Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Why do we collect tools

That question came up during some recent discussions between Gerhard Marx, Frank Bartlett and myself, half way around the world. (they are both on the African continent)
I just saw the post by Gerhard about his answer and an invitation to respond.

An earlier group shot of my bench planes. 
I have long expanded on this line up :-) 

So I thought, why not a post on my blog instead of just commenting.

I have had the collector bug from a young age, I have collected many things thru the years, and I still do, but now I am more selective. Many of my earliest collections I have since given away. More on that later.

For me it is partly an obsession with the insatiable need to know and understand how things work.  To me that has always meant experimenting with these wondrous tools and taking them apart to see what makes them tick.

Drove my mom crazy by taking apart our first color TV, so many buttons, I wondered what they all did :-)

I was drawn to tools and woodworking from an early age, my dad grew up on a saw mill and was handy with whatever tool you could put in his hands. I saw him fix everything around the house... except, electronics.

So that is why I decided to work in electronic. My dad was a mechanic by trade, but was a real handyman. We did not had much of a shop in the basement but we sure built all kinds of contraptions in there, me and my brothers. Mostly with hand tools.

Dad was a real stickler with his tools, for the most part all Snap-On. He always said, buy the best you can afford, you will never regret it and it won't let you down. Cheaper in the long run.
He also start buying me my own tools (in a effort to keep my hands out of his :-)
I will do the same with my kids later on with the same limited success...
Never understood why they dragged my jig saw and other stuff in the woods to work on their tree house, there was NO power out there sons !!! :-)
And every time I ran out of nails, I just had to follow the trail of shiny nails going into the wood...

My first real woodworking projects; 
Speaker enclosure, a three legs table and an octagonal stool.
Circa mid 60s, I still have these, not the radios.

That stick to me and I tried heading his advice's. Later in life, I was raising a family with Heather while restoring a 150 plus years old farm house.
On a young Airman salary that was challenging, but we succeed. In other words the house survived us :-)

In those days to me woodworking meant  power tools everything, but I did bought a few semblances of imitation hand tools, namely smooth plane No 4, chisels, hand saw etc.

My first real power tool shop. 
You can see the antique hand tools starting to accumulate 
in the background, but I was mostly a power tool guy. 

I could never get that Mastercraft, Made in Germany imitation of a Bailey plane, to make shavings or some semblance of it.

It look like a tool but was it?
I have long since learned how to make it do thin shavings BTW :-)

The block plane seems easier to coax to make shavings, I was intrigued.
When I do, there is only one way to quench my thirst, it is to research, learn, experiment and accumulate examples to see what does what better and why.
I found a book on collecting tool by Herbert Kean and Emil Pollack  and I was hooked.
The book that send me spiraling down the slope

I start paying closer attention to used tools on the flea markets circuit and I was amazed at what was showing up. A few years later Lee Valley had this rather expensive book on Stanley tools, the seminal works of John Walter. I took the plunge and discovered numerous tools I never knew even existed.

My well thumbed copy of Walter's book, 
complete with rust and grease stains

The internet came to our house in the late 90s (dial up ) and I discovered a few sites of information, notably the infamous Patrick's Stanley blood and gore site.

10 some years later between postings, I lost the space for a proper shop, but discovered a thing called Ebay. You could find pretty well anything for the right price and that was before shipping became ridiculous.

But I guess the reason I still like to collect tools is because there is so much to learn from them. And using a well designed beautiful tools is a treat. I really enjoy the connection with the past when I put to good use a lump of rust that I lovingly brought back to work.
For the most part I try to buy largely tools I can put back into use, but once in a while I will purposely buy duds to see why that was or to get a good bad example of a feature.

Sargent last plane was a dismal failure.
The Sargent No 600 all purpose aluminum plane with the ready edge blade 
(has 4 sharpened edges) Can you say, where is the box of Band-Aids? 
Aluminum is also bad thing for plane soles...

