Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The great hand tool debate

I have been struck recently by what seems to be a reaction by a number of prominent hand tool woodworkers against buying and using more, ever-more-expensive hand tools.  There are two main parts of the debate:  how many tools you own and whether you buy new premium tools or inexpensive vintage tools and restore them.  Although I find many of the views extreme, they are a useful reminder.  It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that becoming a better woodworker depends primarily on the tools you use when the truth is that skill development is the key.  I have repeatedly witnessed great woodworkers doing excellent work with poor tools, but great tools aren't enough to enable great work.

I'm somewhere in the middle.  I made a tool chest that is about 2'x2'x3' last year and intend that it hold essentially all of my hand tools, excluding things like my Millers Falls Acme miter box, etc.  I am selling some tools and buying others, continually refining what I have within the constraint that I want them to fit.  I find that I really like working from the chest and I like the discipline of limiting myself in this way.  Chris Schwarz espouses a similar view in The Anarchist's Tool Chest.

As for buying new premium tools vs. restoring vintage tools, I do both.  Where I live, it is relatively easy to buy vintage saws and bench planes and that's primarily what I do.  I enjoy owning and using these vintage tools even though I know I could buy new ones that are arguably somewhat better.  On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to buy vintage specialty planes at reasonable prices, so I have purchased new ones that are simply outstanding.  Look in my chest and you will see Stanley Bailey bench planes sitting alongside Lee Valley shoulder, router and plow planes.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with owning a huge collection of hand tools, there is nothing wrong with limiting yourself to vintage tools and there is nothing wrong with exclusively purchasing new tools.  Everyone should feel comfortable doing as they please.  Just remember that, in the end, skill is what matters.  Skill comes from practice and that only happens when the tool is in your hand.


  1. Andy, I’m curious about finding used hand tools. I live in the Portland Oregon area, but in the last 2 1/2 years of searching for hand tools at local “garage” sales, estate sales, craigslist, etc., I find very few if any hand tools and when I do, they’re not in anywhere near restorable condition. Do you know where I can look in Oregon to find hand tools that are in somewhat decent shape?

    My experience so far has turned up a few hand planes that were extremely rusted. One garage sale I went to they informed me that just before I arrived someone had purchased the only two hand planes (which were in very good shape), but they were collectors, not woodworkers. On rare occasion I’ll see something on craigslist that is in decent shape, but either they want way too much money or they are gone by the time I contact the seller. I also see ads for tools that if they look “old” to the seller, then it becomes an opportunity to call them “antique” and sell them for a higher price than they should sell for. Over time I’ve gotten the impression that the Portland Oregon area is filled with many hobbyist woodworkers, or wannabe woodworkers who seem to be competing for what’s available.

    I’ve seen pictures of antique markets and flea markets back East, that show long tables of used hand tools that appear to be in great shape. I’ve also read about antique tool dealers who evidently have some lower priced tools that are good “users”. I don’t see any such thing in the NW.

    As far as purchasing expensive tools, I guess that depends. I think Veritas and Lie Nielsen could be considered expensive (and they are for my meager budget), however, I guess I think of infill planes, Blue Spruce chisels and some of the Japanese chisels when I think expensive. Oh, and tools being sold as “collectible”, or “antique” (“vintage”?).

    In regard to what individual woodworkers have accumulated over the years, I do think there are many woodworkers “out there” that definitely have an excess of hand tools. By excess I don’t mean a few extra hand tools that aren’t used very often, or a few “special” hand tools to dress up the work area and you can feel good about when you show them to your friends. Nor, am I referring to those who deliberately collect antique and rare hand tools for re-sale. What I do mean is very large collections of “user” grade hand tools that never get used, or see the light of day. I think some people are “pack rats” by nature, and just can’t let go, or it’s too much effort to think about doing anything else with these excess tools. Or perhaps, they just want to impress their friends with the shear numbers of hand tools they own.

    For these people, I would encourage them to consider either giving or selling these extras at a reasonable price to the many tool starved hobbyists who are trying to get started in hand tool woodworking (typically on a very limited budget), or even power tool users that are going hybrid or transitioning away from power tool use for the large part. Now, if there was a way to identify the true “needy” and dodge the “collectors”, and those that want to resell these tools at a much higher price, then there may be hope yet.

  2. I live in Portland as well and agree with Andy's assessment. Garage sales are a waste of time unless they specifically mention antique or vintage tools. Also there are several antique tool dealers in town that cherry pick and then sell in the collector market. The best place locally are the shops in Aurora, south of Canby. The best place I have found in Western Oregon is Oakland, north of Roseburg. There are a half dozen shops that have some tools.
    I have had very mixed results with ebay and been burned a couple of times. Most of the people selling tools on ebay don't know what to tell you. And it is very difficult to tell them what you want to know in a brief email.
    Good luck in your searching!

  3. Patrick, thank you for the information. Please read my more complete thank you under the current blog article “Finding vintage hand tools”.