Monday, July 28, 2008

Why Antique Tools?

That's what my partner asked me a while ago. "I know why you use handtools, but what's the intrigue with antique handtools?"

"Well", I explained, "it's because...well...hmmm, let me think about it."

I use handtools in general because 1) sawdust makes me cough 2) by working with handtools, it seems more like I'm shaping the wood rather than a power tool creating the shape 3) I don't waste as much wood by making practice cuts 4) the set up time is faster 5) it's quiet 6) it's a great workout 7) it's safer 8) wood shaped with handtools seems to have more character (in my opinion), 9) handtools have personality and there is synergy between the user and tool that I've never felt with my power tools (except for my band saw—I love that guy), 10) you can do things with handtools that you can't do with power tools (skinny little dovetails, for instance) and 11) I just like it.

But why antique handtools?

The first thing that popped into my head is that some tools are no longer manufactured, so an antique is your only option. But that's not really my reason for buying and using them.

I use antique tools purely for nostalgic and aesthetic reasons. I love the dings, dents, owners' marks, patina, feel, and historical aspects of them. They are a link to our past and as I use them, I think about the previous owners and sense a connection. There's also something physically different about antique tools; it's like you're sliding your hand into a favorite, well-worn glove. Could be that years of use have altered the shape slightly so they fit more comfortably in your hand than new tools.

And where I believe handtools have personality, antique ones are full of character. You'll find everything from crotchety curmudgeons to quirky & finicky great-uncles to gentle & wise old grandfathers.

So, I ask you....what's your intrigue with antique tools?


Anonymous said...

Well said!

Anonymous said... gentle & wise old grandfathers...

THAT is the main reason, Kari. I guess they remind me of... well, me... ; )

All kidding aside, I believe it is the *touch-and-feel*, even if some of the newer ones might be better than the old ones (as some hand planes). But one cannot deny the history of a tool - and I reach for them more and more often.

Adam said...

Well, I agree with your reasons. There is something about using those old beauties of the past to shape something here in the present.

Personally, I love them because of the connection they make between us as modern woodworkers and the furniture makers who came before us. Those people were the original owners of those wonderful tools. We're honoring their commitment to quality by using the very implements they saw fit to own for themselves. I truly believe in certain ways using these tools makes one a better woodworker on several levels.

Hey, Kari. Want to make a great little hand tool to pass down someday? Check this out!

Anonymous said...

Whenever I use my old tools, specially the more specialized ones such as H&R's, snipe bills, plough planes, moving fillisters, and such I think about who first bought it, what did they make with it, How much did it cost in man days, and more.

I also use new tools but I already know all those answers and it's just not near a much fun.

BTW, I bought and read "The Village Carpenter" based on your recommendation and I think it has helped as much as anything to enable me to imagine what those 1st owners were like and how they worked.


Anonymous said...

Because a modern shiny bronze n steel plane is pretty but it has no soul.

Dan said...

Well, the subject of this post is near and dear to me. I too love handtools (and yes, antique ones are better). In fact, once I was bitten I was in whole hog. Sold the tablesaw, planer, jointer, router etc. etc. and haven’t missed them one bit! Thank you St. Roy! (I do still have my bandsaw, hasn’t been plugged in for over 4 years, but has sentimental value as the first purchase for the shop after getting the house…)

I really relate to your reasons #2, 8, 9 and 11. I felt like I was the mechanic, and the machines were the woodworkers. As far as more character, you bet. The tools marks I leave are directly related to me, my skills (or lack of…) and ideas – not some machine. For future people who know how to read these marks, they are my story as a craftsman. I also think that the old tools have personality – I’ll even talk about tools “feeling happy” to be back at work – illogical I know, but that’s how it feels. And do you really need another reason besides #11? Follow your joy.

Finally, most old or antique tools are just plain better. They were made by and for people who used them for their livelihood. Yes, there are some great tools being made today (Veritas, Lie-Nielsen, Gramercy, etc.) and I own some, but they don’t have the character or personality of the old ones. They don’t talk to me – at least not yet…

Kari Hultman said...

I agree with all of the above! Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

Adam, I bought a little tool like that at a flea market but never sharpened it. Looks like a handy little feller.

Anon, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. : )

Anonymous said...

A collection of reasons, some of which (in no particular order) are:
* I inherited them from my Dad and they remind me of him and of the 'on-the-job' training I got from him working around the house
* as a act of respect to our ancestors - I feel that by making an old tool do the job that it was designed to do and used to do in the past I am helping to recall our ancestors (that's why I don't buy 'minty in original box', but rather 'well-used by someone who looked after their tools'; it's also why, if the tool has suffered in the meantime, I prefer to restore it to the best condition I can than to leave it in a saddened state - the ancestor tool user I am thinking of would want to make his tools work the best way possible and if the finish has come off, to get it into the best condition he could consistent with it being a 'user'; similarly, my 'mentor/ancestor' user would see if there were things he/she could do to the tool to make it work better for him and do them - they are tools to be used to help the user do the best job he or she can)
* I can add to the history of the tool and be part of a continuum of its ownerhip and use. If I buy a new tool, its history starts with me and is less valuable as a rsult. Perversely, if I make a jig or tool it starts with my input and is more valuabble to me than the tool I buy.
* It helps me to connect with the craft of our 'mentor/ancestor', to appreciate what they achieved with so much less than we have and to pass that sense of continuation on to my kids.
* Somehow, I feel a greater sense of achieving something worthwhile if I use the old tools.


Adam said...


You bought one and haven't used it yet?! Tisk Tisk.

Hey if it doesn't work right you can always make one!!

Vic Hubbard said...

Very well put, Kari.

I haven't been at it long enough to have that addiction.....yet. Plus,
I've really never seen much in the way of nice old hand tools in this area; yet another nice thing about living in your side of the country.

Kari Hultman said...

Jeremy, I especially like this reason that you stated: "I can add to the history of the tool and be part of a continuum of its ownerhip and use." What a great concept.

Adam, I might make one anyhow--looks like fun!

Kari Hultman said...

You're right, Vic. I was in Colorado last year and visited some antique stores---no tools at all.

will said...

I'll tell you about my epiphany: When I began working wood I approached it much as I had other disciplines, Straight on with verve. But something else happened. In the 1970s I had read hundreds of books on woodworking and I then spent time with Sam Maloof and a few other exceptional woodworkers. One day I was in the midst of building something and, all of a sudden, I had a feeling - the hair on my neck tingled - and I realized I was part of a constant stream - a continuum of woodworkers that stretched back into the mists of history. I mean, the ancient Romans had tools similar to the hand tools of today. Thus the journey of real woodworking was begun for me - and the first thing I did was search for traditional - antique- hand tools.

The legacy demands passing things forward. So I use tools made in the past and when I’m done the next generation can find my tools and it will then be their turn.

Anonymous said...

I just bought an old record combination plane from a fellow - I'm not certain he's a woodworker himself, I suppose he's not, or inactive - and we found common ground in concern that a tool used by both his father and grandfather be well used and cared for... and eventually passed to a fourth generation of wood workers when I'm done with it! Only when he was convinced I could be trusted did he reveal that he'll be putting more from his dad and grand dad on the market, and will give me heads-up before listing each old tool. Of course the 'combi' isn't an antique, but its a family heirloom or something, and I'll keep it with pride next to an old stanley defiance, the only tool I have from my own dad. I'll use it, as I do with dozens of old tools, and I'll keep it well.

Darn right these things have souls, and some day the new ones will too, ours, or bits of ours. Invested by the work, the tool care, and the ethic which passes it - and the tools - along.

Thanks for this post VC!


Angostura Bitters said...

Happy post! I'm so glad to hear so many people out there excited about hand tools!

My name is Adam and I've stumbled across your web log, VC, and poured over all your posts. Very genuine material and I extend a heartfelt Salutation towards your sensibility regarding old hand tools. Patina is one of my favorite qualities.

I've just moved into a small bungalow here in north Oakland, CA where the previous occupants luckily decided to opt out of turning the back garage into some sort of living quarters, and I have been spared a largish space where I can explore my quiet sawing, and chiseling. It is a dream come true after all these years, and here I've discovered people like your fine self listed on the unplugged workshop list that I can commune with!

So much fun. I must show you my first project, to build a workbench! How can you do anything before that :)

I used a lot of recycled wood, which I think coincides with the theme of your post in some way. I love old tools, but I simply LOOOOOOVE old wood. Get my picture?

Love to you all for keeping the handtool arts alive:

Kari Hultman said...

It's great to be part of a community of like-minded individuals, even if the community lives in cyberspace.

I keep hoping the 2 year old boy next door develops an interest in woodworking so I can shepherd him along and eventually turn my tools over to him. Here's to the continuum!

19711007, nice workbench and bravo to you for using recycled wood! You have a cute bungalow, too. : )

Metalworker Mike said...

I'm going to have to be the dissenting opinion, here. :)
I only use hand tools, but I use virtually all new hand tools. I've got quite a pile of items from the good folks at Veritas, as well as others. Although I come from a long line of professional woodworkers, the last of that line died when I was about 3 years old, (the line broke with my father the banker) and every last vestige of Gramps' tools were long gone by the time I had any interest.
So why don't I like antique tools? It's pretty simple. I fix machines for a living. I don't want to have to fix my tools at home! This is supposed to be a hobby. Something different. At work I have to wear ear plugs and safety boots and safety glasses, not to mention the flame-retardant coveralls, the E-rated hard-hat, and the 40 pounds of safety gear when I'm working on live electrical boxes. At home with my hand tools I can work in a t-shirt, in the serene quiet, broken only by the sounds of hand saws and planes, and the radio in the next room tuned to CBC Radio One. I like having a perfectly functioning tool. Something that doesn't make me think that I should fix it.
I do have a couple of old tools. Along with my beautiful brand-new hand-made Medallion back saws, made by Ed in his basement in Oakville, Ontario, I have a couple of old Disston hand saws, because I haven't yet found a good, Canadian source for good panel saws. I also have an old Stanley 78 duplex rabbet plane (made in Canada) for much the same reason. My breast drill and egg-beater drill are oldies because finding decent new ones is pretty near impossible. Sometimes the old ones are better, but in those cases I only buy ones in near-perfect condition. I don't want the 'grumpy uncle'. I don't want to have to coddle and cajole a tool to do its job. If it won't perform its job as expected, it gets fired.
Yes, I have a couple of REALLY old tools which are strictly decorative, as well.
Right. I'll shut up, now.

Grumpy Mike

Kari Hultman said...

Metalworker Mike, all comments, dissenting or otherwise are welcome. The only comment I'd yank is one with foul language...

Interesting to hear the other side of the coin. I can relate to not wanting to be reminded of my day job in my free time. That being said, if you ever get tired of looking at your "strictly decorative" tools, I'll be happy to give them another home! ; )

Woodfired! said...

VC - you have a knack for posts that whip up your reader's emotions!

Reason #10 is important to me. Making with hand tools can allow you design options that are unavailable if you restrict yourself to the limitations of your machines.

I agree with the many that enjoy a connection with craftspersons of the past through the shared use of tools and skills.

I agree to some extent with Grumpy Mike. The tool, old or new, should do its job well. My experience is that in general older tools just work better than new ones. But there are of course exceptions to this. There are some well designed new tools and there are plenty of crappy old tools.

There is great pleasure for most of us in fixing up and finely tuning an old tool so that it does work well. Of course it must be well-designed and made from good materials in the first place.

Love your closing line VC. Great copy. You should be in advertising :-)

Woodbloke said...

Inreresting comments on the use of old tools. I don't use many 'old tools' as such. Invevitably when you do find such a beast it usually will need a some effort to make it work as it was intended originaly and the effort is usually justified...but not always. I have an old Norris A1 panel plane which is a beauty but the LV LA jack is superior in every respect. I've also made my own special wooden planes and feel privilaged to own one made by Krenov himself.
Incidentally, loads of old tools in shops this side of the pond!

Anonymous said...

I like antique tools because they are better (in terms of quality of the laid steel blades) than any modern reproductions (with the exception of laid steel plane blades available today).

I also like them because they are cheaper than modern reproductions and I do like anything cheap (inexpensive).

And I work in a Living History Museum, so I HAVE to use old tools, not that I am complaining.


Kari Hultman said...

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this party, so I'll only register a minor dissent. I use many old hand tools, but they're the ones where quality new tools can't be had. I like supporting the current makers of quality hand tools (e.g. Wenzloff). If, however, my wife gets her way on the children question, I'll be combing the flea markets like every one else.

Kari Hultman said...

You bring up a very important point about supporting current makers of handtools.

Good luck with the children question!

breni09 said...

I actually have a question. My husband has an old hachet/Hammer combo that we're having trouble getting info on.It had a wooden handle at one time that has broke off. The head is 5 3/8 in long and the hammer side is square with the corners beveled it is roughly 5/8 inch in diameter, the cutting edge of the blade is 1 7/8 inch in length. The one defining mark is a maker's mark in the shape of a seven point star with a hole in the center. Looks like a doughnut with seven teeth like a gear. It is on both sides stamped into the metal in the center where the handle goes through the head. If u have any info or suggestions on a website that could be helpful I would much appreciate it.

Kari Hultman said...

Breni, I suggest you contact Tony Seo:

He knows way, way, way more than I do about antique tools.

Gye Greene said...

Design ideas: I would say, let form follow function.

Most of my projects are still on paper, not in reality -- but:

1) I design things to fit the available space (e.g. I want a bookshelf that fits **exactly** between two windows, with the top flush with the curtain rods)

2) I design things to fit the available materials (e.g. driftwood; dumpster-diving from construction sites; offcuts; misc. weird chunks of wood).

I have a lot of misc. stashes of wood left over from various old shacks and wash-house workbenches and such, from my wife's family property -- plus various weather-beaten fenceposts and such that have turned up as we've cleared away the brambles and such. Lots of ''Hmmm -- what can I make from that'' going through my head.

But then: most of the stuff I've sketched out isn't ''artsy'' like the stuff you've shown as examples. My stuff (again, on paper) is decidedly Shaker-like (if you could even categorize it): plain, but well-engineered. ;)


Gye Greene said...

Sorry: That comment was meant for your 8/8/08 post, "Creative Thinking".