As you read these words, tech-savvy programmers are busily creating the “Internet of Things”, injecting the web into as many objects as they can. So our fridges can tell our smartphones what they’re running low on, and our tractors can be operated from air-conditioned offices. There are bubbles of serenity, within this tech-obsessed world, occupied by artisans who take the opposite approach, preferring antique tools and time-honoured techniques.
Bob Crosbie is one such creative thinker. He has been working with wood since he was a youngster and has progressed from traditional joinery through so many techniques he’s now moved on to sharing those skills with others. As one of the founders of The Traditional Tool Group (TTTG), Bob conducts regular workshops and is dedicated to the preservation of traditional tools.
Why are old tools so collectable?
While Bob doesn’t collect tools himself, he knows most of the collectors and follows the collector’s market. The teacher in him emerges as he breaks the complexities of valuation down into the simplest possible terms:
“What makes a tool collectible is its rarity and its aesthetic appeal.”
This is especially true with woodworking tools. There’s a top echelon of tools that are visually appealing and continue to accrue in value over time. A handful of serious collectors compete against each other, in a worldwide market, for these rare antiques. Then there are regular people, who go to garage sales and second-hand shops, just looking for a bargain. Whichever world you come from, there’s something about collecting that gets into the blood.
“People really get hooked on collecting. It can become an addiction.”
While it may be on the healthier end of the addiction spectrum, it’s still worth keeping your tool collection under control. You want to avoid having “hoarder” be an accurate description of you.
Non-addictive guide for collecting antique tools
If your goal is to make money, you need to do your research and be well prepared. The bulk of the collector’s market is in America, so you need to keep in mind where your buyers are and whether you can find a way of reaching them that will still allow you to make a profit.
There are also thousands of tool brands out there, and mass-production of tools has been going on for over 200 years. So there are millions of old tools to be picked through. According to Bob, it can be a real trap for new players.
Know the tools you’re looking for
The maker’s mark is the key to it. While age and use may make it difficult to find, there’s usually at least a remnant of it, even if the tool is rusty. The more tools you handle, the more you’ll start getting a natural feel for them. Bob reckons, if you have any aptitude at all, you’ll pick it up pretty quickly.
Ever the concise wordsmith, his advice for first time collectors:
“Don’t throw your money away.”
Simple as that. Be sensible. Think about what you really need. If you’re after woodworking tools, the best brand is Stanley, made before 1970. And then there’s a whole range of hobbyist brands to look out for. Bob recommends Record for planes and Disston for hand saws. There’s even a Disstonian Institute, which provides a comprehensive guide to Disston saws. And, for a detailed breakdown of everything you need to know about hand planes, there’s no better source than expert woodworker, Steve Hay.
To help you build your knowledge, there are plenty of online resources and even some magazines, with real pages, you can hold in your hands. Bob likes American publication, Popular Woodworking, which also has a blog full of useful, sensible advice.
The Hawley Tool Collection is another great resource. Its namesake, Ken Hawley, was the David Attenborough of tool collecting (in looks as much as in knowledge).
Acquire skills first, spend money second
Start out with the basics. Then once you’re sure you’re going to go further, that’s when you should start investing more money. The beautiful thing about woodworking is, you can build your kit slowly. Your basic starter kit should include a decent hand saw, a Stanley or Record plane and some old chisels (For affordability and availability, Bob recommends Aussie brand, Titan, or Swedish brand, Berg). If you’re already convinced woodworking is for you, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the perfect antique toolkit.
Embrace your mistakes
It’s not all smooth sailing but sometimes the painful experiences teach you the most.
“As with everything in life, you’ll make mistakes. And the mistakes you’ll remember. And you won’t make them again. Especially if you’ve spent too much money.”
Don’t buy from a collector
A great quality vintage tool will be around the same price as the best new ones, making them fantastic value. Provided you don’t buy from a collector. Vintage tool collectors tend to sell their items at premium prices.
If you’re wanting to use your tools, there’s no need to go for a top shelf item when there are, as we’ve mentioned, millions of other tools to be found. Even as a collector, buying at a premium price is not a great investment. The only reason to do so is if you have a particular obsession with a particular tool… and then you might need to evaluate the health of your tool collecting addiction.
Restoring antique tools
While you’re better off getting tools in good condition, you can sometimes snag yourself a great bargain with a tool that has some minor damage. Bob offers workshops in restoring these exciting vintage finds. He says it’s pretty much common sense but it’s worth having someone experienced to take you through it, at least the first couple of times. What does it involve?
“Getting dirty and putting a bit of work into it.”
If you’re in reach of Sydney, you can meet Bob (and tap his expertise in person) at one of his workshops.
The true value of antique tools
Bob is a lover of vintage tools and sees great value in old technology but his love is born of practicality. He is not a collector. Every tool he has gets used. When he’s not working on his own creations, he spends his time imparting his skills and knowledge to others, teaching them how to use, restore and maintain antique tools.
Bob’s favourite old tools?
“The ones that end up on the bench because they’re getting used the most.”
To Bob, the value of these old tools isn’t in the money they can fetch, nor their rarity. It’s in the work they allow you to do and their ability to carve intangible concepts into reality.