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I attended my first tool auction last Saturday, and like most (adult) auction-goers, I was caught up in the potential for bargains (there were a passel of Emmert vices on offer…but sadly, no bargains on that front). But the auction also induced a touch of melancholy.

It used to be that auctions and antiques shops put me in an almighty snit. You see, I was dragged (likely kicking and screaming) to a lot of both when I was a kid; my mother’s home is overflowing with antique furniture, tableware and decorative items from all eras – and more things to put on a wall than she has walls to put them on.

But to the best of my recollection, I’ve never been to an auction in situ, and with family members present. This one took place at a patternmaker’s shop that was just a few blocks from my house. The business had been in the family for three generations, and inside was many tons of well-preserved machinery, workbenches (some of which had the aforementioned Emmerts attached), piles of wood, box lots of hand tools, measuring and marking equipment, the largest Vernier calipers I’ve ever seen, pattern pieces, rolling carts, drills and drill bits, braces and brace bits, straightedges…. There was also a lot of scrap metal – so that brought out the recycling folk along with the woodworkers.

I planned to bid on only four lots, so I spent some time talking with other auction-goers as I waited for “my” lots to come up. I’d say most of the stuff in the sale went to good homes, and will be used for a number of years to come – as it should be. But as the auction-goers walked around from table to table, lot to lot, the family of the late owner walked with us. So I got to watch the widow’s face as some items sold for what I’m guessing was barely scrap value  – such as a Fay & Eagen 36″ cast iron band saw for just $650. It was heartbreaking. And to make matters worse, with the shop closed, that’s another empty business space in my inner-city neighborhood – that, too, makes me sad.

So while I’m on one hand pleased to be the new owner of a box chock full of calipers and dividers in all sizes (not to mention two goodies that were hidden underneath: a Starrett gauge with a reversible head – one for straight edges, the other for curves – and a Starrett rule with a protractor head), and the new owner of a nifty looking antique smelting pot for lead, on the other hand, I feel like I’ve done a bad thing by profiting from the breakup of a generations-old family business – and for so little.

But my mother will be pleased, for I now have far more calipers and dividers than I have hands to hold them or projects on which to use them – so I can’t make fun of her for buying yet another painting, another vase or another purgatorial Victorian couch.

Oh who am I kidding; yes I can (but I’ll probably feel bad about that, too).

– Megan Fitzpatrick

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Showing 9 comments
  • Mike in Maine

    The passing on of these tools also marks another sad part of American history also, namely the loss of the skill and experience of the American woodworker. Look at any of these tools you find and then think about the work and education that that went into someone learning and using it to create something of value. There are almost no affordable skills teaching or vocational woodworking schools in the USA that teach the skills and history of the woodworking craft and it’s history. Instead all the work has been out-sourced overseas, with a corresponding drop in quality (Veneer’s instead of solid’s, machine driven screws instead of handdrilled and glue’ed, finish’s so thin they barely survive shipping, much less actual use etc). The next time you find a tool like, say the block plane, pay it the respect it and the people who used it some respect. Take it apart, clean and oil it, put it back together and then use it as it was and is called for. You just might find something lost in the process.

  • almartin

    Is that a small block plane in the back of Lot 83?

    There is always a sadness in selling off a loved ones’ items, but it helps knowing the tools, etc., are being used instead of being left for moth and rust to consume.

  • kirkent

    At least the items you bought will continue to be used, instead of hung on a wall for decoration.

  • gsm627

    Maybe you change the name of the magazine, to something like Popular Yard Saleing.

  • GregMiller

    Gidday, Megan.
    There is a lot going on at these auctions, isn’t there?While we may feel some sadness at the passing of a fellow tradesperson and the loss of all their knowledge and experience, we are also aware that their family feels a much greater loss. We can be excited about the possibility of picking up some amazing bargains, but at the same time feel some guilt that the value of those tools are not really being recognised – so that family is losing out on the real value of the estate. It is a tough one. However, I reckon it would be true that in most cases the deceased tradeperson would be delighted to know that their tools, which served them so well, will continue to create wonderful work in the hands of another tradesperson of practitioner.

    When I take in my hands a tool which has all the signs of wear and constant use over many decades from the hands previous owners, I feel honoured to have been “passed the baton”. My deep respect for the previous owner (even though I may never have known them or even who they were) and the tools become intertwined.

    Everyday, I use some of the tools my great grandfather used, in his daily work as a coachbuilder and wheelwright. I feel a sense of connectedness as I carry on the tradition of using a tool which he used daily to create beautiful work. Hopefully, I will be just one of a succession of appreciative and skilled owners and users of those tools.

    My uncle passed away recently. He was a very highly skilled wooden boatbuilder, woodworker, and the Master mast and sparmaker for three tall ships which have been built in the last 3 decades in the port of Fremantle, here in Western Australia. Awesome talent and incredible experience. I have been fortunate to have acquired a number of his tools. I often think of him as I use those tools, and hope that I am doing him proud.

    It’s really all about respect and custodianship.
    Enjoy using those dividers, squares and other treasures you got in that bargain box, Megan. I reckon the previous owner would be very pleased…


  • AL

    Nice fines Megan.

    Instead of auctions, I usually go to flea markets, yard sales, & antique stores. You never know what you are going to come across.

    I’ve covered several of my tool hunting trips with posts (look under the “Posts by Category” tab) at my website.

    Take Care

  • mvflaim

    I went to the Hostettler tool auction in Adams Conuty every year during the Forth of July. It was a lot of fun but you had to be patient and wait for the item you wanted to come up for bid.Not much to do outsid ethe auction but eat some Amish made pie.

    This year was the first year in fifteen he didn’t have an auction due to poor sales the previous year. No doubt I was bummed.

    I also use to go to the tool auction in Indianapolis every spring and fall until Martin J Donnelly took over. Prices go too high for my taste and it’s not worth the trip with $3.50 gas.

  • funkyspacecowboy

    I’ve never been an estate auction like that before but antique stores in general make me feel the same way, as do some ebay auctions or just some antiques in general.

    A while back I picked a matched pair of sterling tea spoons engraved “C.K. to L 1855” at an antique shop very cheap. I think I paid $20 or $30 and they’ve always bothered me a little because I just can’t help but imagine that there’s a sad story to how they ended up for sale. Maybe things didn’t work out between L and CK? Maybe their great grand kids had to sell them during the Great Depression? Or something else, but it’s always made me a little sad to think about their journey.

    Then again maybe Odate’s essay in the magazine this month is the best way to think about things we find on auction or at antique shops. There might be a great sadness to part of their story but maybe that box of dividers (or my spoons) ended up right where they needed to be. He talked about how some tools and other objects he owns feel like friends and not just things, I know I feel that affinity with those tea spoons, maybe something in one of your auction boxes will feel like an old friend that finally made it home too. That wouldn’t be very sad at all.



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