And then there is always the needs for parts. Parts that they stop making years ago. A few artisans are making some of the most needed parts but eventually, it comes to buying yet another tool to make a good one.
I rely on this guy a lot for the odd parts; New Hampshire plane parts guy

For the most part, my woodworking experiences have always been works of necessity. Stuff we needed, either fixed it or make it.

Kitchen in our previous house as bought

Completed kitchen remodel. 
Heather and I did all the work

The shop I set up to make it all happened.
Build all the various cabinetry and storage units in it.
That was the deal we made, If we buy this house with that big garage, 
you can have the kitchen you want.  She did :-)

Many of my tools were purchased for specific projects, but I was also starting to accumulate quite a collection of antique tools, so a proper bench was required. 

My first real bench, loosely based on Roubo and Chris's books.
It now resides in my hand tool shop in the basement.
Recognize the twin towers from the kitchen, minus some doors?

For the longest time my antique tools have been mostly packed away in boxes in between moves around the country, but now that I am retired, I wanted to see them and enjoy them.

Hence my current shop reorganization projects on the go, features mostly open tills versus hiding them behind doors or inside drawers.

Inspired by Chris ATC, lately I have been trying seriously to downsize my assortment of users tools. Part of this exercise is to narrow down my tool kit and replaced them by better examples as required. Another excuse to buy more tools, oups, did I just say that? :-)

Since going thru the lost of my dear Heather, and seeing how she donated lot of her things away to family and friends while she was still alive. And knowing that they were going to people that would appreciate and cherish them, it got me thinking.

What is going to happened to my tools once I'm gone? Heather was aware of the quantity and value invested into them, she even knew how to properly dispose of them thru dealers/collectors etc. We both got to know pretty good each other hobbies, her African violets and my woodworking tools and knew how to dispose of them after one of us departed.

The end of an era. 
Last fall she sold and gave away four of her 5 three tiers plant stands. 
I keep the wooden one.

I can only hope to have sufficient time left on this earth to enjoy them for a few more years and then donate them to those who would appreciated them, like she shown me in her later months.  I really like that idea, she even donated one of her precious guitar to a good friend, who she knows she will go on and played that guitar and be reminded of Heather.

If you ever wondered what to do with your earthly possessions before you go, do like she did! You will sleep better... eternally....

After discussing my plans with the kids, we all agreed that it would be nice if I was to put together for them a small tool kit they could use.

Perfect excuse to go and buy more tools...err I meant coincidentally I was just looking out for some of these tools I keep hearing about :-)

So there you have it, from necessity to curiosity to appreciation to wanting to experience real tools in my wood working journey.
I have come full circle and hopefully will be able to put together three good tool kits. One for each of my boys and one for me to take in my future retirement place down the road.

I hope to be able to enjoy woodworking and the tools until my last breath. That is my final wish.

Some of these tools have special meanings for me. They are from my father, my family, friends or the love of my life, Heather.
These I will cherish forever and be the last to be parted from.

In the mean time I will keep on collecting, trading, and learning from these wondrous tools. Tools and how we used them are what distinct us from other species. For without tools we would still be living in a cave...

Bob, who is going down into his shop downstairs with his nite cap drink to admire his tools. A part of my nite time ritual :-)

That old beat up office chair with a wooden arm is where 
I like to sit and admire my domain.

The sign "Genius are messy" was made by my old friend Mark, I often jokingly wondered what he meant by that ... :-)

The scene tonite. The bench is cluttered with past unfinished projects
At least my small joiner chest now sit on a more dignified base than a Rubbermaid container.


  1. Love to collect woodworking tools. Starting from ancient tools then new tools that recently manufactured.

  2. Hi Bob

    Bravo, that was a superb read, I really enjoyed it. I will put a link to it on my site.
    That is an impressive kitchen you built. This post has inspired me to hit the shop with a vengeance this weekend.

    Have a wonderful day.

