about anything for sale on eBay. But I will focus on the hand tools in this article.

Most experienced users head straight for the Search page, as this page lets you focus in on just those items you are interested in browsing. On this page, you can search by item title, description, item number, or by who the seller is or who other interested bidders are. Entering "plane" in the title search box, for example, produces a list of 1297 items (as of March 5, 1999). Some of these are airplanes, and not tools, so later in this article I'll discuss ways to focus your searches even more tightly. You can click on an item in the list to bring up information on the state of the auction at that second. For example, item number 71661536 is a Stanley/Bailey #5 smooth plane, currently selling for $47.02 with 40 minutes to go before bidding closes on this item. There is a description of the item for sale, written by the seller, and usually a picture of the item, also typically taken by the seller. These descriptions and pictures vary widely in usability and accuracy.

Advantages and Disadvantages

So, what is the advantage eBay holds over a traditional auction? Essentially, it is because the auction is held on the world-wide web and the overhead costs to both buyer and seller are low. As a seller, your item will get huge exposure and draw the largest number of bidders. It costs a pittance to sell something on eBay (a small posting fee ranging from $0.25 to $2 per item (depending on its estimated value), and a commission (only if the items sells) of between 1.25% to 5% of the hammer price. If the item doesn't sell the first time (because of a reserve price, most likely), you can list it again for free. As a buyer, you get to choose from a huge assortment of tools, and there are new ones every day. You don't have to drive around to every garage sale in a five-state radius. There is no buyer's premium. Once a sale concludes, eBay leaves it up to the high bidder and the seller to contact each other (within 3 days) and make arrangements for payment and delivery.

There are some peculiar advantages and disadvantages to using eBay for your tool purchases, so I'll touch on those briefly. Keep in mind that something listed as an disadvantage for the buyer is likely to be an advantage for the seller, and vice versa. This list, then, is presented from the buyer's point of view:


  • You can bid relatively anonymously. You can use an alias on eBay to keep your identity hidden, until you end up as high bidder on a completed auction and must send payment - then the seller will know who you are. You can check on someone else's identity if you like, but your identity is also sent to the person you are checking up on as part of this process. Over time, frequent bidders/sellers build up lists of the other frequent bidders/sellers, so that after awhile this advantage dissipates.
  • You can use various bidding strategies. You can bid your maximum and have eBay automatically increase your bid as necessary to outbid other bidders (something it does with religious correctness). Or, you can hide out in the shadows of the internet until the last seconds are ticking away in an auction and then spring out with a bid, hoping no one else will have time to outbid you. (This is called "sniping"). Several other variations are possible. Snipers hope that they can get a bargain by beating out the other snipers at the last second, assuming none of the other bidders has bid a realistic price for the item. It is a hell of a way to live.
  • It costs nothing to participate in the auction. eBay doesn't charge a fee to register, and assuming you have internet access eBay is free to the buyer - no buyer's premium, no browsing fees, nada. Only if you are the high bidder on an item does it cost you money. UPS or the postal service will deliver purchased goods to your door.


  • EBay has only a very weak quality control system. There is a lot (read: A LOT) of junk offered for sale on eBay. The descriptions can be misleading, inaccurate, or downright wrong, and the pictures can be nonexistent, blurry, not even of the right tool, etc. The only system eBay offers to provide peace-of-mid to the buyer is a "star" feedback system, where buyers and sellers can post comments about each other in previous transactions. Someone with a high rating is less likely to cause you problems than someone with a single-digit rating, but this system still isn't foolproof. Anyone can raise or lower anyone else's rating by posting positive or negative comments, even if they haven't been involved in a transaction with that person. (In the future, this risk may be allayed somewhat by escrow-type arrangements, but these will cost either the buyer or seller some money. See as one example.)
  • The sellers are operating fairly anonymously also. Bidding on your own items for sale was allowed until fairly recently, and buyers have no way of knowing if all the bidders on an item are operating independently. An unscrupulous vendor could offer an item for sale, and then have a friend or two bid it up.
  • Return privileges are not enforceable, even if a seller states they will accept returns. eBay is an auction, and operates under auction rules which are usually "as-is"-type sales. The expense and hassle of trying to legally force someone (in another state) to return your money would not be worth it in almost all cases.

Buying Tools

OK, how do I buy something on eBay? First, you need to register, and this can take up to 24 hours, so register early if you intend to bid on something. From the eBay home page, click on Buyers at the top of the page, and then "Registered User Services". From there, the link titled "Become a Registered User" will describe the process. Once you are registered, you will get a username (alias) and password that allows you to bid in any eBay auction.

To find things to spend your hard-earned money on, return to that invaluable Search page (reached by clicking Search at the top of the eBay home page). Type in the name of your favorite tool in the "Title Search" box. Most likely you will be presented with dozens of items to peruse, but if not, you can try adjusting your search by using these search tips:

  • Capitalization in your search phrase doesn't matter.
  • All "filler words" (including words such as and, or, the etc.) will be interpreted as words to be searched for in the text. Hence, just type the actual words you're looking for - don't try to give the search box instructions. For example, if you want "wood plane", just type "wood plane" (with or without the quotation marks) and not "wood and plane". The default search rule is to look for
  • Searches within quotation marks will return items with text exactly as specified within the quotes. Phrase searches should not be used unless you intend to get the exact text. A search for "rabbet plane" will return text including the exact phrase rabbet plane. The phrase "plane, rabbet" will NOT be found. You need to think of all the various ways a seller may describe his goods.
  • Be careful when you search for plurals. The search for wood plane gives different results than the search for wood planes. You can also try wooden planes, or all at once with @1 wood wooden plane planes (see special character searches below).
  • Special characters can be used in your search, but they have special meanings:
    • (plane,wood) (with no spaces after the comma) finds either the word wood or plane in an item's title.
    • "wood plane" finds the exact phrase wood plane.
    • Plane -airplane include the word plane but not airplane
    • wood +plane include the words wood and plane
    • plane* are related to Wood Planes, plane tool, plane, planes, etc.
    • plane -(wood,transitional) include the word plane, but not wood or transitional
    • #1869 include the year or number 1869
    • "Rabbet Plane" include the exact phrase Rabbet Plane
    • @0 plane wood include either the word plane or wood (results include every tool with one or more of the keywords in the title)
    • @1 plane metallic wood include at least two of the words of plane, metallic, and wood (results include every tool with two or more of the keywords in the title)
Once you have located a list of tools that meets your search criteria, you can sort the results by ending date, bid price, or search ranking. Click on the column heading in the result table to do this - for example, it is often helpful to click on "Ending Date" and get the auctions that are ending soonest listed first. When you find something to bid on, click on the bid graphic (auction paddle icon), fill in your name, password, and bid amount, and you are a participant! Say goodbye to your family and prepare to live life by the friendly, warm glow of your computer screen!

eBay will confirm your bid via email, and will also send email to you if someone else outbids you, but I've found this last piece of information fairly useless, as by the time you get the email the action is usually over.

If you find yourself participating in a lot of auctions (I feel your pain), you can buy and use computerized bidding software to help manage some of the time demands. I haven't used any of these personally, but I found this one on the web that claims to be free - CricketCalc at Another is TurboBid ($11) at

Selling Tools

To sell tools on eBay, you need to be registered and have a password, and it helps to put a charge card number on file with eBay so they can charge your auction fees directly. When you register, eBay gives you a $10 credit, but that runs out after listing only 5 tools for sale. After that you have to pay by check each time you list something or just turn over the card number and sell like mad.

See my other article for more information on selling on eBay.