Too Many Vintage Tools; Not Enough Space; Too Much Guilt

It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I have a messy house…with guests arriving on Thursday. I should be cleaning. But I started that chore in the study/shop with the intent of at least organizing the mess therein, and fell into the rabbit hole of looking through the three boxes of my grandfather’s vintage tools that I inherited in late 2007. (And then I fell farther into that hole and decided to take pictures and write about them… .)

When I joined the Popular Woodworking Magazine staff in 2005, I knew very little about woodworking beyond mechanical joinery. In fact, I recall marking “rabbet” as a misspelling on my first binder read-through, which was on the day that I started (I think we were editing the November 2005 issue). And two years later, while I knew how to spell rabbet (that’s “rebate” for you British and Canadian readers note: I’ve been told that in Canada the word is “rabbet”), I was in the midst of building my first “proper” project with the help of Glen Huey, a chimney cupboard that was on the cover of the February 2008 issue. (I wish Grandpa had seen me take that project to completion; I think he would have been proud…despite his comments that I should work on my lumpy gravy instead of dovetails. And now I’m getting maudlin…sorry!)

Anyway, I decided I should hold on to all of my grandfather’s tools until I knew a little more about woodworking – then decide what to keep and use, what to keep just because, and what to offer to other family members.

Now that I know a bit more about woodworking and tools (and I’m tired of those cardboard boxes gathering dust), the time has come to make some decisions (OK – no it hasn’t; this really should wait until after the upcoming holiday). But I’ve been inculcated into the philosophies espoused in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” (in which Christopher Schwarz asserts that you shouldn’t have more tools than you need), and in the last five years, I’ve acquired a fair number of very good tools new and used: Lie-Nielsen bench planes and socket chisels, some Blue Spruce chisels and a marking knife, Veritas rabbets and plows, a Czeck Edge birdcage awl, dovetail saws from Bad Axe, Lie-Nielsen and Tools for Working Wood (and yes I know that’s at least one too many DT saws), rehabbed vintage panel saws, and more.

In comparison to my grandfather (and perhaps many other people) I am grossly spoiled when it comes to woodworking tools. He was born in 1917, and trained as a cabinetmaker during the Great Depression. His tools are largely user-made, probably by him, and the ones that weren’t user-made are mostly unbranded. They’re an odd mix of carpentry and woodworking tools, because after graduating, he worked as a carpenter and laborer for the L&N Railroad in Louisville, Ky. The picture at the top includes a railroad axe marked “L&N,” and an odd collection of mostly shop-made chisels, gouges and awls. Other than the axe, only two of those tools are marked in any way: the W. Butcher 1-3/4″ cast steel gouge and the G.I. Mix 1/2″ firmer chisel, both on the far right. But my favorite one, for sentimental reasons I suppose – because I’ll never use it – is the 1/4″ gouge Grandpa made (I think) out of an old file. I would never do that. Because I am spoiled.

There’s also a curious collection of rusty saws (and I wish to point out that most of these tools are in the same condition as when I received them; I did not allow the rust to happen), none of which, with the exception of the badly corroded and broken-handled Disston carcase saw (11-1/2″ long, 12 tpi) seem terribly useful. The keyhole saw is a Disston No. 15; the other three appear to be shop-made. No dovetail saw? Perhaps he used the gent’s saw for dovetails. (He also had a set of panel saws; they went to another family member.) Most curious to me is the small pistol-grip, brass-backed saw to the right of the keyhole saw. What is that thing for? The blade (beyond the handle) is 4-13/16″ long, with 1/4″ under the back at the toe and 3/8″ at the handle, rip-filed 13 tpi. And the handle is tiny, too (and appears not to have been broken; it was made in that odd shape) – it can’t have been comfortable for my grandfather to use (he was 6’3″ as a young man, with hands to match). If anyone knows what that saw is for, please let me know in the comments (click on the picture to enlarge it for a closer look).

Then there’s the completely random small collection of moulding planes – again, probably user-made and unmarked with anything, not even the sizes on the two largish hollows and two smaller rounds (one of which is positively teeny – a No. 1 or 2, I’m guessing). Aesthetically, they appear not to have all been made by the same person, and there are no matched pairs (which is a darned shame). I don’t recall ever seeing my grandfather use these – nor do I know of any furniture in my grandparents’ house that had the profile of these dedicated moulders. (Again, you can click on the image to enlarge it should you care for a closer look).