  3. Hi Gerhard
    Always great to hear from you Mate.
    Thank you, yes we were very proud of that kitchen. The house sold in a record 5 hours! I like to say if the woman like the kitchen and the man the workshop = SOLD! :-)

    Glad I could inspire you to hit the shop... if only it would do the same for me...soon I hope

    Bob, slowly coming around his loss

  4. Really an interesting blog post.
    I like the idea of being able to supply our 4 children with a decent set of tools when they move away from home, just like my father did to me and my brothers.

    But I also like to use old tools to sort of "connect" with earlier users and to fight modern days consumerism about getting everything new.
    It helps that a lot of old tools are superior in quality to many modern tools, so it is not a burden to use old tools in most cases.

    I also like to prevent a functional tool from becoming a decoration on the wall of a theme restaurant, where it might be thrown out in 5 years time, when the fashion in interior decoration changes.

    I really like you and Heathers idea about making sure to deal with a prized collection in time.
    Giving a really nice thing/tool/gift away is very rewarding if you know that the person receiving ti will truly appreciate it. That way it feels like you have given the item a new life.

    I was once part of a community for building model steam engines. This was before the time of the Internet, and in one of the quarterly magazines, a writer had suggested that the club could help in clearing out the workshop so that a widow wouldn't be tasked with a job of guessing which tools belonged to the lathe and which to the milling machine etc. and also to make sure that she got a decent price for the machinery.

    Even though I know that down sizing might be a good idea, I am still not able to do it myself yet.


  5. Hi Jonas
    Indeed, giving away something that you know would be enjoyed and appreciated is really satisfying. I have been involved a few times to help a friend's widow get the most of the tools left behind. It helps making it a little easier on them. What I normally do is compile an inventory, research and assess the tools, set fair prices and sell them either via EBay (back then) or nowadays via Kijiji. I truly understand what you meant about the difficulty of downsizing, not easy for sure, but I'm trying... Says Bob with a straight face :-)

  6. Hi Bob. I'm of two minds when I think about tool collecting. I'm strictly a user and a minimalist (I don't have the space to be anything else!). I do love my spartan set of tools. There are many other things that I wish I had. But if I buy tools I want to use them. When people buy tools just to collect them, to me it is like having Wayne Gretzky on your hockey team and sitting him on the bench. If the tools are no longer working I can understand that. But if they are workable, they deserve more than sitting on a shelf.

    There are a lot of people who buy up all the tools they can just to drive up the prices. The resurgence of hand tool woodworking in the past several years hasn't helped that - too few tools and too many people looking for them. Prices on e-Bay have gone crazy - I don't even bother with that anymore. Maybe I'm just cheap, but it's very frustrating trying to find tools these days.

    On the one hand I understand whey people might want to collect old tools. They are a connection with the past. And I have no problem with that if they use the tools. On the other hand it's a shame if they are not used (unless they cannot be used for some reason).

    I'll get off my soap-box now.

  7. Hi Matt
    I'm of a similar mind.. and soap box :-)
    To me antique tools were never an investment in future profitability.
    Tools are first and foremost tools! I enjoy rescuing old tools and bring them back into users shape. Some I gave away, some I still uses, some are just special to me and I like to admire them, but yes they do get to work also, they are tools!

    I see myself as the temporary caretaker of tools passing thru my hands and to be hopefully uses and enjoyed long after I'm gone.

    Bob, now getting off his soap box :-)

  8. Bob,

    Nice tills, I wish mine looked as good. I have some tool collector genes as well but for the most part (other than JNats, marking knifes, and marking gauges) it is under control and I'm slowly reclaiming storage space.

    I'm not a fan of selling tools, or anything else for that matter, I've found it is never worth the effort. My old co-pilot and son I never had has been designated as my tool repository when I croak. He will put 'em to good use.

    Give Rudy a treat for me and I hope you will have one as well,



  9. hi Ken
    Thanks, I'm pleased with my tills. Once I finish covering that wall with all kinds of tills and tool holders, if it does not fit on that wall, I probably don't need it. Not that has ever stopped me before :-)

    Yes Rudy gets a treat... :-)

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