Monday, January 9, 2012

Finding vintage hand tools

A recent comment expressed frustration about finding restorable hand tools at reasonable prices in the Portland, Oregon area.  I am afraid I don't have any magic answers, but I have some suggestions and I particularly hope others will chime in.

Although I live 250 miles away, I have tried to find hand tools in the Portland area and have come away empty-handed.  My own theory is that urban areas that experienced much of their development late in the hand tool era and that got electricity early aren't ideal places to look.  Add to that the fact that, in the current economic climate, people are trying to make a living by buying vintage items at garage sales and on Craigslist in order to sell them for a profit on E-bay and it's very tough.

Here are some strategies I follow.  Don't make a special effort to go to garage sales, particularly if they advertise vintage tools.  I was literally stepped on by dealers when I did.  If I am going somewhere and pass a garage sale that looks promising, I stop.  Good signs are an older home with a large garage or a barn.  I occasionally find good items this way without a lot of effort, chiefly planes, handsaws and bits/braces.  Same general idea with Craigslist.  If you see an interesting item, call and, if its still available, is reasonably priced and nearby, go take a look.  Don't make a big effort.

A better approach for me is identifying junk/antique shops that have hand tools.  I just stop in when I am driving by and sometimes find good tools this way.  To me, the higher price is justified as long as it is still reasonable.  I have had some great luck doing this when I travel on vacation, particularly in rural parts of Oregon.  If you pass one, stop in and take a quick look.  Takes five minutes and they'll usually deal.

Something I would definitely do if I were you is attend one of the sales at the Pacific NW Tools Collectors Association.  Information here:  PNWTC.  I've never been, but hear good things.

A good place to buy vintage tools is on the sale/swap pages of the major forums, such as Woodnet and Sawmill Creek.  There tends to be a much higher level of honesty and knowledge by sellers because it is a community.  Many of the sellers are well known and have excellent reputations.  I would buy from them without hesitation and the higher price is justified in my opinion.

I don't do Ebay and never will, but that's me.  Some people have success.

Finally, don't underestimate what is restorable.  You'd be surprised what a vinegar bath will do.

Anybody have other ideas to help him and others?  


  1. Good post. I found that the smaller the town, and the "junkier" looking the shop, the more chance there will be tools. What I found is rather an antique shop will not have any tools, or they will have a ton. look for the shops that when you look at it you think- man, I bet they have tools. Most of the time you will be right on. About 90% of my tools have come from estate sales, but I will only go if they advertise antique tools. I dont bother going to regular garage sales. Ive come to the conclusion that the only time a man is going to sell his tools is when he is dead.

  2. First of all, Thank You Andy for taking my comment to heart and taking the time to generate a second blog article based on my comment to the initial article “The great hand tool debate”. Thanks!

    Secondly, Thank you greatly kgoold and Patrick for sharing your insights on where I might find some decent hand tools for woodworking. I waited a few days before replying after reading kgoold’s comment to see if anyone else would comment. I didn’t see Patrick’s comment until this morning.

    After 2 days I thought there may be no further posts, since some woodworkers may not be willing to share their sources of hand tools. I understand that perfectly. What a wonderful surprise to see the two posts by kgoold and Patrick. Thanks again. I may find some tools to get started in woodworking yet!

  3. Well, I live in Portland and it's slim pickings for hand tools. I don't have time to frequent yard sales and estate sales. I've tried a few but I think that's a needle in a haystack, at least in this part of the country. I buy most of mine from Josh Clark ( and Walt Quadrato ( They live in the Northeast where vintage tools apparently fall from the sky. I don't do ebay anymore.

    One place to check out is Star's Antiques in Sellwood. The store on the west side of Milwaukie Ave (and Rural St) has a tool vendor right next to the main desk in front. Typically lots of chisels, squares, levels, a few planes. Prices aren't outrageous. I've picked up a few things there.

    Good luck!

  4. breenbushdesign, thank you very much for the suggestions. I was hoping that my observation was wrong in not finding much in the way of used hand tools in the Portland Oregon area. However, all of the replies so far, including Andy’s, simply confirm that I was correct (sadly). But, I am glad that the shared comments have given me some direction (and hope) in my pursuit of finding some hand tools to start my woodworking with. Thank you everyone.

  5. My advice has a few suggestions, the first is to be patient. A sure way to overpay for something is to convince yourself you need it right away when there's no rush.

    Make sure you talk to people, especially if you don't see what your looking for at garage sales or antique stores. There's a chance they may have old tools stored away and don't think anyone would have wanted them, and there's also a chance that they may know of someone that has what you're looking for.

    Sometimes vintage tools are in such high demand, it's better off for you to buy a new one unless you find a killer deal on one. The Stanley #62 plane is one that comes to mind.

  6. And if there's "no rush" for a tool then one probably doesn't need it anyway. Why not leave it for the person needs it?

  7. I realize I'm coming to the table late but you never know when someone will read this. I just discovered this blog a few days ago. I almost hate to give this away but, since I only visit Oregon once/year and I'd like to encourage Tom (the toolman) to keep up the good work, here you go. In Bend, at Iron Horse Antiques, a gentleman named Tom restores vintage tools beautifully and then sells them for very fair prices. Not 2nd hand store "steals" but these tools are ready to use once Tom gets through with them. I bought a Stanley 45 with all of the original cutters as well as the (rare, original) screwdriver in its original butternut box (sans lid, sadly) for $120 last summer. It works beautifully. Also bought a Stanley block plane (don't remember the number but it has the adjustable throat opening) and a gorgeously-restored Stanley No. 5 jack plane. As previously mentioned, the antique shops in Aurora are often good sources of old tools. There's also a cool place in Mt. Angel that specializes in antique architectural pieces but also has some tools. As long as you're in Mt. Angel, hit the 2nd Hand stores in Silverton (particularly the Red Door - I think that's the name). I got a very easily-restorable old Stanley 358 miter box w/saw for something like $45. Good luck but leave some stuff for me (although I really don't need much more at this point).