And here’s another mystery tool that I’ll ask your help with: Does this flat spokeshave look familiar? There’s no maker’s mark anywhere on it (the blade is clearly a somewhat recent replacement), and I have searched unsuccessfully across the Interwebs trying to find one like it. It’s metal (obviously) with some (well-worn) scrollwork cast into the front, and it has a wide open “spring-loaded” mouth that tightens down (a little bit) against the springs when you turn the screw at the top, but even at its tightest, it flexes. (There’s one just like it on eBay right now…but the seller also seems not to know exactly what it is.) I also have Grandpa’s curved shave, but it’s a less interesting-looking tool.

And there’s lots more – much of it a motley collection of oddities, including hunks of lead from my great-grandfather’s plumbing business that are to me useless, and the brass shaft – but no rosewood fence – of a Stanley No. 92 marking gauge (too bad, that – I might have used that one were it whole). But unlike Christopher, I have more than one feeling (his joke, but I’m stealing it) – and primary among them is guilt.

I have, in the last five years, saved to buy the high-quality tools I wanted, quite simply because (with a little budgeting) I can afford better than what my Grandfather could. I used his featherweight No. 7 no-name jointer plane until I could afford to replace it with a far superior No. 7 Lie-Nielsen. The no-name is now relegated to a window ledge, and never gets used. But how can I get rid of all these things that I don’t need? My grandfather hung on to them for at least 70 years…even if he rarely used them during my lifetime, either (hence the rust).

I don’t think I can do it. I think, instead, I’ll build a nice, small chest that I can tightly pack with the tools that I can’t (or won’t) use, that I can’t imagine needing and at which quite possibly I’ll never again look. There are some items that I’ll clean up and use in the shop – including an excellent array of auger bits and Yankee screwdriver bits, that 1-3/4″ gouge and possibly one or two of the dedicated moulders, as well as a No. 3 bench plane. And there are a couple more that I’ll clean up and use as, er, decor (I’m so ashamed), including the L&N-stamped railroad axe (No, I’m not having a Lizzie Borden moment; it’s just cool).

I’m punting; after unpacking and assessing everything, I’ve decided to leave the disposal decision for the next generation. And instead of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, it seems I’ve added a project to my already too-long list. And my house is now more of a mess. Sigh.

— Megan Fitzpatrick
Twitter: @1snugthejoiner

p.s. If any of my Fitzpatrick relatives are reading this and want a handsome small chest full of tools and bits and bobs you’ll never be able to sell, never need and never use (but also won’t be able to get rid of), please don’t hesitate to call me. If you call soon, you can even choose what kind of chest you’d like.

p.p.s. Want to learn more about hand tools – especially those from just before the turn of the 20th century? Check out our reprint of the 1889 book  “Exercises in Wood-Working,” and companion video instructions – Part 1 features Christopher Schwarz; Part 2 features Robert W. Lang.

p.p.p.s. Why yes, that is my upside-down and unfinished Anarchist’s Tool Chest serving as a photo backdrop. And yes I should finish that…along with everything else that needs doing.

 

26 thoughts on “Too Many Vintage Tools; Not Enough Space; Too Much Guilt

  1. Buildinggeek

    A couple of years ago I was able to go through and acquire some of my late uncle’s tools. He worked for most of his professional career as a machinist for Starrett in Athol Mass.
    What I discovered was that he was a good Yankee first. His tools were mostly not top of the line, he had a Montgomery Ward crosscut saw, a Sears smoother and other basic serviceable tools. The one prize was a 12″ Starrett rule, the only Starrett he owned.
    He was a fine (and very fussy) craftsman, just what you would expect from a Starrett machinist. Too bad he wasn’t a collector.

  2. lastwordsmith

    I’ve inherited only a few tools from my ancestors. One grandfather left me three, an unusuable block plane, a paring chisel, and a whetstone. The chisel is one of my favorites and will remain in use until I’ve sharpened it down to a butt chisel and I’m forced to hang it on the wall. The whetstone broke not long ago, but I’m still hanging onto it. (Always good for sharpening small stuff, I suppose.)

    I’m told that a great-grandfather on the other side of the family was an adept handyman. I once saw a kayak he made. I wish I had just one of his tools, but he died long before I was born and the tools are long gone, so all I got were a few of his genes.

    I say use what tools you can, and keep the rest boxed up. How knows? They may eventually make their way to a local history museum or someplace like that. I can just see an exhibit on Depression-era makeshift tools developing out of collections like these.

    -Steve S.

  3. fmorgan98

    Yes, keep the tools, especially if they remind you of your grandfather. When its all said and done, its the memories that we have. But the shadow box ideal sounds good. Don’t hide your memories…keep ‘em out where you can see ‘em when your pondering what to do next on a project, you’ll be reminded again and again.

    My father was a machinist and I make sure to use his caliper with his name scribed on it, even tho I have plenty of dial and digital ones. It reminds me of my Dad.

    Allen

  4. kelinbak

    Megan, maybe you need to build another tool chest for Grandpa’s tools. And then they can get passed down to someone that will use them as well.

    I have very few tools of my Fathers or Grandfathers, but I have a cool tool tote made from a 7-UP wooden case that I use. My own collection has been coming together for awhile from swap meets, junk (antique) stores and flea markets, along with the odd one showing up here and there from friends. All of them need a little work, but are once given a new life seem to be quite happy doing what the do. Two sets of #3,4 & 5 planes will be going to two new woodworkers this Christmas. I hope that someday they’re grandkids get to use them as well.

  5. LKWangerin

    A thought about your wonderful but motley collection of Grandpa’s tools. My dad grew up on a farm and was very handy from helping his dad build farm buildings, and repair machinery. But he became an engineer and worked for Eastman Kodak. As he passed the various shops he would check the the trash barrels and bring home things like pieces of brass and steel etc. But he would find tools and drill bits for his home shop. One of my favorites is a shop made wooden 3×3 inch square salt box style drill case with hand written numbers for a set of number drills used in a machine shop. Old line companies had all the shops including a leather shop for making camera cases. Also some tools came from a friend. I have my dad’s 1930’s Sears/Sargent smoothing plane and bit brace and friends Swedish steel chisel He could make that plane sing. Of course I was not paying attention. It has taken me years to come close. My other mistake was not taking his two handsaws. Hand tools got him handily through the early years until he bought his power equipment. One never knows where things come from unless you were told or were there yourself. Always fun to speculate.

  6. rth1935@gmil.com

    I am a great granfather with some of my fathers tools. he was a bricklayer and stone mason and worked on some of NYC tallest buildings. My Mother made him quit that work after a close friend fell to his death.I look at his and my tools,{mostly good power tools}and wonder what will happen to them, My kids and grandkids are into computers. One son expressed an interst but it was kinda vague.I guess I will donate them to a wood working club

  7. Cosmo

    Megan,
    As one who also inherited a large quanity of tools, I understand your feelings. I started going through the boxes of tools that were my Father’s and Grandfather’s about this time two years ago (they were stored (well packed) in my basement for over 20 years). That process sparked my long dormant interest in woodworking and vintage tools. I treasure feeling of connection to my Dad and Granddad every time I use these tools.

  8. tberryhawk

    Megan, what a wonderful article and touching responses. I do not have the gift of grandfather’s (or greatgrand’s…) tools, but do have some of my dad’s everyday tools. He gave me my first taste of tools when I was a young girl and we worked together to fix things around the house. He never really got into building much but did make a wonderful 24″ X24″ chess board and display wall cabinet for his chess pieces, as well as functional boxes to store some of his tool purchases. He had neither the time nor the money to further indulge his interest in wood but did give me an insight into appreciating what others could do as well as a great respect for tools. So when he passed my mom gave me first shot at his everyday tools. Now every time I pick up his special screwdriver,for instance, I feel his hand there too. I have collected many more tools (i am a almost rabid tool auction and yard sale fan) but his are most special to me.
    I love rescuing older tools that i may never use but want to save because they were special and important to someone. I try to clean and restore what i can and am also looking for ways to tastefully display them. I have old planes and several old levels around the house that often bring interesting comments from company.
    There must be some woodworker gene in the family, as i do have an oak library table and 2 plant pedestals (Arts and Crafts style) that an uncle who died long before I was born made and luckily stayed in the family. I treasure them so much.
    Now that i am finally retired I hope to spend more time indulging that wonderful joy that is working with wood. I have made several bookcases, garden benches and chairs, a wine rack and various miscellaneous gifts but have more than enough project ideas for several lifetimes.
    And I plan to use those old tools as much as I can!

    Keep up that great work and inspiration.

    1. LKWangerin

      Very interesting. I have come to the point of having to separate My dad’s tools from my own for my son and son-in-law. Most of my woodworking was trying to keep up with a 200 year old house. That is about to change, working harder than ever, getting ready to move to something smaller. Guess what, it is back to hand tools and some real woodworking. My radial arm saw has sat dormant for 30 years and have ripped and sawn most lumber with handsaws. Most drilling and attaching is by hand. It’s fun re-testing old tools and ideas – some work and others one wonders what were they thinking. Any new idea became a new tool and if it could do many things, all the better. Usually not as good as a dedicated single purpose tool because of the blisters caused by the other parts of said multi-tool.

