Antique & Collectible Hand Tools often make for Estate Sale Windfalls
This Sandusky Plow Plane, designed for cutting grooves into wood, recently sold for $14,000.
The big white canopy tent was erected overnight. It sat on the parking lot of a shopping mall, close to the highway. Attached was a vinyl banner that read “TOOL SALE.” Judging by the crowded parking lot, the sale was well underway. Inside the tent, there was row after row of tables, bins and floor displays. The aisles between the tables were almost too crowded to negotiate; the customers—all male—lingered at each table, handling the tools and eyeing them carefully.
Guys love tools. My father, a typewriter repairman by trade, seemed to always have his tools and a few typewriter carcasses spread across our dining room table, which served as his ad-hoc workbench. I loved to watch him work his magic. My older son, when he was just 2, preferred playing in my toolbox to playing with his toys. When my piano/antiques restoration business was in its prime, I owned every woodworking and specialty piano tool known to the trade.
Men come by their love of tools honestly. Harvard socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson states that men’s brains are “wired” for grasping spatial relationships and mathematics, which makes them natural mechanics and carpenters. I take great pleasure in watching the natural, ballet-like movements of a good bricklayer or house painter.
Unfortunately, opportunities to watch tradesmen-artists at work are becoming fewer. But, fewer opportunities to observe hand-craftsmanship means greater opportunity for tool collectors. In the 21st century, time is money. Tradesmen must get the job done quickly and move on. Tools are now built for speed. No more cutting wood with a hand saw, smoothing it with a hand plane, or fitting joints with a chisel. Instead, boards are cut with a power saw, smoothed by feeding them into a power planer and joints are cut with a router. Even hammers are now power tools. My grandfather (a carpenter) could set a ten-penny nail (3”) with a tap and a single blow using a claw hammer. These days, “nailing” means pointing a nail gun and pulling the trigger.
This 19th-century mahogany level features brass fittings and calibration screws. It realized $835 at auction.
A generation or two ago, “tools” meant primarily “hand tools.” Men would spend a lifetime acquiring the tools they needed to earn a living and maintain their property. When they died, they passed their tools to their heirs. Over the course of a lifetime, one could accumulate a huge collection of tools. Now, the tools of former generations are considered by many to be obsolete. It’s not surprising, then, that many modern estate executors sort through a decedent’s tools with slight disdain. Wrenches that don’t ratchet and planes that don’t purr are quaint. Toolboxes and bins full of grubby hand tools in musty basements and outbuildings hardly seem worth the effort to sort through. So, many executors don’t bother to do so. And, collectors reap the benefit of their laziness.
Collectors who take the time to sort through an estate’s tools may find rare items to add to their collections. Dealers who do so are almost certain to turn a profit. Antique and vintage tools are brisk sellers on eBay and other online venues. Consider the statistics: 54 percent of all items offered on eBay receive no bids at all; 23 percent receive only one bid; only 4 percent of items get 10 or more bids. In my recent search for vintage tools on eBay, sorted by number of bids, I found that the first two tools had 31 and 25 bids, respectively, and the next 20 items all had 10 or more bids. I searched through 275 auctions to find one with fewer than two bids. Yes, the market for collectible tools is strong. And, from what I’ve seen, profitable.
The jaws on this unique Pickel & Smith adjustable wrench adjust by pushing a button on the side and sliding the jaw. It sold for $778.
Here are a few recently attained selling prices for antique or vintage tools:
• An 1877 Sandusky Centerwheel Plow Plane sold for $14,000;
• An 1868 Mahogany spirit level made by W. Johnson closed at $835;
• A Pickel & Smith adjustable wrench sold for $778;
• An adjustable hammer auctioned for $250;
• A humble pair of 1930s Vise Grip pliers brought $293.
With the exception of the Sandusky plane, none of the above tools would have appeared noteworthy during an estate personal property inventory.
Not all tools bring big bucks, and not all are collectible. But, dealers who want to make a good profit are well advised to rummage through an estate’s toolboxes, garages and outbuildings. Ordinary wrench sockets that can be purchased for a quarter apiece at estate sales sell online for a dollar plus a dollar handling charge. That’s an 800-percent return on investment. Reselling ordinary tools won’t make anyone rich, but they’ll bring a better return than Wall Street.
The adjustable head on this hammer makes easy work of driving nails at an angle. Purchased for a meager price, it auctioned for $250.
Where does one look for collectible tools, and how are they distinguished from run-of-the-mill tools?
In considering where to buy, I’m reminded of the statement made by famous bank robber Willie Sutton: “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” The most likely places to find tools are rural areas where an abundance of mechanics and farmers live. The estate of a retired tradesman can be a goldmine, because estate executors often don’t know how to liquidate specialty trade tools. Favor rural and farm auctions over suburban yard sales and gallery auctions. Find auctioneers in your community who regularly hold multi-estate or tool auctions. Check bankruptcy postings and going-out-of-business sales for repair shops that are closing.
If you prefer to search from the comfort of home, use a Craigslist search engine like Extads to search for tools, and automate your search to regularly receive e-mails from Craigslist that contain your search results.
Which tools should one buy? A good rule of thumb is that ordinary hands tools that appear to be in good condition are always worth buying, if the price is right. If the tool is worn (like a gouged chisel or “buggered” screwdriver shaft), it is Craftsman brand (Sears) and you can buy it cheaply, then go ahead and do so. Sears is famous for its “no questions asked” policy on Craftsman hand tools. Just return the damaged tool to a Sears hardware department and they will exchange it for a new one. No receipt is needed.
A part of every mechanic’s tool box, this early version of Vise Grip pliers brought $293 at auction.
Cutting tools (planes, saws, chisels) are always in demand. Try to buy entire lots of tools: a toolbox full, for example (and include the toolbox in your offer). If you’re buying a box lot of tools, chose the most expensive two tools in the box and make that value you’re starting offer. Individual tools should sell for less than 10 percent of what comparable new items sell for; use your smartphone to check retail or resale prices online at WorthPoint or eBay.
Unusual tools are always worth special consideration. If you’ve never seen a particular tool before or if patent dates indicate that a tool might be very old, then look it up online. Always carry a printed “antique tool” guide with you for those situations where you can’t get online (which is often the case in rural areas). A good choice is the Antique Trader Tools Price Guide.
Whether your interest in tools is for fun or profit, guys, remember what Dr. Wilson said: mechanics and spatial relationships come naturally to men. Whenever you see a tool sale, pull in and shop. After all, you can’t help yourself. You’re wired for tools.
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth