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.