  9. Bernard Naish

    Megan, Consider how skilled workers were confronted with the economics of the turn of the century followed by two World Wars. Factory’s had closed down their sole trader business forcing them to abandon their treasured hand tools almost overnight. Now trainee house carpenters here will not know how to use a hammer (nailer has replaced), a hand saw nor a hand plane. Let us all preserve as much as we can of their tools and ways of working. This is not anarchy but organised resistance to the destructive nature of capitalism. I come from a small village close to Silchester, the largest Roman town in England and they found there a metal bodied hand plane perhaps 1,600 years old. If only one of this age had been preserved! I have only some of my Fathers, Grand Fathers and Great Grandfathers tools and I cherish, conserve and use as many as possible. Some I display in my living room and will re-cycle an old pair of glazed doors to make a special display cabinet for them. I will make this as well as I can in the hope that my workmanship will encourage future generations to preserve them and to become curious about how the tools were used. Hence your idea to make a chest is one of the ways to go and I hope others will follow.

    Regards, Bernard Naish

  10. Window Guy

    Megan a very interesting story which I enjoyed very much. My Grandfather also worked for the L & N Railroad in Louisville, Ky during the same period as yours, wonder if they knew or met one another ay some point. Grandpa was older than yours born in 1900 but worked as a boiler maker for them. I inherited a lot of tools my Grandfather made as well mostly mechanical type tools, wrenches, hammers, punch’s that type of stuff. Unfortunately the tools were stolen when I went into the Army as my parents had a break end.

    You have some nice heirlooms and I think you are doing the right thing making a dedicated chest for them. Thanks for sharing this story as it brought back some fond memories for me.

    Steve

  11. VikingRaider

    Megan,

    Have you thought about a shadowbox for the best looking or most interesting looking pieces? Tastefully done, a shadowbox display of the most cherished tools could really make a nice tribute to your grandfather’s legacy.

    My great-grandfather was a blacksmith in the late 1890s and had a large collection of woodworking tools as well. My father told me in the 1950s the family went through hard times and the chests of (his grandfather’s and father’s) tools were sold off piecemeal to feed the kids. As a result, I have maybe a half dozen tools from my family’s past. I’ve found that only a couple are salvageable, the others are too far gone to use. As a beginning woodworker, the old tools I inherited will be the core of my hand tool collection because anything other than what’s available at the big box stores is just out of the question for the foreseeable future.

    I would not feel guilty—celebrate the fact that you have been blessed with such a collection. By all means use what you can and spread the wealth among your family. Small shadowboxes with one or two tools could be Christmas presents/birthday presents…

    And look at the bright side, if you run out of options (or relatives) for donating the “excess” tools, you can always donate to people like me (lol) who would cherish them and give them life again! Perhaps with the caveat that they in turn must pass them on to someone else in need when they no longer need the tools. Like a giant pay-it-forward chain letter of tools. The stories the tools could tell on a trip like that would make a great book.

    Seriously, good luck with the curio cabinet. Great article, I loved looking at the old tools. There are so many stories in old tools.

  12. AJ SIkes

    Megan, what a great article to find on my first visit to PW online. I’m in the same boat as you, minus the experience and expertise to use any of the tools I’m inheriting. But that’s part of why my dad is letting me have his father’s tools. I’m finally getting seriously into woodworking.

    Granddad was a master cabinetmaker, trained in Hungary, and the master woodworker for National Cash Register in Dayton, OH. He designed and lead the construction of the Horseshoe Table:

    http://core.libraries.wright.edu/handle/2374.WSU/1433

    I’ve been hunting it down recently and found out that we’ve got one piece of it in our family still. Another is housed at the NCR archives.

    I’d love to, for strictly sentimental reasons, use some of Granddad’s tools. But they’re in need of sharpening, identification, cleaning…my plan is the same as yours. Build a curio cabinet and store them while I work up being able to afford some new Lie Nielsen equipment.

    Thanks for the heartwarming read this evening. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving week.

    1. Rex

      What a wonderful legacy your Grandfather left you.
      Please continue to research the tools and put as many to use as possible. You are the only one that can carry on his legacy.

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

      Thanks! I looked up Hargrave shaves and I think you’re right. The blade on mine is too dull to properly try it out right now, but I’m eager to sharpen it and see how it works (the spring intrigues me).

      1. Brent

        I take a class with Chris Gochnour, one day, he brought a box of spokeshaves has part of “the tool of day” lesson. One of the spokeshaves looked like your, he state the depth of cut was controlled via opening and closing the mouth, because the toe pivoted on an arc this caused the blade to advances or retract in relationship to the toe. So you get coarse shaving with an open mouth and a fine shaving with closed mouth, which I thought was pretty clever.

