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Discover Mid-America— August 2009

Antique Tools, a timeline of technology
by Sylvia Forbes

Throughout history, tools have been essential, taking us from the cave to the skyscraper. Through ingenuity, trial and error, craftsmen developed helpful tools that made work easier. Some went beyond the utilitarian to create works of art. Tools reflect our culture as well as the progress of civilization, and are prized items in tool collections all over the world.

“Tools have been a major part of civilizations,” says William Robertson, an avid tool collector and master craftsman of miniatures. “They played a significant part in the development of our country, from military purposes to modern manufacturing. The assembly line didn’t exist until there were accurate measuring tools.”

Why collect?

Center squares are used to find the center of a circle. Laroy Starrett invented the combination square in 1879. (from the “Laborer, Craftsman, Artist: 300 Years of Fine Tools” exhibit, Toy & Minature Museum of Kansas City)

Robertson has been collecting tools for over 30 years. He enjoys collecting because he finds it amazing to see how craftsmen have developed such useful tools with expert workmanship. Like many other collectors, he finds tools “beautiful,” not only in their usefulness, but also in the artistic way that they were designed and in their elegant finishing touches. He appreciates seeing and discovering the infinite variety of tools.

Ed Hobbs, a collector of foot-powered machinery and the president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, collects for a similar reason. “I’m fascinated with the ‘technology’ that we had in the past and what we were able to do with it. Most people don’t think of something like a foot-powered scroll saw as technology, but it was a big step up from doing it all by hand.”

Types of tools to collect

One of the fascinations of tools is the huge variety made. Basic tools aided craftsmen in jobs, but many tools were invented for particular types of jobs. Collectors can collect mining tools, cooper’s (barrel-maker’s) tools, logging tools, farrier’s tools, watchmaking tools, drafting tools, engraving tools, basket-making tools, armorer’s tools, blacksmithing tools, masonry tools, garden tools, harness-making tools, tinsmithing tools, plastering tools, surveying tools, wagon-making tools, fence tools, electrician’s tools, luthier’s (musical instrument maker’s) tools, foundry tools, farmstead tools, railroad tools and dozens of other categories.

Within a category, such as woodworking tools, collectors can specialize even further, collecting only planes, saws, electric drills, plumb bobs or other individual tools. Some collectors focus even more narrowly, such as collecting only one company’s levels, or collecting only levels of the 18th century.

As craftsmen made items, they developed specialized tools to make jobs easier. For example, a tool was developed for trimming the end of a pool cue so that it is flat. A slide rule was created that only did calculations for making dirigibles. Special planes were made just for smoothing the curved wooden parts of violins. Watchmaking tools can be so specialized that one tool is used just for removing the second hand on a certain brand of watches. Any of these tools can be collected, too. A good collection may have every brand made of one specific tool, or the collection may include many versions of only one brand of tool, starting with the beginning of its development, to its counterpart today, showing modifications and improvements to the tool over the years.

Some tools are made with unusual features. For example, some screwdrivers have hollow handles, which hold very small, additional screwdrivers. Many European planes were made with carved wooden figures of people on them. Other tools have beautiful inlaid woodwork or wooden pieces carved into the shapes of animals. Tools may be cleverly made so that they fold up to a small size. The whole spectrum of tools may be made in miniature. It is surprising and fun to discover tools with these unusual features.

What makes a tool valuable?

The value of a tool depends on several factors. The first is scarcity. For example, a Stanley #5 plane is commonly available and would sell for about $30. A Stanley #164 plane is much less common and might sell for $2,000, or, if in the original box, up to $4,000. Tools made in the 17th century are becoming very hard to find. Sixteenth century tools are even more rare.

The company or maker of the tool can also affect the value of a tool. Some companies were in business only a few months. Because so few tools were made during that short time, it’s hard to find any tools still existing.

In 1895, German inventor Wilhelm Fein added wooden handles and a crude drill bit chuck to a primitive electric motor, creating the first portable electric drill. Saws, sanders and other hand tools were soon powered by electric motors. (from the “Laborer, Craftsman, Artist: 300 Years of Fine Tools” exhibit, Toy & Minature Museum of Kansas City)

Sometimes, new tools that were developed turned out not to work well. A tool might have been made only a short time before the design was abandoned. What’s ironic is that sometimes these poorly functioning tools can sell for a high price because of their rarity.

Condition of the tool is another top factor in determining value. Tools in mint condition, pristine (never used), in the box, or still with the price tag on, usually command the highest prices. However, some tool collectors prefer tools having light use and bearing some identifying character from the owner, such as a stamp or signature.

Some toolmakers carved or engraved their names on their tools. A useful tool that is artistically signed usually gets a higher price. In rare cases, every owner of a tool signed his name on it, making these tools very collectible.

The first version made of a tool may also sell higher. For example, Laroy Starrett is credited with inventing the combination square in 1877. He started the L.S. Starrett Company in 1880, which is still in business and has since made many versions of the combination square. The earliest versions of his tool generally command the highest prices.

Other companies are collectible because of their outstanding designs. Some collectors collect only patented tools.

