Old Tools

Craftsmen in Colonial Williamsburg prefer NOT to use antique tools. When asked they say things like “they aren’t making any more of these”. Besides the irony of that statement (CW is indeed making more of those), I believe preserving old tools by using them is generally a good thing.

Many tools see little wear and tear over a craftsman’s life time. And the market for old tools as usable items has kept prices up, and old tools out of crash cans and worse, off the walls of restaurants or hanging like strange fruit from Cracker Barrel ceilings. (BTW, Yes, I know what “strange fruit” is and yes I do get nauseous seeing a pristine panel raiser hanging by wires dry wall screwed into it’s otherwise perfect body.) The market for antique furniture has increased prices, saved more pieces than collectors have destroyed, and spawned a market for reproduction furniture makers like me. Not sure why tools are any different.

I don’t generally collect old tools. I don’t consider myself a tool collector, altho I have an admirable assortment of old tools, in many ways better and more complete than several museum exhibits I have seen. Generally the tools I buy are purchased with the intention to use.

I try to take a stewardly approach to using old tools. I only rebuild severely damaged tools and I’m careful about cleaning. I typically pass on tools that are very old, leaving those for collectors. But recently, I’ve been buying a few 18th c examples to study, possibly copy, and to keep them out of the hands of TGI Friday’s decorators.

A recent flea market find is this pair of 5/16″ mortisers.

Though undated, they exhibit all the characteristics we expect to see on 18th c mortise chisels. The blade shapes are rectangular and irregular in width. I’ve included an Issac Greaves 19th c mortiser for comparison. From the stamp I believe the Greaves is an early 19th c tool. Note that these are all 5/16″ tools.

The bolsters are small and simply shaped.

One thing I thought was particularly interesting was that both chisels are 5/16″ wide, a very common size for interior joinery, and both had identical makers’ marks. The question of why they are together is interesting to me. I might speculate that they may have come from the same shop, having belonged to the master for the purpose of equipping apprentices or journeymen.

Though following the same basic design closely, the handles are individuals and slightly irregular. File marks from the shaping are in evidence.

I won’t use these chisels. I’ll put them aside for now. Though I don’t usually buy tools I have no intention of using, I’m glad I bought these chisels. I think if you come across really old tools like this, it makes some sense to buy them. Like unwanted dogs at the animal shelter, the alternative may not be great for them.

In my opinion, using tools that are in good condition and that can be made to function without changing them is fine. But what about the older tools? A Kenyon dovetail saw was floating around Berea at the first Woodworking in America show. To truly be “study items” they should be available to a wider audience.

Joel has a section in his website entitled “Museum of woodworking tools”. Maybe it’s time we pool our collections and make an online Museum of Woodworking tools. Maybe Joel would host it? It’s the sort of idea sapfm should probably act on but won’t. Part of being stewardly is sharing these items with a broader audience. On online museum may be just the thing. Does anyone know if such a thing exists? I suspect it’s a lot of work. But maybe this is worth talking about.

Adam

5 thoughts on “Old Tools

  1. Stan Bell

    I would enjoy an online collaborative effort to document tools whether they are still used or not. This is a really good use of the internet technology. I personally use some older tools and they feel better in my hands than some newer versions. Handles made from wood bring any woodworker closer to the wood they are working on.
    Very enjoyable reading Adam.

  2. David Cockey

    I believe you have fundamentally mis-represented what the Colonial Williamsburg folks are saying. When the CW folks say something like "they aren’t making any more of these" the CW folks are refering to tools MADE IN the 18th century or early 19th century, not tools made in the 20th or 21st centuries the same as the earlier tools. They seem to feel the originals which are generally rare and in some cases the only example known are best kept for study, including as examples for reproduction. I don’t think their statements are meant to apply to more ubiquitous later 19th century and 20th century mass produced tools.

    Your suggestion of an online study collection has a lot of merit.

  3. Jonas H. Jensen

    I like the idea of using old tools. even if it means repairing them. For instance I can’t see anything wrong in replacing the handle if it is damaged to an extent that would prohibit using it. Actually I have theory of that the reason why mortising chisels handles look the way they do is because they are damaged more than handles at e.g. paring chisels, since they will be pounded with a large mallet. And since they were more prone to be damaged it didn’t make sense to use too long time and make a beautiful handle when you perhaps would break it the day after. So a simple handle was good enough and a new one could be made very quickly.
    Another thing is, that it is a good feeling to use something that has been around for so many years and know that it might still be used after we ourselves are long gone.

  4. Larry Chenoweth

    Adam, I feel this is a good idea. I would like to expand on your idea. I am a member of MWTCA and enjoy talking with the older members that have actually used some of the tools. I have yearned for some type of audio/video format of experienced old tool users showing the tricks of the trades at using these tools. Many of times I have picked up an old tool to purchase and had no idea how it is properly used. If I had this knowledge I might have purchased it. I know Sir Roy’s new book explains alot and Eric Sloane’s book about old tools does a good job at trying to explain their use. Patrick’s "Blood and Gore" is great for Stanley planes. There is just something about watching an accomplished woodworker use his tools and comment on their proper use that goes along way in the teaching process. I have felt that such a project needs to be done similar to the "Foxfire" series of books before those that have all this knowledge in their head leave this earth. We lost Sam and James last year with all that wealth of knowledge. I hope someone with the capabilities to pull something like this off steps forward and takes on this project. I feel it would go a long way in getting newer people using older style hand tools. This would be good for us all.

  5. Gary Roberts

    Adam

    An online compendium of tools is a very good idea. I’ve had in mind something of this ilk for years, but have never seemed to get around to it. There are bits and pieces spread over the net, but nothing in one place, set in an organized fashion that would serve as a resource. I’ld like to see a section devoted to both common moulding planes and complex. So many people ask the question "What kind of plane is this?" that it would seem timely to have such a resource. But… who has the time and energy to develop the template? As for me, maybe in a year or so but for now, I can follow but not lead.

    Gary

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