Is it possible to build a decent collection of hand tools on a small budget? I’m not sure yet, but I’m trying to find out.
Although I have bought a few tools new, most of my hand tools are “vintage,” and I have seldom paid high prices for them. The most I have ever paid for a hand saw is $20. I have less than $100 in my four bench planes (jack, jointer, smoother, block) all together. The most I have paid for a vintage chisel is $10, and I paid $2-$5 each for several of my most-used chisels. Many of these tools required a significant time-investment to get them working again, but I enjoy the process, and none of them needed replacement parts that I had to buy.
In building my arsenal of vintage hand tools, I have learned a few things about how to get good tools cheap.
- Have patience. You can get good tools cheap if you are willing to wait for the right deal. Although you should be willing to pay good money for a good tool, you can often find a comparable tool at a lower price if you search long enough. Haste makes waste.
- Search with a strategy. You have to know where to look. In my experience, the slightly dingy antique shops are the most promising. Unfinished floors and piles of junk often signal the presence of good tools buried underneath a lot of tool-shaped garbage in some corner. The cleaner, upscale antique shops sometimes have tools too, but not for the prices I’m willing to pay. Yet there are exceptions, so look everywhere you can. Since gas is expensive right now, I go to antique malls, flea markets, or clusters of shops where I can park and walk from vendor to vendor. When shopping for tools online, buy only from sources that you trust. Online auction sites are fine if you know what you’re looking for, but it’s easier to shop in person.
- Prioritize the tools you need most. Keep a running list—in order of importance—of the tools you are especially looking for. It might be a mental list, and it might change from week to week, but it will keep you focused. Don’t worry about the optional tools before you have a assembled a good set of the necessary ones. Of course you should scoop up a low-priority tool if you find a good one at an embarrassingly low price, but set your priorities and stick to them.
- Do your homework. Be able to recognize good brands of the tools you are seeking. Looking for saws? Memorize basic details about saw plate shapes and medallions on Disstons. And check out this post at The Saw Blog on selecting used saws. Need a hand plane? Keep a copy of the Stanley type-study flowchart, or at least know the telltale features of a good plane. Be willing to purchase less-popular brands that still make solid users, but also be aware of brands to avoid. (For example, Sargent planes are excellent; Dunlap planes are not.) Watch online auction sites, as well as swap-and-sell forums, to get a feel for the current going prices of the tools you’re looking for.
- Know the difference between tools that need cleaning and tools that need repair. Learning to see the tool through the rust is a skill acquired only through experience, but you don’t need to be an expert to spot a solid tool in a pile of rust. Even heavy rust can be cleaned off. Dirt and paint can be removed. However, broken or missing metal pieces require more work, and often more money. Decide ahead of time how much more time and money you are willing to put into a tool to make it workable again.
Know the difference between easy repairs and difficult/expensive repairs. A cracked plane tote can be repaired (you’re a woodworker, right?), but a cracked plane sole? A stripped-out screw hole? How easy will it be to make a new chisel handle? How much will a replacement plane blade cost? Factor in all the costs before you buy.
- Budget with cash. Decide beforehand how much you will spend on a given outing and/or tool. Then when you go out rust-hunting, take that amount in cash, plus a little extra, and stick to it. There’s no shame in leaving a nice-but-pricy tool for the next guy.
- Develop relationships. When the antique shop owner asks what you’re looking for, give a clear answer. Many antique shops have back rooms and/or storage sheds packed with additional items, and they will be happy to open them up if you show interest. Also get to know other woodworkers. Veteran woodworkers may offer to sell you a tool that they haven’t yet put on the open market. I have even been given tools by woodworkers who knew what I was looking for and were thinning their own herd. Just be sure to pass along the generosity when you can. Eventually you will have more tools than you need. Selling them off brings in cash, but giving them away is golden.
- Get used to walking away. The cheapest tool is the one you don’t buy. That doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes kick yourself later for walking away, but if you are serious about getting good tools cheaply, you need to be picky. If something about the tool doesn’t seem right, or if the price seems just a little too steep, you will have lost nothing if you walk away.