What devalues a tool is usually the condition. Rusty tools, broken handles, chipped parts and excessive signs of wear quickly bring down the value. A broken tip can devalue a tool by half or more. Hairline cracks also lower a tool’s value. Some tools were broken and clumsily repaired. Signs of repairs usually devalue a tool. Even just refinishing or repainting a handle, which alters the tool from its original state when made, can devalue a tool.

How to collect

There are thousands of types of tools that can be collected. Where should a person start?

“First, look at the trade catalogs,” suggests Robertson. “Decide what you like and learn about it. The catalogs teach you what’s rare. The same tool may be offered in several different ways, perhaps with an ivory handle, a nicer wood or signed. If you see a tool only in one catalog, but not in others, you start to understand which tools are rarer.”

Hobbs agrees that knowledge is important. “The best thing you can have is knowledge. That helps you determine a reasonable price. When you start collecting, you don’t know much. When you gain knowledge, you’ll be able to tell if the tool is missing parts, has pieces swapped out or has been repaired.”

He recommends joining a tool-collecting group, such as the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association (, which is the largest tool-collecting group in the world, with over 3,400 members.

“We have people who collect ‘from one end of the tool spectrum to the other,’” he notes. The group has a quarterly publication, which gives lots of well-researched information on collecting different types of tools. Another advantage is that networking with other experienced collectors helps beginners learn what to look for in various tools. Another helpful group is the Early American Industries Association, at

Books can also help new collectors gain knowledge. In addition to general books on tools, there are more focused books on leatherworking tools, braces, axe makers, planes, machinist’s tools and many other types of tools.

“Don’t collect purely for investment,” warns Robertson. “That’s the best way to lose money. Just collect what you like. Then you won’t ever be disappointed.” Robertson started by collecting tools he planned to use in making miniatures. He came across a jeweler’s watch tool catalog and found that many of these smaller tools were helpful in creating the diminutive items he designs.

Robertson explains that tool collecting is a tactile hobby. He likes to hold the tools, to see if they fit well in his hand and “feel” right. Hobbs adds that many of these tools were designed for people working from dawn to dusk six days a week. Because the tools were in use so much, they were designed to have a comfortable feel, and a “flow” when using.


Prices paid for tools vary widely. Tool price guides can help a beginning collector to know the going price for a particular tool. Several that list recent prices of tools are Warman’s Tools Field Guide by Clarence Blanchard, Antique Trader Tools Price Guide by Husfloen and Blanchard, Antique Tool Collector’s Guide to Value by Ronald Barlow, and A Price Guide to Antique Tools by Herbert Kean.

Two auction companies in the U.S., Brown’s Auction Services and Martin J. Donnelly Antique Tools, specialize in selling high-end tools. They publish catalogs of their upcoming auctions. The record paid for an American tool is slightly over $100,000 for an ebony plow plane with ornate ivory and silver trim. Plow planes are usually the most expensive plane in a carpenter’s tool chest. The tool was sold at a Brown auction.

Examples of fine tools

Currently on display at the Toy & Miniature Museum in Kansas City, MO is the exhibit, “Laborer, Craftsman, Artist: 300 Years of Fine Tools”. The exhibit includes hundreds of examples of beautifully crafted tools. The tools in the exhibit date from 300 years old up to the modern day. The exhibit starts with books and catalogs as far back as 1701.

Visitors will find ornately signed tools, drafting instruments, woodworking tools, machinist tools, Victorian tools, power tools and even miniature tools. This exhibit, which includes 70 linear feet of exhibits in cases six feet tall, is one of the largest tool exhibits ever put on display, and includes some of the finest tools ever made. It is rare to see a collection of this quality. The museum, located at 5235 Oak, is open Wednesdays through Sundays, and the exhibit runs through Aug. 30. For more information, visit or call 816-333-9328.

Some additional places to view tools include the Art Institute of Chicago, for a display of European tools; the Agricultural Hall of Fame (Bonner Springs, KS), for a display of agricultural tools; the National Horseshoeing Tools Museum (Sulphur, OK); and the Hargis Tool Museum (Seminole, OK), for antique woodworking tools. Opening in October is Grampa’s Tool Shed (Ada, OK), which will feature 19th century tools. History museums often have collections of tools on display, too.

Some living history sites not only have old tools, but visitors can see 18th and 19th century tools being used. Several sites where antique tools are used daily include the Dominy Shops at Winterthur (Delaware), Williamsburg (Virginia), Old Salem (Winston-Salem, NC) and the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (Harrodsburg, KY).

Discover a treasure

While few antique shops specialize in tools, many antique outlets each have a sampling of tools to look at. Savvy collectors who know their tools may occasionally find a bargain when out scouting.

If you visit a particular shop regularly, let the owner know that you’re interested in tools. They may make a special effort to obtain tools when looking through items to acquire, if they know they have an interested buyer.

Other good places to find tools are at auctions, at tool shows and through tool collecting associations. Association members often sell off previously collected tools as they start to specialize in one particular category.

Sylvia Forbes is a freelance writer based in Fayette, MO. She can be contacted at

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