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Collecting Mania: Antique Tools

Updated on May 27, 2010

Antique hammers, tongs, anvils, and planes recall the era of handcraftsmanship. Old tools have an appeal unlike that of other antiques. Their patinas were earned not through decades of dusting, but from sweat, rain, and rust. They are at once antiques and the makers of antiques, archaeological artifacts from the ruins of an old shed or retrieved from a hook on the rafters of a decaying barn. They are witnesses to a time when craftsmanship was important.

Most early tools reflect the abilities of two craftsmen: the blacksmith who could forge the head of an ax or the blade of a plane and the woodworker who produced the framework needed to secure, grip, and move the metal blade. At times when raw materials were rare, prudence prevailed: Blacksmiths often forged new tools from old ones, making a drill bit from a cast-off file or fashioning a saw blade from that of a broken scythe.

Prior to this century, specialized tools were part of every occupation; tools required by now-unfamiliar trades, such as that of the cooper (barrel maker), intrigue collectors today. Enormous augers used to turn logs into water pipes, double- or single-bladed axes, various saws, and levels ranging in length from a few inches to several feet - all have their collectors. But of the hundreds of types of tools that were used in America between the 17th and 19th centuries, the most collectible by far is the woodworking plane, especially those manufactured domestically after 1840.

The dollar value of any antique tool depends on complex factors ranging from rarity and history to attractiveness and condition. Estimating the reduction in value that a tool will suffer from either having replaced or repaired parts or a restored or new finish depends on both the buyer's preferences and the rarity of the tool. A more valuable antique tool can withstand more wear and restoration without a dramatic reduction in value than can a common tool.

Most collectors would rather find a tool in need of repair than one that has been repaired improperly or over-restored. Whirling wire wheels, sandpaper, and wire brushes will remove rust, but they also leave permanent scratches on the metal and adjacent wood. A better approach is to disassemble the tool as far as possible, soak the rusted parts in kerosene overnight, and then rub carefully with medium steel wool to remove the softened rust. If the rust is deep-seated, it may be wiser to leave it than to risk damaging the metal in the process.

Many tools that have made their way into antiques shops have been over-restored. Too often, every nick and scratch has been sanded off, the metal has been polished, and the entire piece ends up looking as if it has been dipped in high-gloss polyurethane. More often than not, all an old tool requires is a careful washing with a rag dipped in mineral spirits (paint thinner) followed by the application of a thin coat of furniture paste wax.

Tucked within an enclave of 37 buildings at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT, is the Shaker Shed, home to one of the country's most extensive collections of woodworking tools. In addition to hundreds of 18th- and 19th-century planes, the Shelburne's collection includes a complete set of cooper's tools as well as examples of pump logs and the unusual tools designed to transform a cedar log into a wooden pipe. A blacksmith shop and sawmill were also dismantled, moved to the museum's property, and restored.

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