  13. kampfire

    It’s too often that when I go to my local antique store that i see bothes filled with just stuff, the odds and ends that we as people collect, and there is always a sad looking box of rusty well used and abused tools in the corner. There are some that are briming full and have some pits and rust but mostly clean, and to these I feel most ssad about, because I know they were used, loved and respected, but the user died, became ill, or the most common, bought power tools and never looked back. I may find a tool that I can revive and put to use again, but part of me is always sad in the knowlage that the ones I left behind will never feel a board being tried, squared, molded, joined and fit with thier edged or wedge again.

    1. AJ SIkes

      That’s what makes me want to use Granddad’s tools, at least one last time before putting them up for display in the house. I’ve put a couple of his chisels to use today, cutting my first ever dovetail in a piece of scrap for practice. Used his DT saw, too. Felt good, but I’m too worried I’ll break or damage the tools to keep using them.

      1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

        No no no!! What’s sad is when they don’t get used (yes, I’m at fault on that front). It’s great that you’re using them, and unlikely that you’ll damage them, beyond needing to sharpen…and that’s not damage; that’s necessity (though I suppose you could crack a chisel handle…but that can be fixed). It’s cool that you’ve been able to track down some of your grandfather’s work – and thanks for the kind words. Welcome to PWM online!

        1. AJ SIkes

          Some of them I just have to let rest in a curio cabinet I’m going to build for them. But I’ll be putting a few of them to use for sure. Just used his brace this morning to bore my first mortise. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me to clean all the tools up and sharpen them. Slow but sure, like Pop always says.

          I also need help identifying some of the tools Granddad made. He’s got a marking gauge he built with two beams in it. Not sure if it’s for marking mortises or what. Anyone ever seen something like that?

          Thanks for the welcome. :)

      2. Dave Beauchesne

        AJ:

        I agree with Megan – sharpen them and use them – I have a sparse few tools from my Grandfather, but he used his till they were broken and worn out – he ( and likely yours ) would have been proud to see his tools put back to work.

        Personally, my Grandfather was an apprentice carpenter at the age of 12 ( in 1919 ) who made most of his tools as part of his apprenticeship in Quebec. My father recalls that on the family farm on the praries, the workshop that housed all the handmade planes etc. burned to the ground and it nearly snuffed the woodworking spark from my Grandfather.

        As a wee lad, I used to watch him sharpen hand saws for people, and his axes would shave the hair off your arm. He made knives, refurbished hand tools, mostly because he didn’t have much and he had the knowledge to do so. Unfortunately, we lived 5 hours away, and I never got to spend much time with him. Alas, the bug bit me, and due to a resurgent hand tool push, I now seek out 100 year old tools and re-purpose them, because I can, and they work wonderfully.

        Megan – thank you for the story – I can go to my array of tools and pick out each and every one that belonged to Grandpa, and put them to good use when I can.

        Dave B

        1. Steve Green

          I’m a grandfather and the son of a contractor. Also a contractor myself. I’ve got tools that go back to my grandfather and my Dad. When I was left them after my fathers death I already had a shop full of tools that I’d put together to make a living and build furniture for our home. If one of those tools was useful to me I use it, a lot of them to this day in fact. The rest were cleaned, oiled, waxed or dusted off and put into covered shelving or glass fronted cabinets. I believe this vocation is in our genes and being able to look down the line of my ancestors and handle or use their tools is a connection for me and hopefully one of my sons and a couple grandsons as well.
          A very good anthropology prof I had in college was positively convinced I was born to work with wood and I guess after 50 years I’d have to agree with him. Another very good friend pointed out that they aren’t making any tools used by grandpa or Dad.
          I think I’ll hang on to them and pass them down.

          1. AJ SIkes

            Steve, you hit it spot on. It’s in our blood. No two ways about it. I’ve already picked up two Windsor chairs from the curbside (the college kids in this town throw everything away come moving season). My daughters have some refinishing projects waiting for them in the shop for when they’re ready.

        2. AJ SIkes

          Dave, thanks for the reply. I think you’re right. I’m just going to have to use some of them at least. A few I feel really need to be put in a curio case, but anything functional I’m going to put to work. Granddad always wanted his boys to follow his tradition. One became a machinist (my uncle) and dad, while he kept his hands in the sawdust, never did develop the skill his father had.

          That’s great that you’re collecting old tools and getting them back in shape. Do you know about Liberty Tool Company? I think they’re in Maine or New Hampshire. They do the same thing on a pretty big scale. I’ve got to make a pilgrimage there someday :)

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