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Collecting Tools - Why?

One of the things that make the world a fascinating place is the fact that people differ in their interests and hobbies. What is highly interesting to one person may seem boring or ridiculous to the next. For example, I have never seen the reasoning behind collecting Beanie-Babies, but my daughters love them. They don't understand my desire to collect tools either. But I'm glad for the diversity - if everyone collected the same things, it would be a lot harder to complete a collection!

So, why old tools? What is the attraction? I'm sure the answer to this differs for everyone, but for me tools have appeal on several levels. First, they are useful things. You can build things with them. This ability to create new things rather than simply destroy or consume them really sets tools apart from many other collectibles in my opinion. I think this leads to tools being a part of the very definition of humanity. Humans are the only species that have manufactured tools to solve specific problems. Some other species have developed the ability to use sticks, rocks, etc. to achieve a goal, but no other has conceived of a tool design, carried it out, and used the resulting tool to achieve the goal. The ability to make tools is part of the nature of being human.

Further, the creation of a tool often makes possible the creation of more advanced tools (ever try creating a new beanie-baby from existing beanie-babies? - very messy). Humanity has walked down this road from the dawn of time - wheels led to lathes and pottery wheels, which led to threaded parts and assemblies of smaller subassemblies. Tools are necessary to give us paper, glass, houses, and most other items. In time, tools advanced enough to make possible the manufacturing of internal-combustion engines, automobiles, and computers, and in the future new devices will come along. But even the most advanced of these owes tribute to the most basic hand tools for its existence.

At this point, some may ask - "Why collect anything at all?" The answers here, again, vary as widely as the number of people asked. For some people, collecting items is against their philosophy. They prefer to collect experiences rather than material goods. For others, collecting offers a distraction from other parts of their life. Among those that like to collect, some may do so as part of a rigorous study program - they want to catalog all types of a specific tool, for example. Some collectors may wish to preserve some of the past for future generations. Some may collect as a financial investment. Some collect tools to use them - to be able to create things with them. Others perceive tools as works of art, or as fascinating mechanical design specimens. Whatever the reason, collecting provides a goal that requires patience and time to achieve, and I think the lessons learned from doing so are invaluable.

Art Objects and Pathos

Some antique tools have considerable appeal as objects d'art. Beautiful designs, fantastic craftsmanship, and exotic materials are sometimes used in tools - and these happen to be the sorts of tools that hold higher value to collectors today. Many examples of artistically designed tools are shown in Sandor Nagyszalanczy's book "The Art of Fine Tools", a coffee-table book with beautiful photography of tools showing ancient significance, remarkable precision, and incredible artistic decoration. In this book, over 300 color photos depict the beauty and the classic designs of these tools.

Collecting also offers the opportunity to gather together with other like-minded souls, and I have found that the tool collecting community is as nice a group as you'd want to meet. Sure, there are the exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between, and these disgruntled few tend to limit their own attendance at tool shows anyway. Attending a tool show is an experience, and if you are truly interested in learning about the historical aspects of using tools, this is the place to come. You'll find barrel-maker's tools, shoe-maker's tools, bookbinding tools, jewelers tools, woodworking and metalworking tools, and more! Hardly a meeting goes by where I don't discover some odd rule, plane, or gadget used for something I didn't even know people desired to do!

Tool Collecting Categories

So, as a new tool collector, where do you start? I suggest you find local tool collector's clubs, and attend some meetings. There you may start to see tools that catch your eye, and to begin perhaps you'll want to start collecting tools in a specific category. Categories of tools can range from the very broad - planes, rules, braces, hammers, etc. to the very specific - planes made by the Gage Company of Vineland, New Jersey for example. If you are new to the hobby, you should know that there are many good modern reference books that will guide you in your search, as well as many reprints of the catalogs in which these tools were originally offered.

Now, you can't go to a tool dealer and say "Give me one complete set of Stanley block planes". No one dealer is likely to have all models in stock at any one time. Completing these sets requires patience, especially if money is limited. But you don't need to be rich to complete most of these sets - money can speed up the process, but given enough patience you can still complete most all of them. The thrill of the hunt comes into play here - with enough knowledge of the rarer tools, you may be the first to spot one at the local garage sale!

In working towards completing these sets, I suggest you take the time to learn the differences between various tools, their history and the history of their makers. Often tools will exhibit differences contrasting the different locations of their makers, or different features contrasting different time periods. In other words, study the tools, and perhaps someday you will recognize a new model that hasn't been cataloged before!

Following are some possible ways to begin collecting tools:

  • Tools of a specific company or maker - for example, L. Bailey Victor tools, Seneca Falls Tool Company tools, Miller's Falls tools, Disston Saws, Chelor planes, etc.
  • Tools of a specific type - hammers, braces, axes, saws, patented planes, transitional planes, treadle-powered machines, etc.
  • Tools of a specific period - tools from 1850-1900, post WWII era tools, etc.
  • Tools from a specific place - Scottish tools, tools from Massachusetts makers, etc.
  • Tools of a specific occupation - cooper's tools, machinist tools, watchmaker's tools.
  • A combination of one or more of the above categories -- for example, one each of a specific type of Stanley tool, i.e. all Stanley saws, all Stanley marking gauges, all Stanley planes, etc.
  • A "type study" of one specific model, for example, a type study of Stanley #6 jointer planes or Norris A5 smooth planes.
  • Tools that show how a specific idea progressed over time, for example tools tracing the development of the plane's adjusting mechanisms, or tools showing how an early patent was bought out and developed by another company.
  • Tool advertising and catalogs.

My suggestions here are simply potential ideas for new collectors - if you are already a tool collector, most likely you have determined your own collecting goals already. If you are a new collector now, your tool collecting interests may even change over time. When I started, I loved lathes (and they are still important and very interesting to me). But, as the years went by, I learned more about other tools, and began taking an interest in them too. (I also realized collecting lathes takes up a LOT of space!) Now I have a lot of tools of all varieties, but I think the most exciting aspect of the entire hobby is realizing how much tool knowledge there is out there, and how much you can learn from others of like mind. Resources of information abound, and I encourage you to use all of them in your search!