Old Tools, New Again

Stanley Spoke Shave #51

I’ve been a woodworker for all of seven months now, and through a relentless and somewhat measured hunting process have accumulated a garage shop full of tools, most of which are decent quality, a few of low quality, and fewer still of truly excellent quality. As a newbie to the craft, the urge to be able to build whatever I want seems to often supersede the urge to look critically at what I’m actually putting in my shop and if it’s even needed at all.

The few excellent tools I’ve found seem imbued with a kind of timeless quality that none of the cheap Chinese-made big box store products can hope to match. I find that most of these are either antiques, such as my 1940’s era Stanley bench planes or a new tool from a venerable old manufacturer, like my Starrett 12″ combination square. I like my Ridgid table saw from Home Depot quite a bit, and I’ve extended its usefulness with a few strategic add-ons, but I feel that I’m not going to have this thing when I’m 60, let alone pass it on to my kids. For the $500 price tag, maybe that’s relatively acceptable. I can spend at least double that amount on a good set of Lie Nielson hand saws, and I feel confident they’ll be with me for life, and impart a certain soul, a sense of simple and competent usefulness into my shop that a machine could never hope to. The aforementioned Stanley planes are beautiful, old, and just as serviceable as the day they were made, a time before television was even a thing. (Don’t even get me started on my pristine 130 year old wooden jointer plane.) I wouldn’t get rid of my table saw, but I can’t help but think I’ll eventually get more use out of some extremely high quality hand tools.

I’ve been reading Chris Schwarz’s “The Anarchist’s Toolchest” for the past couple weeks and I’m glad I’m finding this book now rather than years down the road. Schwarz is a seasoned craftsman and tool reviewer for Popular Woodworking magazine and is a heavy advocate for paring back to the bare essentials. He’s not anti-machine, but rather questions the need for all the specific machinery and gizmos that increasingly define modern woodworking. His book explains in detail what to look for in quality vintage (and new) hand tools for the woodworker to build a minimalist tool set of around 50 or so pieces that can provide the ability to build anything he wishes. There are even guidelines on building the tool chest itself, though I feel I’m more a wall shelf type of guy. (At any rate, my pegboard has go to go.) Schwarz doesn’t eschew the idea of having machines in the shop, rather he questions whether one needs so many. A thickness planer, band saw, table saw, and maybe a drill press seem to be the extent of what is needed beyond the medium chest full of 40-50 hand tools.

Other than a sorely needed band saw, I have all the mentioned power tools in some form or another. So I’ve been concentrating on pulling together the absolute highest quality, buy-it-for-life hand tool set I can afford. The easiest and cheapest route for a lot of this stuff has been Ebay. I just won an auction for a Stanley #51 spokeshave (pictured above) in apparently great condition. I went to Highland Woodworking here in Atlanta and bought a Hock Tools replacement blade and spent Saturday sharpening an almost irresponsibly sharp surgical edge on it with my waterstones. Odd to think that this tool is easily twice as old as I am and will probably still outlive me.

Ebay, craigslist, estate sales and local vintage shops are astonishingly full of high quality old tools at low prices. One of the advantages of a diminishing population of woodworkers and an increasing population who just buy production furniture (both are not great things imo) is that there are many deals out there for high-end vintage tools. I just bought a set of Starrett calipers and dividers for about 1/5 of their new price, which are old as dirt but functionally no different from their modern counterparts and have the added aesthetic bonus of a lovely antique patina. I especially love to find useable tools labeled as “collector’s items”, then clean and sharpen them up and put them back to work. A living room shelf is no place for a serviceable tool with plenty of stories left to make.

I’m creating my shop not only for me, but for my friends who need a project space and for the kids I don’t have yet so they can learn that things are not simply bought and sold, that even in a factory setting, there is still a human element behind the things they use. The act of hand-making is an immensely satisfying pursuit that should not be lost to history.

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